Those who know me well will attest that I tend to ramble a bit in my conversations. And now, I am about to ramble before I get to the crux of that title.
Several years ago, I enjoyed a week in Montana, visiting with my daughter. That was great. Another enjoyable result of that visit was seeing Montana. The beauty of those Bitterroot Mountains made the phrase “purple mountain majesty” take on a whole new meaning.
The history that surrounded me was awesome. I knew that the Clark Fork River flowing through Missoula was an offshoot of the Columbia River and I knew the Columbia River was an integral part of Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Pacific Ocean.
While there we visited historical sites, I picked up rocks that caught my fancy (I love rocks!); we picked wildflowers on the mountainsides. I also bought myself the best description of that Lewis and Clark trip one could ever want, “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen E. Ambrose. I knew in packing for airline travel, one should place the heaviest objects at the bottom of one’s suitcase. And so, I did. I had two or three books, my rocks and my shoes in the bottom. When I unpacked it at home, I found a polite letter from the TSA telling me they had searched my suitcase but had carefully replaced all my items. Obviously, the weight of books, rocks and shoes tended to raise someone’s suspicions about this old woman from Mississippi and her heavy suitcase! After all, I could have been a ‘drug mule’ for some cartel or something. Now, to stop my rambling a bit.
It cannot be denied that Thomas Jefferson wanted this new country explored from east to west and north to south. In 1783, as U.S. Minister to France and after the acquisition of land gained by the Treaty of Paris, he tried to persuade George Rogers Clark to drum up an expedition to explore it. Could not get the funds.
While Secretary of State from 1789 to 1793 he tried to organize an expedition to explore the upper Missouri River – without success.
In 1801, President Elect Thomas Jefferson was quite concerned about the western lands. A British sailor had discovered and named the Columbia River; fur traders went up the Missouri River under the authority of the Spanish Government and British fur traders were coming down.
America’s far west was about to be pre-empted by the British and we couldn’t have that. In February of 1801, he invited one Meriwether Lewis to be his Private Secretary in Washington.
Lewis’s mother and stepfather had moved the family from Virginia to Georgia, in what is now Oglethorpe County. Even as a young lad, Meriwether loved the outdoors. He often left his home in the night with his dog to coon hunt. His mother, Lucy, was an herbalist and thus from her he learned about wild herbs and their medicinal use.
In this Broad River Valley, young Lewis interacted with the Cherokee Indians. Meriwether was sent back to Virginia at the age of 13 for his formal education. He lived with his uncle Nicholas Lewis and graduated from what is now Washing and Lee University in 1793.
Lewis then joined the Virginia Militia and was in the detachment that put down the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1795, he joined the U.S. Army. One of his commanding officers was a man named William Clark. By 1800, Lewis was a captain and next, of course, came his position with President Thomas Jefferson with whom he was acquainted in the ‘society’ of Virginia.
When the President began to once again plan for an expedition to explore the west, could he have made a better choice to lead it? Lewis was educated, he had military experience, he had experience with Indians, and he grew up knowing about plants.
Jefferson obtained Congressional approval for an exploratory expedition on January 18, 1803, and selected Meriwether Lewis as its commander. Thus began Lewis’s massive undertaking of preparing for such an endeavor. Even with his background, he knew he needed to hone his skills in navigating by the stars, in determining longitude and latitude, of mapping his journey, of botany and medical principles as well as medications. On top of all that, there was a crew to gather for his Corps of Discovery, as it came to be known. His former commander, William Clark, was his first recruit.
Of course, there were delays and frustrations in gathering his crew, preparing the boats, and learning about the Indian tribes they were likely to encounter. Finally, on May 14, 1804, they began. During the spring, summer and fall of 1804 the Lewis and Clark expedition made their way 1,600 miles up the Missouri River.
As one article I read stated, they rowed, pushed, pulled, and sailed their way past hostile Sioux forces and at the end of October, made their winter camp six miles below the mouth of the Knife River. They endured miserable winter weather. On Dec. 17, the temperature at sunrise was 45 F below. It had warmed to 28 F below at 4 that afternoon. In April of 1805, they resumed their journey, reached the Yellowstone April 26, the Great Falls of the Missouri June 20, the Continental Divide Aug. 12.
They crossed the Bitterroot Mountain Range via the Lolo Pass on Sept. 13, reached the Snake River on Oct. 10, the Columbia River on Oct. 16 and finally gazed upon their destination, the Pacific Ocean, on Nov. 7. Winter camp was set up near where the Lewis and Clark River empties into the Pacific; thankfully, no 45 below 0 temperatures. They lived mostly on elk meat and roots, made their own salt by boiling the seawater and survived the constant drenching rains of the northwest.
They began their homeward journey March 23, 1806. To save time and space, I will just say they made it home, and justifiably were heroes. Lewis and Clark were rewarded with 1,600 acres apiece, each man in the crew received 320 acres. Meriwether was appointed Governor of the Territory of Upper Louisiana (Louisiana Purchase) for a three-year term; William Clark was made Brigadier General of the militia and superintendent of Indian affairs for the Upper Louisiana territory.
This is where troubles began for Meriwether Lewis. Jefferson had appointed a man named Frederick Bates as interim governor until Lewis could get his affairs in order and get to St. Louis. Now it’s early March of 1807, Bates and Clark left Washington for St. Louis, without Lewis.
Illness was apparently the cause. Lewis reportedly had acquired a “raging fever” in D.C. while helping nurse Jefferson’s son-in-law. Too, Lewis dilly-dallied around in Philadelphia, in Virginia – looking for a wife (without success), drinking, having his portrait painted, but not writing an account of his travels, and not getting himself to St. Louis. Jefferson, meanwhile, had lost his patience and said or did something that ticked Lewis off and it’s reported that Lewis wrote his old friend and benefactor only two or three letters after the expedition.
After his arrival in St. Louis, Lewis faced formidable tasks – with Indians, with budgets, with establishing various procedures. He paid $7,000 from his own funds to the St. Louis-Missouri Fur Company for a military expedition which to return the Mandan Chief, who had served as a guide, past the Sioux and back to his tribe.
Meanwhile, with mail service being what it was –deplorable – Lewis is not getting paid his salary or reimbursement for government bills he paid out of his own pocket. He is also getting threatening letters from his creditors. He is also living beyond his means. In August of 1809, his affairs were in such serious disarray, he prepared for a trip to the Capitol to settle his salary issues and give reports of the governing of the territory. He even leaves Power of Attorney with three friends. He left St. Louis Sept. 4, 1809, by riverboat with the intention of traveling to D.C. by way of New Orleans then up the Atlantic Coast. On Sept. 11, he made out his Last Will and Testament leaving all his assets to his mother.
By the middle of September, he had reached Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis) and the fort’s commander, Captain Gilbert Russell, put Lewis in sort of a ‘house arrest’ because of his ‘mental derangement.’
Lewis tried suicide twice. Russell removed all access to alcoholic spirits and on the 6th day, Sept. 29, Lewis left the Bluffs in the company of Major James Neelly, Chickasaw Indian Agent.
Pack horses were loaded with trunks containing his 16 journals written about his expedition, papers to show the powers-that-be in Washington where money had come from and where it had gone. Some accounts say he rested for two days on the Trace at Houston, and some say he was at the “Old Factor’s Stand”, (in Itawamba County). They continued up the Natchez Trace.
He was delirious and/or deranged from time to time. Neely was probably an enabler for the alcohol problem. On the afternoon of Oct. 8, they crossed the Tennessee River and camped. Two of their horses escaped and Neely told Lewis to travel on to the first house he came to and wait for him there.
Thus, at Grinder’s Stand, 72 miles from Nashville, (just past mile marker 385), Meriwether Lewis dismounted and procured rooms for himself and two servants at the Stand, run by husband and wife Robert and Priscilla Grinder.
The “Stand” consisted of two cabins, connected by a fifteen-foot dogtrot. Robert was away and Priscilla, deciding the Governor was deranged, gave him the house and she slept in the smaller cabin.
Lewis asked his servant about his gunpowder and according to Priscilla Grinder, the servant seemed reluctant to give Lewis an answer. The servants unsaddled the horses and put them in a barn.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Grinder observes that Lewis is ‘pacing up and down’ in front of one of the cabins and muttering to himself. Lewis ate only a few mouthfuls then began talking to himself. According to her, “his fits came and went, he raged, grew calm, then raged again”.
When she began to prepare a bed for him, he informed her he would sleep on the floor on his bearskins and buffalo robe. Mrs. Grinder stated she slept fitfully and heard him raging at times. At 3 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 11, she twice heard the report of a pistol and something fall heavily on the floor and the words “Oh Lord”. Then, she heard Lewis at her door calling out “O Madam, give me some water and heal my wounds!”
Through the cracks in the walls, she saw him crawl a short distance then prop himself up on a stump. Now this is why I’m still mad at Priscilla Grinder. She waited until daybreak before summoning the servants to see if anything could be done for this dying man.
No doubt Meriwether Lewis was a very troubled man when he ended his life there at Grinder’s Station. There are those who don’t believe it was suicide – there are many theories out there as to what caused Lewis’ mental state, some of it not pretty.
The monument that stands by the Natchez Trace looks as if it has been cut off midway up – and it is meant to be that way to represent a life cut too short. There has been a movement to try to persuade the Parkway to exhume his body for DNA testing and perhaps solve the mystery of why he seemed so troubled and ended his life, but their policy is not to tamper with the graves alongside the Trace.
And so, 210 years ago come October 9, this country lost one of its finest and Mrs. Priscilla Grinder did nothing and I’m still mad at her.