Reprint from:  News:  June 30, 2001

Meriwether's Last Evening

Being an avid history buff, I'm ashamed to admit that I never knew much about Meriwether Lewis until I read Stephen Ambrose's fascinating book "Undaunted Courage" a few years ago.  Lewis, of course, was half of the famous team, Lewis and Clark.  Some probably think it was "Lewisenclark," but there were actually two people, not one. 

 

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were Army buddies who, back in the early 1800s, led the first American expedition across the Western U.S.  Back then, Americans knew very little about the West and, for example, thought the Rocky Mountains were something like the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia:  a single crest only a few thousand feet high that were easily crossed.  And they weren't called the Rocky Mountains, either.  In the late 1700s, that vague mountain range out west was known as the Shining Mountains, and then later, the Stony Mountains.

 

Above:  This is a replica of the Grinder's Inn in Tennessee a few yards from its original location.  Meriwether Lewis fought a lifelong battle with depression, but he lost the battle here in 1809.

Meriwether Lewis was chosen by President Thomas Jefferson to lead a 30-man expedition across the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase.  They departed St. Louis in May 1804 and their main goal was to see if there was a quick and easy way across North America.  Well, there wasn't, so Jefferson was disappointed but the Lewis and Clark Expedition made a lot of important discoveries during their two-year trip.  For instance, while spending the winter of 1805-06 near the Pacific Ocean at Fort Clatsop (see News: June 11, 2001), they learned that it rains a LOT in Oregon during the winter.  That's something I didn't learn until I moved to Oregon in 1989.

 

While reading "Undaunted Courage," I discovered that Meriwether Lewis was a remarkable guy.  He was competent, meticulous, shy, curious, soft-spoken and talented.  He also liked to draw maps and enjoyed exploring.  In fact, I've never read a description of anyone that reminded me more of, well, myself.  It was a real shock at the end of the book, therefore, when I learned that Meriwether Lewis' life tumbled downhill after the three-year Lewis and Clark Expedition.  After returning to St. Louis in 1806 from the west coast, he couldn't finish his memoirs, he had trouble finding a wife, and he fell into a deep depression.  

 

In 1809, the 35-year old Lewis was riding alone, heading back to Washington D.C. to clear up some debts.  He was traveling overland on the Natchez Trace trail and stopped one night at a small cabin along the trace called Grinder's Inn.  There, a few hours later and during a severe bout of melancholy, Lewis shot himself.  The locals buried him near the Inn and cared for his grave, and today there's a National Park Service campground nearby.

 

Ever since reading "Undaunted Courage," I've wanted to visit Lewis' grave, so after leaving Shiloh battlefield late on  Saturday afternoon, I got back on the Natchez Trace Parkway and drove up to the Meriwether Lewis campground, where I found a nice campsite under the hickory trees.  The next morning, I walked over to the site of Grinder's Inn, pulled out my copy of "Undaunted Courage," and read once again the account of Meriwether's last evening.  It was a sad ending to a remarkable life.

 

"His courage was undaunted, his firmness and perseverance yielded to nothing but impossibilities."

President Thomas Jefferson describing Meriwether Lewis after Meriwether's death in 1809.

 

       

Above left:  There's a memorial to Meriwether Lewis inside the Grinder's Inn replica.  I believe this is the only memorial to him anywhere in the world.

Above center:  Meriwether Lewis, the more subdued half of "Lewis and Clark."

Above right:  The foundation of the original Grinder's Inn is in the foreground, with the replica in the background.

 

   

Above left:  Meriwether Lewis was buried here, a few hundred yards from the inn.  The broken gun barrel represents a life cut short.  Lewis' gravesite was quietly looked after by locals for many years before the National Park Service took over caretaking duties.

Above right:  Sunset at the Meriwether Lewis campground along the Natchez Trace Parkway in southern Tennessee.