Life after the fabled Lewis and Clark exploration of the Louisiana Purchase territories (1804-1806) was not kind to Meriwether Lewis. The two were loaded with honors by a grateful Thomas Jefferson, who had paired his dear friend Lewis with William Clark for the expedition. Lewis was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory following their return, with his headquarters in St. Louis, in what is now Missouri. It was a position for which Lewis, who suffered from a depressive disorder, was ill-suited. These were the years when the great plot to form a kingdom in the new territories, with its capital in New Orleans and with Aaron Burr as its titular head, was afoot, and Lewis most probably held a good deal of information about treasonable activities in the area. There were also rumors of a coming war with Great Britain that caused great excitement, although that war was still three years in the future.
The bane of Lewis’s existence, however, was a Washington D.C. dominated by hidebound bureaucrats. (Some things never change.) He was annoyed by their nitpicking of his every presentation of expenses, but when they ventured to insinuate that he was padding his accounts, he was enraged. He finally lost it, once and for all, over a twenty dollar request for government stationery they refused to approve.
He determined to go to Washington with three purposes in mind: to vindicate himself face to face with the penny-pinchers and bean counters, to find a publisher for the edited journals and papers he had accumulated over the course of the great western expedition, and to visit with family and friends.
He left St. Louis in September 1809, accompanied by a Creole ne’er-do-well named John Pernia and a slave called Captain Tom. His original plan was to travel by flatboat to New Orleans, where he would board a ship bound for the eastern seaboard, land at some port city, and travel on to Washington on horseback or by stagecoach.
They made it as far as Fort Pickering on the Chickasaw Bluffs (not far from Memphis), where Lewis fell gravely ill. It’s not known exactly what this illness was: a recurrence of malaria, a bout with depression complicated by alcohol, or an early episode of dementia brought on by syphilis, which he allegedly caught on the western expedition. In any case, he was laid up at Fort Pickering for some six days, and finally was well enough to resume his journey on September 29th. By now he had acquired a third traveling companion, the United States agent to the Chickasaw nation, James Neely. His traveling plans had also changed; perhaps alarmed by renewed rumbles about impending war, he decided to travel overland to the infamous Natchez Trace and follow it northeastward to Nashville, where he would make further arrangements.
Nowadays the Natchez Trace is a scenic and historic route. In 1809 it was the haunt of land pirates, bandits, gamblers, killer innkeepers, and prostitutes, unsafe at best and deadly at worst. It proved the latter for Meriwether Lewis.
On October 10th, thunderstorms spooked the pack animals that carried the cases of Lewis’s papers, and two of them ran away. Pernia and Captain Tom turned back to look for the errant beasts while Lewis and Captain Neely continued on their way. When after several hours the servants had not returned, Neely directed Lewis to a tiny settlement with an inn for travelers called Grinder’s Stand (or Grinder’s Station; accounts vary), just off the Trace in the area of Hohenwald, Tennessee, and set off to look for the servants and pack animals.
And so it was that Lewis arrived, alone, at the place where he would spend the last night of his life. He arranged for lodgings for himself and his companions, and shared a meal with the Grinder family. The wife, Priscilla, was there alone with her small children; she told Lewis that her husband was away on a hunting trip.
In a curiously circumstantial and suspiciously static statement she made repeatedly over the years after Lewis died, Priscilla Grinder said that his behavior was so erratic that evening that she grew afraid for herself and her children and, after Lewis had retired to his room, she locked herself and her little family into the kitchen and sat up all night. Captain Tom and Pernia arrived just about bedtime, she said, and stayed in the barn with the horses, although it’s not known whether they had found the pack animals lost earlier in the day. Neely did not arrive at all that night.
Priscilla Grinder said that she could hear Lewis pacing up and down his room, declaiming “like a lawyer” as if he were arguing with someone, until sometime after midnight, when she heard a gunshot and Lewis cried out, “Oh, Lord!”, followed by a second gunshot.
No one went to the wounded man’s assistance. He pounded on the locked door, begging Mrs. Grinder to “bring me water and heal my wounds”, but she refused to open the door, claiming she was too afraid. Nor did his servants come from the barn to aid him. She watched through a peephole as Lewis dragged himself to the well, heard the gourd dipper scrape the empty bucket as he sought water, saw him stumble and fall and finally make it back to his room, heard him groan, over and over, “I am no coward, but I am so strong, so hard to die.” (This was virtually a direct quote from one of his western journals, about the death of a grizzly bear.)
At first light she sent one of her children to the barn to rouse the servants. She and the two men found Lewis on the floor of his room. His wounds were ghastly: a huge one in his side and a horrifying one in his head, which had taken off a piece of his skull and left his brain partially exposed. He was still alive though, and cutting himself with a razor, apparently trying to open an artery and end his agony by bleeding to death. He didn’t succeed, but death wasn’t far off; he died just after sunrise. He was only thirty-five years old. The date was October 11th, 1809.
John Pernia promptly disappeared, and he didn’t leave empty-handed; he apparently lit out for his native New Orleans, where, some years later, a gold presentation watch given to Lewis by President Jefferson turned up.
Thirty years after Lewis’s death, his lost papers were mysteriously sent, with no message as to their provenance, to his stepsister in the eastern U.S.
Captain Neely, the Indian agent, and Robert Grinder both arrived about midmorning. Neely gave orders for Lewis to be buried on the spot and busied himself in the composition of a letter to the by then former president Jefferson, giving details of Lewis’s “suicide.”
Many of Lewis’s friends—and many students of the case since—did not accept the suicide story. They had no doubt it was murder. The main theories range from an assassination at the behest of Burr’s co-conspirator, General James Wilkinson, who feared Lewis would reveal information about the true extent of Wilkinson’s involvement to simple murder in the course of robbery by none other than Robert Grinder, who, far from being on a hunting trip, was hidden out all the time and killed Lewis for the gold he was bound to have been carrying on such a long journey. Lewis died with a mere twenty-five cents in his pocket; Grinder, arrested and charged with murder but freed for lack of evidence, moved to West Tennessee and paid in gold for a large acreage and a number of slaves not long after Lewis’s death—the money having come from some unknown source.
Lewis lay in his lonely unmarked grave until 1920, when the National Park Service took over the area. He was dug up and reburied under a fine monument, and today there’s an interesting three mile loop hike in the reconstructed area. Locals say, however, that he has never rested in peace. They say that the door of the cabin where he died opens and closes by itself, that there are sounds like a gourd dipper scraping the bottom of an empty bucket in the night—a phantom seeking phantom water, and that people have reported that the wind in the trees is sometimes interrupted by the sound of a human voice repeating “It is so hard to die.”
Lewis may never go to his eternal rest. It’s unlikely at this late date that the true tale of his death will ever be told.