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The CorpsThe Character of Meriwether Lewis
Part 3, Derangement
Part 5, Weighing Evidence

Part 4, On the Natchez Trace

Page 4 of 6

on September 16, the ailing Lewis, now under house arrest at Fort Pickering, wrote a letter to President Madison. Much has been made of the visual quality of this letter, which has been called “incoherent,” “garbled,” and “chaotic,” by various historians. John Bakeless says, “[I]ts sprawling and uncertain hand and the constant striking out of words and interlineation of others, to no particular purpose, show clearly that . . . he was far from being his usual bold and decisive self by the time he reached Chickasaw Bluffs.”43 Bakeless blames malaria for the mental confusion: “The best explanation of his odd conduct is probably malaria, as it is well known that fever of any kind invariably made him light-headed.”44 Danisi and Jackson argue that the orthographical confusion of the letter he wrote can be explained by way of Lewis’s malarial indisposition alone. The letter is undeniably jumbled in its visual presentation, but it is unobjectionable when viewed in a linear transcript.

Lewis informed the president of his change in itinerary. He indicated that he was bringing his financial records, “which when fully explained, or reather the general view of the circumstances under which they were made I flatter myself they will recieve both sanction & approbation and sanction.” Then Lewis apologized for having been a poor communicator: “My anxiety to pursue and to fullfill the duties incedent to the internal arrangements incedent to the government of Louisiana has prevented my writing you more frequently.”45 Finally, Lewis noted that he was enclosing a printed copy of the laws of Louisiana, which he had printed in St. Louis. Danisi and Jackson argue that this publication, “was Lewis’s answer, sent ahead, to those State Department bills that Madison continued to refuse, a matter of honor and withheld respect as much as accounting.”46

This was perhaps not the most lucid or eloquent letter that Lewis ever wrote, but it cannot be called incoherent. In short order he conveyed everything he wanted the president of the United States to know. Fisher is certainly right to conclude, “There seems to be no sign of insanity or mental derangement in the letter to Madison, but only signs of exhaustion and debility.”47

The last letter Lewis wrote, dated September 22, 1809, was to his old friend Amos Stoddard, now the commander at Fort Adams on the lower Mississippi River. After providing a routine apology for his prolonged and inexplicable silence, Lewis explained that he would not now be descending the Mississippi River as planned, but traveling overland to the national capital. The only reason he gave for this change was “my indisposition.” He stated that he was on his way to Washington to explain some protested vouchers. “[A]n explaneation is all that is necessary I am sensible to put all matters right.” The actual purpose of the letter was financial. Because his personal finances had been compromised by his public difficulties, Lewis called on Stoddard to send him $200 that Stoddard was holding for him. Finally, he explained that in January “I expect I shall be on my return to St. Louis.”48

Apparently Lewis was well enough that he could have resumed his journey sometime around September 21 or 22, but he delayed his departure for another week to accommodate Gilbert Russell, who attempted to get a leave of absence to permit him to make the same journey. Russell, too, had protested vouchers to clear up with the War Department. Eventually, the leave was denied. Russell wrote, “[H]e waited six or eight days expecting I would go with him, but in this we were disappointed.”49

Lewis left Fort Pickering on September 29. He was traveling with his free black servant Pernier and with Major James Neelly, the US agent to the Chickasaw Nation, and Neelly’s servant, whose name is unknown. Neelly had arrived at Fort Pickering on September 18. He was bound for Nashville. So far as we know he had never previously met Lewis. When it became clear that Russell could not accompany Lewis, Neelly apparently offered to travel with Lewis as far as Nashville and watch over him. Russell later regretted that decision. “He [Neelly] seem’d happy to have it in his power to serve the Govr,” Russell wrote on January 31, 1810, “& but for making the offer which I accepted I should have employ’d the man who packed the trunk to the Nation to have them taken to Nashville & accompany the Govr. Unfortunately for him this arrangement did not take place, or I hesitate not to say he would this day be living.”50 In other words, Russell believed a more reliable chaperon chosen by himself would have delivered Lewis safely to Nashville, kept liquor and gunpowder away from him, and made a special effort to keep him safe. Ideally the chaperon would have been Russell himself. Next best would have been “the [unnamed] man who packed the trunk to the [Chickasaw] Nation.” Neelly proved to be precisely the wrong man for the job, in Russell’s opinion.

Captain Russell lent Lewis ca. $100 and sold him two horses on credit. In return, Lewis signed a promissory note for $379.58, payable on or before January 1, 1810. Russell wrote that Lewis “set off with two Trunks which contained all his papers relative to his expedition to the Pacific Ocean.”51 Russell said Lewis’s baggage now included “Gen’l Clark’s Land Warrant, a Port-Folio, pocket book Memo and note Book together with many other papers of both public and private nature and two horses two saddles and bridles a Rifle gun pistols pipe tommy hawk & dirk, all ellegant and perhaps about two hundred and twenty dollars, of which $99 58/100 was a Treasury check on the U.S. Bank of Orleans endorsed by me. The horses one saddle and the check I let him have.”52 In turn, Lewis, who was unable to transport by land as much baggage as he had put on board the vessel on which he was descending the Mississippi River, left at Fort Pickering “two Trunks a case and a bundle which will now remain here subject at any time to your order or that of his legal representative,”53 Russell informed Jefferson.

The first leg of this last journey took the party from Fort Pickering to somewhere in the Chickasaw Nation. The Lewis party of four (Lewis, Pernier, Neelly, Neelly’s servant) may have traveled with some Chickasaw Indian “chiefs.” The only reference we have to these Indians is from the affidavit Russell wrote two years later. Most scholars have assumed that Neelly took Lewis first to the Chickasaw Agency near today’s Houston, Tennessee, where Neelly attended to some business and where they intersected the Natchez Trace, but Danisi and Jackson have argued that it is more likely that Neelly and Lewis traveled due east from today’s Memphis to an intersection with the Natchez Trace. “Taking the Chickasaw Nation statement at face value meant an unnecessary detour that would have required a fifty-mile-a-day pace to reconcile with the known timeline.”54 For a variety of reasons, I believe Danisi and Jackson are wrong and that Lewis and Neelly indeed traveled from Fort Pickering to the Chickasaw Agency, remained there a couple of days, then rode the Natchez Trace all the way to Grinder’s Inn (see footnote).55 At the Chickasaw Agency the party intersected the Natchez Trace, a narrow, but well-traveled trail carved out of the wilderness between Nashville, Tennessee, and Natchez, Mississippi. The Natchez Trace was one of America’s first government-sponsored highways. One of its purposes was to provide American farmers and entrepreneurs an alternative road for traveling between the lower Mississippi and the East Coast at a time when Spain was obstructing or threatening to obstruct traffic on the Mississippi River. Elliott Coues wrote that the trace was “cut to facilitate the movement of troops and the transportation of supplies to and from the newly acquired ‘Spanish country.’”56 General James Wilkinson concluded a treaty in 1801 with the Chickasaw Nation, permitting the US government to construct the highway through Chickasaw territory.

By the time the party arrived at “the Chickasaw nation,” according to Neelly, Lewis “appeared at times deranged in mind.” He was also drinking again―thanks entirely to the enabler Neelly, Gilbert Russell later alleged.57 Because of Lewis’s relapse, indisposition, and derangement, the party rested two days at “the Chickasaw nation,” probably at the agency. Neelly explained to Jefferson that “we rested there two days & came on.”58

on October 5 or 6, the party resumed its journey, now on the Natchez Trace. On October 8, Neelly and Lewis crossed the Tennessee River and camped near today’s Collinwood, Tennessee. On the night of October 9-10, two of the party’s horses strayed from the camp. Restless as ever, Lewis ventured ahead on his horse, “with a promise to wait for me,” James Neelly wrote to Jefferson, “at the first house he came to that was inhabited by white people.”59

On the afternoon of October 10, Lewis rode up alone to a frontier establishment known as Grinder’s Inn or Grinder’s Stand, located seventy-two miles from Nashville near today’s Hohenwald, Tennessee. Neely says it was “about sun set.”60 The inn was owned by Priscilla and Robert Grinder. Priscilla Grinder was approximately thirty-five years old. Robert Grinder was somewhere else that evening―probably at the Grinders’ settlement at Duck River, more than twenty miles away. It seems likely that Priscilla Grinder was at the inn alone with her two or three young children, and her twelve-year-old slave girl Malinda. Neelly said that when Lewis arrived there was “no person there but a woman.”61 Much has been made of the apparent discrepancy, but probably Neelly meant that Mrs. Grinder was the only responsible adult at the inn.

Grinder’s Inn consisted of two cabins linked by a fifteen-foot covered breezeway. This common connecting structure was known as a dogtrot.

Lewis was wearing a loose fitting blue-and-white striped cloak when he arrived. He asked Mrs. Grinder “if he could stay for the night” [Grinder-Wilson 1811].62 “[N]o person [was] there,” Neelly reported, “but a woman who discovering the governor to be deranged gave him up the house & slept herself in one near it.”63 Lewis carried his saddle into the cabin assigned to him. Priscilla asked Lewis if he was traveling alone. That would have been unusual.64 Lewis replied that two servants were somewhere behind him on the Trace, and that they would soon arrive. “He called for some spirits, and drank very little” [Grinder-Wilson 1811].

The two servants rode up. One of them was Lewis’s free black servant (not slave) John Pernier (also known as Pernia). Actually, Pernier was a mulatto, like so many other free black individuals of this era. The name of the other servant is not known. He may have been a slave. He was Neelly’s attendant. Mrs. Grinder says one of the servants was “a negro” [Grinder-Wilson 1811]. It may be that Pernier may have been white enough to “pass.” It is possible, but not likely, that Neelly was attended by a white servant.

Lewis asked Pernier about his gunpowder, saying he was sure he had some in a canister. According to Priscilla Grinder, Pernier seemed reluctant to answer Lewis’s question. “The servant gave no distinct reply” [Grinder-Wilson 1811]. The servants unsaddled their horses and led them toward the stable, located about two-hundred yards away from the cabins. That was where the servants spent the night. Lewis’s behavior soon struck Mrs. Grinder as erratic. For one thing, he began pacing back and forth in front of one of the cabins, muttering to himself. “Sometimes, she said, he would seem as if he were walking up to her; and would suddenly wheel round, and walk back as fast as he could” [Grinder-Wilson 1811].

Priscilla Grinder fed her guest. She reported that Lewis “had eaten only a few mouthfuls when he started up, speaking to himself in a violent manner” [Grinder-Wilson 1811]. The governor’s fits came and went. He raged, grew calm, then flared up again, his face “flush as if it had come on him in a fit” [Grinder-Wilson 1811]. Eventually, Lewis pulled a chair to the door of the cabin, lit his pipe, and gazed out at the Tennessee wilderness. “[I]n a kind tone of voice,” Lewis said, “Madam, this is a very pleasant evening” [Grinder-Wilson 1811].

He smoked for some time, but quitted his seat and traversed the yard as before. He again sat down to his pipe, seemed again composed and casting his eyes wishfully toward the west, observed what a sweet evening it was. “Mrs. Grinder was preparing a bed for him; but he said he would sleep on the floor, and desired the servant to bring him the bear skins and buffaloe robe, which were immediately spread out for him” [Grinder-Wilson 1811].

Just why Lewis chose to sleep on the floor is unknown. It may be that he found Mrs. Grinder’s accommodations unacceptable. Bed linens were seldom changed in those days, and it was not uncommon for a variety of people in various stages of cleanliness to sleep in the same linens, sometimes at the same time.65 According to one version, Lewis explained to his host that he had not slept in a bed since his late tour. It’s very hard to believe that can be true.

“[I]t being now dusk the woman went off to the kitchen, and the two men [the servants] to the barn, which stands about two-hundred yards off” [Grinder-Wilson 1811].

Dusk on October 11 would have come at approximately 7:30 P.M. Pernier and Neelly’s servant went off to the barn, that puts Governor Lewis alone in one small log cabin, with his bear and buffalo robes taking up much of the floor, and Priscilla Grinder, who was the same age, preparing to sleep in some makeshift bed, fifteen-to twenty-feet away in the other cabin. If her children and slave were with her, as seems overwhelmingly likely, it was a snug fit in the cabin that doubled as a kitchen. Mrs. Grinder was unable to sleep.

“The kitchen is only a few paces from the room where Lewis was, and the woman being considerably alarmed by the behaviour of her guest could not sleep but listened to him walking backwards and forwards, she thinks for several hours, and talking aloud, as she said, ‘like a lawyer’” [Grinder-Wilson 1811].

So far Priscilla Grinder’s report squares perfectly with everything we know about Meriwether Lewis’s last journey. Periods of distraction and soliloquy alternated with periods of calm and civility. Fits came on him, flushed his face, consumed his attention, and then ebbed away. His symptoms were both physical and mental. Courtliness was juxtaposed with lawyerly argumentation. The same mental suffering and emotional intensity that had roused William Clark’s Cempothy in late August, the same violent interior dialogue that Gilbert Russell had witnessed at Fort Pickering, the fits and imposition that had been observed by Russell and Neelly, recurred at Grinder’s Inn on the last night of Lewis’s life. Nothing in Priscilla Grinder’s testimony to Alexander Wilson in 1811 is at odds in any way with what we know about Lewis’s behavior between August 25 (his last meeting with William Clark) and October 10 (his last moments with James Neelly). Nor was Mrs. Grinder’s behavior in any way unusual or improbable. She was alone (at least essentially alone) at a rustic frontier outpost with an erratic and intense man just a few yards away whose first words to his servant that evening had been a request for gunpowder. If Lewis really arrived around sunset, all of these events unfolded in a surprisingly brief period of time. Now the ill and deranged governor was in the room just across the breezeway, and instead of settling down for the night, thereby letting Mrs. Grinder relax into sleep, he was pacing about the floor talking violently to himself. The phrase, “she thinks for several hours,” suggests that Mrs. Grinder drifted in and out of sleep between the hours of 8 P.M.on October 10 and 3 A.M.on October 11.

“She then heard the report of a pistol, and something fall heavily on the floor, and the words, ‘O Lord.’ Immediately afterwards she heard another pistol, and in a few minutes she heard him at her door calling out ‘O madam! Give me some water, and heal my wounds’[Grinder-Wilson 1811].

Neelly explained to Jefferson that “the woman reports that about three o’Clock she heard two pistols fire off in the Governors Room” [Grinder-Neelly 1809].

Virtually all historians agree with the Grinder-Neelly and the Grinder-Wilson account of the events of October 10, 1809, so far. The governor arrived in the late afternoon or evening. His behavior was erratic and it upset Mrs. Grinder, who was the only white adult at the inn. She put Lewis in one room for the night and took the other for herself. He could not sleep because he was pacing and talking to himself, almost certainly about his struggles with the War Department or about Frederick Bates and his other detractors in St. Louis.66 She could not sleep because her guest was making a lot of noise, and his strange behavior had thrown her off of her center of gravity. Deep into the night, at approximately 3 A.M., Mrs. Grinder heard two shots go off in close succession. Somehow she recognized them as pistol shots.67 She heard something or someone (presumably Lewis) “fall heavily on the floor” [Grinder-Wilson 1811]. She heard the wounded man (presumably, but not yet certainly Lewis) say, “O Lord!,” and “O madam! give me some water, and heal my wounds” [Grinder-Wilson 1811].

At this point the story begins to braid a little. Alexander Wilson wrote, “The logs being open, and unplastered, she saw him stagger back and fall against a stump that stands between the kitchen and room. He crawled for some distance, raised himself by the side of a tree, where he sat about a minute. He once more got to the room; afterwards he came to the kitchen door, but did not speak; she then heard him scraping the bucket with a gourd for water” [Grinder-Wilson 1811]. All accounts emphasize Lewis’s thirst in the aftermath of the shooting. In his letter to Jefferson, Neelly wrote, “[S]he heard two pistols fire off in the Governors Room: the servants being awakined by her, came in but too late to save him. He had shot himself in the head with one pistol & a little below the Breast with the other” [Grinder-Neelly 1809]. Proponents of the murder theory (murderists) argue that Priscilla Grinder could not possibly have seen Lewis staggering around the breezeway and the yard of the inn. The night of October 10-11 was, they correctly indicate, a time of a virtually new moon (new moon, October 9), and even that sliver of the moon had set long before folks at Grinder’s Inn went to bed. Thus Priscilla Grinder could not possibly have actually seen Lewis staggering about in the faint starlight, unless he was illuminated by candles or a lantern, neither of which are mentioned in any account of the incident.68 It is, of course, quite possible that Lewis had lit a lantern or candle in his unchinked quarters. Without illumination neither Lewis (nor any putative assassin) would have been able to take careful aim in the darkened cabin. The argument from lunar data, frequently played as a kind of trump card to discredit Mrs. Grinder’s testimony, raises as many questions as it settles. Whatever else is true, we can be certain that October 10-11 was a very dark night on the Natchez Trace.

Just how long Priscilla Grinder waited before she roused the servants (her own or those traveling with Lewis), and just when she first looked in on the stricken governor is another matter that has precipitated feverish historical debate. Neelly’s timeline has Mrs. Grinder awakening the servants immediately after hearing the gunshots ― if not in real time, certainly in the narrative he sent to Jefferson. “[T]wo pistols fire off in the Governors Room: the servants being awakined by her, came in but too late to save him” [Grinder-Neelly 1809]. Much more time passes in the account provided by Alexander Wilson. “As soon as day broke and not before, the terror of the woman having permitted him to remain for two hours in this most deplorable situation, she sent two of her children to the barn, her husband not being home, to bring the servants” [Grinder-Wilson 1811]. Wilson was angry that Mrs. Grinder had done nothing to help the dying Lewis: “[I]t appears that this cooling element [water] was denied the dying man!” [Grinder-Wilson 1811]. Wilson was emphatic that Mrs. Grinder waited until daybreak and not before to rouse the servants.

Note that Lewis’s friend Alexander Wilson did not in any way, with any language―vague, implied, or direct―dispute Mrs. Grinder’s story that Lewis had committed suicide. That Wilson was angry during or after his interview with Priscilla Grinder is certain, but his anger was confined to her seeming indifference to the needs of a dying man.

Murderists are more incredulous than outraged by Mrs. Grinder’s apparent timidity. Fisher says, “[I]t takes a lot of credulity to believe that a frontier woman, used to hardship and living in a dangerous wilderness, on a trail infested with bandits, would wait until morning before going herself to the barn, or sending children, to summon the servants, when a mortally wounded man was crawling around and begging for help.”69 No matter what the motive, Bakeless concludes, “Lewis was left alone in agony all night or at least most of the night.”70

At some point Mrs. Grinder summoned Pernier and Neelly’s servant, either herself or by way of her children. It seems likely that Wilson’s version of the aftermath of the shootings is the more accurate of the two, not only because it is longer and more detailed, but because Mrs. Grinder told the story to Wilson in a way that did not put herself in a very good light; an account unfavorable to the teller is almost always more credible than one that exonerates or aggrandizes the teller. If the servants came shortly after first light, they were able to see for themselves not necessarily what had happened, but the results of what had happened: “[T]hey found him lying on the bed; he uncovered his side and showed them where the bullet had entered; a piece of the forehead was blown off, and had exposed the brains, without having bled much” [Grinder-Wilson 1811].

Neelly’s report has less detail, but it does not in any way contradict the story Priscilla Grinder told Wilson sixteen months later: “[H]e had shot himself in the head with one pistol & a little below the Breast with the other” [Grinder-Neelly 1809]. Meriwether Lewis died of a gunshot wound to the head and another to the abdomen (“his side”). In neither of her contemporary reports did Mrs. Grinder speak of razor cuts or knife wounds. Neelly, who came upon the scene later in the morning of October 11 and had the opportunity to observe Lewis’s body, did not speak of knife or razor slashings, at least in his letter to Jefferson. The lurid account, provided by Gilbert Russell on November 26, 1811, that, after shooting himself, Lewis “got his razors from a port folio which happened to contain them and Seting up in his bed was found about day light, by one of the Servants, busily engaged in cutting himself from head to foot,”71 finds no corroboration in the near-eyewitness accounts of Mrs. Grinder and James Neelly, or in Alexander Wilson’s account of his interview with the Grinders. Sensational stories tend to breed exaggeration, elaboration, and wild rumor. It cannot be ruled out that Lewis slashed his body “in the most cool desperate and Barbarian-like manner,”72 as Russell put it in 1811, however. The apparent written source of the story was the Nashville Democratic Clarion, the newspaper that broke the Lewis suicide story on October 20, 1809. The account in the Frankfort Argus that William Clark read on October 28, 1809, was based on the article in the Nashville Clarion.73 The account in the Argus was based upon direct communication with Neelly. Because the Argus reported that Lewis, at the time of his death, “was cutting himself with a razor,”74 it is possible, even likely, that Neelly was the source of that information. It may be that Neelly remembered that detail, or learned it from Pernier, on his journey from Grinder’s Inn to Nashville. It may be that Neelly omitted that detail in his brief letter to Jefferson to spare the former president sensational details of the incident or because he realized that―whatever else was true―it was the pistol shots that killed Lewis. It may be that Neelly invented the slashings to make the story he told more melodramatic and sensational. It may be that a reporter for the Democratic Clarion embellished the story for effect. We have no way of knowing. Whatever their source, and irrespective of their accuracy, once the knife and razor cuts got into the informal network of frontier newspapers, it was impossible not to include that lurid detail of the incident. That’s the story as President Madison heard it. In a letter of October 30, 1809, to Jefferson, the president wrote, “[H]e had recourse to his Dirk with wch he mangled himself considerably. After all he lived till the next morning, with the utmost impatience for death.”75 What could be better than a dirk in a sensational story of frontier suicide? A dagger or a bare bodkin perhaps.

Lewis’s last words were also variously reported. Neelly had him saying to Pernier, “I have done the business my good Servant give me some water” [Grinder-Neelly 1809]. Wilson reported that Lewis “begged they would take his rifle and blow out his brains, and he would give them all the money he had in his trunk. He often said, ‘I am no coward; but I am so strong, so hard to die.’ He begged the servant not to be afraid of him, for that he would not hurt him” [Grinder-Wilson 1811].

Gilbert Russell, who was not at Grinder’s Inn on October 11, 1809, later reported, “He again beged for water, which was given him and so soon as he drank, he lay down and died with the declaration to the Boy [i.e., Pernier] that he had killed himself to deprive his enemies of the pleasure and honor of doing it.”76 Neelly reported, “He [Pernier] gave him water, he survived but a short time” [Grinder-Neelly 1809].

nobody doubts that Meriwether Lewis died on October 11, 1809, sometime after first light, that he died primarily and perhaps exclusively of gunshot wounds, that he was―like most victims of gunshot wounds―exceptionally thirsty in the last hours or minutes of his life, and that he lived long enough to speak to his servant Pernier and others. Wilson’s direct quotation, derived from Mrs. Grinder, “I am no coward; but I am so strong, so hard to die” [Wilson-Grinder 1811], has the ring of truth. It echoes something Lewis wrote on May 11, 1805, just inside today’s Montana when the expedition recognized for the first time the profound life force of the grizzly bear: “[T]hese bear being so hard to die reather intimedates us all; I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen and had reather fight two Indians than one bear.”77 It is hard to know how Mrs. Grinder or Wilson would have been able to invent words that so closely resonated with Lewis’s own particular phraseology.78

So Governor Meriwether Lewis died sometime after sunup on Wednesday, October 11, 1809. He was thirty-five years old. He was 738 miles from Washington, DC. He was 618 miles from Locust Hill and Monticello. He was 1,905 miles from the source of the “mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri” River.79 Most important of all he was 223 miles from his friend and protector William Clark, who spent the night somewhere near Hardinsburg or Radcliffe, Kentucky.

James Neelly, who had stayed behind to round up the stray horses, apparently camped out on the night of October 10-11 somewhere not far from Grinder’s Inn. When he arrived at the inn on the morning of October 11, Lewis was dead. “I came up some time after, & had him as decently Buried as I could in that place” [Neelly 1809].80 Unfortunately, Neelly does not supply more detail about matters of great importance to us: the disposition of the corpse, including the exact placement of the bullet wounds and any other evidence of violence; the location and condition of Lewis’s pistols; the location of the gunpowder canister Lewis had inquired about the previous evening; the location of the grave, the depth, and grave markings; and whether Lewis was buried in his clothes or in some other form of shroud.81 When Wilson visited Grinder’s Inn early in 1811, he reported, “He lies buried close by the common path, with a few loose rails thrown over his grave. I gave Grinder [Robert, not Priscilla] money to put a post fence round it to shelter it from the hogs, and from the wolves; and he gave me his written promise he would do it” [Wilson 1811].

Danisi and Jackson attempt to put physical closure on the incident: “Most accounts discreetly overlook what those secondary victims of the tragedy had to do. There was a grim search for enough boards to cobble together a crude box. The shredded, blood-crusted clothing had to be removed, the wounded body washed, and the corpse redressed in something suitable for a tolerable burial. That was just what frontier countrymen of the period would have done for a deceased relative or neighbor.”82


-- Clay S. Jenkinson, 03/2012

43. Bakeless, Partners in Discovery, p. 412.

44. Bakeless, Partners in Discovery, p. 413.

45. No two transcripts of this letter agree. I have made my own here from the facsimile of the original letter in Guice, By His Own Hand?, pp. 146-147.

46. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 291.

47. Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 81.

48. Quoted in Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 83. [For a biographical sketch of Amos Stoddard (1772-1813), see "11. Mississippi River above Cairo, Illinois," footnote 1. —JM.]

49. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 244.

50. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 246.

51. Quoted in Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 89.

52. Quoted in Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 89.

53. Quoted in Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 89.

54. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 305 fn.

55. The Danisi-Jackson theory has many problems. Given the fact that Captain Russell’s man prepared a trunk for the “Nation,” and that Neelly was the US Agent to the Chickasaw Nation, it seems likelier that Lewis and Neelly did take that “detour.” Neelly’s chronology has them crossing the Tennessee River on October 8, losing the horses on the night of October 9-10, Neelly waiting behind to find the horses on the 10th, and Lewis going on ahead to Grinder’s Inn. It would have been virtually impossible for them to cross the Tennessee on the Tennessee-Mississippi border and remain on Neelly’s timeline. Furthermore, if they took a direct route from Memphis to the Natchez Trace they would have had to swim their horses and baggage across the Tennessee River, or build or borrow some sort of boat. That would have been a huge risk given the fact that Lewis’s trunks included all of his official government papers and vouchers and the precious expedition journals. If Neelly and Lewis intersected the Natchez Trace at the Chickasaw Agency, they would have been able to take George Colbert’s ferry across the Tennessee River on October 8. Given Lewis’s indisposition and the preciousness of his baggage, it seems infinitely likelier that he took advantage of the well-established trail from Memphis to the Chickasaw Agency, and the Natchez Trace from the agency to Grinder’s Inn, with the assurance of a ferry ride across the Tennessee River, than that he and Nelly bushwacked across the Mississippi and Tennessee wilderness. I am indebted to historian Tony Turnbow and my friend John Guice for their confirmation of my analysis.

56. Coues, The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, p. lii.

57. Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 246.

58. Jackson, Letters, p. 467.

59. Jackson, Letters, p. 467.

60. Jackson, Letters, p. 467.

61. Jackson, Letters, p. 467.

62. To give the reader as precise an account of what happened at Grinder’s Inn as possible, and to sort out as much as possible the various strands of historical testimony, I have put in brackets after each statement of contemporary testimony the source of the information and the date. Because all accounts of the death of Lewis begin with Priscilla Grinder, I include her when referring to the letter of Alexander Wilson on May 18, 1811, the letter of James Neelly on October 18, 1809, etc. Once Neelly has arrived at the scene on the morning of October 11, 1809, after Lewis’s death, I cite Neelly alone in brackets. The presumption in criminal cases is that the witnesses closest to the event in place and time are usually the most reliable witnesses, even when their testimony is in some ways unreliable, self-protective, or biased. Hereafter [Grinder-Wilson] refers to Alexander Wilson’s letter of May 28, 1811, Guice, By His Own Hand?, pp. 157-158; and [Grinder-Neelly] refers to James Neelly’s letter to Jefferson on October 18, 1809, Jackson, Letters, pp. 467-468.

63. Jackson, Letters, p. 467.

64. Guice, By His Own Hand?,p. 90: “The trace was still so dangerous in 1809, however, that the rough, tough boatmen always rode or walked up it in convoy. Travelers seldom ventured down the trace from Nashville to Natchez alone.”

65. Bakeless, Partners in Discovery, p. 417: “Soldier and explorer, he had slept that way often enough and probably preferred it to the rather dubious beds of such an establishment.”

66. Dillon, Meriwether Lewis, p. 332. Lewis was “wrapped in thought and anger as he rehearsed his upcoming confrontation with Secretary of War Eustis.”

67. Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 151. “No one has explained how the woman knew it was a pistol instead of a rifle: are we to assume that after she entered the cabin she looked at the weapons?”

68. Guice, By His Own Hand, p. 94.

69. Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 151.

70. Bakeless, Partners in Discovery, p. 418.

71. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 252.

72. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 252.

73. See Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 302.

74. Quoted in Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 303.

75. Quoted in Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 304.

76. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 252.

77. JLCE, IV:141.

78. Bakeless, Partners in Discovery, p. 419: “The last words must be an exact quotation — they are the very words Lewis applies to a wounded grizzly in the Journals.”

79. JLCE, V:74.

80. At this point, Neelly’s testimony becomes his own. See Jackson, Letters, pp. 467-468.

81. Dillon, Meriwether Lewis, p. 336: “It is not known . . . whether he examined the body for powder burns, which would have strongly suggested suicide; whether he even examined the Governor’s pistols to see if they had taken his life.”

82. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, pp. 301-302.

Part 3, Derangement
Part 5, Weighing Evidence

From Discovering Lewis & Clark ®, http://www.lewis-clark.org © 1998-2014
by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota.
Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton
13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001)