Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis' Last Evening
avid history buff, I'm ashamed to admit that I never
knew much about Meriwether Lewis until I read Stephen Ambrose's book
"Undaunted Courage" a few years ago. Lewis, of course, was
one-half of the famous team, "Lewis and Clark." Some probably
think it was "Lewisenclark," but there were actually two people, not one.
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. And they weren't called the Rocky Mountains, either. Back then, they
were known as the Shining Mountains, then later, the Stony Mountains.
Lewis was chosen by President Thomas Jefferson to lead a 30-man expedition
across the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase to see if there was a quick and
easy way across North America. Well, there wasn't, so Jefferson was pretty
disappointed -- but the Lewis and Clark Expedition made a lot of important
discoveries during their two-year trip. For instance, having spent 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,
something I didn't learn until I moved to Oregon in 1989.
reading "Undaunted Courage," I discovered that Meriwether Lewis was a
pretty remarkable guy. He was competent, meticulous, shy,
curious, soft-spoken and talented. He liked drawing 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, he couldn't finish his memoirs, he had trouble finding a wife,
and he fell into a deep depression.
the 35-year old Lewis, traveling alone, headed back to Washington D.C. to clear up some
debts. He traveled overland on the Natchez Trace trail instead of taking a
ship, and he stopped one night alongside the Natchez Trace at a small cabin
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.
since reading "Undaunted Courage," I've wanted to visit Lewis' grave,
so after leaving Shiloh late 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 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.
President Thomas Jefferson referring to
left: Here's a sunset at the Meriwether Lewis campground along the Natchez Trace Parkway in
center: This is a replica of the Grinder's Inn. Lewis had
fought a lifelong battle with depression but lost the fight here.
right: That's the foundation of the
original Grinder's Inn in the foreground, with the replica in the background.
Above left: There's a memorial to Lewis inside the Grinder's Inn
replica. I believe this is the only memorial to him anywhere in the world.
Meriwether Lewis, the more subdued half of "Lewis and Clark."
Above right: 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.
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Courage: Meriwether Lewis' Last Evening