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Undaunted Courage:  Meriwether Lewis' Last Evening 

(Reprint from News: June 30, 2001)

June 30, 2001

 

Being an 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.

 

Anyway, 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.

 

While 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.  

 

In 1809, 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.

 

Ever 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.

 

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

 

President Thomas Jefferson referring to Meriwether Lewis.

 

       

Above left:  Here's a sunset at the Meriwether Lewis campground along the Natchez Trace Parkway in southern Tennessee.

Above center:   This is a replica of the Grinder's Inn.  Lewis had fought a lifelong battle with depression but lost the fight here.

Above 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.

Above center:  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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