Sunday, April 19, 2020

At Natchez Trace mile post 385.9, a Meriwether Lewis mystery

While cycling the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tennessee, we stopped at explorer Meriwether Lewis' grave.
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Pedaling like demons on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tennessee, we slowly made our way up another muscle- and lung-testing hill. To our right, a spectacular, green forest; to our left, more of the same; above us, a deep-blue sky. About halfway into a 50-mile bike ride with my brother-in-law, we were bit players and Mother Nature was the star.

On almost every stretch of the Trace, wildlife lurks. ("Look, there's a turkey." "Hey, was that a fox that just crossed the road?")
An early 19th-cenutry portrait of explorer
Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale.

(Public domain)

And history lurks, too.

Miles earlier, we passed the site of She Boss, where, in the early 1800s, a white woman operated a small inn in the sprawling wilderness with her second husband, an Indian. The man apparently spoke little English. According to legend, when travelers approached him with questions about accommodations at the inn, he would simply point to his wife and say, "She boss." Some of us truly understand this man of few (English) words.

At mile post 390.7, if you're adventrous enough, you'll find abandoned shafts from an old phosphate mine in the woods. And every so often, you'll see hints of the original trace, first blazed out of the wilderness by Indians  and eventually improved by the U.S. Army in the early 1800s. Early explorers used the Trace; so did bandits, who often terrorized those who traveled on it.

The only terror we faced on this Saturday afternon was the damn hill we needed to climb near a waterfall on our return trip. But before we did, I had to breathe in some history. And so at mile post 385.9, at the crest of another [expletive] hill, we stopped to visit the grave site/memorial for Meriwether Lewis.

You probably learned about Lewis, the great explorer, in grade school. Brief refresher: After the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to know what he got for the U.S. government's $15 million. And so Lewis and fellow explorer William Clark were sent west on a remarkable, two-year journey -- the first transcontinental expedition to the Pacific Coast by Americans. The intrepid adventurers documented their discoveries -- flora and fauna, rivers, Indian tribes and much more -- and returned with reams of information.

               PANORAMA: Meriwether Lewis gravesite on Natchez Trace in Tennessee.
                                    (Click on icon at right for full-screen experience.)

In October 1809, en route to Washington from his home in St. Louis, Lewis stopped at an inn at Grinder's Stand on the Natchez Trace. One night, two shots rang out. A badly injured Lewis, who was known to battle depression, was discovered in the inn with two gunshot wounds -- one in the head, another in his stomach. By sunrise the next day, the 35-year-old explorer was dead. Was it a suicide? (Jefferson thought so.) Or was it murder? (Lewis' descendants believe so to this day.)

In 1848, Lewis' body was exhumed, examined and eventually re-buried near where he died. A state commission's conclusion: He probably was murdered. (Oh, man, I refuse to go down this rabbit hole!) Later that year, the State of Tennessee erected a memorial atop Lewis' grave. In 1905, a magazine reporter found the granite monument abandoned -- a "dim and ghostly" visage surrounded by woods and brush.

"But the monument itself, with the forest about it, silent, gloomy, deserted represents as nothing else could the love of solitude, the melancholia, the taciturnity of the youth whose dust lies beneath it," John Swain wrote for Everybody's Magazine. "Lewis' spirit indeed seems to pervade the spot, and it is little wonder that the hill people believe it's haunted."

Forest and brush surrounded the Meriwether Lewis memorial/grave when a magazine reporter
 found it in 1905. (PHOTO: Everybody's Magazine)

We weren't spooked by the place, thankfully long ago restored. But I was confused by the Latin phrase inscribed on the memorial: "Immaturus obi; sed tu felicior annos vive meos: Bona Republica! vive tuos." Translation: "I died before my time, but thou O great and good Republic, live out my years while you live out your own."

Perhaps someone should have carved another phrase on the monument, preferably in English: Keep your paws off all that ye find here. An iron fence originally surrounded Lewis' grave, but during the Civil War, soldiers under Confederate General John Bell Hood melted it down to make horseshoes.

My brother-in-law and I had no such evil intentions. We took in the tranquil scene and read the large, cast-iron plaque near the explorer's grave. Lewis' "life of romantic endeavor and lasting achievement," it reads, in part, "came tragically and mysteriously to its close on the night of Oct. 11, 1809."

Our only mystery this afternoon: Are we really going to complete our 50-mile ride?

And so off we went, enriched by a brief experience at mile post 385.9.

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-- Killibrew, J.B. Resources of Tennessee, Nashville, Tavel, Eastman & Howell, 1874.


  1. By a motorcycle John.

  2. Thoroughly thoughtful & a good capsule of the 1809 tragedy.