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The Natchez Trace Claims A Legend     

There are numerous stories of murders along the Natchez Trace. Farmers and travelers would be robbed, killed, disemboweled, their body cavities filled with stones, and then the bodies would be submerged in some nameless creek.

But perhaps the most controversial is the death of Meriwether Lewis, Governor of the United States Territory of Louisiana, in October, 1809.

This man, famous as co-leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition, died under mysterious circumstances of two gunshot wounds at a tavern called Grinder's Stand. It was said that he committed suicide.

The nature of Lewis's death was so bizarre that many have persistently refused to believe that Lewis committed suicide, despite evidence that he probably did.

About 18 miles above Dogwood Mudhole, at a clearing, Lewis turned off the Natchez Trace to a pair of rude cabins joined by a dogtrot. He greeted a lone woman there and learned that this was Grinder's Stand. Lewis asked for lodging, to which Mrs. Grinder assented, then asked, "Do you come alone?" To which Lewis replied that his servants would be along shortly, and took his saddle into the cabin the woman said would be his. He asked for whiskey, but drank little of what she gave him. When the servants came up, according to Alexander Wilson,

Lewis asked them about some powder for his pistols, saying he was sure he had some in a cannister, to which the servant made indistinct reply. Lewis then began pacing forth and back before his cabin, obviously upset, talking to himself. At times he would walk up almost to his startled hostess, then wheel away, wrapped in thought and anger.

Supper being ready, the governor sat down at the table but did not lose his agitation. After eating a few bites he started up, face flushed with anger, speaking to himself in a violent manner. Finally he lit his pipe and drew a chair close to the door, remarking, "Madam, this is a very pleasant evening." He smoked for a time, then got up and resumed his impatient pacing, traversing the yard for a time. Then, regaining his composure, he took his seat, filled his pipe and lit it. Blowing clouds of smoke and staring toward the west, he observed, "What a sweet evening this is."

Mrs. Grinder began preparing a bed for Lewis in the cabin, but Lewis stopped her, explaining that he preferred to sleep on the floor. He sent his servant for his bearskins and buffalo robe, which were spread on the floor. She then proceeded to make a bed for her children and self in the kitchen cabin, while the servants went to sleep in the barn 200 yards away. But Mrs. Grinder did not sleep, according to Alexander Wilson, who interviewed her exhaustively 18 months later:

Being considerably alarmed by the behavior of her guest [she] 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." She then heard the report of a pistol, and something fall heavily on the floor, and the words, "Oh 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." The logs being open, and unplastered, she saw him stagger back and fall against a stump that stands between the kitchen and room. 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, but it appears that this cooling element was denied the dying man! 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 at home, to bring the servants; and on going in they found him lying on the bed; he uncovered his side and shewed them where the bullet had entered; a piece of the forehead was blown off, and exposed the brains, without having bled much. He 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 begg'd the servant not to be afraid of him, for that he would not hurt him. He expired in about two hours, or just as the sun rose above the trees."

Lewis’s traveling companion, Major James Neely, arrived at the death scene a few hours after the event.

According to James Neely and Alexander Wilson, three persons—Mrs. Robert Grinder, keeper of Grinder's Stand; John Pernia, trusted servant of Lewis; and Neely's servant—were eye-witnesses to his death and reported that Lewis spoke to them as he lay dying at dawn. When Pernia came up from the barn, Lewis said, "I have done the business, my good servant. Give me some water." He also begged them to take his rifle and blow out his brains. And his last words, just as the sun tinged the treetops, were, "I am no coward, but I am so strong. It is hard to die."

Major James Neely, Lewis's traveling companion, arrived at Grinder's Stand within hours of Lewis's death and had ample opportunity to question each witness and examine the mortal wounds before burying the body. On October 18 from Nashville, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson: "It is with extreme pain that I have to inform you of the death of His Excellency Meriwether Lewis, Governor of Upper Louisiana who died on the morning of the 11th Instant and I am sorry to say by Suicide."

Pernia carried the letter to Thomas Jefferson and some personal effects to Lewis's mother, Lucy Marks, in Virginia. Hence, both had ample opportunity to question Pernia closely concerning not only the terminal events on the Natchez Trace but also Lewis's behavior while in St. Louis, and the details of his two attempts at suicide on the riverboat before reaching Chickasaw Bluffs. It is most telling that Meriwether's mother, Lucy Marks, and his closest friends, Thomas Jefferson and William Clark, sadly but readily accepted the diagnosis of suicide. Presumably they knew something about his state of health and mind not known by many others.

Whether Lewis actually committed suicide or was murdered remains a mystery to this day, with many still questioning what actually happened. President Jefferson believed the former, while his family continually maintained the latter.

Due to his shy personality, Lewis never married. Although he died without legitimate heirs, he does have the putative DNA model haplotype for his paternal ancestors lineage, which was that of the Warner Hall.

He was also related to Robert E Lee and Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, among others. He was related to George Washington by marriage: his great-uncle was Fielding Lewis, Washington's brother-in-law. He was also a second cousin once removed of Washington's on his father's side.

For many years, Lewis's legacy was overlooked, inaccurately assessed, and even tarnished by his alleged suicide. Yet his contributions to science, the exploration of the Western U.S., and the lore of great world explorers, are considered incalculable.

Several years after Lewis's death, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, ... honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves, with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him.

Jefferson also stated that Lewis had a "luminous and discriminating intellect."

The explorer was buried not far from where he died. He is honored today by a memorial along the Trace.

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