The life of Meriwether Lewis had taken a sour turn. Growing up in rural Georgia, Lewis had found a keen mind in natural history and skills as an outdoorsman. After graduating from university at Liberty Hall and joining the Virginia militia, he joined the American military formally in 1795 as a lieutenant. Lewis would serve there for six years until being hand-selected as an aide by President Thomas Jefferson, where he would comment on political matters from the military’s point of view. In 1803, he would begin his most famous project: the expedition to the Pacific along with his former fellow soldier, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery.
Upon their successful return to civilization in 1806, Lewis and Clark were hailed as heroes. Clark was made an agent of Indian Affairs and led militia in Missouri, including several campaigns in the War of 1812. Lewis, meanwhile, received a reward of 1,600 acres of land and appointment as Governor of the Louisiana Territory. He settled in St. Louis, where his administration met with mixed success. While he made great progress in the fur trade and road-building, the pressure of settlers against Indian uprisings as well as the inanity of politics and slow mail drove him to drink heavily.
In 1809, issues arose with his expense reports to the War Department, and questions of abuse of power were reviewed. Lewis set out for Washington to absolve these issues, at first planning a boat trip from New Orleans, but then deciding to go overland along the Natchez Trace. On October 10, he and his servants stopped at Grinder’s Stand, an inn some 70 miles from Nashville.
He was agitated from the stress of his administration and the weight of arguing his case for expenses. The innkeeper’s wife, Mrs. Grinder, would describe him as talking to himself, as if practicing conversation with a lawyer. He excused himself from dinner and retired early, though he was unable to sleep. After midnight and under the influence of a good deal of drink, he finally began to rest, but a noise startled him as robbers were infiltrating his room. He jumped to stop them, grabbing his pistol from its holster and firing.
By a great miracle, the charging Lewis dodged the robbers’ counterattack except for a bullet that pierced his left arm. Much of their attention was drawn to a whiskey bottle he had thrown in their direction, which broke and emptied. He shot one in the leg and bludgeoned the other with the butt of his gun, causing them to flee into the night. Just after they left, he caught Mrs. Grinder’s watchful eye peeking through the wallboards. Lewis summoned his servants and decided to leave immediately.
Facing what may have been his death, Lewis suddenly felt reinvigorated. His position as governor had stifled him, whereas it was nature that kept him strong. He vowed never to drink again and would conjure the image of the broken whiskey bottle whenever the urge struck him. Rather than staying in inns, he led his servants on an expeditious hike, following the trail but seeking new way stations hinted on the map. He arrived in Washington before expected and used the time for an appointment with President James Madison.
In an hours-long talk with Madison, Lewis resigned his position as governor and set forth a plan: a renewed Corps of Discovery aimed at furthering exploration and establishment of trails for effective settlement and, more importantly in his opinion, exploitation of natural resources. Madison approved, and the Department of Discovery would be later created under act of Congress. While the political matters were settled, Lewis sold land to pay his debts to the War Department and began to write in earnest to edit and publish the journals of the original Corps of Discovery. Money gained from the publication was routed into accounts to further Lewis’s dream. Later publications would contribute to the financial success of his expeditions.
Lewis would direct the Corps until his death while attempting to navigate the Grand Canyon in 1841. His direct contributions to the natural history of the West would serve as a great foundation for the later work of botanists, biologists, and geologists. Indirectly, his efforts through the Discovery Department enabled the construction of the intercontinental railway in 1857 as well as the managed rushes to discoveries of mineral wealth being translated into established cities, navigable and irrigated waterways, and roadways that would enable the fast transport of goods and soldiers throughout the West.
Jefferson, while writing about Lewis in a letter, would sum him up effectively as, “A man made for planning but not for rule.”
In reality, Meriwether Lewis died of heavy bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds believed to be suicide. Clark and Jefferson, who both had known Lewis, found the possibility of suicide somberly realistic. Historians debate the issue, but it is sound that Lewis stands as one of the greatest contributors to North American naturalistic study.