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The Calamity Papers
THE YAZOO PILGRIM
Du Pratz said the old mans actual name was Moncacht-apé and that it translated as "Killer of Pain and Fatigue."
The annals of exploration tell us that the first man to cross the North American continent was Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820), a Scotsman from Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides.
In his teens, Mackenzie emigrated to Canada and found work in Montreal as a clerk with the North West Company, an organization of fur traders established to compete with the lordly Hudson's Bay Company. In 1787, Mackenzie's superiors assigned him to the desolate trading post at Fort Capon in the wilds at the head of Lake Athabaska in today's far northeastern Alberta province. There, as the post factor, he traded for beaver and other prized furs among the Indians and listened to their tales of a mighty river that emptied into the Pacific Ocean--a river, Mackenzie dreamed, that could open the fur trade on an unprecedented scale.
In 1789, he took a small exploratory party north to the Great Slave Lake and found what seemed to be a broad and likely stream that flowed westerly from the lake. He and his men provisioned their canoes and followed the uncharted waterway, but it soon swung north, always north, with no westerly drift. They pushed on, and after a journey of 1,120 miles on the river, Mackenzie and his party found themselves paddling among the ice floes of the Beaufort Sea, the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean.
The next year he wintered at a North West Company fort on the Peace River and on May 9, 1793, set out again. With him now were another Scotsman, Alexander Mackay, six French Canadian voyageurs, and two Indians. Their canoes were loaded to the gunwales with a ton and a half of provisions and equipage,among the latter Mackenzie's sextant, a good telescope to find Jupiter's moons and compute longitude, and plenty of ink, pen nibs, and paper to keep a journal and draw maps.
After portaging across the Rockies, Mackenzie and his party struck out afoot for the coast and reached salt water at the northern end of the Strait of Georgia that separates Vancouver Island from the Canadian mainland.
There, using a mixture of grease and vermilion paint, the explorer wrote on a rock, ALEXANDER MACKENZIE, FROM CANADA, BY LAND, THE TWENTY-SECOND OF JULY, 1793.
He returned to Scotland later that year and was knighted for his great journey. His acclaimed book, Voyages from Montreal, on the River St. Lawrence, Through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Ocean, appeared in London in 1801, and among its enthusiastic readers were the American President Thomas Jefferson and his private secretary, Meriwether Lewis. Both studied the book at Monticello on the eve of Lewis's departure to launch another great westward exploration.
The first recorded crossing of the continental United States began on the rainy afternoon of May 14, 1804, at the mouth of the Missouri River, a few miles north of Saint Louis. The co-captains of this epochal enterprise were the Virginians Meriwether Lewis (age thirty, a captain of the First United States Infantry) and William Clark (thirty-four, a lieutenant of artillery and an experienced Indian fighter in Ohio Valley campaigns). At the outset, they commanded fourteen soldiers, nine Kentucky frontiersmen, and two French boatmen.
The Corps of Discovery, as Jefferson named it, had specific orders from the president:
The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal streams of it, as, by its course, and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean ... may offer themost direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce.
The expedition was to undertake scientific work, as well: cartography (the captains had no maps of the terrain beyond the Rocky Mountains), the study and collection of flora and fauna and geologic formations, and observations of the native people the explorers encountered.
Among its scientific instruments, quite sophisticated for the era, the expedition took along a brass sextant; quadrants for measuring land feature altitudes; three Artificial Horizons that used water and glass as a reflecting surface to determine the altitude of the moon and stars; an English-made chronometer for longitudinal measurements; a device called a circumferentor to take the magnetic azimuth of the sun and polestar; pocket and surveying compasses; a two-pole chain for gauging distances up to thirty-three feet; and a log-line reel to measure rate and distance of boat travel.
On September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery returned to Saint Louis, completing its twenty-eight-month, eight-thousand-mile journey with stunning success (and with the loss of but a single man, whose death was unpreventable)--the most monumental exploration in American history. Lewis hurried a letter east to Jefferson:
In obedience to your orders we have penitrated the Continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean, and sufficiently explored the interior of the country to affirm with confidence that we have discovered the most practical rout which dose exist across the continent.
Mackenzie, Lewis and Clark: the first to cross the continent north of Mexico? Or were they preceded, by over a century, by an American--a native American--Marco Polo, a figure almost, but not quite, lost to history?
The story of this original overlander is exasperatingly blurry because he traveled alone, wrote no journal, drew no maps, and had no instruments with which to measure the coordinates of his progress. Few historians have given his story much credence, but there is significant evidence that he not only reached the Oregon coast by pirogue, canoe, and on foot, but possibly the Atlantic coast, as well.
We would not know of him at all were it not for a French savant who believed his story and wrote it down.
The Frenchman had the euphonious name of Antoine Simon LePage du Pratz, and he was a Hollander by birth whose family must have emigrated to France when Antoine was a child. He was well educated, affluent, and is said to have served in a French dragoon regiment in the War of the Spanish Succession and as a military engineer. Little else is known of his history, and only because he wrote a valuable book is he remembered.
In the spring of 1718, at age twenty-three, du Pratz sailed from La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay bound for New France. His ship reached Dauphin Island off the Louisiana coast that August, and he spent four months there before venturing to the mainland. His mission and duties in Louisiana are not known, not even if he came there in a military party sent as a garrison reinforcement, or as a civilian using his own funds.
His advent in New France did come at a propitious time: Only twenty years had passed since the Mississippi Valley had been claimed by the fur trader-explorer René-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, and christened in the name of King Louis XIV. And 1718 was the year of the founding of New Orleans by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, who named it after the Duc d'Orleans, regent of the child king Louis XV.
Du Pratz seems to have unlimited time on his hands and spent it traveling between the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and the eastern seaboard of the continent, venturing as far north as thecoast of the British Carolinas, and pursuing studies of the "aboriginals" of the Mississippi Delta country.
Whether sent to New France as a soldier-scholar specifically to undertake this ethnological work, or as a wealthy civilian traveler with a scientific bent, du Pratz spent eight of his sixteen years in Louisiana living among the Natchez people "and their several nations" along the big river. In 1720, he bought from the Indians four hundred acres of land and a cabin located near a newly constructed French fort and the main Natchez Indian village. From this headquarters he began befriending the Natchez people, who he said "make good use of their reason, who think justly, who are prudent, faithful, generous, much more than certain civilized nations." He spent months learning their languages, customs, and rituals; talking with tribal elders; and learning also from a Natchez slave girl he acquired.
Du Pratz developed certain theories on the origin of America's natives--he was certain they were of oriental stock in the dim past--and in his studies among the natives encountered a persistent tradition that said they "came from between the north and the sun-setting." He asked to meet the wisest man of the tribe to talk about this and thus came to meet an old man of the Yazoo people, some forty leagues north of the Natchez village in which he was conducting his studies.
The elder was called L'Interprète by the French, who were at once mystified and awed by his grasp of many native languages far removed from his homeland. Du Pratz said the old man's actual name was Moncacht-apé and that it translated as "Killer of Pain and Fatigue."
At the time du Pratz spoke to him over the course of several days, Moncacht-apé's people, a small clan, were living on the lower course of the Yazoo River, a two-hundred-mile waterway in west-central Mississippi. It seems likely that the two men met before 1729, since after that year, the Yazoo and their Natchezbrethren were scattered to the four winds, and after 1730 there were few Yazoos left to talk to.
Although there were French missions among the Natchez and neighboring tribes dating from 1699, the Yazoos, like the Chickasaws, were more influenced by British traders from the Carolinas and were no friends of the French. In 1729, the Yazoos had joined the Natchez in an attack on French settlements in their tribal lands, killing several hundred Frenchmen, including two Jesuit priests, and carrying off a great number of women and children. French troops pursued them and mounted a scorched-earth campaign in retribution, burning the Natchez villages and dispersing the Indians, capturing many and selling them into slavery in the West Indies. By 1843, the Natchez--and Yazoos--were said to be "culturally extinct."
Du Pratz makes no mention of reverting to his dragoon commission and joining in the Natchez War, but he was there, living among the Natchez tribes before the war and presumably continued his work afterward--although his Indian informants had dwindled to a handful.
Of all the elders he met in his ethnological studies, Moncacht-apé of the Yazoos proved the most fruitful. The old man had a long and astonishing story to tell of a journey across the continent.
The "ancient aboriginal," as du Pratz called him, told of having lost his wife and children in some unspecified circumstance that the interviewer did not pursue, after which, he said, "I undertook my journey towards the sun-rising." He departed his village to travel first to the Chickasaw nation, probably in northern Mississippi, then moved on to the Wabash (Ohio) River to its source, which he said (or at least du Pratz interpreted), "is in the country of the Iroquois or Five Nations." Moncacht-apé told of being guided by Indian friends to the "Great Water" (the Atlantic Ocean), which "filled me with such joy and admiration thatI could not speak." The ebb and flow of the tides, he said, "filled me with great apprehension; but my companion quieted my fears ... assuring me that the water observed certain bounds both in advancing and retiring."
After spending the winter with a people he called the Abena-quis, he viewed the "great fall of the river St. Laurence at Niagara," which he said "made my hair stand on end, and my heart almost leap out of its place."
Soon after witnessing this terrifying spectacle, he and a companion "took the shortest road to the Ohio," cut down a tree, and "formed it into a pettiaugre [pirogue--a dugout canoe] which served to conduct me down the Ohio and the Mississippi, after which, with much difficulty, I went up our small river; and at length arrived safe among my relations, who were rejoiced to see me in good health."
Moncacht-apé said, "This journey, instead of satisfying, only served to excite my curiosity." He told du Pratz that Yazoo tribal elders had for years talked of their forebears having come from much farther north than the Missouri River and, he said, "as I had longed to see, with my own eyes, the land from whence our first fathers came, I took my precautions for my journey westwards."
He packed some corn and other simple provisions and started out afoot up the eastern bank of the Mississippi to its confluence with the Ohio (at about present-day Cairo, Illinois), followed the Ohio and crossed it in "a raft of canes," and proceeded northward. He killed a buffalo "and took from it the fillets, the bunch [hump], and the tongue," and visited among a village of Illinois Indians he called the Tamaroas. At some point on the Illinois shore, he contrived to cross the Mississippi and proceeded north to the mouth of the Missouri, following its northern bank into "the nation of the Missouri tribe," where he "staid a long time to learn the language."
"In going along the Missouri," he said, "I passed throughmeadows a whole day's journey in length, which were quite covered with buffaloes."
After wintering with the Missouri people, Moncacht-apé told of ascending the river in a pirogue, stopping frequently to visit Indian villages, learning languages and smatterings of information on regions beyond. He told of spending some time with "the Nation of the West, or the Canzas," and learned that if he proceeded on the river for one moon, he would reach certain high mountains "that were beset with dangers." There he would turn north and after several days would come to another river that flowed toward the west and into the Western Ocean.
The Yazoo said he ascended the Missouri for a month, "and although I had gone so far I did not turn to the right [north] as they [the Kanza tribe] had directed me, because for some days past I had seen many mountains which I dare not cross for fear of blistering my feet."
After ascending the river, he said he fell in with a hunting party of a tribe he called the Otters and accompanied thirty of these buffalo hunters, by canoe and overland march, for seventeen days. Then they arrived on the banks of "a river of beautiful clear water, called for this reason the Beautiful River." He said he feared bathing in the river and from his experience in Mississippi swamplands warned the others of the crocodiles that might inhabit it. He was informed that no such monsters infested these waters, and thus assured he was able to bathe with the rest of the tribe.
The Beautiful River, which du Pratz figured flowed at about latitude forty-five degrees north, took the Yazoo and his buffalo hunter companions to the Otter village where Moncacht-apé "was received with much kindness." After reaching the village, he accompanied an Otter delegation "who were going to carry a calumet [pipe] of peace to a nation beyond them." He and the Otters journeyed on the river in a dugout, landing now and then to reprovision, and after eighteen days reached the village. Moncacht-apé spent the winter with these unnamed people andlearned their dialect. He was told that with this tongue "I should be able to understand all the nations which I would find, even to the Great Water which is to the west."
His hosts filled a canoe with pemmican, and he resumed his westward river journey, during the course of which, he said, "I met with several nations with whom I generally staid but one night." Among these was a village where the people wore their hair long and who regarded all "short hairs" as slaves.
The chief of this village accosted Moncacht-apé and asked "Who are you? Whence do you come? What seek you here with your short hair?" The Yazoo said he came from the land of the Otters though he was not one of them, seeking information, and that his heart was good, that he asked for no food, only information. "I have still far to go; my right arm and my bow are always equal to my necessities," he told the chief.
The chief and the chief's father, whose name du Pratz translated as "Big Roebuck" (probably "Big Elk" or "Great Elk" since a roebuck, a male roe deer, was an Old World animal unknown in America), took him into their tent and kept him there two days, telling him how to conduct himself among the other tribes he would encounter. When he was permitted to proceed, they gave him food and some meal "prepared from a small grain." He was advised that to be well received by all the nations thence to the Great Water he had but to say that Big Roebuck was his friend. The Yazoo testified that this proved true.
One day's journey from "the Great Water on the West" and about a league distant from the Beautiful River, Moncacht-apé encountered a tribe living in the forests in apprehension of "bearded men who come upon their coasts in floating villages, and carry off their children to make slaves of them."
The invaders were described to the Yazoo as white men, thick and short in stature with large heads covered with cloth and with long black beards that came down to their breasts. He was told, "They were always thus dressed, even in the greatestheats," and "their cloaths fell down to the middle of their legs, which with their feet were covered with red or yellow stuff. Their arms made a great fire and a great noise; and when they saw themselves outnumbered by Red Men, they retired on board their large pettiaugre, the number [of men] sometimes amounting to thirty, but never more."
In a mystifying detail that du Pratz unfortunately did not pursue, Moncacht-apé reported that the coastal tribesmen said the strangers came from the sun-setting "in search of a yellow stinking wood which dyes a fine yellow colour." He said the coastal people he was visiting "had destroyed all those kind of trees" to deter the white barbarians from "visiting them," but that two other "nations" in the area could not destroy the trees since they had no other wood. The bearded men had invaded these tribes and so "greatly incommoded" them the Indians laid plans to ambush the outlanders the next time they came ashore.
Moncacht-apé said he was curious about these bearded white interlopers who were apparently neither English, French, nor Spanish, and the following summer joined in an expedition the Pacific tribes were mounting against them.
When the time of the invaders' arrival approached, the Indians' families were sent inland so that their young women would not be captured. After this precaution, the men left their camp near the Beautiful River and journeyed five days along the coast of the Great Water to a point where two great rocks stood, from which a shallow stream issued into the sea. Near this shore, the Indians told Moncacht-apé, the yellow wood was found, and it was here the interlopers always ran their boats ashore.
"The Red men, by my advice, placed themselves in ambuscade to surprize the strangers," the Yazoo said, and after all preparations were made, the Indians waited seventeen days before spying a familiar boat heading for the beach, and four more days until the invaders were well scattered, gathering wood and water. Then the tribesmen launched their attack, killingeleven of the "strangers." During the fight, Moncacht-apé said, "An unknown number of them immediately escaped on board two large pettiaugres, and flew westward upon the Great Water."
The Yazoo studied the corpses closely and reported:
Upon examining those whom we had killed, we found them much smaller than ourselves, and very white; they had a large head, and in the middle of the crown the hair was very long; their head was wrapt in a great many folds of stuff, and their cloaths seemed to be made neither of wool nor silk; they were very soft, and of different colors.
He said their bodies were short and thick and that instead of hats they wore cloth wound round the head and that their feet and legs were covered with long moccasins. Two of the dead carried firearms--powder and ball. "I tried their pieces and found that they were much heavier than yours," he told du Pratz, "and did not kill at so great a distance."
Soon after this adventure, he resumed his journey, traveling along the shore of the Great Water, visiting many villages on the north. Then, "on account of the severity of the climate, and the want of game," he said he returned
by the same route by which I had set out; and reducing my whole travels westward to days' journeys, I compute that they would have employed me thirty-six moons; but on account of my frequent delays, it was five years before I returned to my relations among the Yazous.
M. Antoine Simon LePage du Pratz left no record of his reaction to the baffling but extraordinary story Moncacht-apé told, but he presumably wrote it down faithfully and had no doubt ofits veracity. In 1758, twenty-four years after he returned to France, he published the account in his three-volume work, Histoire de la Louisiane, which became available to the English-reading world in 1763 with the English translation, published with the cumbersome title, The History of Louisiana, or of The Western Parts of Virginia and Carolina: Containing a Description of the Countries that lie on both Sides of the River Mississippi: With an Account of the Settlements, Inhabitants, Soil, Climate, and Products.
One hundred and thirty years after du Pratz's book appeared, the prolific American historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, in preparing his massive History of the Northwest Coast, adopted and defended the Yazoo's story and thus opened his chapters on the first overland expedition to the Pacific:
The first exploring expedition across the Rocky Mountains, and thence to the Pacific Ocean, was neither that of Alexander Mackenzie nor yet that of Lewis and Clark. It was not performed by an armed band under the auspices of a powerful corporation or by army officers guarded by a posse of soldiers. We are not indebted to European intelligence or progress for the first account of the Oregon country. Prompted by curiosity, the stimulant underlying all advancement, a native of the Mississippi Valley, unassisted and unattended, found the path which Jefferson's captains sixty years later, with all their government aid, encountered such laborious difficulty in following; for brains work under red skins as well as under white.
Bancroft found Moncacht-apé "remarkable for his solid understanding and elevation of sentiments," and said, "I may justly compare him to those first Greeks, who traveled chiefly into the east to examine the manners and customs of different nations, and to communicate to their fellow-citizens upon their return, the knowledge which they had acquired."
Comparing the Indian to Plato for his love of the sciencesand to Herodotus for his "thirst for the enlightenments of travel," the historian said,
It is a mistake to give civilization all the brain-power of the planet. Not less than Europe, America had her arts, her letters, her eloquence and diplomacy; not less than the university, the forest has its lofty contemplations, its hungerings after higher intelligence, its battlings with black ignorance and mental obscurations.
Bancroft seriously weighed the Yazoo's narrative, necessarily vague as it was, and found it completely credible:
The mountains, the river, and the sea are there today as Moncacht-apé described them, and let it be remembered, no other person, white or red, so far as known, had ever before performed this journey between the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean by way of the Columbia River.
As to such matters as the long-haired chief Big Roebuck telling the Yazoo that the Missouri and the "Beautiful River" flowed parallel to each other for some distance, Bancroft says, "this was in error--as was the direction given to the Columbia and the general course of the Columbia to the Great Water--the Pacific ... we can readily excuse slight discrepancies as to direction by one without charts or compass, and the first to traverse this region and return to tell of it."
Du Pratz guessed that the black-bearded white intruders whose dead bodies Moncacht-apé had examined ("like a scientist," Bancroft wrote) were Japanese or Koreans. This fulfilled his pet theory on the Asiatic origin of American aboriginals. From the Yazoo's description of their color, dress, weapons, and the direction of their arrival on the Oregon coast, Bancroft thought the evidence "may point toward Kamchatka, or Japan."
Since it seems likely that Moncacht-apé would have been able to distinguish between "white men" and Asiatics--who may have appeared more Indian than "white"--it is likelier that the intruders were Russians. Bancroft asserts that at the time of the Yazoo's arrival on the Pacific, no Russians were known to have penetrated the coast below 50 degrees north latitude. But small hunting parties may have crossed the ocean from Kamchatka, the pendulum-like peninsula on the Russian edge of the Bering Sea, the southern tip of which lies at about 50 degrees north. Paddling and sailing their "floating villages," probably a flotilla of small boats, the Russians may have used the Aleutian Islands as stepping stones to the North American continent. (Moncacht-apé stated that the raiders wore long moccasins that covered their legs and feet, and Bancroft states these may have been Aleut Indian in origin.) It is possible that the Russians thus came to the shores of Vancouver Island from Kamchatka and the Aleutians and forayed south along the Oregon coast. The British fur trader John Meares came upon a Russian trapper's camp at Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands in 1786, and his description of these men and the boats that carried them from Kamchatka bears a striking resemblance to Moncacht-apé's account.
The mystery of the "yellow stinking wood which dyes a fine yellow colour" has never been solved. Something was lost in translation--the tongue of the coastal tribe to Moncacht-apé's Yazoo, the Yazoo to du Pratz's French, the French to English.
(Another apparent mistranslation was encountered by the Lewis and Clark expedition, which carried a copy of a 1774 English edition of du Pratz's History of Louisiana--as well as Mackenzie's Voyages from Montreal--to the Pacific. In July 1804, at an abandoned Kanza Indian village, William Clark found no cane growing in the vicinity as du Pratz had claimed was used by natives, including Moncacht-apé, to construct rafts to cross the river. Gary Moulton, a modern editor of the Lewis and Clark journals, explains: " ... the 'canes' do not appear inthe original [of du Pratz's book], which states that the Indians crossed the river in cajeaux ['rafts'] made of unstated materials.")
Du Pratz spent an unspecified time with Moncacht-apé gleaning the story of the Yazoo's epic journeys, but when these interviews took place is among the many mysteries of the remarkable story.
He arrived in Louisiana in 1718, and a modern scholar states that he returned to France in 1734 and published his three-volume work containing the Moncacht-apé account in 1758. It appears that the Yazoo told his story to the Frenchman at some point in the sixteen-year period between 1718 and 1734, very likely before 1729, the year the Yazoo and Natchez people were dispersed. And if the Indian was an "ancient aboriginal" when du Pratz first met him, Moncacht-apé's journeys might have occurred in the last quarter of the seventeenth century--perhaps as early as the 1660s.
Also, if Moncacht-apé was an ancient aboriginal when the Frenchman interviewed him, it is not possible, as Bancroft asserts, that the transcontinental journey was made between 1730 and 1745. Du Pratz probably met him between 1720 and 1729, and by 1734--at least according to the best evidence--du Pratz had returned to France.
Whatever the precise timing of the Yazoo's journey, he long preceded Mackenzie and Lewis and Clark and has the distinction of being the first, and only, identified and recorded pre-nineteenth-century Native American to have crossed the continent to the Pacific.
Details of du Pratz's career after he returned home are unknown except that he lived long enough--twenty--four years--to prepare his journals and notebooks of his long sojourn in Louisiana and presumably to see them in print.
Nor do we know what became of Moncacht-apé. We do know that in return for his services in telling of his great odyssey, du Pratz, whose generosity knew definite bounds, gave the Yazoo pilgrim "a present of several wares of no great value, among which was a concave mirror about two inches and a half diameter, which had cost me about three halfpence." The magnanimous Frenchman said the poor Yazoo elder "was wonderfully delighted with it, and would not have exchanged it with the best mirror in France."
Forty years ago, the Western novelist and historian Vardis Fisher published a book on an American mystery that has baffled historians for nearly two centuries. The title, Suicide or Murder? The Strange Death of Meriwether Lewis, seemed to sum up the entire issue: How did the explorer Meriwether Lewis--the Lewis of Lewis and Clark--die in backwoods Tennessee in the late night or early morning hours of October 10 or 11, 1809? That he died violently is certain, but did he take his own life or was it taken from him?
How he died, however, is not the only issue.
There is the matter of why.
This we know.
Meriwether Lewis, born near Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1774, was a veteran of the First Infantry in campaigns under Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne in the Ohio Valley and had served as Jefferson's private secretary. He was well educated, precise,and dependable. He was also skittish, given to bursts of nervous energy, as well as to periods of illness and lassitude. He was ambitious, and so self-possessed and "serious" in demeanor, he was thought to be melancholic. Like his mentor in the White House, he had a scientific bent and on the expedition served as medical officer, botanist, zoologist, and primary journal keeper.
We know, too, from dependable accounts and Lewis's own words, that he changed radically after the great cross-continent exploration ended in the fall of 1806. Introspective by nature, he became solitary, his temperament more mercurial, his outlook more fatalistic. He seemed consumed with what he believed to be failing health and dosed himself with pills and elixirs, including laudanum, an addictive opiate in liquid form, and his quick mind appeared to have succumbed to a strange inertia, as if he dreaded to act for fear of failure. Jefferson appointed him governor of Upper Louisiana Territory in February 1807, but Lewis tarried for a full year in Washington, Philadelphia, and Virginia before taking up the post. He fell ill with "a raging fever," scouted for a publisher for the massive journals of the Corps of Discovery, hired naturalists, artists, and engravers to illustrate the work, and a mathematician to check his calculations, but could not write a line of supporting material. Instead, he sat for portraits, including at least three by the celebrated French profilist Charles Févret de Saint-Mémin. Lewis attended meetings of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia and fell in and out of love--at least twice, once experiencing the rejection of his proposal of marriage. He spent time with his mother at Locust Hill. He began drinking heavily--the "habit into which he had fallen" about which Jefferson later referred. And, in August 1807, by some accounts, he traveled to Richmond as Jefferson's representative at Aaron Burr's treason trial.
At some point in all this miscellaneous activity, Lewis had a falling out with his mentor when Jefferson scolded him for his failure to write the narrative for the expedition journals. Thepresident was probably also impatient for Lewis to move on west to assume his governorship.
The explorer turned more and more to the anodyne of alcohol while fretting about his future: his chronic ill health, the loneliness of bachelorhood, the loss of the friendship, counsel, and patronage of his idol. On the eve of his departure to the Mississippi, Lewis wrote his Philadelphia lawyer and friend Mahlon Dickerson, "I never felt less like a heroe than at the present moment ... you see already ... the changes which have taken place in my disposition."
In March 1808, in this state of health and mind and after being governor in absentia for one year and eight days, Lewis reached Saint Louis to take up his administrative post.
His professional and personal affairs continued to decline in his eighteen months in office.
Even before he arrived in the steamy seat of governance, he fell afoul of the territorial secretary who was serving as acting governor pending Lewis's arrival. This man, Frederick Bates, a Virginia lawyer who also received his appointment from Jefferson, was a capable administrator but also a magniloquent, pettifogging, hatefully jealous bureaucrat who coveted the governorship.1 After hearing the news of Lewis's death in Tennessee, Bates would insist that the explorer had been drunken and "insane" from the outset of his administration, charges the secretary had not made in his voluminous, often viciously anti-Lewis, personal correspondence before Lewis's death.
Added to the Bates distraction, Lewis lost money in land speculations in Saint Louis and also became embroiled in a dispute with the War and Treasury departments in Washington. The governor's grievance was based on the refusal of the federal government to honor the vouchers (one for a paltry nineteen dollars) he submitted for payments made, out of his annual two-thousand-dollar stipend, for official territorial business.
These disputed vouchers became the ostensible motive for his plan to return to Washington in the fall of 1809. Another purpose was to move publication of the expedition journals off dead center, a source of contention between Lewis and the now former president for at least two years. Less than a month before he began his trip East, the explorer received a letter from Monticello in which Jefferson repeated his anxiety over the journals. "I have so long promised copies to my literary correspondents in France, that I am almost bankrupt in their eyes. I shall be very happy to receive from yourself information of your expectations on this subject. Everybody is impatient for it."
On September 4, Lewis departed Saint Louis by flatboat, accompanied by his servant John Pernier (or Pernia, who had been one of Jefferson's servants in Washington and was variously described as a Creole, Frenchman, Spaniard, and a "free mulatto") and four large trunks. These contained saddles and tack, weapons, clothing, personal belongings and papers, including his disputed expense accounts and sixteen notebooks bound in red morocco comprising the journals of the Corps of Discovery.
At New Madrid, two hundred miles below Saint Louis, Lewis had to be taken ashore to see a doctor, reportedly because of a flare-up of his intermittent fever. On September 11, during his time in the town, he wrote his last will and testament, leaving his estate to his mother, Lucy Marks. Crewmen carried him ashore again at Chickasaw Bluffs (on the site of present-day Memphis) on a muggy September 15, still quite ill and dosing himself with laudanum and "tartar"--tartar emetic, a compound used to induce sweating and vomiting.
At Fort Pickering, the town's military post to which Lewis had been assigned in 1797, he came under the care of the commander of the fort, Capt. Gilbert Russell. This officer wrote to Jefferson on January 31, 1810, three months after Lewis's death, of the governor's "intemperance" before and after his arrival "and the possibility that the free use of alcohol contributed to his suicide."
The former president, now sixty-six years old and retired to his hilltop villa overlooking Charlottesville, wrote to Russell that Lewis's death "was an act of desperation" and went on to say that Lewis "was much afflicted & habitually so with hypochondria."
Two years later, Russell wrote an account of Lewis's stay at Fort Pickering, saying the explorer was "in a state of mental derangement" and that the river boatmen who brought him to Chickasaw Bluffs said Lewis had "made two attempts to kill himself, in one of which he nearly succeeded" during the voyage. (Since Russell did not mention wounds, investigators have speculated that Lewis may have tried to jump overboard in his delirium.) The governor, Russell went on, had to be kept under close watch since he "had made several attempts to put an end to his existence" but that after six or seven days "all signs of derangement disappeared and he was completely in his senses."
E. G. Chuinard, a physician-writer who studied medical aspects of the Lewis and Clark expedition, has suggested that Lewis's recurrent bouts with malaria must be taken into account as a source for his "derangement." Chuinard stated that Lewis's "indispositions" and "violent agues"2 may have been malarial in nature and that the ten days he spent at Fort Pickering was "the usual time for patients with estivo [summer] malaria attacks to recover."
(The fear of malaria and the belief that it would be theprevalent affliction on the journey to the Pacific accounts for the fact that one-third of the cost of the expedition's medical supplies was for "Peruvian bark," to be boiled into a medicinal tea. The main ingredient of the bark was quinine.)
During his eight days of recuperation at Fort Pickering, Lewis's mental state did not prevent him from writing a shaky but lucid letter to President James Madison explaining why he had decided to travel overland to Washington and not via New Orleans as he had originally planned. He said he felt the overland route would be less taxing on his "indisposition" in the heat of the climate and that he feared the possibility of his "original papers relative to my voyage to the Pacific falling into the hands of the British." (The British were not in or even close to New Orleans at this time, but Lewis may have depended upon erroneous information.)
Captain Russell lent the explorer $100 in gold and two horses with saddles, the total loan of $379.58 secured by a promissory note signed by both men. Then, on September 29, after leaving two of his four trunks under Russell's care, Lewis departed the fort and rode east toward the Tennessee River and after a two-day rest by the river, proceeded on and struck the Natchez Trace.
What we know of the eleven days remaining in the life of Meriwether Lewis derives from a muddle of contradictory after-the-fact testimony, all of it from dubious sources: an obscure Indian agent; a mysterious servant; and the terrified, probably illiterate wife of a wilderness innkeeper who told her story at least three times, each time differently.
As to the explorer's conduct on the trail into the Natchez Trace of Tennessee, the only "evidence" is that provided by John Neelly, agent for the Chickasaw Indians of the region. Of this elusive figure we know little except that he was a former militiaman commissioned as agent less than three months before he met Governor Lewis at Fort Pickering, that he was intensely disliked byCaptain Russell, and that he would be dismissed from his post by the secretary of war in July 1812, for "hostility to the Indians."
Neelly had arrived at Fort Pickering from the Chickasaw Agency in Mississippi, 150 miles to the southeast, only three days before Lewis arrived and apparently volunteered to accompany Lewis back toward Nashville. It was Neelly alone who in a letter to Jefferson, attested that Lewis appeared "deranged of mind" on the trail, and it was Neelly who first reported the secondhand account of the governor's death "by suicide."
Lewis and his little entourage--his servant Pernier, Neelly and his slave (whose name is not recorded), a few Chickasaw Indians, and a remuda of pack horses--departed Fort Pickering on September 29, crossed the Tennessee River on October 8, and made camp. On the morning of October 10, Neelly said, he discovered that two of the pack animals had slipped away during the night. He stayed behind to find them while the restless and anxious Lewis, with Pernier and Neelly's black man accompanying him, proceeded toward the Natchez Trace, about a day's ride to the north.
The Trace, an old path running north out of Natchez 550 miles through the valley of Tennessee to Nashville, had a history as a haven for "land pirates"--highwaymen and bushwhackers lurking in the brush waiting to assail unwary travelers--but the Lewis party rode into it unmolested, and on the evening of October 10 reached Grinder's Stand. This place, one of several "stands," wilderness hostelries, along the Natchez Trace, was situated in a clearing in a grove of old oak and persimmon trees and consisted of two rough-hewn log cabins separated by a narrow dog run.
Meeting the travelers at the breezeway between the cabins was Priscilla Grinder, wife of Robert Grinder, owner of the property. Lewis, wearing a white-and-blue-striped linen duster, did not identify himself as governor of Upper Louisiana, only requested lodging, telling Mrs. Grinder that he had been eleven days on the trail and was en route to Nashville.
She offered Lewis the vacant cabin and a warm meal. Pernier and Neelly's slave brought his trunks forward and then took the animals to a nearby barn, where they were instructed to remain for the night. Mrs. Grinder's servant girl took food to the barn for the two men while Lewis ate sparingly of the meal prepared for him, then threw a bearskin on the puncheon floor of the cabin, wrapped himself in a buffalo robe, and retired for the night.
Now it was twilight, October 10, 1809, and within a few hours, Meriwether Lewis would be dead.
Just as we are forced to depend upon James Neelly's testimony on Lewis's journey from Fort Pickering to the Natchez Trace, so are we at the mercy of a single witness to the last hours of Lewis's life: Priscilla Knight Grinder (or perhaps Griner--the record is unclear), who with her husband Robert came to Tennessee in the recent past from Stokes County, North Carolina.
She told her story to Neelly, to the ornithologist Alexander Wilson in 1811, and to a schoolteacher in 1838. Although her accounts varied maddeningly with each telling, these are the essentials of what she reported.
At sunset on October 10, when Lewis and the two other men rode into the stand, Mrs. Grinder's husband was away, working at their farm on the Duck River, ten miles north, leaving Priscilla to mind the cabins with two of their youngest children and a black servant girl named Malinda, about twelve years old.
After he made arrangements with her, Mrs. Grinder said Lewis took his saddle into the cabin, then asked for spirits but drank little. When Pernier came up with Neelly's black man, Lewis made a remark to them about his "powder," apparently signifying that the pistols he carried were unloaded and that he did not carry his own powder horn.
He paced nervously, she recalled, and spoke loudly, his face flushed. He ate little of the food she prepared for him, lit hispipe, drew up a chair in the dog run, and said in a kindly way to his hostess, "Madam, this is a very pleasant evening." Later, after refilling his pipe, he looked out toward the dying light in the west and said, "What a sweet evening it is."
Before he retired, she said she heard Lewis striding back and forth in the path between the cabins, talking to himself "like a lawyer."
A bit later three men rode into the stand to ask for lodging but rode on after being threatened by Lewis, who stood by his cabin brandishing a brace of pistols.
At about three o'clock in the morning of October 11, Mrs. Grinder heard gunshots and a few minutes later heard Lewis at her door saying "O madam! Give me some water and heal my wounds!" (In another account she said that after the first gunshot she heard something fall heavily to the floor of the cabin, heard the words "Oh, Lord!" then heard a second shot.)
She peered through the cracks between the logs of her kitchen and saw a man stagger and fall against a stump, crawl some distance away, and raise himself against a tree.
She was terrified, alone in the pitch-black night, and would not open her door.
She later heard the scraping of a gourd dipper in a water bucket.
She waited about two hours, then, at dawn, sent her children to the barn to fetch the two men who slept there.
Pernier found Lewis, still conscious, lying on his blood-soaked bearskin, a piece of his forehead blown away and his brain exposed, another gaping wound in his chest, and (this from a later recounting) cuts on his body seemingly made with a razor.
The explorer died about two hours later and was buried on the property, his coffin cobbled together from oak boards joined with wooden pegs. In 1811, the Scottish-born ornithologist Alexander Wilson, the first person after Neelly to speak to the Grinders about the tragedy, was shown the grave and asked Robert Grinder to fence the area to keep hogs and wolves fromforaging in it. Wilson said he obtained a written promise from Grinder that the fence would be erected.
In 1838, after her husband's death, Priscilla Grinder, now in her sixties, spoke again of the incident, this time to a schoolteacher who came to visit the Lewis grave site. Mrs. Grinder's story now contained some baffling new details. She told the teacher that when she saw Lewis at sunrise, the dying man had exchanged clothes with Pernier, that Pernier said the governor had given his clothes to him, and that the servant also had Lewis's gold watch. Mrs. Grinder also recalled that as Lewis lay on his bloody bearskin he said, "Oh, how hard it is to die. I am so strong."
James Neelly rode into Grinder's Stand during the forenoon of October 11, leading one of the two strayed horses. While he left no record of what he found as he rode up to the cabins, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on October 18, he wrote, "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." He related to Jefferson Mrs. Grinder's account of the tragedy and added that Lewis appeared "deranged in mind" on the trail and that "He had shot himself in the head with one pistol & a little below the Breast with the other." He made no mention of razor wounds. Neelly said that he had possession of the governor's two trunks of papers, rifle, silver watch, brace of flintlock pistols, dirk, and tomahawk. He asked Jefferson for instructions on forwarding the trunks as well as the others left at Fort Pickering.
It appears that William Clark later collected the trunks from Neelly in Nashville and those left in Gilbert Russell's care. The hundred dollars in gold Captain Russell had lent the explorer was never found, and the dirk and pistols also subsequently disappeared. Nor was any solution found to the question of the twowatches--the gold one Pernier said Lewis gave him, and the silver one Neelly found in the governor's belongings.
Neelly gave John Pernier fifteen dollars for expenses, and the servant, taking Lewis's packhorse with him, traveled on to Virginia and talked to Jefferson, his old employer, at Monticello on November 26. Thereafter Pernier paid a visit to Lewis's family near Charlottesville, where he attempted to collect $240 in back wages he said were owed him. The result of this visit was to convince Lucy Marks, Lewis's mother, that Pernier had murdered her son.
Six months after his return to Washington, John Pernier apparently killed himself. When Priscilla Grinder told her reconstituted story to the anonymous schoolteacher in 1838, she said she had heard that Pernier, after being rebuffed by Lewis's mother, "finally cut his own throat, and thus put an end to his existence." But a May 5, 1810, letter to Jefferson from John Christopher Sueverman, also a former presidential servant, reported that "Mr. Pirny" (Pernier), who Sueverman described as "wretchedly destitute," had died of an overdose of laudanum and was "buried neat and decent the next day."
The news of Lewis's death first appeared in print in the Nashville Clarion ten days after the event, the story containing the essentials of what Priscilla Grinder told John Neelly. A similar account appeared in the Washington National Intelligencer on November 15.
In 1893, the army surgeon and naturalist Elliott Coues, a New Hampshireman who retraced much of the Corps of Discovery route and visited the site of Lewis's death, published in four volumes his vastly annotated A History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark. In this work, Coues stated that the ornithologist Alexander Wilson was a precise and dependable man of science. "There is no more reason to doubt Wilson's painstaking correctness than there is reason to doubthis veracity," he wrote. But, he added, Mrs. Grinder's testimony "is not to be believed under oath" and said of her account of Lewis's death, "there is every sign that it is a concoction on the part of an accomplice in crime, either before or after the event."
Coues was the first writer of eminence to call into question Priscilla Grinder's entire story, in particular her odd behavior after hearing the pistol shots, seeing her guest staggering about the yard begging for water, then waiting until sunrise to notify the servants in the barn of what she heard and saw. "Governor Lewis may have committed the deed ... in a fit of suicidal mania," Coues wrote,
and the woman's incoherent story may not have been intended to deceive, but may have arisen from confused memories of an exciting night. That is conceivable; but my contention is that the testimony, as we have it, does not suffice to prove suicide, and does raise a strong suspicion that Governor Lewis was foully dealt with by some person or persons unknown--presumably [Robert] Grinder, or him and some accomplices.
He stated unequivocally his belief that "Mrs. Grinder was privy to a plot to murder Governor Lewis, and therefore had her own part to play in the tragedy, even if that part was a passive one."
Murder or suicide?
The late Stephen Ambrose held to the conviction that Lewis was a suicide and cited as the most convincing evidence that "Neither Jefferson nor Clark ever doubted that Lewis killed himself." The author of Undaunted Courage stated that if William Clark had any suspicion of murder, he would have gone to Tennessee to personally investigate the matter and that if Jefferson had any such a suspicion, he would have insisted the government launch an investigation. "There is simply no question whatsoeverabout how he died," Ambrose told USA Today in October 1995. "Let him rest."
But, of course, neither Ambrose nor any other investigator can slam the door on any matter so historically important as this and there is a question, two in fact, for this nagging, unsettling mystery: If murder, who? If suicide, why?
Writers such as Elliott Coues in 1893, Olin D. Wheeler (On the Trail of Lewis and Clark, 1926), John Bakeless (Lewis and Clark: Partners in Discovery, 1947), Vardis Fisher (Murder or Suicide?, 1962), Donald Jackson (Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1962), and Richard Dillon (Meriwether Lewis: a Biography, 1965), all lean toward the murder theory. They ask if a veteran soldier and frontiersman would fail twice to kill himself with his weapons. Could he have held one of the long-barreled flintlock pistols in such a manner that the ball would penetrate his breast and exit low in his back? Could he could have blown off part of his skull, exposing his brain, then shoot himself through the chest, or vice versa, and still manage to stagger to Priscilla Grinder's door begging for water?3 And would a man bent on suicide, after botching the job with guns and perhaps a razor, beg for water and for someone to "heal my wounds"?
Inevitably, the suicide doubters point to Mrs. Grinder, her ever-embroidered stories serving as the only real eyewitness account of Lewis's death, and her peculiar timidity. Here was a frontier woman, her critics say, toughened by her life in the wilderness, in a place inhabited by outlaws and thugs, who was so terrified by a gentleman guest's pacing and talking to himself that she could not sleep and would not unbar her door to the dyingman begging for water and succor. Here was a woman married to a man who sold "high wine" and whiskey to the Indians, a probable crony of the land pirates of the Natchez Trace, who was mysteriously missing on that bloody night and morning of October 9 and 10.
In one of her recollections, Mrs. Grinder spoke of three men who rode into the stand but rode out again after being threatened by Lewis. She said the men were only seeking lodging, but were they drawn to the cabins by another motive? Had they followed Lewis there, seen that he was a man of means accompanied only by a servant and a black slave? Or did they reach these conclusions after he chased them off, and returned later to kill him and steal his gold and guns? A hundred or more dollars was an ample attraction for highwaymen skulking in the forests of the Natchez Trace, the infamous "Devil's Backbone," and no money was ever recovered among the explorer's effects.
The idea that Lewis had been murdered was so prevalent that in 1849, the year his remains were reburied under a monument at Grinder's Stand, the Tennessee commission that arranged for the memorial included the speculation in its proceedings. The commissioners stated in their report that, "The impression has long prevailed that under the disease of body and mind ... Governor Lewis perished by his own hand. It seems to be more probable that he died by the hands of an assassin."
But, while even Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks, the explorer's mother, is said to have insisted to her death that her son was murdered (and had no hesitation in pointing her finger at John Pernier as the killer), others close to Lewis thought otherwise.
Thomas Jefferson, Lewis's mentor and the man responsible for his achievements as explorer and territorial governor, harbored no shadow of doubt that his admirable friend had killed himself. On August 18 (coincidentally Lewis's birthday), 1813, Jefferson wrote of Governor Lewis's "hypochondriac affections" and "sensible depressions of mind," exacerbated by his "sedentaryoccupations" in Saint Louis. Then the former president wrote,
He stopped at the house of Mr. Grinder, who not being at home, his wife, alarmed at the symptoms of derangement she discovered, gave him the house then retired to rest herself ... . About three o'clock in the night he did the deed which plunged his friends into affliction, and deprived the country of one of her most valued citizens.
William Clark, Lewis's expedition partner, subscribed to Jefferson's conviction: "I fear O! I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him," he wrote to his brother upon reading in a Kentucky newspaper of Lewis's death.
The magnitude of Jefferson's prestige was such that his suicide verdict was regarded as Scripture, and all inquiry into the manner of Lewis's death seemed superfluous. This despite the fact that the verdict was based exclusively on what he was told by the shadowy Indian agent James Neelly, who knew only what he had been told by the even shadowier Priscilla Grinder.
The "weight of his mind," as Clark aptly put it, was a formidable factor to consider. Even discounting as suspect the testimony of Gilbert Russell, James Neelly, and Priscilla Grinder, and laying aside the postmortems of Frederick Bates, Thomas Jefferson, William Clark, and others, there remains ample evidence to suspect that Meriwether Lewis killed himself. He was sunk deep in debt, suffering from a recurrent malarial fever, perhaps addicted to opiates and alcohol, anguished over failing in love, failing in preparing his and Clark's journals for publication, failing to preserve his friendship with his great mentor at Monticello, and failing in the governorship Jefferson had bestowed upon him.
Recent medical scholarship suggests yet another motive for suicide, a diagnosis advanced by an eminent Seattle physician andepidemiologist, Reimert Thorolf Ravenholt. In May 1994, Dr. Ravenholt presented in the medical journal Epidemiology the hypothesis that Lewis may have killed himself because of despair over his knowledge that he was dying of paresis, the terminal phase of syphilis. The disease, from which several other expedition members suffered, was probably contracted by Lewis during an August 1913 stayover in a Shoshoni Indian village after the explorers crossed the Continental Divide, Dr. Ravenholt states. He proposes that Lewis's loss of vitality, febrile disorientation, fatalism, and drift toward self-destruction--all common symptoms of paresis--fit the last, sad weeks of Lewis's life.
Lewis himself, who had treated cases of syphilis among his expedition members, wrote in 1806, "This disorder ... always ends in decrepitude, death, or premature old age."
Several historians say that the key to determining the explorer's manner of death is exhumation of the Lewis remains at the site of Grinder's Stand, near Hohenwald, Tennessee. Dr. Ravenholt says if, for example, Lewis ever received or self-administered a mercuric treatment to combat a venereal disease, traces of it might be found with his remains. More significant, the bone remains might contain evidence of syphilitic invasion.
Other researchers are interested in any traces remaining of gunshot wounds.
Although he takes the opposite, "it was murder" view on Lewis's death, James E. Starrs, the acclaimed forensic scientist at Georgetown University, would also like to open Lewis's grave at the Natchez Trace monument. Starrs has experience in this work: in 1989, he directed the Alferd Packer4 exhumations in Colorado and also studied the remains of Jesse James in Kearney, Missouri, proving through mitochondrial DNA that the remains were indeed James's.
Starrs, like many murder advocates, is convinced that the descriptions of Lewis's wounds do not suggest suicide, that a soldier experienced in firearms would not have failed twice to kill himself, and he believes it more likely that the explorer was accosted and shot by Natchez Trace outlaws or by a person in his entourage.
In June 1996, Starrs spearheaded plans to exhume the Lewis remains and helped convince a coroner's jury in Tennessee that the National Park Service, on whose land the explorer is buried, should allow it. In this he was joined by a University of Southern Mississippi history professor and authority on the Natchez Trace, by Dr. Ravenholt, and by other interested parties. The exhumation plan also had the overwhelming endorsement of Lewis descendants, 160 of them signing a statement supporting it. Among those opposed to the project, one calling it "a ghoulish business," were the late historian Stephen Ambrose and, more important, the National Park Service.
The coroner's jury convened at Hohenwald did not vote on the matter of suicide or murder but did recommend that the Lewis remains be exhumed. The Park Service did not agree, saying that such an act would set a dangerous precedent that could lead to national monuments being dug up all over the country, and it denied the request. After a subsequent hearing in Atlanta, Georgia, in January 1998, the NPS again denied the exhumation request.
So far at least, that jury, and the bigger one on how and why Meriwether Lewis died, is out.
Copyright © 2004 by Dale L. Walker