Meriwether Lewis Defeats
by Jeff Provine
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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
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
"He could have done a lot for Western
exploration---maybe overshadowed, or employed, Fremont?" - reader's
commentsIn 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.
"I was pondering all the explorers he'd be in touch
with. As a government-sponsored director, I see him employing Fremont and
others, maybe even Pike enough to draw him away from the front in the War
of 1812. " - reader's commentsIn 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".
says 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.
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Today in Alternate History web site.
Jeff Provine, Guest Historian of
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