The Natchez Trace, By John Swain (continued)
A log schoolhouse on the highway of history and legend
A century ago there was no more promising youth in America than Meriwether Lewis. After a brilliant career as a soldier, he had been appointed private secretary to President Jefferson, and had shown himself so trustworthy, so energetic, so resourceful, that when Jefferson determined to make an exploration of the great territory he was just purchasing, he selected Lewis as the one to accomplish it, knowing how thoroughly he could rely on his accuracy and his truthfulness.

Six years later, in 1809, his brilliant feat accomplished—he was even then but thirty-five years old—Lewis left his beloved West for the last time and set out for Washington to confer with the President. He crossed the Mississippi at the Chickasaw Bluffs, where Memphis now stands, and taking Indian trails southeasterly, struck the Trace at the crossing of the Tennessee River, in Lauderdale County, Alabama. Turning toward Nashville, he came alone, on the night of October 11th, to the “stand” or tavern of Robert Grinder above the crossing of Little Swan, seventy-two miles from Nashville. Accommodations were rude, and Lewis wrapped himself in his buffalo-robe and slept on the floor. A heavy storm was raging. In the night the women in an adjoining building heard a shot. In the morning Lewis was found dying, a pistol beside him.

Grinder circulated the report that Lewis had shot himself, and the explorer was buried beside the road close to the tavern. At Washington then, and by many historians since, Grinder's story has been believed; but by the settlers of that vicinity and by the women who lived at Grinder's, only one opinion was ever entertained—that Grinder had murdered him for his money. Grinder, at any rate, was known to have money in his possession after Lewis’s death. He sold out his place and moved away. But the fame of Lewis has been blotted to this day by the story that he took his own life in a fit of melancholia. For forty years his grave remained unmarked. Then the Tennessee Legislature appropriated five hundred dollars for a monument; the bones were dug up and identified; an irregular county, having the grave as its approximate CENTER, was named Lewis, and a few acres about the monument set aside for a park. Since then nothing has been done to care for it, but the broken column stands as it was placed, beside the forsaken road.

So on that breathless afternoon my pilgrimage had its end. I had come to find this traditional shaft to a traditional man, whose traditional murder marked the CENTER of a county. But I found his monument was greater than that, for it was the old road itself over which he had traveled, and the hilltop on which he died, and the forest which still covers it. Into them all his soul has entered.

I think he would not have ordered his burial in any other place.


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