Modern history


Last Voyage

September 3–October 11, 1809

The Mississippi River valley in early September 1809 was hot, humid, buggy. Lewis’s boat proceeded slowly, since it was necessary for the crew to rest during the middle part of the day. He was in terrible condition, possibly suffering from a malaria attack, certainly in a deep depression that caused him unbearable pain. Twice he tried to kill himself—whether by jumping overboard or with his pistol is not known—and had to be restrained by the crew.1

On September 11, he wrote his last will and testament: “I bequeath all my estate, real and personal, to my Mother, Lucy Marks, after my private debts are paid, of which a statement will be found in a small minute book deposited with Pernia, my servant.”2

Lewis arrived at Chickasaw Bluffs, then the site of Fort Pickering, today the site of Memphis, Tennessee, on September 15. Captain Gilbert Russell was the commander at the fort. On being informed of Lewis’s suicide attempts, he “resolved at once to take possession of him and his papers, and detain them there untill he recovered, or some friend might arrive in whose hands he could depart in safety.”3

Lewis was drinking heavily, using snuff frequently, taking his pills, talking wildly, telling lies. He told Russell (as reported in the November 15, 1809, Washington Advertiser) that all the work on the journals had been completed and they were ready for the press. Apparently that was his way of deflecting embarrassing questions about the project’s progress. Russell deprived him of liquor, allowing him only “claret & a little white wine.”4

The day after his arrival, Lewis wrote President Madison. The letter was garbled, although he managed to make his point. It needs to be quoted in full.I

I arrived here {yesterday} about {2 Ock} P.M. {yesterday} very much exhausted from the heat of the climate, but having {taken} medicine feel much better this morning. My apprehension for the heat of the lower country and my fear of the original papers relative to my voyage to the Pacific ocean falling into the hands of the British has induced me to change my rout and proceed by land through the state of Tennisee to the City of washington. I bring with me duplicates of my vouchers for public expenditures &c. which when fully explained, or reather the general view of the circumstances under which they were made I flatter myself {that} they {will} receive both {sanction &} approbation {and} sanction.

Provided my health permits no time shall be lost in reaching Washington. My anxiety to pursue and to fullfill the duties incedent to {the} internal arangements incedent to the government of Louisiana has prevented my writing you {as} more frequently. {Mr. Bates is left in charge.} Inclosed I herewith transmit you a copy of the laws of the territory of Louisiana. I have the honour to be with the most sincere esteem your Obt. {and very humble} Obt. and very humble Servt.”5

Over the following five days, Lewis showed no sign of improvement (Russell apparently had not deprived him of his medicines). Russell maintained a twenty-four-hour suicide watch. Finally, Russell reported, “on the sixth or seventh day all symptoms of derangement disappeared and he was completely in his senses,” although he was “considerably reduced and debilitated.”6

He was also ashamed of himself. Russell reported that “he acknowledged very candidly to me after his recovery” that he had been drinking to excess. Lewis said he was resolved “never to drink any more spirits or use snuff again.”7

Lewis set about straightening out his affairs. On September 22, he wrote his old friend Major Amos Stoddard, in command at Fort Adams, farther down the river. He began with an apology: “I must acknowledge myself remiss in not writing you in answer to several friendly epistles which I have received from you since my return from the Pacific Ocean.” He said he was on his way to Washington to explain his actions in St. Louis, which he hoped “is all that is necessary . . . to put all matters right.” But his creditors were pressing him and had “excessively embarrassed me. I hope you will therefore pardon me for asking you to remit as soon as is convenient the sum of $200 which you have informed me you hold for me. . . .

“You will direct to me at the City of Washington untill the last of December after which I expect I shall be on my return to St. Louis.”8

Lewis asked Russell to accompany him to Washington, and Russell agreed: he too had some protested bills to explain to the new administration. But he could not get the leave of absence he had requested.9

Major James Neelly, the U.S. agent to the Chickasaw nation, had arrived at Fort Pickering on September 18. He later wrote Jefferson that he “found the governor in Very bad health” but that during the week Lewis “recovered his health in some digree.”10

By September 29, Russell and Neelly were satisfied that Lewis was capable of traveling overland to Washington, if accompanied by Neelly, Pernier, and Neelly’s servant. Lewis said he was ready to make the journey. Russell lent him $100 and sold him two horses on credit for the journey; Lewis signed a promissory note for $379.58 payable before January 1, 1810, for the loan and the horses.11

Lewis had with him the journals, packed in trunks and carried by packhorse. The Natchez Trace seemed much safer to him than risking a sailboat from New Orleans to Washington, with British warships prowling the Atlantic Coast, stopping American vessels, and impressing American seamen into British service. What the British would give to have those journals! There was no danger of that on the Trace, which was the most heavily traveled road of the Old Southwest. The mail passed over it regularly. No robbery had been reported for years. There were inns along the way.12

It took the party three days to cover a hundred miles. Along the way, Lewis repeatedly complained about his protested drafts. Pernier later reported to Clark that Lewis would frequently “Conceipt [conceive] that he herd me [Clark] coming on, and Said that he was certain [I would] over take him. that I had herd of his Situation and would Come to his releaf.”13

Lewis was drinking again, or, as Russell so heartbreakingly put it, “His resolution [never to drink again] left him.”14 Neelly later reported to Jefferson that, when they arrived at the Chickasaw Agency, some six miles north of present Houston, Mississippi, Lewis “appeared at times deranged in mind.”

At Neelly’s insistence, the party stayed two days at the agency to rest. Lewis asked Neelly, in the event that “any accident happened to him,” to send his trunks with the journals to “the President,” by whom Neelly assumed Lewis meant Jefferson, not Madison.

On October 6, Lewis, Neelly, and the servants set out again. On the morning of October 9, they crossed the Tennessee River and camped near the present village of Collinwood, Tennessee.

That night, two of the horses strayed. In the morning, Neelly said he would stay behind to find them. Lewis decided to proceed, Neelly reported, “with a promise to wait for me at the first house he Came to that was inhabited by white people.”15

Late in the afternoon, Lewis arrived at Grinder’s Inn, seventy-two miles short of Nashville. It was a rough-hewn, poorly built log cabin that took in overnight customers. Mr. Grinder was away.

Lewis requested accommodations for the night. Are you alone? Mrs. Grinder asked. No, Lewis replied, two servants would be coming on shortly. Mrs. Grinder said they were welcome. Lewis dismounted, unsaddled his horse, and brought the saddle in the house. He was dressed “in a loose gown, white, striped with blue.” He asked for some whiskey, of which he drank but a little.

When Pernier and the other servant arrived, Lewis asked for his gunpowder, saying he was sure he had some in a canister. Pernier “gave no distinct reply,” probably because he had been told by Neelly to keep the powder away from Lewis.

Lewis began pacing in front of the cabin. Mrs. Grinder later reported that “sometimes he would seem as if he were walking up to her; and would suddenly wheel round, and walk back as fast as he could.”

She prepared a meal. Lewis entered the cabin and sat at the table, but after only a few mouthfuls he started up, “speaking to himself in a violent manner.” Mrs. Grinder noted that his face was flushed, “as if it had come on him in a fit.”

Lewis lit his pipe, drew a chair to the door, sat down, and remarked to Mrs. Grinder, in a kindly tone, “Madam this is a very pleasant evening.”

After finishing the pipe, he rose and paced the yard. He sat again, lit another pipe, seemed composed. He cast his eyes “wishfully towards the west.” He spoke again of what “a sweet evening” it was.

As he sat on Mrs. Grinder’s porch, looking west while the light faded from the sky, what were his thoughts? Were they of the rivers, the Missouri and the Columbia and the others? Did he recall the Arikaras, the Sioux, the Mandans? Did he think of the first time he had seen Sacagawea? Did he remember the April day in 1805 when he started out from the Mandan nation on his “darling project,” daring to link his name with Columbus and Captain Cook? Did he dwell on the decision at the Marias?

Or were the plants, animals, birds, scenery of the Garden of Eden he had passed through commanding his imagination? If so, surely he thought of cottonwoods, prickly pears, the gigantic trees of the Pacific Coast; of grouse and woodpeckers and condors; of the grizzlies and the unbelievable buffalo herds, the pronghorns, sheep, coyotes, prairie dogs, and the other animals he had discovered and described; of those remarkable white cliffs along the Missouri, the Gates of the Rocky Mountains, the Columbia gorge.

Did Three Forks, that “essential spot” in the geography of the West, spring to his mind? Or was it Cameahwait and the Shoshones? Perhaps it was Old Toby, and that terrible trip across the Bitterroots.

Did he recall the Nez Percé and their fabulous ponies and generosity? Or the journey down the western waters to the sea? Or was it his Christmas and New Year’s dinners of water and lean elk at Fort Clatsop?

It may be that he thought of the long waiting period with the Nez Percé, and the one time he had been forced to turn back in the first attempt to force the Bitterroots, in the spring of 1806. Or was it the Blackfeet and the only Indian fight of his life? Or the time he got shot in the ass?

Did he do a roll call of his men? If so, surely there was a special place for Drouillard.

If he thought of the men, surely he thought of his co-commander, the best friend any man ever had. He had told Pernier earlier that day that General Clark had heard of his difficulties and was coming on. As the light faded, was he looking westward along the Trace, expecting to see Clark ride in to set everything right?

Did one of Mrs. Grinder’s dogs chase a squirrel and remind him of Seaman?

Could it be that he thought of that moment of triumph when his canoes put in at St. Louis in September 1806?

Or were his thoughts gloomy? Were they about his unsolvable problems? Did he agonize over his speculations and the financial ruin they had brought him? Was that awful Secretary Bates foremost in his thoughts? Did he wonder why he had failed in his courtships and had no wife? Did he curse himself for his drinking?

Did his mind dwell on Thomas Jefferson? Was he ashamed of how he had failed the man he adored? Did he think of the journals, over in the corner in his saddlebags?

Or did his mind avoid the past? Was he rehearsing what he would say to Secretary Eustis and President Madison?

Or was he yearning for more pills? Or more whiskey?

We cannot know. We only know that he was tortured, that his pain was unbearable.

Mrs. Grinder began to prepare a bed for him, but he stopped her and said he would sleep on the floor, explaining that since his journey to the Pacific he could no longer sleep on a feather bed. He had Pernier bring in his bear skins and buffalo robe and spread them on the floor. While Pernier was getting the bedding, Lewis found some powder.

Mrs. Grinder went to the kitchen to sleep, and the servants went to the barn, some two hundred yards distant.

Lewis began pacing in his room. This went on for several hours. Mrs. Grinder, who was frightened and could not sleep, heard him talking aloud, “like a lawyer.”

Lewis got out his pistols. He loaded them and at some time during the early hours of October 11 shot himself in the head. The ball only grazed his skull.

He fell heavily to the floor. Mrs. Grinder heard him exclaim, “O Lord!”

Lewis rose, took up his other pistol, and shot himself in his breast. The ball entered and passed downward through his body, to emerge low down on his backbone.

He survived the second shot, staggered to the door of his room, and called out, “O madam! Give me some water, and heal my wounds.”

Lewis staggered outside, fell, crawled for some distance, raised himself by the side of a tree, then staggered back to his room. He scraped the bucket with a gourd for water, but the bucket was empty. He collapsed on his robes.

At first light, the terrified Mrs. Grinder sent her children to fetch the servants. When they got to Lewis’s room, they found him “busily engaged in cutting himself from head to foot” with his razor.

Lewis saw Pernier and said to him, “I have done the business my good Servant give me some water.” Pernier did.

Lewis uncovered his side and showed them the second wound. He said, “I am no coward; but I am so strong, [it is] so hard to die.” He said he had tried to kill himself to deprive his enemies of the pleasure and honor of doing it.

He begged the servants to take his rifle and blow out his brains, telling them not to be afraid, for he would not hurt them, and they could have all the money in his trunk.

Shortly after sunrise, his great heart stopped beating.16

I. Words enclosed in { } were inserted between the lines; italicized words enclosed in { } were crossed out.

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