Meriwether Lewis grave

lewis grave

Having worked on a Lewis and Clark exhibition for three years and visited Clarks’ grave many times, I was excited to finally have the opportunity not long ago to visit Lewis’s grave. How would they compare? While Clark lived to old age and is buried in one of St. Louis’s historic cemeteries on high ground overlooking the Mississippi River in the distance, Lewis died only three years after his return from the western expedition. While traveling on the Natchez Trace, a rough inland trail from Natchez to Nashville, Lewis died suddenly. He was staying the night at Grinders Stand, a hostelry on the Trace. His death is one of history’s mysteries because there is evidence to suggest it was suicide and evidence to suggest murder.

The site is part of the Natchez Trace Parkway run by the National Park Service. Since the bicentennial of his death was in 2009, I had high expectations for a richly interpreted site. I visited on a gray damp day in early spring and I was sadly disappointed. The remote but beautiful location features a reproduction cabin similar to what might have stood at the time of his death. He is buried there under a 20-foot high limestone monument erected by the state of Tennessee in 1848. It stands in stark contrast to Clark’s grave. Surrounded by a swath of grass and trees, it is isolated and lonely. Why, I wonder, didn’t his family bring the body back to Virginia? Was this not done in those days? Too far a trip? Too expensive? His family subscribed to the murder theory, while two of his closest friends, former President Thomas Jefferson and fellow explorer William Clark found the suicide theory plausible and accepted it.

Etched into one side of the monument is a glowing testimony and final words hinting at the greatness of the grave’s inhabitant: “In the language of Mr. Jefferson: his courage was undaunted; his firmness and perseverance yielded to nothing but impossibilities, a rigid disciplinarian yet tender as a father to those committed to his charge; honest, disinterested liberal with a sound understanding and a scrupulous fidelity to truth.”

Because the story is so mysterious and compelling, I was hoping the Park Service would have offered the evidence and allowed the visitor to do some analysis and draw conclusions. Of course that is rarely NPS style – they offer an interpretation.

Unofficial word is that the site is in limbo and various issues must be resolved before the site will be interpreted. Hopefully there are plans for a visitor center that will tell the story. I wouldn’t want the NPS to miss this great teaching opportunity. Americans deserve more, as does Meriwether Lewis. Whatever demons he dealt with on that lonely stretch of trail those many years ago, his contribution to American history cannot be denied.

Have you visited this site? Please share your comments.

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