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Sunday, February 27, 2011

AMERICAN ARCHTYPE: PART ONE


I don't want to call the lady a liar, but I don't believe any of the stories Priscilla Grinder told. Maybe she was exhausted from another day of drudgery and wallowing in filth. Maybe she was drunk. Maybe she spoke out of fear of her husband, Robert, or of someone else, or maybe she concocted the unbelievable stories to cover her own sins. But whatever the truth was, I simply do not believe this woman heard two gunshots shatter the early morning darkness, heard her only guest begging for help at her door and never investigated. In short I can not say exactly what occurred that pitiless night. But maybe it was murder.
Grinder's Stand, as it was called, stood along the ridge route called the Natchez Trace or “The Devil's Backbone”. The road - to give it a generous title - began where the first high ground above New Orleans, touched the Mississippi River, at a human den of inequity called Natchez. Following ancient buffalo trails "The Trace" then meandered through a dense macabre forests 445 miles, twenty days by horse and foot, to Nashville, Tennessee, where it joined Daniel Boone's Wilderness Road to the east. Under the progressive President Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. Army was set to work clearing the trace to 8 feet wide and removing all tree stumps above 16 inches tall, so "The Trace" could be used by high riding Conestoga wagons. But each stream and river still had to be forded, even if the traveler could afford to pay a toll along those short parallel sections improved by local entrepreneurs
In 1802, when Louisiana was still French territory, the customs house in Natchez reported a million dollars worth of tobacco, flower, hemp, cider and whiskey on its way down the Mississippi to New Orleans. By 1803, after the Louisiana Purchase, "The Trace" saw as many as 1,000 travelers a year -  the crews of flatboats and rafts returning home on foot with their profits. And where there are profits, there are those who would steal. Each ominous river and stream crossing on "The Trace" was reputed to be the unmarked graves of boatmen who had been set upon by gangs of “Land Pirates”. There was no law on "The Trace". And while the level of violence never approached the legends, meeting a group of strangers at an isolated ford or forest clearing, could still be an unnerving experience.
Robert Evans Grinder and Priscilla Knight were both born within sight of Moore's knob (above), the 1,700 foot high granite mountain that looms over Stokes county, North Carolina. As teenagers they ran away together, and in 1799 were married in Nashville, about the time their daughter, Parthenia, was born. They were living examples of the new nation, young, illiterate, hard working and hungry to succeed.
So as the soldiers hacked and sawed their way south along "The Trace", the Grinder's followed. And in 1807 they came to the Tennessee “Barins”, high ground between the Duck and Tennessee Rivers, sixty miles southwest of Nashville. Here the Grinders enlarged and hacked out a couple of clearings amidst the oaks and dogwoods. Back in the woods they planted corn and rye, built a cabin, and a barn and a stable. In a clearing along "The Trace" they built three one-room structures. Two stood at right angles to each other, their front doors opening on "The Trace". The third building was a detached kitchen, and stood behind the first two. This was Grinder's Stand, one of seven such “Stands” along The Trace in 1807, where for thirty cents you could rent a bed or part of a bed or just a roof for the night. For a few cents more Priscilla could supply a bowl of warm gruel. But since the toll road by-pass had opened, the Grinder's income had dropped off. So the Grinders depended on their fall-back industry, selling corn mash whiskey to the Chickasaw Indians, whose nation's border lay just a few yards beyond the Stand's front doors.
It was into this wilderness oasis where a tall, gaunt man materialized out of a cold rainstorm, in the gathering darkness of October 10th, 1809. Priscilla Grinder must have greeted him warily. Why was this man in an expensive blue and white stripped duster traveling alone? Why had he not taken the bypass? According to Priscilla, he tried to set her mind at ease by telling her that his two servants should be arriving shortly with pack animals. But he could have given her even more comfort if he had told her that he was the Governor of Upper Louisiana Territory, and one of the most famous men in America.. But he did not tell her. Why not?
- 30 - 

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