I think the breaking point for Governor Meriwether Lewis came when the Federal Government denied the bill he submitted for translating the territorial laws into French. It was only $18. And even in 1808 that was not much money – it would be about $245 today. It was just another example of the penny pinching of the bean counters in the new President James Madison's administration.
The politicians were not very kind to Meriwether Lewis. For risking his life and limbs in the wilderness for three long years, for being shot, for almost starving to death repeatedly and almost drowning several times, the Captain received $1,228 in back pay (equal to about $16,000 today) and a coupon good for 1,600 acres of Federal land. (The official price of which was just $2 an acre – so the equivalent of another $3,000.) Added to this would be his yearly budget as Governor of $2,000, ($26,000 today), out of which he had to draw his own salary and all incidental expenses, amongst which was now deducted that $18. So that was just another kick in the behind.
During their return voyage in 1806, Lewis and Clark had invited the Manndan Chief White Coyote to visit President Jefferson in Washington, and the chief had impulsively agreed. Jefferson was delighted, and the visit had cemented relations with the strongest tribe in the middle Missouri River country. But it proved difficult to get White Coyote and his entourage back home. An attempt in 1807 had been turned back by the Arikarass, at cost of the lives of three soldiers and the leg of a fourth man. More soldiers would have to be dispatched and bribes paid to allow the chief and his family to get home. But the price tag of this diplomatic mercy mission had risen to $7,000. Washington was appalled. And they sort of had a point.
See, Lewis had handed the problem over to the St. Louis-Missouri River Fur Company, a private company. One hundred fifty men had marched and paddled up the Missouri River to the Manndan villages. They had returned the chief, and had then continued on, trapping beaver, otter and bear. All the pelts were shipped back to the company warehouse in St. Louis. The profits had gone to the shareholders, but the bill had gone to the Government; sound familiar? And two of the shareholders in the St. Louis Fur Company were Governor Meriwether Lewis and his brother Reuben.
These details had been pointed out to the bureaucrats in Washington by the priggish Frederick Bates (above), Territorial Lieutenant Governor and envious enemy of Governor Lewis. Bates had kept Washington very well informed about every misstep made by the Governor. The result was that the Madison administration had begun going over the Governor's expenses with a fine tooth comb. They grudgingly paid most of the bill for White Coyote's return, but managed to find $940 they could refuse to reimburse Lewis. That was almost half his yearly budget! Worse still, the Madison administration had re-opened the books on the three year old Lewis and Clark Expedition, and were now demanding a detailed accounting as to why a budget of $2,500 had ended up costing $40,000. The biggest reasons was, of course, that an enthusiastic congress, at Jefferson's urging, had added those land grants for everybody. But the Madison administration had suddenly developed amnesia about that.
The reality was that the land grants had not cost the government a dime, except in the accounting ledgers of the bean counters. But over the summer it took a month for one of the bureaucrats' demands for more paperwork to travel from Washington to St. Louis, and at least another month for Governor Lewis to respond. In the winter there was no mail at all, and the misconstructions simply piled one atop the next. It was a system made for bureaucratic misunderstandings, and the denial of the $18 translating fee was just the final straw. Meriwether Lewis, Governor of the Territory, must return to Washington and make his case face to face with the Federal bean counters.
In mid-August of 1809 Meriwether Lewis signed papers granting William Clark and two other friends Power-of-Attorney, in case anything should happen to him on his trip back east. It was a standard precaution, like buying flight insurance in the 20th century. Lewis also sent a letter off to the Secretary of War protesting his treatment, and a letter to his mother, telling her he was looking forward to seeing her in Virginia.
The St. Louis Gazette reported on Monday, September 4th that Lewis had left town “in good health”. He left on a Kentucky Ark, twelve feet wide and thirty feet long, a flatboat which floated clumsily down the Mississippi. He was bound for New Orleans, where he intended upon boarding a sailing ship for the long voyage around the isthmus of Spanish Florida and then up the East Coast to Washington. But September was probably the worst time to be traveling by river in America.
It was the dry season. The river was low, and the flatboat ground methodically over every sand bar. It was brutally hot, the mosquito population feasted on every inch of bare flesh, and the trip was taking forever. It took Lewis over a week travel the 180 river miles to the tiny community of New Madrid. Here the boat put ashore for two days, to give Lewis a chance to recuperate. He was suffering from a recurrence of malaria, and in desperate need of a little air conditioning, which would not be invented for another century. He must have begun to think this trip was never going to end, and while in New Madrid he wrote and registered a new will.
On September 13th they shoved off again, but the heat had not lessened. Two days later the boat put in at the fourth of the Chickasaw Bluffs (and the future site of Memphis). Here Governor Lewis was carried off the river on a stretcher. He was met by Captain Gilbert Russel, commander of the sixteen man outpost at Fort Pickering. Russel immediately turned over his bed to the Governor. It was clear to Russel that Governor Lewis was not going anywhere for awhile.