I would call him a prime example of the past being prologue. Timothy Pickering (above) was a hot headed right-wing nut the President was forced to include in his cabinet to appease the ultra-conservatives who threatened to tear his administration apart. In this case the President was George Washington and the appeasement was part of the Federalists “New England” strategy. When the Federal capital moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1791, Pickering was tapped to run the Post Office. During Washington's second term, from January to December 1795, Pickering was appointed the Secretary of War. Then he became Secretary of State, a post he held into the next administration, until May of 1800 when President John Adams fired him because Pickering wanted to declare war against the French.
This was the man Fort Pickering had been named after. And it was appropriate that “his” fort, standing on the bluffs (above) along the Mississippi River, was half military establishment and half private enterprise, which sold and distributed goods to the Chickasaw Indian nation. They called this hybrid a “factor”. Captain Meriwether Lewis had commanded this post for awhile back in the 1790's, and now as Governor Lewis he was back. But his was a far from triumphal return. He had to be carried into the post on a stretcher.
The fort stood back from the Mississippi River, atop the fourth of the Chickasaw bluffs, in the midst of what is today Memphis, Tennessee. It was not a prime landing spot, but at least it had fewer mosquitoes than the previous fort, and once there Lewis began to improve quickly. The day after his arrival, on Saturday September 16th 1809, Lewis wrote to President James Madison that “I arrived here yesterday...very much exhausted from the heat...but having taken medicine, feel much better this morning.”
The medicine he was taking was a combination of opium and alcohol, known as laudanum. It was highly addictive and the Governor was not merely feeling better, he was probably high. He wrote to the President that he was not continuing down the Mississippi as planned, but rather would be coming overland via the Natchez Trace. Then he mentioned his real reason for all this effort. “I bring with me”, he wrote, “duplicates of my vouchers for public expenditures... which when fully explained...will receive both sanction and approbation and sanction.” Did I mention he was probably high? As a final needling point, Lewis included in his letter those territorial laws he had translated into French, the rejection of the bill for which had inspired this horrendous journey.
Lt. Gilbert Russel, the current commander of Fort Pickering, had ordered the post medic to prevent Governor Lewis from drinking anymore laudanum. Under this regimen, wrote Lt. Russel, “all symptoms of derangement disappeared and he was completely in his senses...”. Within a week the Governor was ready and eager to continue his journey. But Lt. Russel thought he ought to accompany him. Lt. Russel's accounts had also been questioned by the bureaucrats back in the War Department, and Russel was awaiting permission from his boss, General Wilkerson, so he could also have it out in person with those annoying bean counters. In fact, I suspect, that it was Russel who convinced Governor Lewis to change his travel plans and proceed overland. It would be far more effective for both of these men to make their appeals together, and safer for Governor Lewis if he had someone to watch his laudanum consumption during the trip back.
However, almost two weeks went by, and still there was no release from General Wilkerson. Lewis was anxious to get moving and, suspected Russel, to get back to his "medicine". But just when it seemed as if Russel would have to send the Governor off into the wilderness alone, a seeming savior arrived at Fort Pickering; James Neelly; agent to the Chickasaw Indians, and an ex-army major.
Neelly was delivering a white prisoner to be shipped down to New Orleans for trial. He had brought the man from his post at the Chickasaw nation, some 100 miles south-south east of Fort Pickering. And by what seemed at the time to be a happy coincidence, Neelly now had urgent business in Franklin, Tennessee, just 20 miles south west of Nashville, Governor Lewis' intermediate destination. Perhaps Neelly could accompany Lewis and watch over him. But there was a catch, of course.
Neely was not good material for a guardian angel. He was an alcoholic and the worst kind of gambler, which is say an inveterate one. He gambled on cards, horse races and he was also, of course a land speculator. And like most gamblers, he usually lost. His gambling had put him in debt to just about everybody he knew, even his boss, General James Wilkerson. And just the month before he had asked the penny pinching Secretary of War, William Eustis, for a loan. Good luck with that. But if James thought he might put “the touch” on Governor Lewis, he was quickly dissuaded.
On Wednesday, September 27, Lt. Russel signed the paperwork loaning Lewis two horses and a saddle from the Fort's herd, and gave him a personal check for $100. In return Governor Meriwether Lewis signed an IOU for $379.58. This trip, undertaken to settle his financial problems, was putting Lewis deeper in debt.
Before dawn, two days later, Governor Lewis and James Neelly, along with their servants, an Indian interpreter and a few Chickasaws, left the fort by horseback. Three had days later, on October 3rd, they reached Big Town, a village not much smaller than St. Louis. This was the main Chickasaw town. There were about 1,000 residents in 300 log cabins, interspersed amongst fields of corn, rice, tobacco and cotton. The fields were worked by African American slaves, something the Chickasaws had in common with the Americans, along with their religion. These savage natives had largely converted to Christianity. It was not going to help them. In the end the Americans would steal their land and ship these Christians across the Mississippi.
In Big Town Lewis and Neeley picked up the Natchez Trace, the “Devils Backbone” trail that wound north-eastward through the dark and ominous forest to Meriwether Lewis' final destination.
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