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Sunday, September 06, 2015


I must say the last two weeks of Meriwether Lewis' life were very hard. On Friday Morning, October 6th , 1809,  the Governor and Indian agent James Neeley, along with their two servants, left the primary Chickasaw village before dawn, heading north along the Natchez Trace. They reached Bear Creek that first day. On the next day they reached the Tennessee River, at Corbert's Ferry.
George Colbert was described by the whites who had to deal with him as both “shrewd, talented and wicked” and as an artful and a designing river pirate. This half-Scot, half-Chickasaw Indian had a monopoly on crossing the wide Tennessee River for fifty miles in either direction. And he charged accordingly – usually fifty cents per man or horse, (a dollar for a man on a horse) and whenever possible, more.
His two story wood frame home (above), which stood above the ferry, was described as a “country palace” by travelers used to a hut or a lean-too. It was also known by the envious as the Buzzard's Roost. From this house, George oversaw the 100 slaves who worked his plantation. George Colbert explained his worldview this way, “Indians never know how to steal until white man learn them...We are free and we intend to keep so.”
The standard tale is that having paid their fees for a ten minute boat ride across the river, Lewis and Neeley (et al) stumbled on to camp that night along the Sweet Water Branch of Rock Creek. They awoke on Monday, October 9th and returned to the trail, described as a “snake-infested, mosquito-beset, robber-haunted, Indian-pestered forest path." At the end of the day they reached the attractively titled Dogwood Mud-hole and camped out for another chilly fall night. Sometime after midnight a rain storm rumbled through and the campers were soaked. 
When the men climbed out from under their wet blankets on the morning of Tuesday, October 10th , it was still raining and colder. And, they discovered,  said Neeley, that two of their horses had wandered off during the night. So while the servants and Neeley stayed behind to recapture the horses, Lewis continued up the trail alone. But I have a question about all of that.
If you believe what Neeley wrote later to Thomas Jefferson, he stayed behind on the morning of the 10th  to help search for the missing horses. But both servants showed up later that day with the missing horses, while Neeley was still unaccounted for. And according to court records from Franklin, Tennessee, on October 11th, 1809, James Neely was in a courtroom there, signing a promissory note to repay a loan. That courtroom was at least three days travel from Lewis' campsite on the morning of the tenth. The only conclusion I can come to, is that James Neeley was not with Governor Meriwether Lewis on that Tuesday morning.
It seems to me that the lex parsimonoae - AKA Occam's Razor - of the situation is that shortly after the party crossed the Tennessee River on the afternoon of Sunday, October 8th, James Neeley rode ahead on his own, racing to meet his court date, leaving his own servant behind to help Lewis. But I suspect that Neeley did not want  President Thomas Jefferson to know that he was being sued over a debt, nor did he want the President to know he had abandoned the ailing Meriwether Lewis on the Trace, after assuring Captain Russell at Fort Pickering that he would keep a close watch over Lewis. This little scrap of dirty linen seems more than embarrassing enough to have inspired Neeley's lies about where he was on the night of the 10th/11th,  particularly after Governor Lewis was suddenly dead.
This is a much simpler explanation than any of the convoluted conspiracy threads that some have weaved around the last 24 hours of Governor Meriwether Lewis' life. This simple explanation requires only that people act like people you know, that they lie for small and petty reasons a lot more often than they lie for big complicated ones. And they disguise their small lies much more badly. But. of course, this explanation also leads us to a few more questions.
Sometime around 5:30 on the evening of October 10th, 1809 Priscilla Grinder saw a lone rider approaching the three split rail, un-chinked and un-plastered cabins of her families' “Stand”. She immediately sent her two daughters to the kitchen cabin, a few steps behind the others. And only then did she step outside to greet the traveler.
He was a tall and athletic man who wore a blue and white striped and faded “duster”, and he was accompanied by a dog. Their first meeting, as were most meetings along The Trace, was wary.  Each party inspected the other for mutilations, cropped ears, missing fingers or branded flesh. It was common practice at the time for suspected thieves to be so marked as a warning for potential future victims. But as far as we know, Priscilla bore no such marks. And we know Lewis did not. But both of them would have been armed.
Meriwether asked if he could receive an evening's lodging and a meal. Priscilla said yes, and asked if he were traveling alone. Lewis explained his servants would be arriving shortly. He dismounted and removed his saddle. He hobbled his horse, and carried the saddle inside the cabin. He asked for a drink, but did not seem interested in it after he was served. It is possible that the beverage, probably the same corn mash Priscilla's husband was selling to the Chickasaw, had little appeal for a man who had tasted wine at Thomas Jefferson's table.
A few minutes later two more men rode up. Lewis identified them as his servants, even though only one, John Pernier, actually was. The other was Neeley's man. Lewis asked Pernier to fetch some gunpowder, saying he had a canister of it somewhere in his luggage. Priscilla did not hear the reply, as she had to go out to the kitchen cabin to begin preparing the meal for the three men. Still, there is no indication that Lewis identified himself to his host.
After the meal had been served, Pernier and Neeley's man took the horses off to the other cabin, used as a barn. They would bed there for the night. Priscilla said later that as she gathered up the dishes, Lewis began to intensely pace up and down the room. According to her, “Sometimes he would seem as if he were walking up to me, and would suddenly wheel round, and walk back as fast as he could.” Then he stopped, produced his pipe and lighted it, pulled a chair close to the front door of the cabin and announced, “What a sweet evening it is.”
It smacks me as an unlikely comment from a man who had been soaked to the skin for the last twelve hours. But then as I said at the very beginning, I don't trust the stories this lady has to tell about the last night of Meriwether Lewis' life. 
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