When Meriwether Lewis was shot to death on October 11, 1809, he was traveling from St. Louis to the Federal City (Washington, D.C.) to defend his own reputation against allegations of conflict of interest and misuse of government funds. Interestingly, he chose to avoid the obvious route of going by river to New Orleans and catching a ship to the east coast of the United States. Instead, he struck out over the rugged and dangerous Natchez Trace, a wilderness road that ran through Chickasaw Indian Territory from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee.
One of the most stunning factoids about the Trace (nicknamed the “devil’s backbone”) is that, by the standards of the day, it was actually considered an improved road; that is, the Army had come through and cut the tree stumps down to shorter than sixteen inches. Despite this concession to comfort, the Trace seems like a place where even a tough frontiersman like Lewis could get into trouble. Stories about outlaws and murders on the Trace–some fact, some fiction–only add to the element of mystery that has always hung over the last days of Meriwether Lewis.
It’s difficult for us today to imagine traveling under such difficult circumstances as were routinely faced by travelers in early America. In many spots, this highway was dark, heavily forested, and often blocked by fallen trees. In more open areas, John James Audubon would make special note of the vultures that flew low to the ground, looking for food.
Accommodations on the Trace weren’t exactly AAA material. The fascinating book The Devil’s Backbone by Jonathan Daniels (1962) has a whole chapter on Lewis, including a well-written description of Grinder’s Stand, the inn where Lewis spent his last hours. Robert and Priscilla Grinder, who owned the inn, also had a farm, at which Mr. Grinder supposedly was on the night of Lewis’ death. However, their main source of income was the “stand,” which consisted of two log houses, unplastered and unchinked, and a barn, all standing in a clearing newly hacked out of the woods.
There were seven inns, called “stands,” along the Trace in 1809, the year Lewis died. Most, like Grinder’s Stand, were simply extra rooms or log cabins rented out by settlers for extra money, where you might improvise a bed amidst lumber, horse tackle, and farm equipment. Others were lively gathering places that served as taverns, brothels, and thieves’ markets. A good way to decide whether to stay at a place was to note whether the landlord’s ears had been cropped. In those days before prisons, branding and ear cropping were common punishments for robbery and burglary.
Like your privacy? Forget it. All of the guests would bunk down together in the same room, using whatever blankets or bedding they had brought with them. To prevent thievery, the guests would also bring in their baggage, saddles, bridles, and other accoutrements of the trail.
While lodging in a stand may appear unalluring to our modern sensibilities, there were good reasons why even seasoned travelers like Lewis might opt for a stand rather than simply camp in the woods. Not only could you get in out of the weather, but, at least in theory, you got increased security from outlaws (if you didn’t happen to find them among your fellow guests). Sometimes, travelers who didn’t mind a night outdoors but still sought safety in numbers would camp in the yards of stands, paying the owner two bits for the privilege.
Though you could usually buy food–at least a bowl of cornmeal mush and milk–and liquor at stands, the smart traveler of 1809 carried his own provisions, such as hardtack, dried beef, and flour, made either of Indian corn or Conte, made from the root of the China briar. This was said to be good when made into fritters sweetened with honey and fried in bear oil.
Figuring out what people ate back in the old days (called in academia “foodways”) is an interesting field of study all in itself. Here’s a couple of interesting recipe sites I ran across while researching this post: Feeding America and Recipes for Historic Cooking. The recipe for jackrabbit stew is particularly horrifying. These sites focus on home recipes, but tavern food was also important to men in early America, as the tavern served as the focal point for social and business life. Frontiersmen like Lewis and Clark also spent much of their lives eating food they’d hunted themselves. Here’s another site with some interesting recipes from fur trade days.
By the way, the jackrabbit was unknown to science before Lewis & Clark. More about Lewis and Clark’s legacy in terms of scientific knowledge in a future post!