Sunday, October 11, is the 200th anniversary of the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee. Was it suicide or murder? Lewis’s death and the mystery surrounding it are the subject of our historical novel To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis & Clark. We are remembering Lewis all week here on “American Heroes,” including posting excerpts from the book.
Dogwood Mudhole, Tennessee
October 9, 1809
Lewis estimated they’d ridden about thirty-five miles from the Tennessee River when the storm hit late in the afternoon. He could see it coming—felt the wind change, tasted moisture in the air. Soon the atmosphere was heavy with the strange, metallic smell of lightning. The sky turned dark, and enormous gusts picked up great piles of leaves and swirled them around the horses’ hooves.
Neelly stared at the sky, his face creased with worry. “Gov’ner, there ain’t no stands along this part of the Trace…no shelter to speak of at all,” he shouted above the rising wind. “We’re just going to have to find a good tree to get under and ride it out.”
Lewis focused on dismounting his horse without falling. Shaking with fever, he struggled to unfasten his saddlebags. The metal buckle seemed hopelessly complicated. Pernia had already made for the trees, so he wasn’t any help.
“Gov’ner, come on!” Neelly hollered, as a terrifying flash of lightning burst around them. A huge limb split off a loblolly pine nearby and crashed into the road in a dazzling shower of sparks. “Lewis—leave the damn things—”
“No! Are you mad?” Lewis wrenched the saddlebags loose and snatched at the horse’s bridle before it bolted off down the road. “These papers are priceless—worth far more than my own sorry life! Christ! Don’t you understand?”
“I understand fine! I understand you’re crazy!” Neelly grabbed Lewis’s arm and pointed into the woods. “Get under that big dogwood, where Seaman and Perny are! Gimme your horse, I’ll tie ’er up! Now go!”
Lewis yanked himself free and staggered into the woods. Pernia was crouched under the dogwood with the rest of the baggage, gabbling with fear. “It’s just a thunderstorm!” Lewis yelled, but Pernia didn’t answer. He stepped over Pernia and dug around in the baggage until he found a piece of tarred cloth.
Lewis sat down against the tree, pulled the saddlebags into his lap, and wrapped the cloth around them. The cloth would provide protection for the journals if the rain got heavier. He pushed his wet hair out of his eyes and tried to collect himself. The forest looked like an otherworldly nightmare in the hastening gloom of the storm.
By the time Neelly reached the tree, the rain was coming down in icy sheets. The wind howled over their heads, whipping the dogwood’s branches in a frenzy. Seaman whined in panic and almost bolted into the woods, but Neelly shoved the dog’s head under his arm and held on tight to his silver collar.
The misery was so acute all they could do was huddle together, bracing their bodies against the wind and rain, their faces screwed tight against the torrent of water crashing down from the sky. Lewis lost track of time; the storm might have lasted for an eternity. He felt this was the only part of the world left to him, his back against this tree, with Pernia wailing and Seaman whining and Neelly muttering “Goddamn!” every few seconds.
At last, the fury of the storm abated. The wind died suddenly, leaving behind a cold, steady rain. The night was so dark it was difficult even to see one another’s faces, let alone make out the jumbled wreckage of downed trees and broken limbs around them. They were all shivering and half-drowned; Seaman kept shaking himself in a futile effort to shed water from his sodden coat. The ground underneath them had turned into a slippery, treacherous mess of mud and fallen leaves.
Lewis felt the fever chipping away at his self-control. Cold water trickled down the back of his neck; he jumped when Seaman’s nose touched his cheek. Despite the chill, he felt unbearably warm. Sweat ran down his body inside his filthy green coat.
He unclenched his jaws long enough to ask: “N-Neelly…d-do you believe in God?”