Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality.
– Pierre Jules Theophile Gautier
On October 11, 1809, Meriwether Lewis died by gunshot on the Natchez Trace. As far as can be determined, no inquest was ever held, and no investigation into the cause of his death ever took place. Whether Meriwether Lewis died by murder or suicide remains a controversial topic among Lewis and Clark scholars to this day.
Historians must deal with the paucity of facts in the case, but meddling novelists are bound by no such constraints. Late one night, on a trip following Lewis and Clark’s trail through Montana and Idaho, we were struck by a desire to improve upon reality, and the idea for To the Ends of the Earth was born. The mystery needed to be solved once and for all. And who better to discover the truth about Lewis’s death than his best friend and partner in adventure, William Clark?
Ends is a work of pure fiction, despite its extensive basis in history. In the fall of 1809, William Clark did travel to join his friend and aid him in defending himself against the accusations of malfeasance from the War Department. However, instead of following Lewis to Fort Pickering, Clark went by river to Kentucky and Virginia so that he could leave his wife Julia and son Lewis in the care of her family.
Clark arrived in Louisville the day after Lewis’s death, where he visited with his brother Jonathan and the rest of the Clark family for two weeks. During that time, he received a letter from Lewis, written while still on the river. This letter has never been found and its contents are a mystery; whether it has been lost due to the vagaries of time or was deliberately destroyed by Clark is unknown. The version of this letter that appears in Ends is invented; likewise, Lewis’s letter from Curry’s Stand and his last journal are wholly fictional.
By October 28, Clark and his family had reached Shelbyville, Kentucky, where Clark read in the newspaper the stunning news of his best friend’s death. In words that still echo their anguish across two centuries, he wrote that night to his brother Jonathan: “I fear O! I fear the waight of his mind has overcome him, what will be the Consequence?” As these words indicate, Clark accepted the newspaper account of suicide without hesitation, as did Lewis’s mentor Thomas Jefferson. According to family tradition, Clark later wavered in this belief. In any case, a niece later recalled that as an older man, Clark always spoke of Meriwether Lewis with great fondness – but never without tears in his eyes.
The plot of General Wilkinson in Ends is invented, but is in keeping with the tangled and traitorous schemes of that true villain of American history. From his days as a young officer in the American Revolution, when he joined a conspiracy to depose General George Washington, to his final removal from command during the War of 1812, James Wilkinson wove a tapestry of treachery and incompetence that reads stranger than fiction. The travesty of the U.S. Army’s suffering at Terre aux Boeufs and the disastrous move upriver is factual.
All but one of the major characters and most of the minor characters in Ends were real people, portrayed here in a fictionalized manner. The main exception is Sergeant John Thomas. It was imperative that Julia Clark travel the Natchez Trace to find her husband, and equally clear that she could not navigate that dangerous pathway on her own. Sergeant Thomas, embodying all of the finest qualities of the American soldier, appeared to help. We’re grateful.
We have made every effort to create a fictional world that is as close to the reality and spirit of the period as possible. We consulted dozens of books and hundreds of Internet articles during the research for To the Ends of the Earth. The book would not have been possible without the impressive resources of the Perry-Casteñeda Library at the University of Texas at Austin. Our principle sources are discussed below. Any blame for historical inaccuracies is, of course, our own.
The 900-pound gorilla of all Lewis and Clark books is Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose (1996). Ambrose’s passion for the Expedition and his insights into the character of Meriwether Lewis made his book our Bible during the research for Ends.
Witty, honest, and self-revealing (sometimes unintentionally so), both Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were themselves extraordinary writers. Their journals bring their personalities and legendary adventure to life in a way that no other writer, not even Ambrose, can accomplish. Several fine abridged editions make a good starting point; we relied on The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto (1953). Gary Moulton of the University of Nebraska has become a legend in his own right for The Definitive Journals of Lewis & Clark (1986-1993), the most complete edition yet of every word brought back from the Pacific by the captains and their men. Also full of fascinating insights into the Expedition and the personalities of the captains is Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Donald Jackson (1962).
In addition to the Ambrose book and his own journals, several other books were useful in trying to understand the troubled life of Meriwether Lewis. Clay Straus Jenkinson has published an interesting and sensitive essay, The Character of Meriwether Lewis (2000). The website Anchored in the East: The Homesteads and Families of Lewis and Clark in Virginia, provided some telling details about the early lives of both Lewis and Clark. An older biography, Meriwether Lewis, by Richard Dillon (1965), has largely been supplanted by Undaunted Courage; however, Dillon’s arguments in favor of the murder theory of Lewis’s death proved useful.
Lewis’s complex relationship with Thomas Jefferson could inspire a novel in itself. The great American poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren explored the topic in an epic poem, Brother to Dragons (1979). We found some additional insights in Jefferson’s Nephews, by Boynton Merrill, Jr. (1976) and the Internet article “Thomas Jefferson’s Views on Women,” published by Thomas O. Jewett on the Archiving Early America site. A wonderful pictorial book, Jefferson’s Monticello, by William Howard Adams (1983), was also helpful.
When we first researched Ends, no full-scale biography of William Clark was available. Fortunately, with the heightened interest caused by Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, several have since appeared. William Clark and the Shaping of the West, by Landon Y. Jones (2004) was enlightening. Invaluable was Dear Brother, edited by James Holmberg (2002), a collection of the letters of William Clark to his older brother and confidante Jonathan.
In Search of York, by Robert B. Betts (1985) is not only a fine biography of this important African American, but one of the best of all the books in the Lewis and Clark literature. We gleaned a few more nuggets of information about slavery in early America from Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone (1998).
The astonishing career of James Wilkinson cries out for a modern biography. We relied primarily on Tarnished Warrior, by James Ripley Jacobs (1938), with some cross-consultation with The Finished Scoundrel, by Royal Ornan Shreve (1933). Many of Wilkinson’s schemes were well-detailed in two articles in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly by Isaac Joslin Cox, “The Louisiana-Texas Frontier,” (July 1906 and July 1913). The Internet article on Wilkinson in the “Merchants of Louisiana” section of the Encyclopedia Louisiana was also useful.
Several interesting and well-researched books speculate on the possible causes of Lewis’s death and provided much of the material fictionalized in our book. Suicide or Murder?, by Vardis Fisher (1962), presents the various theories. A newer book, David Leon Chandler’s The Jefferson Conspiracies (1994), expands on Fisher by bringing in the possibility of a higher-level plot against Lewis’s life. On the other side, David J. Peck, in his witty book on the medicine of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Or Perish in the Attempt (2002), presents a persuasive argument on behalf of suicide.
For a crucial plot point in the novel, we owe a debt to Lewis’s relative George Rockingham Gilmer, whose Sketches of some of the first settlers of upper Georgia, the Cherokees, and the author (1855) includes the surprising statement that Lewis told his family that he and Clark had discovered a gold mine during their trip to the Pacific Ocean. Why Lewis would say such a thing is obscure; one scenario is presented in our book.
While Lewis and Clark documented the physical world of their Expedition, our challege was to reconstruct the world in which they lived and traveled in Ends. For old St. Louis, a wonderful book called St. Louis: An Informal History of the City and Its People, by Charles Van Ravenswaay (1991) was indispensable, along with the marvelous website “Exploring St. Louis in 1804,” presented by the National Park Service on The Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery. Other useful sources were Personal Recollections, by John F. Darby (1880); Old Cahokia, edited by John Francis McDermott (1949); The Early History of St. Louis and Missouri, by Elihu H. Shepard (1870); St. Louis: Its History and Ideals, by Philip Skrainka (1910); and St. Louis, edited by Selwyn K. Troen and Glen E. Hold (1977).
The best book on the Natchez Trace remains The Devil’s Backbone, by Jonathan Daniels (1962). Other sources we consulted were The Outlaw Trail, by Robert M. Coates (1930), and A Way Through the Wilderness, by William C. Davis (1995).
Information about the Chickasaw Indians from this time period was elusive. We used the following sources: The Five Civilized Tribes, by Grant Foreman (1934); The Chickasaws, by Arrell M. Gibson (1971); The Chickasaw Nation, by James H. Malone (1922); and The Indian Way: Chickasaws, by Dorothy Milligan (1976).
Some miscellaneous sources went a long way towards enlivening our book. We found some interesting tidbits in Taverns and Drinking in Early America, by Sharon V. Salinger (2002). Nancy McPhee’s The Book of Insults Ancient and Modern (1978) belongs in any library and was particularly useful in the characterization of Frederick Bates. The Internet article, “A 19th Century Slang Dictionary” on the Camp Chase Gazette website was invaluable, especially for the dialect of Sergeant Thomas. “The Sign Dictionary” on The Inquiry Net website provided guidance on Indian sign language.
Finally, we are thoroughly indebted to Robert J. Moore Jr. and Michael Haynes, whose book Tailor Made, Trail Worn (2003) is an exhaustively researched and wonderfully illustrated study of the clothing worn by the men of the Corps of Discovery. Without Moore and Haynes, Lewis and Clark would have walked through our book unwittingly wearing three-cornered hats and coonskin caps.