Smack dab in between the American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War, the United States tangled one last time with its then nemesis, Great Britain, during the War of 1812. The event, full of great stories, heroic battles, and the composition of the words that would become our national anthem, the War of 1812 included the burning of Washington, D.C. Its combatants dotted the early 19th century, including the Civil War naval hero, David Farragut. Battle sites from the war include Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor and a variety of sites along the eastern coast. When the fighting concluded, American soldiers trudged home from the shores of the United States, many along the Natchez Trace.
The old road from the Mississippi River to central Tennessee became a thoroughfare for many boatmen of the late 1700s and early 1800s as a path eastward, despite its angled route. Those who sailed down the interior waterways, hauling goods down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, eventually needed a land-route back to their points of origin in the northeast, and the Natchez Trace led them home. Along its present day curves early remnants of its history remain: sections of the narrow road itself, markers of the agricultural life of the region, such as old tobacco farms, and quiet scenery set apart by limited access and rolling hillsides. I drove the new Natchez Trace, stopping to see these reminders of early American history formed by its route. Even the quiet waterfalls, the early fall of leaves, and the isolation transported me to early America and the footsteps taken along its course.
For all the people who traveled the Natchez Trace before me, only one interested me today: Meriwether Lewis. He’s my hero, you know. No one person in American history lights a fire under me like him. He, and his co-explorer, tramped and tread and traveled across thousands of miles of the early United States, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Astoria, Oregon. This tranquil road, unfortunately, marks the last steps he walked. Of all the stops I have made from end to end along the Lewis and Clark Trail, this one elicits emotions unlike the others, hovering roughly in my throat as I drive southwesterly from Nashville. An adventurous life dramatically ended a few steps from the downward cannon marking his memorial.
On October 10, 1809, Meriwether Lewis encamped for the last time along the Natchez Trace. As I stand at the doorway to the recreated Grinder’s Stand, I imagine what weight he felt on his shoulders. Fears of indebtedness and financial ruin, a lifetime of depression and despair, despite his accomplishments, and his ardent hope that his dearest friend would recognize his suffering and arrive by his side, he ended his life at this spot, along this road, begging for water. “O sir, give me some water, and heal my wounds.” Rarely does American history bring me to tears. I am, after all, a historian, a fact checker, and a spectator of sites regrown and restored. I examine information sources from the past and analyze them for contemplation in our present. But my hero died here and even with more than two centuries between us, I cannot keep from sobbing at his death. I want to stay and sit all night, as if keeping him company the way he hoped Clark would, encouraging him not to take his life. Yet my journey must continue. I proceeded on.