I finally made a pilgrimage to this place a few weeks ago.
The “Grinder House” was an inn along the busy Natchez Trace, the only road between New Orleans and the new federal city of Washington DC during the early 19th Century. At this place, a great man and patriot met his end after becoming one of the early casualties of the Great American Experiment and the unstoppable bureaucratic machine that our founders set in motion in our Nation’s capitol. (Click on the image below to read.)
The Federal Government of the United States has since become an engine of enormous good, but always, always it strains at its restraints and must be reigned in like a great beast by men and women of strength and good character lest it crush those it was founded to protect. Inside Washington, the political machinations proceed at a frightful pace under rules foreign to most people, driven by power and money. In order that we prevent abuses of this grand system, I think it important that we remember those who have been destroyed along the way, and those who are even now being destroyed by those bureaucrats who are blind to the fact that they are called to serve America first, and not only those who sign their paychecks.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson chose his personal friend, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead an impossible mission that would help unite the young nation by exploring and documenting the newly acquired Louisiana Territories across the Rocky Mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific and back. The success of Lewis and his co-commander Captain William Clark, was dazzling and epic beyond anyone’s expectations, and Jefferson was very pleased, with his legacy and that of the Nation assured. That story is too much to recount here, but an excellent account is Undaunted Courage by Ambrose.
I’m particularly fond of Lewis and sympathetic to his plight because we appear to share a number of things in common apart from the obvious distinction of his greatness. We both come from Virginia planting stock of the same time period, and although my family tree has been forced to stretch over the last 2 centuries while his could not, we both ended up in many of the same places, anyway. We are both natural woodsmen and prefer the outdoors to any other occupation. He was more the expert, clearly, but I also spent years making a living in wilderness surroundings as a trail builder, guide, foreman and wrangler. The most acute similarity, I think, was the thing we both inherited from our fathers. As Jefferson noted about Captain Lewis, he suffered his whole life from “sensible depressions of mind” which did not affect his character but caused him a great deal of difficulty at times. Where I have been lucky to have a good wife and religious faith to help significantly in that regard, Lewis had neither and so suffered all the more when things began to fall apart.
And things really did fall apart after Madison became President and Jefferson was unable to protect Lewis from the full punishment that befalls agents of the regime that is no longer in power. Some of it befell Lewis as Governor of Upper Louisiana due to his own failure to adapt to the requirements of a politician. Some happened due to the callousness of bureaucrats like Secretary Eustis and the bankers who called in all his debts on the basis of false rumors. In any event, in the fall of 1809, Lewis was a thoroughly ruined man who was forced to make a long march to Washington along the Natchez Trace with his journals and effects, expecting to get there only to be devoured by a den of wolves. He didn’t make it.
But he didn’t die easily. After pacing the floors of the Grinder cabin above until the early hours of October 11th in a demonic struggle that many of us know all too well, he shot himself in the head with one pistol and then through the chest with his other. Finally, he resorted to cutting himself with his razor until he eventually bled out.
His bittersweet triumphs and his endless love of America are memorialized by the monument below, called the Broken Shaft which sits over his grave just across the field from the restored Grinder House. I’m glad to finally get a chance to shed a few tears for Commander Lewis on that grass, but I’m also glad to write these words now at over 6000 ft in the Rocky Mountains that he loved and in which I happily explore as a mostly free American. For that I thank all the patriotic men and women who fight to keep America a free and just nation.