Tennesseans Work to Keep Explorer's Legacy Alive

Associated Press Writer

After exploring the American West, Meriwether Lewis returned to civilization a hero in 1806.

But just a few years later, on his way to Washington, D.C., the 35-year-old died of a gunshot wound at a small inn 60 miles southwest of Nashville along the Natchez Trace. Some historians say Lewis killed himself; others believe he was murdered.

Today, Lewis' body is buried under a stone monument erected in his honor by the Tennessee Legislature in 1848.

As the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and William Clark's famous trek gets underway, some in Tennessee worry that Lewis doesn't get the honor he deserves because his grave is no longer its own national monument.

In 1961, President Kennedy signed a law incorporating the site -- which had been an official national monument since 1925 -- into the adjacent Natchez Trace Parkway after federal officials said it wasn't large enough to justify a separate administrative staff.

"It got swallowed up. It should have its own" designation, said Patty Choate, founder of the local chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail and Heritage Foundation. She and the group's 15 members have begun preliminary discussions to get that designation back.

"The Lewis and Clark expedition -- what they did was a great achievement for this country. When he came through here, he had the journals with him," Choate said. "Lewis is part of Tennessee; he's buried here. He's a Tennessean."

Lewis, actually a native of Virginia, made history with Clark by traversing the unexplored Louisiana Territory, forging a path from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest at the request of President Jefferson.

He returned home three years later, serving as governor of the territory for two years before embarking on another journey -- one that would take him through the wilds of Tennessee and ultimately to his death.

His destination was the nation's capital, where he hoped to resolve debts incurred during his odyssey. But Lewis made it only as far as a small inn along the Natchez Trace, an Indian path that was turned into a major land route between the lower Mississippi River and the Ohio River Valley.

He was found the morning of Oct. 11, 1809, fatally injured from a gunshot wound to the head. But the circumstances that led to his death remain a mystery almost 200 years later.

Lewis killed himself because he was mentally ill, a drug addict or infected with syphilis, some historians say. Others believe he was murdered, perhaps by thieves or members of his traveling party.

The debate reached its pinnacle in 1998 when a federal judge denied a Tennessee prosecutor's request to exhume Lewis' body to learn how he died. At the time, James Starrs, a professor at George Washington University who spearheaded the drive, said about 170 living relatives of Lewis supported exhumation.

Today, looming above Lewis' burial site is a stone monument topped by a broken shaft, symbolizing "the violent and untimely end of a bright and glorious career."

Surrounding Lewis' grave are those of 108 local citizens, many of whom had lobbied the government for the site's designation as a national monument, said park ranger Peggy Scherbaum, who helps manage the site.

"If it wasn't for the locals or Tennessee, we wouldn't have the grave today," Scherbaum said. "He was buried 39 years in an unmarked grave. Why Jefferson didn't send down a cross, I don't know."

The site also is the geographical center of Lewis County, which was formed and named to honor the explorer, Scherbaum said.

Today, travelers cruising the National Park Service parkway near the old trace's path wander the tree-lined clearing along with locals who grew up minutes from the site.

Diana Runions, who lives just down the road from the Trace, was among a handful of visitors on a recent sunny day. She posed her three young children dressed in matching denim on the steps of the site's log cabin for a Christmas card picture.

"We come here pretty often. We have our family reunion at the bottom of the hill," said Runions. "Because we live here, we probably don't appreciate as much who we have buried basically in our backyard."

Runions' mother-in-law, Elaine Runions, tagged along to help with the children. She doesn't buy the suicide story -- but says she wouldn't want to see Lewis' body exhumed.

"He's been there this long; I don't know why they'd want to dig him up," she said. "I think he was murdered, just from the stories I've heard."

But regardless of whether he was a suicide or murder victim, Lewis remains a popular figure in Lewis County.

The National Park Service has begun preparations for a $2.5-million visitors center at the site, and Choate and the group's 15 other members are raising money for a new Lewis County Local and Natural History Museum. It would include the original stones used in Lewis' monument, which was refurbished in 2000.

"The Lewis and Clark expedition ended here," Scherbaum said. "Everyone says 'Lewis slept here.' They all had him, but we got him."

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