It has taken more than two hundred years but with the publication of Uncovering the Truth About Meriwether Lewis, one of the most pivotal characters in 19th century American history has been vindicated.
Like so many of the framers of this republic he was born in Virginia but the roughly three years when he was governor of the Louisiana Territory (eighteen months of it spent in St. Louis), were critical for him and for the young nation. It is fitting then that a St. Louis author has brought Meriwether Lewis to life almost as vividly as when he first arrived here in 1803 as the leader of the Corps of Discovery, a.k.a. the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Author, Thomas Danisi, a native New Yorker, has a powerful sense of place and time outside of the present. And if you believe in the metaphysical then you may agree with me that the spirits who guide Thomas Danisi have led him on a merry chase through Spanish land grants, military court records, local land deeds, an almost indecipherable medical ledger due to its fragility, and forgotten archives, in order that he might uncover and reveal the truth about one of the most talented and maligned individuals in U.S. history.
This is not Danisi’s first treatment of Meriwether Lewis but rather a follow-up to the comprehensive biography which he co-wrote with John C. Jackson in 2009 and which Prometheus Books also published. And although both books stand powerfully on their own, they complement one another handsomely.
The first is as meticulous a rendering of the events of Lewis’s adult life as you will find and the second a passionate, minutely documented defense against the many slanders to Lewis’s character that have persisted to this day – including accusations of drunkenness, mental illness and incompetent governance.
Uncovering the Truth About Meriwether Lewis consists of fourteen chapters (that historian Robert Moore Jr., who wrote the Foreward, poetically describes as “vignettes”), nine appendixes, seventy pages of footnotes, a twenty-eight page bibliography, an index of twenty-one pages and twenty-five illustrations. Thomas Danisi is nothing if not precise. And he needed to be. For much of what he proposes with respect to the character of Meriwether Lewis is new in the field of American history and provocative in light of previously published and long-accepted fact. He is also a marvelous storyteller, expressive in his knowledge and compelling in his arguments.
His documentation includes such dramatic evidence as the long-lost transcript of Lewis’s Court Martial when a young ensign (in which he ably defended himself and was cleared of a false accusation of drunkenness by a superior officer) and records made by Dr. Antoine Saugrain, revealing that he was treating Governor Lewis in St. Louis for malaria. Danisi provides further evidence that Lewis contracted malaria as early as 1795 and suffered with it for the rest of his life, which accounted for the erratic behavior in the last month of his life. That indeed it proved fatal to him in the wilds of Tennessee on the Natchez Trace.
Danisi owns with his wife the only known, extant, colonial building in the City of St. Louis. This may partially explain his powerful sense of the past, for his house resonates history, particularly a period of St. Louis history during which Meriwether Lewis lived not far from the Gateway Arch, and governed the Louisiana Territory from St. Louis, its capital.
Danisi proposes that Lewis did that as competently as anyone could have expected – given the enormity of the Louisiana Territory’s geographic size and the complexities and subterfuge of area politics (evidence of which he provides).
Lewis was but thirty-two years of age when President Thomas Jefferson appointed him territorial governor. That he was at the same time preparing for publication an amazing volume of research from the Corps of Discovery’s expedition to the Pacific Ocean, and that he was very ill with recurring bouts of malaria, complicated his duties as governor.
Believed to have been constructed about 1790 the structure that fur-trader and merchant, Joseph Motard had constructed as an outbuilding in his Cul de Sac Prairie field lot, has been renovated to make it habitable in its modern setting in Lafayette Square.
When Thomas purchased the house in 1976 the exterior was covered with concrete and he had no idea of its age. With the aid of his good friend and neighbor, Bob Cassilly, Thomas removed all of the concrete, uncovering the original limestone walls. With the concrete removed the exterior walls required considerable tuckpointing.
He left the stonework exposed in two sections of the interior north wall, maintaining the original feel. Bob Cassilly suggested to Thomas Danisi that he restore the house “like a philosopher’s cottage…make it woody,” he said, with stonework exposed and lots of shelves for books. It’s a place from which the author continually draws sustenance for the historical research that has become his profession. It was only natural that he wanted to find out its age and anything else about it that he could. In 1977 a dream prompted him to look way beyond the records at City Hall for the origin of his house and eight years later he discovered that the house, in Motard’s field lot, belonged to a very early period in St. Louis history.
It was originally a one-story structure made from fieldstone quarried directly from the land on which the house stands, along the steep slope of what is today Mackay Place, just north of Lafayette Park.
The photograph to the right shows that doorway from the inside and the outside during reconstruction. It revealed that Motard’s out-building was constructed to face west towards his plantation and away from the Mississippi River.
The Danisi house has become a sanctuary of area history. Inspiration for three books, two on Meriwether Lewis and a third devoted to Spanish land grants, which is in the works, has issued from this venerable if humble old building. Outside, Thomas planted pine and magnolia trees that have grown magnificently to maturity.
A short, limestone wall which Danisi built along the city sidewalk in front of his house and a vintage Cassilly wall of sculpted concrete separating the back of Danisi’s property from the alley, set it apart from the largely Victorian neighborhood in which it stands, and in many respects from the present.
Author and house have much in common, and I hope that the one will continue to inspire the other to uncover even more priceless history of the St. Louis area and beyond. Uncovering the Truth About Meriwether Lewis may be found locally at The Missouri History Museum Gift Shop, Left Bank Books, Puddin’ Head Books, Barnes & Noble, at Main Street Books in St. Charles, and online at amazon.com.
Illustration sources: Book Covers for Uncovering the Truth About Meriwether Lewis by Thomas C. Danisi and Meriwether Lewis by Thomas C. Danisi and John C. Jackson – used with the permission of Thomas Danisi; Portrait of President Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800 – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; States & Territories of the United States of America, July 4, 1805 – March 1, 1809 – Author: User Golbez – Multi-license permisision with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY 2.5 – wikipedia.org.
Photo Credits: Original Front Doorway of the Danisi Home on Mackay Place From Two Perspectives and Photograph of Author, Thomas C. Danisi in Front of His Home in Lafayette Square, St. Louis – used with the kind permisison of Thomas Danisi; Old Trace Sunken – generously released into the public domain at wikipedia.org by its author: Jan Kronsell, 2002. All other photos: Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, author of this blog.