Meriwether Lewis National Monument on the Natchez Trace Parkway | Tennessee State Library and Archives

The End at the Inn: My Griner Ancestors and the Mysterious Death of Merriwether Lewis

Robert Evans Griner (1767_1827) eloped with Priscilla Knight (1774-1848).  They migrated to what they thought was north of Duck River near Hickman County Tennessee that in those days was the border of lands of the Native American Chickasaw Nation, and there they built a cabin.  The United States Army troops advised them that they were in violation of the treaty and had to move.  They destroyed their cabin in Maury County Tennessee, and on the advice of the troops they moved to the well traveled Natchez Trace a post road from Nashville to Natchez.  Robert constructed an inn, “Grinder’s Stand”, about 1800.  My 3rd Great Grand Uncle had a place for travelers and the local Native Americans to buy spirits, food and lodging.  Livestock and slaves lodged in the other buildings on the frontier compound.

The Robert Evans Griner family prospered at the Griner’s Stand.  Their family, servants and slaves grew as they operated the well-visited inn about seventy miles from Nashville.  In October 1809, Meriwether Lewis, Captain of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, Governor of the Louisiana Territory, as well as, a private secretary to President Thomas Jefferson rode alone into the environs of “Grinders Stand” on his way to Washington City to finish his memoirs of the expedition. Historians say that the thirty-eight year old Lewis favored his mother in being attractive, intelligent and benevolent.  On the contrary his traits exhibited from his father were of extreme melancholia that subjected him to extended moods of deep depression.  That is one reason why President Jefferson sent his extraordinary private secretary on the expedition to the great Northwest.

That October evening the world changed for the world renowned Meriwether Lewis.  Historians agree from interviews that all that day he was weighted with an intense melancholia.  His traveling companion among others was Mr. Neely, an Indian Agent testified to this.  Lewis had insisted that he be allowed to go ahead for some miles and then the other members of the party could follow.  Mr. Neely feared for the safety of Lewis in that there were people on the way who would harm his person.  But Lewis persevered  and proceeded ahead over the warnings of danger anyway.  However, his Indian guide and Spanish body servant followed not too far behind.

As Lewis arrived at the rude backwoods inn Priscilla Grinder and her children were there alone as her husband was hunting.  She thought she could not give shelter to Lewis because her husband was not there.  Lewis persuaded her to allow he and his approaching party to occupy a detached cabin and she would not be bothered.  Mrs. Griner heard firing about three o’clock in the morning.  She heard groaning outside the cabins hearing the words, “It’s hard to die.”  She could hear the sounds of a gourd scraping the water bucket.  She was terrified.  She did not dare go out until broad daylight to see what had happened.  By this time her husband had gotten home and the mail rider, Robert Smith, and they made a search of the grounds and found the body of Meriwether Lewis lying under a tree near the house.  It seemed that there was a bullet that passed through his chin and out the side of his skull.  Additionally, there was no trace of his servant, scout, horses or personal possessions.  But another theory was explored, that Griner had murdered him.  Griner was arrested, tried and found not guilty at an inquest in Savannah, Tennessee.

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It is said that Lewis was a very large man and a carpenter made a large casket from a Chestnut Oak.  From an article by Col. Robert Melvin Cooper, courtesy of the Davidson Historical Society, it states that special nails had to be forged because of the thickness by Robert Cooper and his brother.  Stones were placed to mark the place of burial of Meriwether Lewis.  In 1848, the Tennessee Legislature placed a monument over his grave designed as a broken shaft.  The special forged nails, a piece of uniform, and a skull with a hole through it identified the grave almost lost to time and memory.

Image: Meriwether Lewis National Monument on the Natchez Trace Parkway | Tennessee State Library and Archives

10 thoughts on “The End at the Inn: My Griner Ancestors and the Mysterious Death of Merriwether Lewis”

  1. Meriwether Lewis was not an exceptionally large or heavy man, though he was 6 feet tall. He had turned 35 on August 18, 1809. He did not arrive at the stand alone, as his servant and Neeley’s man were with him. Nails in a coffin were uncommon at that time, as coffins were usually put together with wooden pegs. Thus, the nails denote expediency. As for Major Neeley, I have never trusted him or his stories. Did he record Priscilla’s account reliably? If not, she wouldn’t have known, as she didn’t read, bless her heart. Neeley could’ve written anything he chose, then attributed it to her. At this point, there is no known information from which anyone can determine whether Meriwether Lewis died by suicide, by homicide, or by some strange combination of the two. As an historian, I find no reason to accuse the Griners of any crime. Does anyone in the family have any records of the trial at Savannah, TN?

  2. Emmett H. Griner

    Hi Stephanie, I am your father-in-law’s first cousin.
    Our dads were brothers.
    See my post above for a run-down from Robert and Priscilla to me
    The d was dropped in first generation after Robert and Priscilla.
    I don’t get on Facebook very often, but I will do so now and send you a Friend request.

  3. Emmett H. Griner

    Robert Evans Grinder and Priscilla Knight Grinder were my GGGG-Grandparents.
    Robert and Priscilla had a son, Robert Evans Griner II (he dropped the d) who married Mary Ann Nunnelly.
    Robert and Mary Ann had a son, William “Wid” Griner, who married Margaret “Maggie” Lawson.
    Wid and Maggie had a daughter, Mary “Mamie” Griner, who married her cousin Emmett Griner.
    Emmett and Mamie had a son named James Emmett “JE” Griner who married Ruby Fair.
    JE and Ruby had a son named Emmett and here I am, 68 years later, married to Eve Powell for 46 years.


    My husband is Robert E Grinder’s GGGG Grandson. His Father is Donald Williams Griner Jr. Throughout the generations the “D” has fallen off and from 1850 to the 1870 census you see Robert Grin”d”er in 1850, but in 1870 you no longer see the “D”. Does anyone have any history to report on this change?

  5. My 5th Great Grandparents are Robert and Priscilla Grinder. We are the from their son, Albert Story Grinder and his wife who was a Toddy. Their son Lewis Perkins Grinder married Nancy Jane Greer and had a Daughter Nancy Jane who married Levi Johnson Tidwell. My Grandmother was their daughter, Ruby Gertrude Tidwell who married Emery Brown. My Mother was their Daughter Daisy Jane who married William Payton . I am their 10th child, . I love American history and while reading “Undaunted Courage”, I realized that was my family tree. My brother Robert Payton had joined the Sons of the Confederacy through Lewis Perkins Grinder so therefore I was familiar with my family tree. It is excited to find out such facts and to share them with my children and grandchildren.

  6. My 4th Great-Grandfather was John Grinder, Robert E. Grinder’s brother. My daughter is studying the Lewis & Clark expedition and came across the Grinder’s Stand story in her reading. I told her about our relation to them, and we found this article while looking up more details for her history report. Thanks for posting!

  7. Elaine G. Bennett

    Because my family history is full of the bipolar disorder –I feel close to this mystery..The world continues in its ignorance of any mental illness.. Robin Williams and Charlie Sheen might add their thoughts to my observation.. I am a 72 year old retired 2nd grade teacher = and I continue to believe education is the way to prevent the horrors of shooting small children..etc..

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