Death on the Trace 


The Death

Priscilla Griner heard three gun shots in the wee hours of the morning. Shortly, a shabbily dressed, disheveled and wounded man-- the same lordly gentleman who had stopped at her frontier Inn along the Natchz Trace in Tennessee some hours earlier--proclaimed his wounds and begged for water. He had been shot in the chest and head. The latter wound exposed parts of the gray brain. Frightened because her husband was a way for the night, up the road some distance making whiskey he sold at the Inn and to the neighboring Choctaws and Chickasaw Indians. She was frightened living in the backwoods of Tennessee far from civilization. Her husband had opened the Inn five years earlier but it was mostly a front for making and selling liquor to the native tribes.

His entreaties refused the wounded man staggered down the road and eventually his servants--one of them mysteriously wearing the dying man's nicer clothing--recovered him and took him into the main house on the Inn. There, after taking water, the delirious and wounded man tried to cut his own throat proclaiming how hard it was for him to just die and end the suffering. Restrained in this coup de grace, the dying man agonized for several hours more before finally succumbing. Thus ended the young and eventful life of Meriwether Lewis on October 11th, 1809.

The Victim

Lewis was born August 18th, 1774 in the Albemarle district of Virginia. His family, while not wealthy, were of the pioneer stock of the area near Charlottesville, Virginia, and obtained considerable land and important friends. His great uncle had married a sister of George Washington. His father had fought at Yorktown, the final battle of the American Revolution. As Meriwether Lewis grew up he became a particular favorite of an illustrious neighbor, Thomas Jefferson.

Besides managing a thousand acre plantation-estate, Lewis was called upon by President Washington to perform a number of soldiery duties, even taking command of Fort Pickering near present day modern Memphis. At this post--located on the borders of several nations including the Chickasaws, Choctaws and Cherokees--he became an ardent student of the indigenous peoples. In the last year of the eighteenth century he moved up the military command structure to become a captain.

Then in 1800 Lewis was called to Washington D.C. to live at the White House as personal secretary to President Thomas Jefferson. In that capacity Lewis and Jefferson became closer friends, "living like two old bachelors in the Federal City," proclaimed the President later. When Jefferson purchased for the United States the vast Louisiana territory, it was Lewis and one of his friends (William Clark) who were sent to explore and map the area in hopes of finding a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. Hence the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, one of the greatest adventures on the nineteenth century comparable to that of going to the moon in the twentieth.

After the expedition Meriwether Lewis was made governor of the Louisiana territory, being stationed at St. Louis. It was during one of his travels from St. Louis to Washington that Meriwether Lewis lost his life.

The Evidence

Evidence was sparse. The body had three wounds, two gunshot and one set of cut marks on the throat. The servants were helpful but mysteriously one of them was wearing the clothing of the master while Lewis was in humbler attire. There were eye (ear) witness accounts, most notably by Priscilla Griner. But her information was sketchy. This was true of Lewis's servants as well.

The Suspects

Meriwether Lewis

The news coming East of Lewis's death made much of the cut wounds to the throat. Some sources at the death scene claimed that Lewis, in a fit of despondency brought on by bouts of malaria, shot himself. And when that failed he tried to cut his own throat. No less a person than Thomas Jefferson himself acknowledged that "Governor Lewis had from early life been subject to hypochondriac afflictions." There were mental problems deep in his family which came out with a recent physical illness, believed the former President of the United States. Such statements were very powerful and very early it was commonly acknowledged and broadcast about that Meriwether Lewis was a suicide.

Thomas Jefferson

Indeed, the former president had many reasons to have Lewis's death brought to a close as a suicide. Any other death might cause an investigation that might prove to be embarrassing to his place in history. At the time of his death Lewis was making his way to Washington to offer up his official and private papers to a Congressional investigation of a favorite of Jefferson, General James Wilkinson.

James Wilkinson

General Wilkinson was a unique character in the early days of the New Nation. Born in 1757 in Calvert County, Maryland, he belonged to the lessor landed gentry. He attended private schools and eventually studied medicine. But he was first and foremost fascinated by the military and he left his medical practice during the Revolution and dedicated the rest of his life to the army. He fought in most of the important campaigns during the Revolution and moved up in the ranks to be a general. Eventually, he will be head of the entire army of the United States.

During the war he had married into a prosperous Philadelphia fur-trading family. After Independence he moved to Kentucky, the new frontier, to expand the family business at a post called Louisville. He not only expanded family business but also increased his own wealth by expanding his personal property. His busniess interests took him frequently to St Louis and New Orleans where be came under the influence of the Spanish.

It was also in Kentucky that Wilkinson became involved in a plot to separate Kentucky from the United States and join it to Spain as a new republic. Beginning in 1784 Wilkinson became a spy for the Spanish against the United States. Only one hundred years later was it discovered that this prominent businessman and military general was "agent 13," Spain's top spy in America. A close friend of presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson--one of the country's highest ranking generals--was on the payroll of the Spanish government as a spy.

By 1800, Wilkinson was once again in active military duty and in command of the army. In addition, he was administratively in charge of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Spanish government received reports from that exploration as fast as did the President of the United States. Shortly, after the expedition he was sent to St. Louis to be governor of Upper Louisiana. As governor he plotted with Aaron Burr to attack Mexico and take it away from Spain. In 1807, Wilkinson was replaced as governor by Meriwether Lewis. Wilkinson moved to New Orleans to head the entire army. He was the highest military person in America. In the meantime, Meriwether Lewis learned in St. Louis of the machinations of "agent 13." When it became time to go to Washington Lewis could go by easy seaway out of New Orleans or take the more difficult overland route. He chose the latter.

James Neelly

Neelly was the federal agent to the Chickasaws, appointed by General James Wilkinson. In fact, Neelly went back a long time as a Wilkinson follower. He was relatively poor and constantly in debt--financially and politically--to the General. From his headquarters at Big Town, a large Chickasaw village, Neelly had caught a criminal important to the wealthy pioneers in the area. However, rather than personally transporting that criminal to the point of adjudication and receiving the gratitude and presitge from the elite pioneers Neelley went 100 miles northwest where he accidently met Lewis and offered to guide him to Nashville then on to Washington. Much of this wilderness area belonged to the Chickasaw indians but was under the political thumb of Neelly and Wilkinson.

The party left September 29th 1809. travelling about fifty miles per day. They had to cross the Tennessee River, using the ferry boat of George Colbert another prominent member of the Wilkinson organization. Shortly after, it was reported, two of the pack animals went astray. Neelly sent Lewis and his servants ahead and he went after the horses. Neelly told them that he would catch up fifty miles north at a place called Grinder's Stand. It was at that place that Governor Meriwether Lewis mysteriously died.

Robert Griner

The owner of the tavern-inn was absent in most accounts of the event. Griner was a rough frontiersman-entrepreneur who danced freely across the lines of legality. Originally, his Inn was on a major frontier pathway called the Trace first developed by the Indians. But the construction of a toll road several miles away limited his business with tourist and settlers. Instead, most of his activity was the making of illegal drink and the selling of it to the Indians. Certainly, he had a "deal" worked out with Neelly but here was a federal official sleeping in his own house. News of his activities might get back to Washington causing all kinds of problems.


The various tribes of Indians along the Trace had been endlessly exploited by far away Washington and nearby settlers. In a few short years they will be bodily shipped further out West to be out of the way of settlement. Furthermore, the decimation by alcohol had taken a great toll on the once proud "civilized nations" of the Choctaws, Chickasaws and Cherokees. Although generally subdued, occasional forays by renegade Indians along the Trace was not uncommon.


Questions to Ponder

1. Why did Meriwether Lewis die?

2. What evidence was there that he was suicidal?

3. What evidence was there this was a homicide?

4. Why did Jefferson down play this death of a close friend?

5. Why did Lewis' servants have his clothes?

6. What was the role of General James Wilkinson?

7. Using the DOPE concept how do you analyize this incident.

D= desire his death

O=opportunity for this death

P=personality for this death

E=evidence points to this death





Suggested Further Reading

David Leon Chandler. The Jefferson Conspiracy: A President's Role in the Assassination of Meriwether Lewis (1994).