Captain Meriwether Lewis Demise*


Every student growing up in the United States is taught about the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery expedition. It truly is an important part of our history, and it also is filled with interesting extra bits of information. What is not taught in school is what happened afterward to the participants of the journey, and in particular, the demise of Captain Meriwether Lewis himself, who now was the governor of the Louisiana Territory. The consensus is that he committed suicide, but it happened on his way to Washington to turn his paperwork over to the government. Naturally, the question "why then" is asked.

Suicide has always been a situation that families are not proud of. The incidents surrounding this sad event have been pretty much documented and accepted as fact for over 200 years. No one has ever had any reason to question any of the details, until recently. Members of the Governor's extended family (and others) would like a new investigation using more modern techniques than were available at the time.

The trip to Washington was being made with the servant of Governor Lewis, and possibly others, although only his servant is specifically named. His trip starts out going down the Mississippi River. After a portion of the trip, the men operating the boat became alarmed when an event happened that was described later as "he attempted to take his own life" during the trip. When the party reached Chickasaw Bluffs, Commandeering officer, Captain Gilbert C. Russell (a friend of Governor Lewis) decided that he should remain there until he was better. After 14 days of rest, Capt Russel requested Major Neelly, the new Chickasaw Indian Agent, to escort Governor Lewis to Washington personally.

Along the way, they camped on the trail of the Natchez Trace. During a rainstorm one night, two horses were lost. Major Neelly went to look for the horses and Governor Lewis and his servant and Capt Neelly's servant went ahead. During this brief time of separation, Governor Lewis died of gunshot wounds. The incident was documented, and the history books closed. ... that is until someone recently discovered that an official document was filed in Franklin, Tennessee on the same day that Governor Lewis died, and it contained Major Neelly's signature.

The question asking "how could he be in two places at once" started the conspiracy theory that he might have been involved in a plot to kill Capt. Lewis. Soon, proponents of the initial conspiracy theory were coming up with explanations of how it might be true. I too was curious and read as much as I could find. It was interesting how some of the ideas were not possible nor very likely, and they could have been easily revealed if the slightest bit of research had taken place.

The terms servant and escort are both used on this page and usually have the same meaning. Governor Lewis's servant was also his escort. The man with Major Neelly could more likely be considered his escort, which then becomes an escort to Governor Lewis per Major Neelly's request.

This document covers the historical details of the incident first, then the last part is to show how unlikely the theory that Major Neelly could be in Franklin before he arrived at Grinder's Stand.

With that in mind

Every so often I add an asterisk to indicate there is a short note regarding the text. Make sure you move your mouse pointer over the asterisk to view these notes.*

As a premise to this page, I would like to state that there are many thoughts about the death of Governor Lewis;* I have varied thoughts myself. This page is another take on the demise of Governor Lewis in more detail than the standard story most hear. Due to new research and developments, things are changing about what possibly happened. His family would like to exhume his body to have another autopsy to prove he did not commit suicide, but the National Park Service has not allowed that to happen. Another speculation is that Major Neelly was involved more than what has been documented previously. In one of these cases, I am questioning a portion of the claim, and offering two explanations, one against, and one partially for. To understand what I mean, you will need to first read this more detailed version of the story, then continue with the new development and my take on it. The text goes into great detail and may bore some readers. Those that have been interested in the full details have appreciated the explanations of my take on the story. I hope it will not bore you too much.

A Fuller Variant of the story

As a final note to the Lewis and Clark expedition, Captain Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) was appointed governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory (1806-1809) upon return from the expedition.  His post was located in St. Louis, Missouri.

At times, Governor Lewis became ill, most likely from the effects of mercury poisoning given to members of the expedition when they got sick on the journey, possibly by contacting illnesses from the natives. Mercury was a common prescription during those times for these types of illnesses. Mercury can be damaging to the brain as we now know.

At one point during Governor Lewis's illness after the expedition, he was cared for by his mother Lucille for several months before returning to his post in St. Louis.

Six years after the expedition, Thomas Jefferson was no longer in office, having lost to the opposing party (James Madison).  The new party was not as receptive to paying the enormous bills accumulated by the expedition.  This left Governor Lewis responsible for bills that he could not adequately pay.  To resolve the matter he decided to travel to Washington (for your convenience, here is a map marking significant locations pertaining to the travel: Detail Map showing routes used, plus other interesting points).*

The original route Governor Lewis intended to take was to travel down the Mississippi River until he reached New Orleans, then board a sailing ship to travel around Florida, and on up to Washington, D.C. Keep in mind at the time, relations of the United States with Great Brian were strained at best. British blockades were set all along the eastern seaboard, making travel more difficult, running the risk of being detained by the British, or even being taken hostage or prisoner. Somewhere early along the journey, Governor Lewis changed his plans and decided to not take the water route around Florida.

Before leaving, he met with William Clark. It is said that either with Clark or after traveling down the Mississippi to New Maverick, he wrote out his last will and testament, leaving all to his mother.*  He continued traveling down the Mississippi on a riverboat with a small party of escorts (servants).*

When they reached Chickasaw Bluffs (where Memphis is located), one of his escorts told Commandeering officer, Captain Gilbert C. Russell (a good friend of Governor Lewis) that Governor Lewis had attempted to take his own life somewhere along the way coming down the river. Being concerned, Captain Russell forced Governor Lewis to remain in his care so he could personally monitor his progress. He remained in Captain Russell's care for at least 14 days. When he felt that Mr. Lewis was fully functional, he asked the newly appointed Chickasaw Indian Agent, James Neelly to accompany him on the remaining portion of the journey to Washington, D.C.

Note: The Governor left two of his trunks at the Chickasaw Bluffs in the care of Capt. Russell, & was to write to him from Nashville to inform him what to do with them.* Later we learn from a letter Major Neelly wrote to Thomas Jefferson, that he (Neelly) had in his possession two trunks that belonged to Governor Lewis. It is not clear that they are the same two trunks but there is no reason to think otherwise either. From Neelly's letter, he says that they contain documents pertaining to the expedition, which would be odd to leave behind as opposed to keeping them with him. On the other hand, Governor Lewis may have been concerned about traveling with the trunks through lands mostly controlled by the Chickasaw.

Leaving Chickasaw Bluffs. they traveled along an Indian trail to the Indian Agency along the Natchez Trace,* near what is now the southern end of Tupelo, Mississippi. Again, Governor Lewis had problems, which delayed the journey for another two days.*

They continued on up the Natchez Trace, to the Tennessee River Ferry Crossing operated by a Chickasaw Chief named George Colbert, who was three-quarters Chickasaw and one-quarter Scottish.* I have not seen any reference as to how long it took to reach the Tennessee River from the Indian Agency (on the Natchez Trace).

After spending the night, they crossed the river, then continued on for another day's travel. At this point, they encountered heavy rains. During the night, they lost two pack-horses. The next morning, Mr. Neelly told Governor Lewis to go on ahead with his servant and Neelly's own escort to the next place where they could spend the night, and wait for him there so he could round up the pack-horses.

Note: What we do not know is in which direction Major Neelly had to go to locate the lost horses; it could be back along the way they had come, off in either side directions, or even along the same path of the Natchez Trace they had intended on traveling. If that were the case, Major Neelly may have headed in the same direction but at a faster pace, but going in that direction does not match the "staying behind" part. Going in this direction is the least likely scenario though because we know that Major Neelly did not arrive (or at least stop) at Grinder's Stand* until the following morning. If he had traveled in the same direction they had intended, he would have to ride past Grinder's Stand so far, that it took him until the next morning to return. More likely, Major Neelly had to travel back in the direction they had traveled before, or off to the sides. Horses typically will return along a road they have traveled, ... as if returning home. Of course, there is no guarantee that this happened in this case, so it is speculation.

What we do know is that Governor Lewis rode a horse,* but the escorts were walking, which would mean they would arrive later than the Governor at the next resting spot. That place was called Grinder's Stand, an Inn run by a man named Robert Evans Griner and his wife Priscilla Knight Griner.* Governor Lewis arrived there near dusk on October 10, 1809.

Priscilla told Governor Lewis that her husband was out hunting, but it is believed that he probably was attending his still because it was known that he sold whiskey illegally to travelers and the nearby Indians. Mrs. Griner seemed to notice that the Governor was not acting normal and asked if he was traveling alone or with others. He explained that his escorts would be arriving later. He paid for himself and his escorts in advance. When the escorts arrived, Mrs. Griner was much less concerned.

During and after dinner, Priscilla describes the Governor as being at times very normal, conversational, and at other times becoming agitated, talking loud, pacing, and talking to himself. At times he would settle down and be peaceful. Even then, he would walk straight up to Mrs. Griner and then turn and walk away. Out of concern, Mrs. Griner asked about the Governor's condition to his escorts. They told her to not be concerned because he would not harm her, if anything, he would harm himself instead.

It is not clear if the escorts/servants were at the Inn during the evening meal or not. They must have been there near that time for Mrs. Griner to ask them about Governor Lewis's condition.

Because the escorts/servants were going to sleep in the barn (a distance away), and the Governor was going to sleep in the Inn, Mrs. Griner decided to take the kids to the nearby kitchen building* to keep them safe. She locked the doors and spent the evening there. She reported that she could hear him pacing and talking to himself. At around 3 A.M.,* she heard a pistol shot and a loud plop to the floor, then she heard a second pistol shot. Still afraid to go outside, she remained behind locked doors. Later on, she says that he came up to her door asking for water and to help him with his wounds, but she was still afraid to go outside. The Governor headed back towards the Inn, sitting on a stump for a moment, then crawled back to his room. At daylight, she sent two of her kids to wake up the escorts/servants. They (escorts) found the Governor lying across his bed covered in blood. Even though he had one wound in the head and another in the lower chest, he was still alive and asked for water and help. He asked the servants to "please get my gun and blow my brains out," and also promised them all the money he had if they would do so.

They gave him water but did not carry out his last request. He died not long after the sun was up.

After Major Neelly arrived, the Governor was buried on the property very close to Grinder's Stand. October 11th, 1809, at age 35, Governor Meriwether Lewis, Captain of the Corps of Discovery was dead. He was survived by his mother (Lucille "Lucy" Marks); he had never married.

Letter written by James Neelly

When Mr. Neelly arrived, he questioned everyone, and a few days later wrote a letter to (retired) President Jefferson to explain what had happened. The contents of that October 18, 1809 letter is presented here:*

It is with extreme pain that I have to inform you of the death of His Excellency Meriwether Lewis, Governor of upper Louisiana who died on the morning of the 11 Instant and I am sorry to say by suicide.

I arrived at the Chickasaw Bluffs on or about the 18th of September, where I found the Governor (who had reached there two days before me from St. Louis) in very bad health. It appears that his first intention was to go around by water to the City of Washington; but his thinking a war with England probable, & and that his valuable papers might be in danger of falling into the hands of the British, he was thereby induced to Change his route, and to come through the Chickasaw nation by land; I furnished him with a horse to pack his trunks &cc on, and a man to attend to them having recovered his health in some degree at the Chickasaw Bluffs, we set out together. And on our arrival at the Chickasaw nation I discovered that he appeared at times deranged in mind. We rested there two days & came on. One days Journey after crossing the Tennessee River, & where we encamped we lost two of our horses. I remained behind to hunt them & the Governor continued on, with a promise to wait for me at the first houses he came to that was inhabited by white people; he reached the house of a Mr. Grinder about sun set, the man of the house being from home, and no person there but a woman discovering the governor to be deranged, gave him up the house & slept herself in one near it. His servant and mine slept in the stable loft some distance from the other houses. The woman reports that about 3 o'Clock she heard two pistols fire off in the Governors Room: the servants awakened by her arrived too late to save him. he had shot himself in the head with one pistol & a little below the Breast with the other-when his servant came in he says; I have done the business my good Servant give me some water. He gave him some water, he survived but a short time. I came up some after, & had him as decently Buried as I could in that place-if there is anything wished by his friends to be done to his grave I will attend to their instructions.

I have got in my possession his two trunks of papers (among which is said to be his travels to the pacific Ocean) and probably some Vouchers for expenditures of Public Money for a Bill which he said had been protested by the Secy. of War; and of which act to his death, he repeatedly complained. I have also in my Care his Rifle, Silver watch, Brace of Pistols, dirk & tomahawk; one of the Governors horses was lost in the wilderness which I will endeavor to regain, the other I have sent on by his servant who expressed a desire to go to the governors Mothers & to Montic[e]llo: I have furnished him with fifteen Dollars to defray his expenses to Charlottesville; Some days previous to the Governors death he requested of me in case any accident happened to him to send his trunks with the papers within to the President, but I think very probable he meant to you. I wish to be informed what arrangements may be considered best in sending on his trunks &cc I have the honor to be with Great respect Yr. Ob. Serv.

James Neelly
U.S. agent to the Chickasaw Nation

Letter written by Alexander Wilson

Seven months after Governor Meriwether Lewis' death, Alexander Wilson, a friend of Governor Lewis, traveled from Nashville along the Natchez Trace to Grinder's Stand to question Priscilla regarding Meriwether's death. She gave a full account, which was recorded by Mr. Wilson. A copy of the letter is viewable in the National Park Service cabin at the site today.*

Letter written by Alexander Wilson, Ornithologist

May 18, 1810

The following is a letter from Meriwether Lewis' friend, Alexander Wilson, recounting his interview with Mrs. Griner during a visit to the stand.

Letter to a Friend May 18, 1810

Next morning (Sunday) I rode six miles to a man's house, of the name of Grinder, where our poor friend Lewis perished.

In the same room where he expired, I took down from Mrs. Grinder, the particulars of that melancholy event, which affected me extremely. The house or cabin is seventy-two miles from Nashville, and is the last white man's as you enter the Indian country. Governor Lewis, she said, came hither about sunset, alone. and inquired if he could stay the night; and alighting, brought his saddle into the house. He was dressed in loose gown, white, striped with blue. On being asked if he came alone, he replied that there were two servants behind, who would soon be up. He called for some spirits, and drank a very little. When the servants arrived, one of whom was a negro, he inquired for his powder, saying he was sure he had some in a canister. The servant gave no distinct reply, and Lewis, in the meanwhile, walked backwards and forwards before the door, talking to himself.

Sometimes, she said, he would seem as if he were walking up to her, and would suddenly wheel around, and walk back as fast as he could. Supper being ready he sat down, but had eaten only a few mouthfuls when he started up, speaking to himself in a violent manner. At these times, she says she observed his face to flush as if it had come on him in a fit. He lighted his pipe, and drawing a chair to the door, saying to Mrs. Grinder, in a kind tone of voice, Madam, this is a very pleasant evening. He smoked for some of the time, but quitted his seat and traversed the yard as before, He again sat down to his pipe, seemed again composed, and casting his eyes wistfully towards the west, observed what a sweet evening it was. Mrs. Grinder was preparing a bed for him. but he said he would sleep on the floor, and desired the servant to bring the bear skins and buffalo robe, which were immediately spread out for him; and. it now being dusk, the woman went off to the kitchen and the two men to the barn which stands about two hundred yards off.

The kitchen is only a few paces from the room where Lewis was, and the woman being considerably alarmed by the behavior of her guest could not sleep. but listened to him walking backwards and forwards, she thinks, for several hours, and talking aloud, as she said, "like a lawyer." She then hard the report of a pistol, and something fell heavily to the floor, and the words "Oh Lord!" Immediately afterwards she heard another pistol, and in a few minutes, she heard him at her door calling out, "Oh madam! give me some water and heal my wounds!"

The logs being open, and unplastered, she saw him stagger back and fall against a stump that stands between the kitchen and the room. He crawled for some distance, and raised himself by the side of a tree, where he sat about a minute. He once more got to the room; afterwards he came to the kitchen door, but did not speak; she then heard him scraping in the bucket with a gourd for water; bit it appears that this cooling element was denied the dying man.

As soon as day broke, and not before, the terror of the woman having permitted him to remain for two hours in this most deplorable situation, she sent two of her children to the barn, her husband not being home, to bring the servants; and on going in they found him lying on the bed. He uncovered his side, and showed them where the bullet had entered; a piece of his forehead was blown off, and exposed the brains, without having bled much.

He begged they would take his rifle and blow out his brains, and he would give them all the money he had in his trunk. He often said, "I am no coward; but I am strong, so hard to die." He begged the servant to not be afraid of him, for he would not hurt him. He expired in about two hours, or just as the sun rose above the trees.

He lies buried close by the common path, with a few loose rails thrown over his grave. I gave Grinder money to put a fence around it, to shelter it from the hogs and from the wolves; and he gave me his written promise that he would do it. I left this place in a very melancholy mood, which was not allayed by the prospect of the gloomy and savage wilderness, which I was entering alone.


As you can see, both letters help to fill in parts not clearly detailed previously, and at the same time, they do not detail everything, such as exactly when Neelly arrived at Grinder's Stand to question the individuals. Written seven months after the event, the Alexander Wilson letter does not imply that anyone at that time doubted it being suicide; he merely wanted to get the story himself from where it happened.

At the time of the event, there probably were lots of minor details that did not seem to be in the least bit significant, and therefore, get left out of the historical record. Probably many of those details were determined to be not significant at the time when reporters asked particular questions. Learning that what they were questioning did not seem relevant, they get dropped. The documentation of them being dropped is rarely made public. A reporter has it in his notes, but what went to print were the significant points of the day; the others were forgotten, except in those notes. That is common even today. The problem is that much later, people still have the same questions, but now, there is no one to ask, and the reporter's notes are no longer available. That leaves us with questions we don't have answers to. As a result, some minor detail may trigger a curiosity that simply will not go away without the answers.

Now, two hundred years later, there seem to be more questions than answers. One of those questions is where was Major Neelly when Governor Lewis died? Therefore, I have to entertain the idea that something might be amiss. From the past, there haven't been any real details on this; at the same time, there wasn't any question either ... apparently.

How soon was Capt. Lewis buried?

In those days, people were buried soon after death (no embalming). Surely the servants would like Neelly to arrive soon, however, the servants would likely start preparing for the burial regardless of when Neelly arrives. At some point, he will be buried, and not long after death, usually the same day or the next. After all, the man is dead, inside someone else's house; they need to get him out and buried not far away.

Since the servants are expecting Major Neelly to arrive soon, it is entirely possible that Governor Lewis' body was not removed from the room where he died until after Major Neelly arrived. Per Major Neelly's letter, he was involved in some manner in the burial, whether it was just arranging for it to happen is not known.

Neelly last saw Governor Lewis alive the previous morning (approximately 20-24 hours prior to the time of his demise) when he sent the governor ahead while he (Neelly) rounded up the two pack-horses. That morning was after a rainstorm, so the ground would be soft and easy to track the lost horses once he was able to find their trail, or determine that the horse tracks were washed away making tracking nearly impossible.* At some point, if he does not find the horses, he will have to abandon his search, at least for the time being. If the horse is easily identifiable, it will be found, possibly by the Chickasaw. The Chickasaw were on good terms with the Indian Agency, and would likely report to the Indian Agency that they had found a lost horse.

We know that he apparently did not recover all of the horses on that first day because, in his letter to Jefferson, he explains that one of Governor Lewis's horses was lost in the wilderness, but that he will endeavor to find it ("which I will endeavor to regain"). That implies he looked but was not successful in locating the horse initially. Since the letter was dated October 18, 1809, 8 days have passed since that horse wandered off. It surely will be harder to find now. At the same time, most likely somebody traveling along the trail or the Chickasaw would have found it.

We do not know if Major Neelly spent a short period of time looking for the horses or a very long time looking; no such details are available to us today. If he looked for a long time, say like half a day, he would not have time to reach Grinder's Stand that day, so, therefore, would camp somewhere along the way for the night, continue on the next day, arriving maybe around noon, several hours after Governor Lewis' death.

If Major Neelly did not take a long time looking for the horses but gave up say after a couple of hours, he would head on toward Grinder's Stand along the Natchez Trace. There is no indication he has ever traveled along the Natchez Trace, and his letter indicates no familiarity with Grinder's Stand prior, so he may not know how far ahead that Governor Lewis has made it. Since Governor Lewis arrived at Grinder's Stand close to the evening, and the servants later still, Major Neelly would not likely make it there on the same day. At some point, he will stop to camp for the night. He doesn't know if Governor Lewis is camped a short distance ahead or in some home further ahead. Major Neelly may be camping close to Grinder's Stand and not even know it. There is no mention of him being at Grinder's Stand when Governor Lewis died, therefore, he must have camped somewhere along the way that first night, but not real close to Grinder's Stand. If he did not take long to search for the horses, then the next morning he would arrive at Grinder's Stand earlier than noon, and possibly not long after Governor Lewis has died.

In either case, Major Neelly would start the burial process very soon if Governor Lewis had not already been buried. Major Neelly's letter to Jefferson suggests that Governor Lewis had not been buried yet.

New Evidence

The major problem with the details as presented thus far is that it is not clear when precisely Neelly did arrive at Grinder's Stand. There has been some speculation regarding Major Neelly's presence during the time that Governor Lewis died. I heard that new evidence has uncovered a document showing that Major Neelly was actually in Franklin, Tennessee on October 11, 1809 (the same day of Lewis' demise). The document was a court document showing that he was there to handle a legal case against him. Signature experts have verified that the signature on the documents is his signature. While even signature analysis may be fallible, we will go on the premise that it is legit for this discussion.

Before going any further, let me establish some facts about Franklin and the courthouse where we presume Major Neelly was at when in Franklin. The courthouse is known as the Williamson County Courthouse. The courthouse in Franklin now is not the same courthouse that Major Neelly would have visited. There have been three courthouses in Franklin, and the one Major Neelly would have seen in 1809 would be the second one built. The first courthouse was constructed in 1800 and was a log structure. The second courthouse was built in 1806 (three years before Major Neelly would be there). The website for the courthouse has a page on the history of the courthouse. It does not state that the courthouse was built in 1806, but that in 1806 Williamson County took bids to build a new courthouse to replace the log structure. There is a brief comment about someone criticizing the second courthouse's appearance in an 1853 article, and the next paragraph states "A new market house and two small office rooms were built adjoining the east side of the courthouse in 1806." That should suggest that the actual courthouse was completed in 1806 as well. The history page does state that in 1855 "a committee was formed by the Quarterly County Court to select a site, adopt a plan and determine the cost of construction of a new courthouse." The page does not clarify if the third courthouse was built on the same spot as the second courthouse, but it does suggest it in a round-about way with the statement "The old courthouse was torn down in 1858, and the new building was completed." Therefore, the marker on the map is at the spot of the current courthouse, and it may be where the second courthouse building was located. Regardless, it is close enough to use for calculating distances to Grinder's Stand.

The conspiracy claim is that Major Neelly went to Franklin before going to Grinder's Stand. The idea is proposed by those that claim that Governor Lewis was murdered instead of dying from suicide.

The proponents (of a murder-instead-of-a-suicide) estimate that by riding horseback, it would take two and a half days to reach Grinder's Stand from Franklin. Therefore, it is speculated that he must have arrived at Grinder's Stand no earlier than around October 14th, 1809.

Of course, this throws a whole different bit of evidence into the fire pit. In one sense, it gives Major Neelly a legal alibi of his whereabouts. On another, it raises other suspicions. If Major Neelly was in Franklin, was he involved in a plot to have Governor Lewis murdered? This is one question raised by the proponents supporting that Governor Lewis was murdered instead.

How I have looked at this in the Past

When I first learned of how Governor Lewis died, I was saddened, and reluctantly accepted that he had taken his own life, due to his continuing illness. I understood why he did what he did. Knowing that the illness was getting worse, he was tormented by the developments. Now, having to go to Washington to face another battle dealing with financial matters was also paramount on his mind. During the expected proceedings or meetings, it would not be a good time to have a problem with the illness. I believe he felt like he was fighting a losing battle. For once, he was away from St. Louis, and for a brief period, he was essentially alone. While contemplating his future at his time at Grinder's Stand, he knew that soon Major Neelly would catch up to him and the servants. If ever there were a time to be able to end the sorrow he was suffering, this would be it. Still, that decision would have to be a very difficult one to carry out. People who have committed suicide have thought about it for a long time. During intervention discussions, they have often said that their life was tormented. Many of those same individuals later still took their life.

Initially, I pondered explanations of why someone could have murdered Governor Lewis.

At one time, I seriously entertained the idea that Mr. Griner upon arriving back at his home in the middle of the night after tending his still, not finding his wife and family, but finding a man pacing the floor, could easily get shot by the homeowner, in spite of it being an Inn. Upon learning who he had killed, he could conceivably want to cover it up, and the wife would not be so anxious to intervene. After all, she could very easily end up with no means of support, ... and very soon too. She would go along with whatever story preserves her future, and at that point, it means keeping Mr. Griner out of trouble.

Likewise, it could be conceived that Mrs. Griner in an act of self-defense did the deed. Likewise, Mr. Grinder would not want any investigation that could also reveal that Mr. Griner was selling illegal whisky. Therefore, he would also attempt to cover up the incident.

Had there been any shred of evidence supporting one of my ideas, I would be even more certain it was possible. Since we are trying to come up with any other explanation than suicide, any speculation is possible. I wasn't the only one speculating regarding this incident.

When I first heard that Governor Lewis might have in fact been murdered, I was anxious to learn about the new evidence. Overall, we still treat suicide as a shameful thing, be it media or general discussion. Rarely does anyone accept it and not think it is shameful. I never felt that he ever did anything shameful myself. In spite of my accepting his suicide, and understanding why, for the world that still feels suicide is shameful, it would be great to show that he did not commit suicide, but instead through no fault of his own, was the victim of a different devious person. I have hoped it could be true for the family and anyone else that still feels that his committing suicide is shameful. It would in one sense be a healing moment for our country. Therefore, I am excited about each new bit of evidence supporting the non-suicide theory. At the same time, it makes sense to take each of these new bits of evidence with an open mind. It should be investigated, discussed, and added to the collective wisdom involving this case.

Is this theory possible? A map helps a lot.

I felt the same way about the new evidence that Major James Neelly was in Franklin on the day Governor Lewis died. Mentally, I could not picture exactly where Franklin was in perspective to the other significant locations of this trip. I decided to familiarize myself with the route locations on a map, only I did not have access to a map showing the details, so I decided to make my own using Google Maps. Doing so, and investigating the results, did not allow me to as easily accept the "new evidence as presented" as proof that something else was aloof. Until I saw the map, I did not have any doubts regarding this new evidence at all. After looking at the map, it does put a different spin on things. If you look at the map, you can see visually a comparison of distances.

I ask you to join me in taking a look at the Google map showing the major points of the Washington Trip, but also continue reading some points I would like to make below: Detail Map showing routes used, plus other interesting points

Take a look at the important points

After looking at the map, I had to take into consideration the points we have been presented with previously.

O.K., whoa; stop right there. I have no idea where exactly this conspiracy evidence is headed, but it clearly is to discredit Major Neelly, which may help substantiate some other theory, but the premise raises a big question.

What path would Major Neelly take to get to Franklin from where he was the day before (from the morning of the lost pack-horses)?

Take a look at the map. Look where Franklin, Tennessee is located (yellow marker). Please notice that the Natchez Trace comes somewhat close to Franklin, Tennessee as it runs in almost a straight diagonal line from the Colbert Ferry crossing (purple marker) to Nashville where it ends (blue marker). Most likely any travel from where Major Neelly was last known to be (from the morning of the lost pack-horses) would include the Natchez Trace for much of the route. Therefore, he would come to Grinder's Stand first.

Look where Major Neelly started looking for the horses at dawn on October 10th, 1809 (green marker). Look where Grinder's Stand is located (red marker).

Notice that it is nearly three times the distance from where the horses were lost to where Franklin, Tennessee is, as it is from where the horses were lost to Grinder's Stand, or based on the time it took Governor Lewis to get to Grinder's Stand, at least one more day away. If we are to accept that Franklin is two and half days from Grinder's Stand, how are we to expect that Major Neelly got to Franklin the next day, yet where he started is another day further away than Grinder's Stand?

Based on two and a half days travel from Franklin to Grinder's Stand, then Franklin would be roughly three and a half days to four days from where the horses were lost, yet Major Neelly mysteriously somehow is in Franklin the next day, effectively in only a little bit more than Governor Lewis takes to get to Grinder's Stand. How is that possible?

Part of me says, "Not likely!" but another thought comes to mind too (later on).

Based on the location of Grinder's Stand and the Tennessee River Ferry Crossing, the camp where the horses were lost is roughly in the middle, and matches with the rest of the story when Governor Lewis reaches Grinder's Stand at dusk on October 10, 1809. The first observation is that if these two distances are each one day apart, then the distance to Franklin is not two and a half days, but instead, more like one day, even a long day, but in a very big rush, could be made in less than a day.

Therefore, the two and a half days from Franklin to Grinder's Stand is wrong. That part of the conspiracy theory has to be thrown out.

Compelled to Join in the Conversation

I say that there are definitely parts to the puzzle that we do not know, but I do have some ideas no more far-fetched than some others I have heard in this ongoing evolution of ideas to fill in the blanks.

Was it the other way around?

Rather than think that Major Neelly came from Franklin to Grinder's Stand, it makes more sense to me that he traveled from Grinder's Stand to Franklin, all on the same date that Governor Lewis died. Major Neelly said "I came up some after" implying to almost anyone that would be the same day; after all, he is talking about that day when he makes this statement. Major Neelly also stated that he had Governor Lewis buried, not that he himself participated in the burial. He could have arrived, learned of the death, took care of business directing his servant and Governor Lewis' servant what to do, then headed for Franklin as fast as he possibly could travel. The concept that he must have arrived at Grinder's Stand a couple of days later makes no sense when you consider that he arranged for the burial. The servants did not wait two more days for Major Neelly to show up. That definitely makes no sense. He clearly arrived at Grinder's Stand the same day Governor Lewis died.

Normally, the traveling is not rushed, but an effort is made to make decent time. Notice that even though Governor Lewis is on horseback and the servants are walking, they arrive apparently close to dinner/supper* time. In the event of the death of a major citizen, I can easily understand that Major Neelly felt the need and did make it to Franklin on the same day. Looking at the map, Franklin looks more realistically to be a little bit longer than what the group has traveled in one day, but if traveling leisurely, Franklin could be two days away. In the case of a major news event, I can understand that Major Neelly could make it on the same day. If you take into consideration the distances the Pony Express riders covered in one day (75-100 miles), it does not seem impossible to have made it to Franklin within one day, which is between 53 to 60 miles away from Grinder's Stand. It was common and typical to change or trade horses if necessary in these odd cases of the impending need to travel great distances in a short period of time. Grinder's Stand was the last home of white citizens before entering Chickasaw Country west of there. The closer to Nashville, the more opportunities to trade for a fresh horse.

As for the Major Neelly court case, it may have been common knowledge to all of the parties at the time that Major Neelly was expected to be in Franklin on that specific day. Captain Russell knowing that Major Neelly was heading towards Franklin soon anyway, could have asked if he would take on the extra responsibilities of helping ensure Governor Lewis reached Washington. Based on this concept that Major Neelly was required to be in Franklin on October 11, 1809, I am sure that the two-day or three-day extra stay where the Indian Trail intersected the Natchez Trace might have brought some concern to Major Neelly's plans, however, he might have realized that it was still possible to reach Franklin if they left when they did.

I am sure that Franklin would be the closest town for which to get the word out that a national citizen had died. We have no reason to expect that Major Neelly intended to be in Franklin on the 11th, merely that it ended up that way due to the rush after the demise of Governor Lewis. In those days, specific date planning was much looser than we do today. Anything might delay or hold someone up, especially when they are traveling from afar.

Also, we have no reason to believe that Major Neelly was required (prior to or not) to be in Franklin on that day. It could have been that when he arrived, he could take care of that part of his business, before continuing his escorting Governor Lewis to Washington. He may have needed to merely sign some documents, or even just deliver some documents that he already had in his possession to sign. If that is the case, then they could have been delivered by mail, and Major Neelly may have been the mail carrier for all or part of the way. Possibly, somewhere close to Franklin, the same mail could have been handed off to a different carrier that would deliver it to Franklin. These are the types of specifics that we do not know about, and at the time those same specifics were not important to the overall story to record as part of the story. What we do know is that there is a document in Franklin that is dated October 11, 1809, but we do not know for sure that Major Neelly was actually there on that same date, or even that the document was dated accurately.

Just one More Possibility

In another thought, for all we know, it could have been known to all parties involved that Major Neelly was going to ride on to Franklin due to needing to take care of business. If he encountered the horses on the way, he would tie them to a tree along the Natchez Trace. Major Neelly writes that "he stayed behind" but there is nothing to say that Major Neelly did not continue on in the same general direction as Governor Lewis, merely at a more rushed pace and with a slight diversion to look for horses, then join back in with the Natchez Trace, but would be further along than Governor Lewis at that point; there simply wasn't any reason to force Governor Lewis to help look for the horses. Major Neelly could, therefore, rode past Grinder's Stand without stopping, recognizing that is likely where Governor Lewis would reach and spend the night some amount of time later. In this way, Major Neelly could have more easily reached Franklin in time to participate in a court case on October 11, 1809. If that is the case, then indeed, he did return to Grinder's Stand at a more normal pace, only to find that Governor Lewis was dead. What contradicts this concept is that if Major Neelly traveled at a more normal pace, it would take him more than a day to arrive at Grinder's Stand, and due to the agreed-on statement that Major Neelly was involved to some degree in Governor Lewis's burial, that it likely would not be a couple of days after his demise. After all, Major Neelly knows that Governor Lewis is expecting that Major Neelly will join him the following day at the "first place to spend the night."


I keep thinking back to why does court papers in Franklin with Major Neelly's signature dated October 11, 1809, necessarily indicate that he had to be there that day. He could have had them in his possession already, signed them on that date, and they could have been delivered much later. Until those documents are available to examine along with any records documenting when they were entered into the court system, we cannot discuss all of the possible explanations, nor can we theorize with certainty one way or the other what exactly they mean. Even examining them may not add any additional clues. They may mean nothing in the end.

In other words, this extra bit of paperwork that some have implied means that Major Neelly was in Franklin may not be significant at all, simply because we do not have all of the details that those present at the time may have been privy to, but in the reporting of the incident, did not consider them in any way significant at the time or part of the case, possibly was at the time common knowledge, just not considered important to this case to include in any documentation, therefore we never got the chance to learn of those common knowledge details.

Regardless, I am sure that no one conceived that 200 years later when someone discovers court documents with Major Neelly's signature and date being the same date as Governor Lewis' death, that a conspiracy would be in effect.

Back to the story

There is more to the original story.

Two Additional Interesting Tidbits

The morning after the shooting, John Penay (Pernier or Pene possibly; not sure), one of the servants was wearing what was described as new clothing, like the Governor had been wearing, and the Governor was wearing old clothing. It was thought that the Governor gave his clothing to John Penay. The previous evening, the governor had asked the servant to bring him his gunpowder, which was in a saddlebag with the horse. Initially, the servants tried to ignore the Governor but eventually gave in to the Governor's request.

Within a year of the death of Governor Lewis, two unmarked graves were discovered on the Grinder's Stand property. The thought was that Mr. Griner might have killed the Governor and his two servants. He stood trial for those charges a year following Governor Lewis's death, however, without evidence or incentive, the case was dropped.*

Burial Site

Governor Lewis (Captain) is buried on National Park Service property.* Descendants of Governor Lewis' family would like to have the body exhumed and examined to do a better investigation of the cause than was available at the time of his death. The National Park Service thus far has not allowed the body to be exhumed although there is a growing interest by many others to have the body re-examined. A website had been started to follow the situation, however, it is no longer in use.

A great resource to go along with the map is on the National Park Service website. Look for "Maps" along the top: NPS Map

Continue Reading  Back to the top of this page.

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