I said at the opening of this series that I don't believe anything Priscilla Grinder said about the night that Meriwether Lewis died, and here is why. In all three versions of her stories, she claims that about 3 A.M. (or “the middle of the night”) she heard a shot, heard a man call, “Oh, Lord”. Then she heard a second shot. Then, sometime later she heard a scratching at the door of the kitchen cabin, and Lewis pleading for water. She said she did not open the door because she did not feel safe. But she knew it was Lewis because she peeked through the open chinks in the wall and saw him wandering around outside between the cabins. And that story is a load of hooey.
On the night of Lewis' death, October 10th, 1809, there was a new moon, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory, meaning there was no light to illuminate Lewis for Priscilla Grinder to see him. Was Lewis carrying a candle or a lamp? If so Priscilla did not mention it. And any light inside the cabin would have blinded her to anyone moving around outside. No, I don't believe Priscilla's version of events. And the only thing we know for certain is that somebody that night shot Governor Meriwether Lewis, allegedly twice, once in the head and once in the side, and the pool of suspects is pretty shallow. There may have been others at Grinder's Stand that night, but we know of only four individuals who were there - Priscilla Grinder, Meriwether Lewis, his servant John Pernier and the James Neeley's servant. (Priscilla had her two daughters with her in the cooking cabin, but because they were young we can treat the three of them as one person.)
Now, it is unlikely that Agent Neeley's servant had a weapon. He was a slave, and handing a weapon to a slave was the equivalent of freeing him - so that makes it unlikely he was the shooter. Secondly, John Pernier was described as a “free mulatto”, meaning he had “negro blood”. Given the racism of the age, and the elitism of Lewis' Virginia heritage, I think it unlikely Lewis would have allowed him to possess a weapon. As evidence of this, no one asked Pernier what had happened that night, or bothered to write down his version of events, although I suspect that James Neeley's letter to President Jefferson was based on what Pernier told him had happened. Pernier did share his story with Meriwether Lewis' mother, but her reaction was to accuse him of killing her son. She did not do that to his face, and she never offered any justification for her suspicions. Pernier cannot be completely ruled out as a possible shooter, but it is difficult to accept a grieving racist mother's opinion at face value.
We know that Governor Lewis himself had four weapons. He had a hunting knife and a long gun, a smooth bore flintlock musket. However the size of the long gun ( about 5' in length) makes it impossible that Lewis shot himself in the head with this gun, then reloaded and shot himself a second time.
But Lewis also had a “brace” of pistols, meaning two. The ones he was most likely carrying were called “horse pistols” because they were too large (9 inches long) and too heavy (three pounds each) to wear in your belt on foot. These fired the same .69 caliber lead ball as the long rifle, 1 ½ inches in diameter, weighing an ounce and a third each. Black powder weapons compensated for their relatively low muzzle velocities – about 600 feet per second - with large mass - .58 to .79 caliber. They varied in size because they were all hand made, but they could still deliver on impact 450 to 500 pounds per inch. The wounds these weapons made were horrific. If Governor Lewis shot himself, he used the horse pistols, which would account for the two shots Priscilla supposedly heard.
Finally, Priscilla Grinder must have had at least one weapon to defend herself and her daughters, else her husband would have never left her alone on The Trace. Her weapon was probably a blunderbuss, also called a “coach gun”, a muzzle loading shotgun with a short barrel and relatively lite in weight. They were a superb weapon for intimidation and required little marksmanship. They fired a hand full of lead balls, but could also be loaded with whatever scrap metal or whatever stones were within reach. Or Priscilla could have been proficient with a standard flintlock musket or her own pistol. Self defense is just part of the cost of running a small business in a rough neighborhood. And along The Trace, you could call a cop but it might be six months before anybody showed up
So of the four people who most likely were responsible for the death of Governor Meriwether Lewis, only two likely had the means and opportunity to have committed this crime, Priscilla Grinder or Lewis himself. There were other less likely possibilities, primarily Priscilla's husband, Robert. But if he had been at the Stand, why would not John Prenier or Neeley's servant have mentioned him, then or later?
The same can be said for highwaymen or Indians, who have also been accused of Lewis' murder. The most valuable things that Meriwether Lewis possessed were not his papers. That was what he valued. But what highwaymen or renegade Indians in 1809 would have valued were the five or six horses Lewis' party rode in on - worth about $25 each or about $150.00 total (over $2,000 today). Stealing the horses would have been quick and safe, with little risk of having a confrontation with a motivated citizen with a gun.
And if there had been “secret agents” sent to murder Governor Lewis, then why not attack him while he was camped out in the wilderness, as he was on several nights during this trip? Why wait until he was in Grinder's Stand, where the risk was greater that another traveler or the staff would stumble upon the scene? And remember, Grinder's Stand was suffering from a loss of business because of the toll road by-pass. How could these secret agents know he would even stop in Grinder's Stand? There would have to have been dozens of “agents” descending upon the Natchez Trace to assure the elimination of Governor Lewis. And in an age before photographs, would all of them have been carrying a portrait of the hero so they didn't murder the wrong man? And would all of them have refrained from drunken boasting later on?
There was a lot of money to be made by land speculation in St. Louis. But there is no evidence that Governor Lewis was not perfectly willing to do business with mercantile interests, as his investment in the St. Louis and Missouri Company showed. It is extremely unlikely there was ever an economic conspiracy to murder the Governor. And there seem to be only rumors to indicate a political motivation in Lewis' death.
It is interesting to note, however, that according to modern multi-cultural studies, although suicide can affect anyone, those at the greatest risk of committing suicide are single white males from an affluent background who are moderate alcoholics and/or drug abusers, with few friends, and who are also dealing with a health problem while suffering from a diagnosable mental-health disorder such as depression. Emile Durkheim, the Frenchman who established the field of Sociology, described this condition as “excessive individuation”. Applying this description, Meriwether Lewis was the poster child for suicide.
I wish we had John Prenier's version of events that night. I wish experts could exhume Governor Lewis' body, to determine exactly what his wounds were. But honestly, I do not think either of those missing pieces of evidence are likely to ever be supplied. So what we are left with the death of a man who was far from perfect even when judged by the standards of his own time, but who was still more than an American hero. Meriwether Lewis was an American Archetype, even in his mode of death - self murder.
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