ROBERT SMITH, father of
ROBERT O. SMITH, was carrying mail between Nashville and Natchez along the
Natchez Trace which was opened about 1800. It was on one of these return
trips that he came upon Meriwether Lewis. The records do not state if Lewis
was dead or dying when Smith reached him. We do know that ROBERT SMITH lived
in the same vicinity on Grinder's tavern where LEWIS was shot the night
before and died trying to reach water from a spring near the tavern. Records
state that SMITH found LEWIS lying against a tree near the spring with a hole
in his head. SMITH is believed to have been the first person to reach the
explorer after he was shot by the assassin. LEWIS had been a guest at
Grinder's for the night as he was en route to Washington to report on his
governorship of the West.
LEWIS was an extremely
large man and a carpenter in the area made his casket from a huge Chestnut
oak and because of its thickness special nails had to be forged for it.
ROBERT Smith's brother in law JOHN COOPER had gone to Mississippi and had
left the shop in the care of his two brothers, HAMILTON and ROBERT MELVILLE
COOPER. They, too, were good smiths following the trade of their
Revolutionary father, CAPT. ROBERT COOPER. The two Cooper brothers forged
large, long square nails for the coffin and LEWIS was buried.
Grinder's Mill was a
wilderness hostelry, a stand to retail high wines to Indians and entertain
travelers as might come that way, thus known as "Grinder's Stand". It was
owned by ROBERT EVANS GRINDER, son of JOSHUA GRINDER of Stokes County, North
Carolina. His wife was PRISCILLA KNIGHT, also of Stokes Co., N.C., who after
their marriage moved to Tennessee. PRISCILLA GRINDER was alone in the tavern
when LEWIS arrived with his man servant. Much speculation has been made about
what happened that night. Some way LEWIS was killed while others contend he
committed suicide; and much has been written about it. After the death of
LEWIS, the GRINDERS moved over into Hickman County where he bought about a
thousand acres of fertile bottom land of Duck River. Many of the family
spelled their name "GRINER" as ROBERT EVANS GRINDER signed his name "GRINER".
The inquest papers made
by the coroner about LEWIS' death are missing. Some think they were given at
one time to the MAURY COUNTY HISTORICAL Society but they have no record of
them. It was believed many years ago that two men by the names of WHITESIDE
and FARRIS, who lived in the Grinder neighborhood, had the Coroner's papers.
There was sort of a Coroner's Jury at Grinder's after the body of LEWIS was
found. Some of the settlers from Hickman County were summoned to act on the
jury and some were displeased with the results of the Jury. Their verdict is
still not know. Some say that ROBERT MELVILLE COOPER was a member of the
jury, but no records of this were found among his papers. He did make the
nails as he so states in a letter.
When ROBERT SMITH died he
was buried south of the Lewis monument next to LEWIS. We have been assured
that the wife of ROBERT SMITH, ELEANOR COOPER, daughter of CAPT. ROBERT
COOPER, is buried with her husband. Also buried here are the two infant twin
boys of ROBERT O. SMITH, son of ROBERT and ELEANOR SMITH. The boys are buried
in an unmarked grave about twenty feet east of the monument. It is believed
there are others of the Cooper-Smith families buried here.
Back of the monument at
the edge of a clearing was a little cemetery. Many of the graves dated far
back into the preceding century. Some never had markers and some had been
destroyed by the elements of time. Some were protected by logs while others
had little grave houses which were copies of those built by the Cherokees and
Creeks. Some were marble stones and some were of sandstone with inscriptions
almost worn away. Many had been upturned and desecrated by Diviners and
fortune tellers from the North hunting for MERIWETHER LEWIS' gold, which some
said had been buried with him. They never found his money and his relatives
never knew what became of it.
Years later, after the
death of MERIWETHER LEWIS, the Legislature of Tennessee in 1848
decided to honor the explorer by placing a monument over his grave. By that
time his grave was lost as no marker identified it and it had been almost
forty years since LEWIS died on October 11, 1809. Unable to locate the grave
three bodies were exhumed before positive identification was made. Recalling
that special nails had been made for LEWIS' casket, they called upon COL.
ROBERT MELVILLE COOPER, now some fifty-eight years old who had helped forge
the nails when he was nineteen. Accompanied by his nephew, ROBERT O. SMITH
and his son, THOMAS SIMPSON COOPER riding behind him on his horse, the three
men went by horseback from the town of Newburgh to Grinder's mill. There he
carefully examined the open graves and found the iron nails, now rust, that
held only fragments of the log coffin together. Identifying the grave of
LEWIS, ROBERT M. COOPER said, "This is the grave of MR. LEWIS for these are
my nails." ROBERT O. SMITH seeing the skull with the hole in it reminded
those present of his father's story of the great hole in LEWIS' head. Thus,
the remains of LEWIS were identified. Some thirty years later, ROBERT M.
COOPER wrote to COL. LYMAN C. DRAPER of the Wisconsin Historical Society
telling him about the nails.
Tennessee made the
appropriation for the monument. It was to be in the form of a broken shaft.
The limestone for the monument was quarried by a MR. KIRBY from near a spring
about three and a half miles north of Columbia, Tenn. and just west of the
Nashville turnpike road. The shaft is made of two pieces of limestone and is
round and about twelve feet in height, broken in design at the top. The round
shaft rest on a four foot base that stands on a base of rough rock nine feet
square. When it was first erected it was enclosed with an iron fence which
has now been removed.
When the United States
Government decided to make a National shrine out of the location, the old
Natchez Trace road was changed somewhat making it necessary to remove the
graves of the old cemetery. There were moved and the bones of the departed
were buried around the Lewis monument. The only markers placed to identify
these people were marble markers about twelve inches square with only
initials on them. Many, of course, are unmarked for all identification had
been lost before the reburial. However, it seems sad that thus that were
known were not given more identification than just initials, and that their
names are lost for all eternity. Sadder still is the speculation that still
goes on about the death of MERIWETHER LEWIS and his gold.
The following is an
account written by COOPER FRIERSON of Maury County, Tennessee years before
his death and sent to Jesse Eugene Cooper of Georgetown, Texas and belongs to
CORINNA COOPER HALL of Georgetown.
"MR. BRUCE COOPER and his
brother ALFRED told me before the Park was dedicated that their father, MR.
ROBERT COOPER, said that MERIWETHER LEWIS was murdered by the man who ran the
house where he stopped to spend the night. The brothers told me they played,
when boys, with a boy about their age, named WHITESIDES, who said his father
was on the Jury of inquest and had told him that they had all the proof they
needed to convict him but were afraid to do it, for they said the murderer
was one-half Indian and would kill them. He said they were cowards and did
not. The Jury was satisfied that it was not suicide. They also said MR.
ROBERT O. SMITH was a mail carrier and came along the Natchez Trace about sun
up and found the body lying with the feet in the road. MR. SMITH was
connected with the Coopers and told the Cooper brothers and their father,
ROBERT M., told them. MR. ROBERT M. COOPER was a blacksmith, living eight or
ten miles from where LEWIS was killed and they sent to him to make some
spikes or nails and he went to the burial. In those days they made coffins
with wooden pins. They could not find any lumber to make a coffin, so they
found a chestnut oak that would split easy and they hewed and split it in
thick slabs and made a coffin. MR. ROBERT M. COOPER helped to bury him."
"When the Legislature
ordered a monument erected, the parties in charge of the work came to MR.
ROBERT M. COOPER to locate the grave. His son THOMAS told me he was a half
grown boy, and he asked his father to let him ride behind him and was there.
The remains were dug up and they found a few coins, a brass button or two,
and a medal or insignia, and a piece of his uniform. They went to the Spring
and found a flat rock, and scraped a hole in it and put everything in it and
put another rock on top, and put these rocks in the grave. MR. THOMAS COOPER
told me all about the remains and finding the grave.