Lewis Co, TN:

 The Meriwether Lewis Story
Compiled from the papers of Jesse Eugene Cooper,
 Grandson of Robert O. Smith and Robert M. Cooper,
 and other records and letters in the Cooper family.

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.

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This page is 2004 Cheryl Zelek.
This page was created on 3 October 2004.

This page was last updated on  Thursday, August 13, 2015.