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Grinnell Genealogical Mystery Solved! PDF Print E-mail
Written by Larry Grinnell   
Wednesday, 17 August 2011 12:33

After goodness knows how many years, a great Grinnell mystery has been solved!

Back in the 1970s through the early 1980s, Ed W. (Medina) Grinnell, Richard W. Grinnell, Mable Grennell McMahon, and a “cast of thousands” researched and provided input of their family lineage for the first truly comprehensive Grinnell genealogy ever published. Past editions, including Emery’s volume Ancestry of the Grinnell Family (1931, Privately Printed), and even GFA founder Wiley B. Grinnell’s (GFA #1) book 500 Years of Grinnells published privately in the late 1970s only covered the descendants of Matthew Greenell’s son (known as Grenelle at the time) Daniel (1636-1709). It was only through additional research by a number of individuals that lines descending from Matthew’s other sons were discovered. First was Thomas’ (1630-?) progeny, if he had any. This could be a researcher’s bonanza someday. The other was Matthew Jr. (1630-1705).


Matthew Jr.’s line spawned a large number of Grinnell descendants who, for the most part, remained in and around Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New York, not moving west in any big way until the World War 2 era. In spite of this convenient location in mostly small states, with an uncommon surname, Matthew Jr.’s line was little researched until preparations were made to publish the next major Grinnell genealogy, Charts and Chronicles of Matthew Grenelle’s Descendants (1983, Privately Printed). This was the first time the lineage of these Grinnell descendants was published. Unfortunately, there were a number of holes that couldn’t be plugged for reasons of time and availability of researchers, though many descendants of Matthew Jr. were discovered. Others, including my family line, were relegated to the back of the book in a section referred to as “lineage unknown,” a place for fragments of families that could not be positively connected up to the earliest known Grinnell (Grenelle), Matthew of Portsmouth/Newport. Mine was group LU-7. There were other LU groups that descended from this Matthew Jr. line, too.

It was in this line where I found my father and his ancestors, without mention of his children (thanks, Uncle Leonard!). It went back three or four generations to James A. Grinnell (1786-1841) of Jamestown, RI with a note that there could be a tie to Robert and then to Matthew IV, but was completely undocumented and unproven.

When I joined the GFA back in 1987, the genealogy bug hit me hard, and I spent countless hours at the local LDS Family History Center, followed up by visits to the New England Historic Genealogical Society Library in Boston, the Newport Historical Society Library in Newport (RI), the Rhode Island Historical Society Library in Providence (RI), the Jamestown Town Hall. Thanks to my ever-patient 1st cousin once removed, Gardner Sherman and his delightful wife Eunice, I was able to visit a number of cemeteries, and made visits to a number of cousins who, quite frankly, weren’t going to be around that much longer. With the able assistance of Gardner, wife Eunice, and all the other Grinnell cousins, I filled out the lines that had once been a great mystery, and was then able to backfill with genealogical information on many of the descendants of Matthew Grinold IV (1713-1809) of Jamestown, RI. He was really the key to everything that followed. As Ed Grinnell also surmised, it seemed clear that he was the link for my line, but it couldn’t be proven.

I requested countless microfilms of Jamestown records, and laboriously went through, page by page, of town hall record books from about 1738 to the mid 1800s at my local and extremely helpful LDS Family History Center. I saw Matthew’s name all over the place (he was a constable, a sergeant at arms, keeper of the poor, and also held other government jobs), but there was nothing that tied him to his presumed son, Robert. It finally took some paid research, back in the mid 90s, to a researcher attached to the Jamestown Historical Society, a Mrs. Miner, who found the entry in a book of records that had not yet been microfilmed by the LDS Church, which proved that Matthew Grinold (Matthew IV) had a son, Robert. Robert was charged with the responsibility of taking care of his father, Matthew, who was of advanced age and penniless. That got me a generation closer.

Enter the mysterious Robert Grinnell (1756-1837). Robert was, according to the published records, a Revolutionary War veteran, though by the time a pension for his service was requested, in order that he not be a financial liability to the town, he was so senile, other townsfolk who knew him needed to testify in his behalf. He was granted a pension which was administered by a trustee appointed by the Jamestown (RI) town council. We know Robert married Anne Andrews (1760-?) in 1783, and that he had several children, but there was no evidence of James A. Grinnell being his son. We even found town records showing James was paid by the town to take care of Robert, but the key thing was that nowhere did the known records state that Robert was the father of James. One could easily view the evidence as circumstantial, but circumstantial evidence does not normally pass the proof tests required by lineage societies by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Mayflower Society, the Sons of the American Revolution, or pretty much any of the Colonial/Hereditary associations.

In the meantime, I took on a number of projects for the Grinnell Family Association including authoring their 1997 Grinnell genealogy, a much-expanded volume. In this volume, with the tacit approval of others on the GFA genealogy committee, we tied Matthew to Robert and Robert to James and placed them in the main lines, though with disclaimers. It just seemed to fit so well, but we lacked that one piece of proof needed to make this connection a genealogically valid one.

It wasn’t until 2010, when I was contacted by GFA member (and 2nd cousin) David Grinnell (GFA #95), formerly of Rhode Island, who was helping his grandson with some genealogical research, that research on this line moved forward again. I shared everything I had, including a number of photographs that David had never seen before. I don’t know how the grandson’s project went, but it lit a really big fire under David, who began his own research, looking for paths to Mayflower and other Colonial superstar ancestors, of whom he found many—some through the Grinnell lines, and others through his mother’s and grandmother’s lines, as well as our common Peckham ancestry. He applied for, and was granted certificates and membership in many of these societies, finally getting the Sons of the American Revolution to accept the circumstantial evidence about the Matthew-Robert-James link. He also submitted DNA samples to the folks at, which confirmed that I am indeed related to him (I had also submitted DNA samples a few years ago), not that there was any question about that!

Just a few days ago, I received an e-mail from David, who with great exultation, announced he found the smoking gun—a document that stated Robert was the father of James! It took so long because it was on a fragment of paper, one of tens of thousands of such in the Jamestown Town Hall, and the Jamestown Historical Society. In 2007, they apparently embarked on a project to catalog their collection of rare documents online, and that’s where a researcher working with David found them. He had been asked to provide proof of the link between Matthew IV and Robert, and came upon the website of the Jamestown Historical Society, which had a searchable database, and there it was, along with a number of additional documents of which we had no previous knowledge.

This has been a relief in a number of ways. First, of course, it validates the research and supposition that had been taken for near-fact for 30+ years. Second, it closes the book on the work done by the late Robert J. P. Grinnell of Warwick, RI, who had been hunting for this proof for much longer than 30 years. I will make sure his family is made aware of this discovery. Third, it makes it possible for any number of interested descendants of Robert Grinnell to apply for membership in many hereditary and historical organizations, as it not only directly ties those descendants to a Revolutionary War veteran, but through marriages (many from Robert Jason Grinnell Jr.’s marriage to Clara Belle Peckham and her family), there are solid ties to Mayflower passengers and other significant historical figures of the Colonial days.

Thanks to the perseverance of David Grinnell, now doing this work long distance from his new home in Palm Springs, CA, for making this very important discovery.

Last Updated on Monday, 27 May 2013 10:34