Grinnell was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts on November 17, 1788. He was the son of Cornelius Grinnell (1758–1850) and Sylvia (née Howland) Grinnell (1765–1837). His siblings included Henry Grinnell and Moses Hicks Grinnell.
After completing preparatory studies he moved to New York City in 1809, where he engaged in mercantile pursuits.
In 1815, he aided in establishing the firm of Fish and Grinnell, which later became Grinnell, Minturn & Co. His two younger brothers, Moses and Henry Grinnell, became members of the firm in 1825. When Joseph retired in 1828, his place was taken by Robert B. Minturn.
In 1840, he became a director of the Boston & Providence Railroad, the following year its president, resigning that position in 1846, but remaining a director until 1863. He also served as president of the Wamsutta Mills from 1847 until 1885.
Grinnell was elected as a Whig to the Twenty-eighth Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Barker Burnell. He was reelected to the Twenty-ninth, Thirtieth, and Thirty-first Congresses and served from December 7, 1843, to March 3, 1851. He declined to be a candidate for renomination in 1850. After serving in Congress, he resumed his former business activities.
Grinnell was married to Sarah Russell (1788–1862), the daughter of Abraham and Sarah (née Schumacher) Russell. Joseph lived in New Bedford for fifty-six years, often traveling to Europe.
- "GRINNELL, Joseph - Biographical Information". bioguide.congress.gov. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
- Emery, William Morrell (1919). The Howland Heirs: Being the Story of a Family and a Fortune and the Inheritance of a Trust Established for Mrs. Hetty H. R. Green. E. Anthony and Sons, Incorporated. pp. 249-250. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
- "Grinnell Family Papers in the New Bedford Whaling Museum". whalingmuseum.org. New Bedford Whaling Museum. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
- Scoville, Joseph Alfred (1866). The Old Merchants of New York City. Carleton. p. 113. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
- "Grinnell, Joseph". Appletons' Cyclopaedia of American Biography. 3. D. Appleton and Company. 1892. p. 1. Retrieved May 23, 2010.
- Hunt, Freeman (1846). Hunt's Merchants' Magazine. Freeman Hunt. p. 584. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
- The Bank of America. New-York: DeVinne Press. 1887. p. 106. Retrieved 27 April 2018.
- United States Congress. "Joseph Grinnell (id: G000477)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1892). . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
|U.S. House of Representatives|
| Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 10th congressional district
December 7, 1843 – March 3, 1851