Walking The Knife-Edged Path: The Life Of William Conner
Author: Timothy Crumrin, Conner Prairie Historian
When early ethnographer and linguist C. C. Trowbridge entered Indiana during the late autumn of 1823 he was very much a man on a mission. Trowbridge had been charged by Lewis Cass, Governor of the Michigan Territory, with making scholarly enquiries into the lifeways and language of the Delaware Indians. On December 5th, "after a tedious and rather unpleasant journey" through the state, he finally reached the White River home of a man who could help him with his study.
Trowbridge found William Conner "a good deal employed in necessary attention to his business," but anxious to help the earnest young scholar. Conner's wide experience among the Delaware and other Native Americans made him an ideal resource. Indeed, for most of his forty-six years he had performed a precarious balancing act between two worlds: Red and White. He spoke the words of both worlds, lived and dressed as both did. He continually walked the knife-edged path dividing the two divergent cultures, never, seemingly, wholly a part of either. As a result, he had intimate knowledge of both societies-- and how they interacted with one another.
Ironically, Trowbridge also found Conner overseeing the completion of the most concrete affirmation of his desire to step away from that narrowing path, his new home. Conner's two story brick house was his signal that he had crossed the line, the symbol of his full entrance into white society. It was at once the completion of one journey and the first step upon another.
William Conner was born onto the tightrope; his first steps pointed him toward a trail already blazed by his family. In many ways it was a quintessentially American story, one abounding in the icons of the American consciousness: Indians, pioneers, and the foreboding frontier.
William Conner's birthplace was on the frontier's jagged edge that was Ohio in 1777--probably in Lichtenau. His father, Richard, a sometime trader, sometime tavernkeeper, had spent most of his life moving from one wilderness to another. As historians John Larson and David Vanderstel noted, Richard Conner's life adumbrated his son's and provided a possible framework within which to live it.
Born in 1718, Richard Conner left his native Maryland to roam the forests of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio in search of furs. At some point he encountered Margaret Boyer, a white woman raised in indian villages after her capture by the Shawnee. Ransoming her for $200 and a promise to turn over their first-born son, the fifty-something Richard married Margaret and lived among the Shawnee. Their son James, born in 1771, was dutifully given to the Shawnee.
It was a rugged existence, but one for which Conner, described by a missionary as one who feared neither man nor God, and his family seemed well suited. In 1775 the family was uprooted from the Shawnee village where Conner kept a tavern by the ongoing conflicts which characterized the frontier. After ransoming James, they threw in their collective lot with the Moravian missionaries and their Delaware converts who founded Schoenbrunn, Ohio. The Moravians, a Protestant sect which proselytized among Native Americans, gathered their converts into mission towns normally closed to outsiders. For reasons which remain unclear, an exception was made for the Conners who were to follow them to Lichtenau. This world on the fringe presaged the one in which William Conner would inhabit for much of his life.
Caught in the crossfire of the Revolutionary War, the Conners joined the Delaware and the missionaries on their British-forced removal to Michigan, exchanging one unsettled area for another. The arrival of peace brought the departure of the Moravians and their followers, who returned to Ohio. Richard Conner, now in his sixties, decided to remain. Eventually purchasing over 4,000 acres of land in what became Macomb County, he established a trading post and became a facilitator of settlement.
Although he acquired land from his father, William also inherited his sense of wanderlust combined with a trader's instincts. By 1795 William was trading with the Native Americans around Saginaw Bay.
William and his older brother John arrived in Indiana during the winter of 1800-1801 as agents for a Canadian fur trader named Angus Mackintosh. To anyone else it might have been a daunting and foreboding venture, but to the Conner Brothers it must have seemed the reawakening of a vestigial memory. Once again they were beyond white settlement, living and trading among Native Americans.
Both men settled among the Delaware, who lived in villages strung along the White River from north of present day Indianapolis to modern Muncie. Both married Delaware women; according to legend, William's wife, Mekinges, was the daughter of Chief Anderson, but no concrete evidence supports this claim. Traders often found it to their advantage to marry into the tribes with which they dealt. It eased their way into the community and helped assure a feeling of loyalty. As in the case of William Conner, it increased their influence and allowed the trader to exert some control over the actions of the tribe. Traders often became unofficial liaison officers between the "their indians" and the white world and government.
William Conner soon attached himself to the land which now bears his name. The 200 acre prairie, hard by the White River, was an ideal location for both agriculture and trade. He built a log home which doubled as a trading post and with Mekinges began raising a family. John Conner moved closer to settlement by relocating to the Whitewater Valley area (where he was to later plat Connersville) in 1803. From there he acted as a middleman, marketing the peltry sent by William and returning trade goods and liquor for his brother's indian customers.
Officially licensed traders since 1801, the brothers' activities made them a part of a complex economic network well on its way to eroding many aspects of Native American life and culture. An old pattern in which newcomers first came looking for the bounty of the land and then cast covetous eyes toward the land itself was being retraced in Indiana. The dependence engendered by the trade allowed the government to manipulate and coerce tribes into ceding their homelands. The Conners were to have small but vital roles in the process.
John Conner was the first to add another layer to the liaison role by officially performing duties for the government. Venturing forth from his "civilized" area once more into the wilds, he served in several capacities under William Henry Harrison and others beginning in 1808. William appears to have eschewed any official role prior to 1811, but increasing conflict and the War of 1812 drew him into government service. The man who had lived and worked with Native Americans most of his life, who had married a Delaware woman, whose children were certainly more "indian" than "American," became a soldier, scout, interpreter and spy for those who were arguably his family's enemies. Among the services rendered by William Conner were maintaining Delaware loyalty during the war and identifying the body of Tecumseh following the Battle of the Thames, the defeat which essentially sealed the fate of Native Americans east of the Mississippi.
All the while Conner continued his trading and farming activities. His home on the White River became a gathering place for Native Americans and a stopover for the few white travellers. His family continued to grow. He and a partner, William Marshall, accrued profits not only from their regular trading, but from the extra income provided by land cession treaties--Conner had been a part of eight such negotiations-- and their aftermath.
William Conner's roles as interpreter and liaison at the Treaty of St. Mary's in 1818, in which the Delaware ceded lands in central Indiana for those west of the Mississippi, were a continuation of his efforts over the decade. At the back of his mind he must have been aware that his participation would lead to a drastic, almost organic, alteration of his life. Changes wrought in the Delaware world were changes wrought in his.
Conner worked in the background as something of a fixer. He helped assess what it would take to get the tribes to accept the inevitable treaty. He helped "sell" the treaty to Anderson and the other chiefs by pointing out its benefits and arranging bribes and under-the-table payments to Delaware leaders. Conner earned profits from the removal by arranging to provide supplies for the trek. With the signing of the treaty the days of the Delaware--and Conner's family--in Indiana were numbered.
The Delaware gathered-- ironically, they were preceded by the commission charged with selecting a site for Indiana's new state capital-- at the Conner trading post during the summer 1820 in preparation for their journey. Whether Conner gave serious consideration to trying yet another frontier is uncertain. As early as 1818 he petitioned to secure legal right to his land, but whether this was with an eye toward remaining or simply securing payment is unknown. Mekinges assumed he, like his partner Marshall, would go with his family, but became "very anxious and much worried" when William made no preparations to leave. When the wife of famed Indian Agent John Johnston confronted Conner, he denied any intention of staying behind. Conner may have also considered keeping his family in Indiana, as he filed a petition in 1820 saying he wished to have the land to raise his family. Conner claimed he begged his family to stay, but a future white in-law asserted he "sent them away."
In the end Conner chose to stay upon his land and watch his family go. Like his father before him he staked out a claim to his last frontier. Mekinges, distraught at leaving her home, planted sprigs of Liveforever for each of her six children around the homestead. She planted the rapidly growing shrub, she later recalled, because she wanted no one else to live in her home.
William Conner divided assets with Marshall and provided his own family with horses and goods. Conner's family and the Delaware began their trek in the dwindling summer of 1820. Conner rode a day with his family before saying goodbye.
With his family's leavetaking William Conner began to retire his balancing act, his tripping dance with equilibrium was almost over. The years from 1820 to 1823 were ones of transition. Within three months of his family's departure he married Elizabeth Chapman, possibly the only young, eligible white women in the area, taking her into the home he had shared with Mekinges and his family. He and brother John, who had recently returned to the area, set about acquiring land and initiating business ventures. William Conner's tentative steps into the white world soon became determined strides.
In 1823 Conner began the construction of his brick home, locating it on a terrace edge overlooking the White River less than one-half mile south of his log cabin. Little is known about the building process. Tradition says it was built by craftsmen from the "east." A deposit of bricks later uncovered east of the house supports the claim that the bricks were fired on site. The result was a Federal style house that became a focus for activity of all sorts in the rapidly expanding area.
Trowbridge-- who was forced to send to Ohio for a Delaware who could help answer his questions, so successful had been the removal efforts-- was not the only visitor to the home. It became a stopping point for many travellers, businessmen, and politicians. Indianapolis lawyer and civic leader Calvin Fletcher thought the homestead and surrounding lands beautiful and newspaper owner Nathaniel Bolton was enchanted by the view of "fifteen or twenty merry plowmen" spied from the second floor of the house. The Conner home was also the de facto center of the newly formed Hamilton County government when it hosted the County Commissioners, Circuit Court, and served as a "post office."
From his new home Conner entered fully into the teaming world advancing toward him. Like his father he became a "facilitator" of settlement. He--sometimes with partners-- acquired ever-increasing amounts of land, acreage which could be profitably sold to new settlers. He and Josiah Polk platted Noblesville in 1823, shrewdly donating land for the county seat, and later Alexandria and Strawtown. At one point he owned approximately four thousand acres in Hamilton County.
In addition to farming and stock-raising he expanded his business interests by owning or investing in stores, mills, and a distillery. In many ways he may be seen as a prototype of the entrepreneur. His enterprises ranged from small country stores to a larger one in Indianapolis for which he assumed responsibility after the death of his brother John in 1826. He appears to have been a crafty businessman. Conner sometimes resorted to complex, convoluted maneuvers, such as transferring his interests to partners temporarily if they were threatened.
By the 1830s William Conner was well established in his own "new world." He had become a respected figure. He made occasional forays into politics, supporting Whig policies. He served three non-consecutive terms in the state legislature from 1829 to 1837. His motives were probably more those of a businessman seeking to advance his interests than those of a man wishing to be a public servant. He was a founding member of the Indiana Historical Society, but appears to have done little beyond signing the charter.
It must be noted that Conner did not entirely abandon his old world. In addition to aiding Trowbridge, Conner still dealt with Indian affairs. He was an interpreter for treaties with the Miami in 1826 and the Potawatomi in 1832. Also in 1832 he served as a guide for a group of Indiana militia who went off to take part in the Black Hawk War. The conflict being all but over by the time the group reached Chicago, he led them peaceably back to Indiana. Anecdotal evidence indicates Conner also occasionally harkened back to his earlier days by dressing himself and his children as indians and frolicking about in an attempt frighten visitors.
Seven of William and Elizabeth Conner's ten children were born in their brick home. In 1837, in his sixtieth year, Conner moved his family to Noblesville, his final step into settlement. He continued to oversee his business interests, but eased into his final role as a pioneer patriarch. Life slowed considerably for the ever active man. When he died in 1855 many of the trails he helped blazed had become roads, many of the forests he roamed had been cut away to reveal towns. The Conner house rising out of the prairie remained.
It is not known precisely who resided in the house in the remaining years of Conner family ownership. It is likely it was occupied by some of the children or, possibly, tenant farmers. Ownership of the property was not without controversy. It was the subject of legal disputes, including an unsuccessful attempt in the 1860s by Conner's Delaware children to gain title to the land on which they were born.
The land passed out of Conner hands in 1871. It went through several owners until purchased by Indianapolis businessman Eugene Darrach in 1915. During that time the house underwent changes, the most notable being the addition of a kitchen ell. Although Darrach seems to have made some effort to maintain the home-- and allowed the placement of a historical marker on the grounds-- the house continued to deteriorate. In 1934 the 111-year old house fought time as it awaited its savior.