Our Prairie began in a cabin down by the White River.
In the early 1800s, a man named William Conner lived in a log home near the White River with his Lenape Indian spouse, Mekinges, and their six children. To make a living, he bought furs from Indians who trapped the rich forests of Indiana.
But Conner’s life – and Indiana – soon changed rapidly. William Conner played a major role as an interpreter and liaison of the Treaty of St. Mary’s in 1818, in which the Delaware ceded lands in central Indiana for those west of the Mississippi. The Lenape tribe, including William Conner’s wife and children, chose to leave Indiana with their fellow tribe members.
But William Conner decided to stay.
He eventually married Elizabeth Chapman and in 1823 built a grand house on a hill overlooking a flood plain that came to be known as Conner’s Prairie. William Conner and wife Elizabeth had 10 children – and he became a major landowner, statesman and wealthy businessman.
William Conner died in 1855.
His descendants sold his land in 1871. The land went through several owners until purchased by Indianapolis businessman Eugene Darrach in 1915. During that time, the house in which Conner lived underwent many changes.
Although Darrach made efforts to maintain the house and allowed the placement of a historical marker on the grounds, William Conner’s house deteriorated significantly over the years. In 1934, Eli Lilly, then president of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co, bought the 111-year old structure.
Lilly believed history was an essential cornerstone of American democracy and immediately began using it as the centerpiece for historical re-enactments to connect people with history in ways books could not. A champion of education, Lilly opened the house and surrounding land to the public so people could see their heritage brought to life.
That was first phase of Conner Prairie. The second phase began in the 1970s when museum director Myron Vourax worked with renowned folklorist Henry Glassie to create a living history museum, a place where the staff dresses, acts and speaks as if they were currently living in the mid-1800s. What’s now known as 1836 Prairietown opened.
Today, Conner Prairie is a place where families engage, explore and discover what it was like to live in Indiana’s past. Every visit is a unique adventure that provides an authentic look into the history that shapes us today.