The life of Mekinges, like that of most Native American women, is lost in the shrouding mists of a disinterested history.
If Euro-American women lived out their lives in the background, then it can be said that Native American and African American women existed on the deep-shadowed fringe of society. This is true in the case of Mekinges (probably pronounced Ma cun chis), Delaware woman and wife of William Conner. Even though she was the wife of an important trader and mother of two chiefs of the Delaware nation little is known of her life.
Whether Mekinges' decision to remove west with the Delaware was a willing on her part or forced upon her is unknown. It would only have been natural for her to wish to remain with her people, but also to keep her family together. Initially she expected her husband to move with their family and was disheartened when he chose to remain in Indiana.
Mekinges followed the Delaware through their many moves. She lived in Missouri and Kansas. What is known of her life comes to us through bare-boned legal records and documents. Studying her life is made even more difficult because she appears to have been known by many different names, such as Mekinges, Elizabeth Ketchum or Mrs. Conner. She was listed on the 1842 census of the Delaware living in Kansas as the head of a household containing eight people. The date of her death is uncertain. Though some sources claim she died by 1861, as Ma cun chis, she may be found on the 1862 census and had a twenty-year old female living with her.
The "Other" Children
Because they were both chiefs and widely traveled, John and James Conner are the most well known of the Delaware children. Unfortunately, little has come to light about their siblings.
The youngest of the daughters was born in 1815 and died in 1834. She married a Delaware named John Quincy Adams and had one daughter, Mary Adams. Nancy's grandson was one of the most famous of the later Delaware. Richard C. Adams was a leader and tribal historian who spent much of his life studying the past of the Delaware and working to better conditions of the tribe.
The eldest daughter, lived from 1812 to 1876. She spent most of her time with the main group, but may have lived with her brother John and the Absentee Delaware on the Brazos Reserve in Texas in the 1850s. She returned to the main band in Kansas with her brother John and eventually died in Oklahoma.
(Also called Harry and Howard) Conner was probably born in 1805. Almost nothing is known of him. He was a signer of the 1823 petition and the 1863 lawsuit which sought to reclaim the Conner Prairie land. He appears to have stayed with the main group of the Delaware throughout his life.
William (Bill) Conner [Jr.]
Like his brothers, he was a guide and interpreter. He lived with the Absentee Delaware group in Texas and was employed as guide and interpreter for the Texas government. He was noted for his role in the freeing (via paying of a ransom) of a white child being held by Indians.
Capt. John Conner
The oldest of William and Mekinges Conner’s six children, John Conner (born ca. 1802) lived a life of high adventure. He joined his family and other Delaware on their removal from Indiana. The trek was a difficult one. Even before reaching the Mississippi River the Delaware were swindled or robbed of much their goods (Indian Agent William Clark, of Lewis & Clark fame, arranged payment to ferry the tribe across to Missouri). It was at this point that John Conner broke away from the family and began a life that to modern eyes seems to be the stuff of which adventure novels or TV miniseries are made. His life was varied, exciting, and played out across much of the American west. So well regarded was he that famed frontiersman Richard Dodge wrote that John Conner was "renowned as having a more minute and extensive knowledge of the North American Continent" than anyone in America.
Conner (later known as Capt. John for his service as a military scout) was stirred by a "most intense desire" to see an ocean. He knew there were two oceans. Since to go east meant travelling through “white man's country,” he headed west. He made his way to the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Turning south, he trekked along the Pacific coast, eventually making his way into Mexico. Liking the residents of Durango, he lived with them for three years, learning their language. Like his father, he had a talent for languages and was known for his fluency in the many dialects picked up in his travels. These skills were to help shape his life.
Deciding to return to his people around 1825, Conner was en route to Missouri when he encountered a group of Delaware who had moved to Texas decades earlier. Though he would make occasional visits to Mekinges and his siblings, it was among these Texas Delaware that Capt. John was to spend the next thirty a years and make his reputation. Like his father, William, he was to act as representative, interpreter, scout and liaison between the “red and white worlds.”
John eventually worked for the Texas and US governments, acting as translator and negotiator on treaty and peace missions. His good work was cited by Sam Houston. The state of Texas valued him so highly it made him a full citizen, an unusual honor for a Native American. A cavalry officer viewed him (in a chilling example of the everyday racism of the period) as "differing from the generality of indians." Conner, he wrote, "would give a direct answer" to questions, take a stand on an issue and support it with argument. He described him as very intelligent and a man of ingenuity. Physically, he was described in the 1840s as a "fine, portly man, about forty-five years old, and of very light complexion, with long, black hair and moustache."
The wanderer did not settle down until he returned to Kansas 1858 (the Delaware were removed to Kansas in 1830-31) upon being appointed Principal Chief of the Delaware. Why a man absent from the main group for nearly forty years was named chief is uncertain. Certainly Conner's Delaware bloodlines and his reputation were important factors. There is a reason to believe that, because of his previous service, John was a very acceptable choice to U.S. governmental authorities. A rival for the chieftaincy later claimed John was appointed because he was a pawn of the government who would do as bidden, a so-called “Government Chief.” Conner upset many Delaware when he signed the 1866 treaty that once again removed the tribe, this time to Oklahoma. The date of John Conner's death is the subject of minor controversy, but he likely died in late 1872. One thing not in doubt is that an American life that began along the verdant White River in Indiana, was lived out across the sprawl of the American west, ended in the "green country" of Oklahoma.
Last Will and Testament of Capt. John Conner
I Capt John Conner conciding the incertenty of this mortal life. And being of sound mind & memory blessed be the almighty for the same do make this my last will and testament in the manner and form of the following, that is to say, I give and devise to my three grandchildren, children of my beloved son George Conner, deceased, all my property, houses, claim and all improvements, together with all herediments and appurtments, thereunto belong on ….. appertanancy, horses, cattle, hogs & etc to have and to hold the premises and property above mentioned to the said three grandchildren of my son Geo Conner (dec) their heirs and assignees forever; and for my son John Q. Conner who is of age I give him propert or cash to the amount of fifty (50) dollars, out of the effects I have left. And as for my wife Charlott Conner, she having received her portion already – and now holding her property separately from mine, and lastly I hereby nominate constitute and appoint James Conner and Jonas [?] Journeycake the executors of this my last will and testemant; herby revoking all former wills by me made.
Probably born around 1818, James was the youngest of the Conner children. Like his oldest brother, John, James Conner was touched with a sense of wanderlust. The Delaware were renowned for their abilities as guides and took part in many of the famous exploratory expeditions in American history. The great explorer and seeker of empire, John Charles Fremont, was greatly impressed by their abilities. James Conner accompanied Fremont on several of his expeditions, including the fateful expedition to California in the 1840s during which war broke out with Mexico and Conner was one of those who "enlisted" in the Fremont army. It was Fremont's habit to name natural phenomena after members of his expeditions as a means of rewarding good performance. Thus, there is a "Connor's Spring" near the Humboldt River in California that was likely named after James.
Despite his wanderings, James would return to his people in Kansas and assumed a position of importance and appears to have been a secondary chief. In 1854, he was one of a delegation of Delaware and Shawnees "empowered to make land cessions treaties" with the government. It was noted that Conner was among those who planned to "visit their friends in Indiana on their return home." This may be the source of a local legend that some of William Conner’s Delaware family returned for a visit shortly after his death in 1855.
In 1858, James was nominated to be the principal Chief of the Delaware. However, he turned down the honor, saying his brother John would be more acceptable to other Delaware. Why his brother, who had spent most of the previous thirty-eight years away from the main band of the tribe, was more acceptable is uncertain. Some evidence indicates that James was involved in some sort of scandal. His brother was indeed named principal chief, but James continued as a lesser chief and later served as principal chief from 1873 until his death in 1877.