Sometimes in the life of the individual can be seen the lives of the family or the nation; echoes of the whole may reverberate through the one. Such was the case, in many ways, of the life of Captain John Conner. Like his nation, the Delaware (Lenape), his life became an amalgamation of leave-takings and new frontiers; like his family, the Conner pioneers of the Old Northwest, his life was that of one warily caught between two cultures, a mediator of sort, who eventually stepped fully into one camp.
Conner's life was varied, exciting, and played out across much of the American west. So well regarded was Conner that famed frontiersman Richard Dodge wrote that he was "renowned as having a more minute and extensive knowledge of the North American Continent" than anyone in America. In some ways his life was a mini-series waiting to be filmed.
John Conner was born in 1802 near a bend in the White River in present-day Hamilton County, Indiana. He was the first child of William Conner, pioneer trader, and Mekinges, a Delaware woman. Both were relative newcomers to the new territory of Indiana. William Conner came to Indiana in 1800-1801 as a trader. Mekinges was likely living among the first groups of Delaware who arrived after 1795. It may have been her initial migration to a new homeland, but not hers or her people's last.
Almost nothing is known of John Conner's early life. He grew up along the banks of the White River, the oldest of William and Mekinges' six children. As central Indiana had few white settlers his companions were mainly the Delaware, Miami, and Shawnee who moved through the area. Undoubtedly, he was schooled in the life-ways of his people. That he was skilled at living from the land and making it his own is evident from his later life.
The earliest turning point in his life was shared with the Delaware - their removal west in 1820. Among the provisions of the Treaty of St. Mary's in 1818 - a treaty facilitated by William Conner-- was one stipulating the removal of the Delaware, in order to open central Indiana to white settlement. Mekinges, John Conner, and his five siblings left Indiana for lands in Missouri in 1820; as is well known, William Conner stayed behind on their land to await white settlement.
After a harrowing journey that saw them harassed by whites and many of their goods stolen, the Delaware made it to Kaskaskia, Illinois. It was there that John Conner's path diverged from the Delaware. While their hegira was to take them to Missouri, then Kansas, and finally to Oklahoma, John Conner set out on his own. It was the beginning of nearly four decades of wandering.
Later recounting the incident Conner said he was stirred by a "most intense desire" to see an ocean. He knew there were two oceans. Since to go east meant traveling through white man's country, he headed west.
Traveling mainly on foot and alone, although he probably joined up with a trading or trapping party occasionally, he made his way to the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Then turning south, he trekked along the Pacific coast in present day California. Eventually, he made his way into Mexico. Liking the residents of Durango, he lived with them for three years, learning their language and customs. Like his father, he seems to have had a talent for languages and was known for his fluency in many dialects. However, he never learned to read and write. Conner grew weary of city life and decided to return to his people around 1824. On his way through Texas he encountered a splinter group of Delaware living there.
Some of the Delaware were part of a band which had accepted an invitation from the Spanish to settle in modern Texas and Arkansas in the 1790s. The Spanish, fearing American settlers, invited various Indian nations to settle and act as a buffer against encroaching whites. Yet another band of Delaware had split off and migrated to the area in 1819. Together they eventually became known as the Absentee Delaware and John Conner quickly made contact with them.
John Conner was to spend much of his life among this group and others in Texas. Like his father, William, he was to act as representative, interpreter, and peacemaker between the red and white worlds.
He eventually worked for the government of Texas acting as translator and negotiator on treaty and peace missions. His good work was cited by Sam Houston and other prominent Texans. His services were so valued that the state of Texas voted him a league of land, voting privileges, and made him a full citizen of the state, an unusual honor for a Native American. There was some question as to whether the land was meant only for Captain John Conner (the honorific was bestowed around this time) or a group of Delaware as a whole. Eventually, it was decided (to the chagrin of some Delaware) that Conner owned the land.
Not everyone appreciated the roles played by Conner. After a Delaware/Comanche clash along the Red River, Indian agent J.R. Baylor reported that a Comanche party was headed toward the Brazos Agency with orders to kill Capt. John Conner and others.
Many, though, thought highly of him. Cavalry officer Col. William Parker, who was long acquainted with Conner, viewed him, with a glimpse of the everyday racism of the period, as "differing from the generality of Indians." Conner, he wrote, "would give a direct answer" to questions and 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 mustache." Some thought he looked more Arab than an Indian. Photographs tend to affirm this appraisal and it is not too difficult to imagine him astride a Bedouin's camel instead of a painted pony.
Like most Delaware men he was usually seen in "hunting shirt, leggings, breech cloth, and moccasins." He also seems to have had a sweet tooth. One expedition leader told of Conner and other Delaware pulling pods off mesquite bushes and eating the sweet material inside as a kind of treat. Conner may have been among a group who spotted a beehive high in a cottonwood tree. Having no axe to chop it down, a member of the party leapt from his horse onto a neighboring tree. After a series of maneuvers that would done credit to Tarzan he managed to lasso the branch holding the prized object and share his bounty with his friends.
The above scenes occurred on some of the many expeditions guided by Conner and other Delaware. The Delaware were prized as guides through barely explored territory. A military officer with long experience among them said they were like "Jews among Christians" because they were scattered, migratory, and without a homeland of their own. Captain John was in essence carrying on a family tradition as guides. His father did much the same thing and John's younger brother James accompanied John Charles Fremont on several expeditions. The controversial explorer named a stream near the Humboldt River in California Connor's [sic] Creek in his honor.
John Conner's personal life suffered because of his wanderings between Texas to his family, by then removed to Kansas, and the other points covered in his travels. After the death of his first wife in Texas in 1838, he remarried while in Kansas in 1840. His second wife, Charlotte, seems to have remained in Kansas, seeing John only when he periodically returned. Growing tired of the arrangement, Charlotte found comfort with another Delaware. Upon learning of the relationship John refused to have any more to do with her.
The wanderer did not settle down until he returned to Kansas upon being appointed Principal Chief of the Delaware in 1858. Why a man who had been so long absent from the main group for nearly forty years was named chief is uncertain. His brother James was nominated for the position earlier that same year, but turned down the honor saying John would be more acceptable to the other Delaware. Why he thought that true is unclear, but there is evidence of some taint of scandal attached to James.
Certainly Conner's Delaware bloodlines and his reputation were important factors. It may also have been that he had been trained from the beginning for his final role.
There is also much 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 had been appointed because he was a pawn of the government who would do as bidden. There is likely much truth to the statement. Seeking a pliant "government chief" was standard practice used by officials seeking to bend native groups to their will. Historians have usually viewed the post-Civil War period as a time of conflict between traditionalists, who wished to be left alone to follow the old Delaware ways, and modernists or assimilationalists, a group, mainly Christianized Delaware, who wished to move closer to the white man's world. Capt. John Conner may be viewed as belonging to a third group, the pragmatic element who saw little hope of resistance. This group, sensing that the inevitable could only be forestalled, not ignored, may have sought to lessen the damage to Delaware culture and life-ways by acquiescing to government demands while gaining the best terms possible. If so, they were following the well worn path of their fore-bearers like early 19th-century leaders William Anderson and others who accepted the inevitable (and some bribes) by agreeing to Treaty of St. Mary's.
However, it was Conner's misfortune to preside over (and acquiesce to) an ending of sorts for the Delaware. They were forced to remove once more during his tenure. In 1867 they moved to the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. It was the completion of many such journeys begun centuries before, forced journeys that took them from their eastern seaboard homelands across the mountains into Ohio and Indiana, and then across the Mississippi to Missouri, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.
The date of John Conner's death is the subject of minor controversy, but he likely died in late 1872. In his will, he left the bulk of his estate to his grandchildren. 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, finally ended in the "green country" of Oklahoma.
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