William Conner and the War of 1812
The old adage “if only these walls could talk” holds a lot of weight when one walks past the historic buildings that have been assembled on the Conner Prairie grounds. Those buildings have seen more stories than we will ever know, and for the William Conner house this is especially true. William Conner did not leave much documentation behind for historians to piece together his entire life, there exists no diary to record his experiences or feelings nor many personal letters that provided a human element to his story. What we have are secondary sources such as business daybooks, reminiscences of Conner written down by those who knew him, and a few personal letters that focus more on the business aspect of Conner’s life than his personal. This lack of personal records means that much of Conner’s life is shrouded in mystery, and will likely never be fully known but that does not mean we are unable to piece anything together.
In August of 1802, Conner and his Delaware wife Mekinges moved from Andersontown (present day Anderson) to four miles south of what would become Noblesville. On this land Conner would live for the next 35 years and build the brick home that still stands today. Just ten short years after relocating, Conner would leave home to serve in the War of 1812.
The War of 1812 is not one that many people are familiar with and it has not permeated our national conscience like the Revolutionary or Civil War. Yet for people living in the western United States, the issues the war sought to address were real. Violence on the frontier between white settlers and Native Americans had been occurring since settlers first arrived in the west. Instead of acknowledging that encroaching upon Native’s lands instigated violence, many blamed the British in Upper Canada for stirring up Native American animosity towards American settlers. The treaties ending the War of 1812 paved the way for forced relocation in the coming decades, and any hope for a united Native American front against American expansion dissipated. Into this context we can view William Conner as someone who occupied the Native American world, marrying Mekinges and fathering six children with her, yet serving the United States in their war against Native Americans.
William Conner served as a guide, interpreter, spy, and even at one point as a soldier. The first record of Conner’s involvement in the War of 1812 comes in September 1812, where he is attached to Colonel William Jennings’ 2nd Regiment of Kentucky Militia in Ohio. William Henry Harrison, who had just been put in charge of the Army of the Northwest, ordered Jennings to build a road and blockhouse between St. Mary’s and Fort Defiance to create infrastructure for the coming military campaign. Harrison knew that Ohio would be a foreign country for the Kentuckians so he attached a group of “friendly Indians” to guide the soldiers and “Mr. William Conner” to act as an interpreter between the two groups. How Conner ended up in Ohio and on the radar of William Henry Harrison is unclear, although likely it was through William’s brother John who Harrison had dealt with previously. While this is the first verifiable account of Conner’s actions in the war, and the first record of his movement since 1802, there are unverified stories placing Conner amidst the growing conflict.
According to J.H.B. Nowland, an early Indiana historian, Tecumseh spoke to four or five hundred Delawares near the mouth of the Fall Creek in late April 1812, while on his way to a council in Mississinewa. While Tecumseh addressed the congregation, Lieutenant Zachary Taylor (future president of the United States) led his soldiers across the White River on their way to Fort Harrison, near present day Terre Haute. Nowland claims that Conner “advised Taylor to camp across the river from the Native Americans in case Tecumseh incited them to hostilities.” In the meantime, Conner and Chief Anderson, who both opposed Tecumseh’s plan, were able to dissuade other Delaware chiefs from joining Tecumseh. Conner’s son, Richard James, also remembered his father talking about meeting Tecumseh, writing that his father remarked that Tecumseh “never failed to move his hearers, red or white, nor failed to rally the Indians.” Historian John Sugden believes that the story of Conner keeping the peace at Fall Creek is not improbable, as the timelines of Tecumseh’s and Taylor’s travel would place them near the White River at around the same time. Tecumseh had also lived with the White River Delawares beginning in 1798, around the same time as William Conner, so it is likely that the two at least knew of each other prior to the war.
Following his work as interpreter for Jennings’ mission, Conner performed reconnaissance for the United States mission to the Native American villages along the Mississinewa River, although there is no record of the order. John Johnston, the Indian agent at Piqua, OH, alludes to the mission in a letter to Harrison on October 23, 1812. Johnston believed it was fortunate that Conner did not proceed farther up the Mississinewa River, and that he would “…direct him to repair to you immediately – I believe he will answer your purposes better than his brother (John Conner). I have always thought him the better man of the two.” Conner was currently leading a group of Delaware past Greenville, OH for Johnston, although it is unclear why the group was being moved.
Regardless, upon his return from leading the Delaware, Conner headed to Franklinton, OH, present day Columbus, arriving at Harrison’s headquarters sometime before November 25, 1812. Harrison had decided that the Miami villages along the Mississinewa river constituted a threat, and needed to be destroyed. The man Harrison selected to lead the Mississinewa campaign was John Campbell of Kentucky, and to help guide the army would be William Conner. “You have with you Wm Conner as a guide who has been frequently to Mississiniway & is well acquainted with the country through which you are to pass… It is left to yourself to determine upon yr route to Mississiniway after yr. arrival at Eaton & your decision will be governed by the best information you receive from Conner & others whom you may consult… Inform yourself as minutely as possible from Conner & others who have been to Mississiniway of the locollities [localities] of the place & the situation of the Indians.” Conner is the only guide that Harrison mentions in the orders and attaches to Campbell personally. The other guides were to be hired and consulted according to Campbell’s desire.
A comical story from the Mississinewa campaign can be found in the diary of William B. Northcutt, a member of the Kentucky militia, about a guide getting lost. “On the night of the 16th of Decbr. 1812 we marched all night in order to get to the Indian town about daylight and take it by surprise, but our guide lost his Bushes a little before daylight and the Col. ordered a halt until the guide found his way again, and this detained us so that we did not get there until about one hour of the sun on the morning of the 17th.” Although there is no way to tell if this was Conner or another of the guides present — there were about ten total on the campaign — he would have been present as the guide attempting to figure out the way. Just picturing all those guides standing around lost as can be, attempting to catch their bearings paints a humanizing picture of these historical actors.
According to Campbell’s post battle report, he and his men arrived the morning of the 17th and quickly set about destroying Miami villages along the Mississinewa. As they destroyed the villages, soldiers killed livestock, stole horses, and took women and children prisoners. The Americans wanted to ensure that the Miami would be unable to return to the area for supplies. After destroying the villages, Campbell’s men returned to the first village they destroyed and set up camp. The morning of the 18th, about a half hour before sunrise, as Campbell and his officers debated their next move, the camp “was most furiously attacked by a large party of Indians preceded by and accompanied with a most hideous yell.” As the battle commenced, Major James V. Ball rode up to Campbell begging for reinforcements. While trying to find troops that could be spared, Major James McDowell remarked that the guides and spies under the command of Patterson Bain were not engaged in fighting. Campbell ordered Bain and his men to support Ball’s squadron and in his report he lists seven of the ten guides that “followed their brave leader, and rendered most effectual assistance,” among these was William Conner.
The Mississinewa campaign resulted in the death of 38 Native Americans and 8 Americans, with many more wounded. The leader of the counterattack was a mystery to Campbell, but he would not “be surprised to learn that Tecusmeh commanded in the action against me… Conner thinks it was the Little Thunder from his loud voice, which he knew. He heard him ordering his men in the Miami language to rush on.” John Payne, who served as the acting adjutant for Campbell during the campaign, described Conner as “our guide” and the man who spoke to the Native American prisoners to try to find out how large the enemy force was.
Following the Battle of Mississinewa, Campbell’s troops returned to Fort Greenville but it is unknown if Conner accompanied them or returned to his home along the White River. John Johnston offered to have William Conner raise a company of Delaware in February 1813, and according to Conner biographer Charles Thompson, he would eventually raise a force of about thirty Delaware that would participate in the Battle of the Thames later in the year. In April 1813, the British attacked Fort Meigs in Ohio where Conner was serving as a messenger for Harrison and the forts nearby. Following the failed attack, Conner headed towards Fort Stephenson, located thirty miles southeast of Fort Meigs, where Conner met with George Croghan, commander of the fort. Croghan wrote to Harrison that “Mr. Connor has just arrived with the Indians which were sent by you to Fort Meigs a few days since. To him I refer you for information from that quarter.” Conner then headed to Fort Seneca, nine miles down river of Fort Stephenson, although a short distance the area was swarming with hostile Native American soldiers. Four days after Conner arrived at Fort Seneca, Harrison sent Conner back to Fort Stephenson with orders for Croghan to abandon the fort. The message was meant to be delivered as quickly as possible, but Conner and the two Native Americans that accompanied him got lost in the dark and did not arrive until 11am the next morning. Tecumseh and his troops were patrolling the area between the Maumee and Sandusky Rivers, so it is likely that Conner wandered off the main paths to evade capture.
The last major engagement that Conner participated in was the Battle of the Thames in which Tecumseh was killed. What Conner did during the battle is unclear, but it does appear that Conner helped identify the body of Tecumseh the morning after the battle. Who killed Tecumseh played out in the newspapers for decades after the conflict. One of the purported heroes was Richard Johnson, who was Martin Van Buren’s vice-presidential candidate in the 1836 election. Supporters of Van Buren and Johnson created a cheer honoring Johnson’s supposed accomplishment: “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.” According to Conner, William Whitely was the man who killed Tecumseh. In a letter to Josiah F. Polk, the man who platted Noblesville alongside Conner, Richard James provided his father’s perspective. Conner had served under Whitely previously and described him as “one of those brave, impetuous, rash old Indian fighters, with whom our western country abounded in early days.” Conner contradicted articles that had recently been published about when the Col. Johnson’s charge had occurred, remembering that it happened at night and it was not discovered that Tecumseh had been killed until the next morning. It was at that time “Gen. Harrison sent for my Father to know whether he thought he could recognise his body should it be found. Father was then desired to take with him three or four Delaware Indians and go with him (Gen. H.) to the place where it was said the body of Tecumseh lay. There was a great similarity in the features of Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet, but the latter had a defect in one of his eyes (a white speck.) My Father on examination of the body soon satisfied himself beyond a doubt that the dead body was none other than that of Tecumseh…” Conner believed Whitely was responsible for the death of Tecumseh since Whitely’s body was discovered not far from that of Tecumseh’s and “the wound in the breast of Tecumseh corresponding precisely with the size of the bullet of Whitely’s gun.”
Following the battle, Conner would continue to serve as an interpreter and messenger for the United States although he would see no more fighting. Following the conclusion of the war, he returned to his home along the White River, eventually securing legal title to the land he had occupied since 1802. The majority of stories Conner had about his involvement in the war are lost to us now, although it is clear that in his old age he enjoyed telling them to those that would listen, especially his children. If only the walls could talk.
- Charles Thompson, Sons of the Wilderness: John and William Conner (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1937; Noblesville, IN: Conner Prairie Press, 1988), 46.
- James Madison, Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014), 42.
- Orders to William Jennings, September 24, 1812, William Henry Harrison Papers, Indiana Historical Society, reel 6-228.
- John Sugden, “Tecumseh’s Travels Revisited,” Indiana Magazine of History 96, no. 2 (June 2000): 166, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27792243.
- Peter Cozzens, Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020), 220.
- Ibid., 123.
- John Johnston to William Henry Harrison, October 23, 1812, William Henry Harrison Papers, Indiana Historical Society, Reel 6-441.
- Orders to John B. Campbell, November 25, 1812, William Henry Harrison Papers, Indiana Historical Society, Reel 6-685.
- G. Glenn Clift, “War of 1812 Diary of William B. Northcutt, Part II,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 56, no. 3 (July 1958): 256, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23374306.
- John B. Campbell to William Henry Harrison, December 25, 1812, William Henry Harrison Papers, Indiana Historical Society, Reel 7-28.
- Ibid., 38.
- John Trowbridge, “Kentuckians on the Mississinewa, War of 1812,” Kentucky Ancestors 41, no. 1 (Autumn 2005): 18, https://www.kyhistory.com/digital/collection/p16602coll3/id/169.
- Thompson, Sons of the Wilderness, 75; John Johnston to WHH, February 4, 1813, William Henry Harrison Papers, Indiana Historical Society, Reel 7-417.
- O.H. Smith, Early Indiana Trials and Sketches, (Cincinnati, 1858), 174, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/AJA2972.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext.
- George Croghan to William Henry Harrison, July 25, 1813, William Henry Harrison Papers, Indiana Historical Society, Reel 8-607.
- Orders to George Croghan from Andrew H. Holmes, July 29, 1813, William Henry Harrison Papers, Indiana Historical Society, Reel 8-633-635.
- Stuart S. Sprague, “The Death of Tecumseh and the Rise of Rumpsey Dumpsey: The Making of a Vice President,” The Filson Club History Quarterly vol. 59, no.4, October 1985, p455, https://scholarworks.moreheadstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1156&context=msu_faculty_research.
- R.J. Conner to Josiah F. Polk, September 24, 1851.
About the Author
Dylan Rawles is a Senior Interpreter at Conner Prairie working out in Prairietown and Civil War Journey. Dylan also focuses on the research portion of interpretation.