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Devoted to Peace — Delaware Chief John Conner

Drawing of John Connor courtesy of Conner Prairie Interactive Park. Crumrin, Timothy. Captain John Conner and the Lenape, Conner Prairie Interactive Historic Park, 2016. http://www.connerprairie.org/places-to-explore/lenape-indian-camp/learn-more-about-lenape-indian-village/captain-john-conner-and-the-lenape

As Texas was settled by Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo colonists, among others, American Indians were frequently displaced from their lands — land that they had inhabited for countless generations. The competing interests of the American Indians with the incoming settlers, as well as competing political agendas between President Sam Houston and President Mirabeau Lamar, led to severe conflict in some cases, and diplomacy in others. Records held in the Texas General Land Office shed light on the life of one man who played an important role in improved diplomacy between the Delaware Indians and the Republic of Texas. That man is Delaware Chief John Conner, a tireless advocate for his people and invaluable ally to Texas [1].

Certificate 2891/2992 to John Conner, Delaware Chief, 17 June 1853, Fannin 1–000781, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

John Conner was born in 1802 in present-day Indiana. His father, William Conner, was a well-known trader who was raised in Ohio by Margaret Boyer, a white woman who was captured by the Shawnee at a young age. After her rescue, Margaret continued to live and raise her sons in the Shawnee way on the Ohio frontier.[2] William lived among the Delaware Indians and married Mekinges, the daughter of Chief William Anderson. They moved twenty-five miles south of Chief Anderson’s town and set up a successful trading post, where John and his siblings were raised.[3]

The Delaware Indians called themselves Lenni Lenape, meaning “common people,” and had dominated the borderlands region for nearly a century. [4] They came to be known as Delawares because English colonists encountered them in the Delaware River Basin. For over 150 years, the expansion of Euro-American colonies pushed the Delaware ever westward, and over time, the Delaware Indians splintered into small groups. One such group received permission from Spanish officials to move into Missouri, from whence they settled on the Texas frontier near the Red and Sabine Rivers around 1820. Upon relocation, William Conner watched as his wife and children left their home.[5] John, about 18 or 19 years of age, accompanied the Delawares into Missouri.

John Conner split his compensation of 4,428 acres into two plots of land. His smaller lot of land is found in Haskell County north of the town of Haskell. Shelton Jr, John E. Haskell County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1933, Map #1852, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

John described his decision to travel west after arriving in Missouri as a call to an intense “wanderlust” and a desire to see the ocean. He traveled on foot and mostly alone, making his way to the mouth of the Columbia River and then the Mexican southwest, where he learned to speak Spanish fluently. He spent around three years in the Southwest, traveling as far south as Mexico City before he eventually migrated to Texas and joined a small group of Delawares living there.[6]

Conner arrived in Texas at an important time for Anglo-Indian relations. President Sam Houston and his successor, Mirabeau B. Lamar had vastly different beliefs with regard to how to deal with the Indian population. Houston believed that peace with the indigenous people was vital to the Republic’s success. He worked in cooperation with Delaware Indians and other groups in his endeavors to protect the frontier and make peace with the defiant Comanches. Lamar pursued an aggressive policy of removal against so-called “immigrant tribes,” abandoning the peace policy of his predecessor.[7] In fact, Lamar wrote in 1839 that removal was “ . . . Essential not only to the peace and prosperity of our own citizens, but to [the Indians’] Safety and Existence as a people; and that unless they Consent at once to receive a fair Compensation for their improvements and other property, and remove out of this Country, nothing short of the entire destruction of all they possess, and the extermination of their Tribe will appease the indignation of the white people against them.” The result of Lamar’s policy was the devastating “Cherokee War” of 1839, a conflict which forced most of the Delawares north of the Red River.[8]

The larger of John Conner’s two lots of land, this plot was situated next to Conner’s Creek and an Indian Reserve in Young County. Pinckney, Theo F. Map of Young County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1880, Map #4174, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

At the start of his second term as president, Sam Houston, once again took a vastly different approach than Lamar, preferring peace with the Indians. Houston engaged with indigenous groups to negotiate treaties that could bring peace to Texas. Conner played a key role in this process, helping to broker the Treaty of Bird’s Fort in 1843 and bringing Comanche leaders to the bargaining table in 1844.

Conner’s expert knowledge of the American West made him a valuable asset to Texas lawmakers. He frequently led journeys back to Mexico and the West Coast as a scout and aid to Sam Houston, and he often provided counsel to the president. Through these expeditions, John became close friends with Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, who wrote in Our Wild Indians that Conner was “justly renowned as having a more minute and extensive knowledge of the continent than any other man.”[9]

After Texas was annexed into the United States in 1845, the Delawares and other American Indians continued to play important roles as scouts and interpreters. Conner helped guide the Chihuahua-El Paso expedition of 1848 and received a league of land from the State of Texas as compensation by a Special Act of the Texas Legislature.[10]

William Conner courtesy of Agent of Empire. Larson, John Lauritz, and David G. Vanderstel. “Agent of Empire: William Conner on the Indiana Frontier, 1800–1855.” Indiana Magazine of History 80, no. 4 (1984): 301–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27790831.

In 1857, while living alternately in Texas and Kansas, Conner was authorized by the Department of Indian Affairs as the principal chief of the Delaware Nation following a recommendation by Delaware agent B.F. Robinson. In vouching for Conner, Robinson remarked, “Believing in the interest and well being of the tribe would be greatly advanced by putting John Conner in authority among them I would be pleased [sic] the Indian department would authorize me to treat him as principal chief.”[11]

In recognition of his accomplishments, Conner carried on his person a letter written by a United States Indian agent in Texas which stated that he “has devoted the best of his life trying to make peace with the wild and warlike tribes on our frontier, and has often risked his life and lost his property, and is certainly entitled to the kindness and respect of the people he has served so faithfully.”[12]

John Conner indeed dedicated his best years to Texas, and to the pursuit of peace that Sam Houston found vital to Texas’s success. His young wanderlust earned him a mastery of the frontier and unique background and skillset that was vital to Houston’s desired peace. He was greatly revered by his peers and the state of Texas, as evidenced by first-hand accounts of his character and the granting of over 4,000 acres of land in recognition of his service, recorded at the GLO in file Fannin 1–000781. Conner holds an important — if not completely overlooked — place in Texas history, and is believed to be the only known American Indian to receive a land grant from the Republic or state of Texas.

[1] For more on John Connor, please see Jody Edward Ginn’s Chapter, “American Indians in the Republic of Texas: A Case Study for Moving Beyond Traditional Perspectives,” in the book Single Star of the West: The Republic of Texas, 1836–1845, edited by Kenneth W. Howell and Charles Swanlund

[2] C. A. Weslager, The Delaware Indians: A History. 2nd ed. (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990), pp. 333–334.

[3]John Lauritz Larsonand David G. Vanderstel, “Agent of Empire: William Conner on the Indiana Frontier, 1800–1855.” Indiana Magazine of History 80, no. 4 (1984), pp. 301–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27790831.

[4] Handbook of Texas Online, Carol A. Lipscomb, “Delaware Indians,” accessed October 12, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/bmd08. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association. Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008).

[5]Charles N. Thompson, Sons of the Wilderness: John and William Conner (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1937).

[6] H. Allen Anderson, “The Delaware and Shawnee Indians and the Republic of Texas, 1820–1845.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 94, no. 2 (1990), pp. 231–60.

[7] Lamar’s view of Delawares was less hostile but still negative: “As regards the Delawares, Shawnees, and such other tribes as have manifested a peaceful and friendly disposition, you will permit them to remain in the country for the present, upon their giving assurances of their good conduct while they do remain, but you will be careful to impress it upon them, that any evidence of hostility on their part will cause their immediate punishment and expulsion.” Mirabeau B. Lamar to David G. Burnet and others, June 27, 1839. Texas Indian Papers Volume 1, #36, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

[8] Handbook of Texas Online, “Cherokee War,” accessed November 15, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qdc01.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[9] Richard Irving Dodge, Our Wild Indians: Thirty-three Years’ Personal Experience Among the Red Men…(Hartford: Worthington and Co., 1882), p. 554.

[10] Hans Peter Mareus Neilsen Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897 (Austin, Texas: 1898), Volume 3, pp. 1402–1403.

[11] Weslager, The Delaware Indians, pp. 389

[12] Ibid, pp. 389–390.

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Texas General Land Office

Texas General Land Office

Official Account for the Texas General Land Office | Follow Commissioner George P. Bush on Twitter at @georgepbush. www.txglo.org