William Conner’s brother John and Lewis and Clark (and Sacajawea)

How’s this for a big idea: The President of the United States is launching a top secret mission and you have been invited to participate because of your knowledge of the languages and cultures that will be encountered. But you turn it down and tell them you wouldn’t do it for more than 10 times the amount you are offered! The trip takes place anyway, without you of course, and is today known as the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The story is made famous in part because of a female interpreter who filled your shoes: Sacajawea. The story has an indirect Traders Point connection. It revolves around the brother of William Conner, the first property owner in the area. Like William, his brother John also was a fur trader and was fluent in many Indian languages and married a Delaware Indian. He later founded the town of Connersville, Indiana. At the time of the invitiation to join the Lewis and Clark expedition, John Conner was 28.
Nick Harby of Lafayette wrote recently and shared the following:
“Years ago I was browsing through history books in the library in Lafayette (where I live) and started reading a book “Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition” by Donald Dean Jackson. Jackson was a historian who transcribed the letters written between Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark regarding the organization of the expedition. Willam Conner’s brother John Conner is mentioned in the correspondence. Jefferson knew that the expedition had to hire somebody who could serve as interpreter with the Indians west of the Mississippi. John Conner was the first choice for the expedition. It was well known that he was fluent in languages such as Shawnee. John Conner claimed to be able to speak the languages west of the Mississippi. As you read the later correspondence you find that Jefferson and Lewis’ opinion of Conner sours as they find he was not telling the truth about his knowledge and they considered him also disloyal to the United States, and besides Conner said he was busy with trading and couldn’t go on the expedition anyway. Lewis and Clark ended up starting their expedition without an interpreter. We all know that they found the person they needed halfway up the Missouri, she was Sacajawea. Sacajawea got the job initially destined for John Conner.
I was so intrigued upon reading about this that I wanted to find more about it. I figured the best place to ask was the Conner Prairie Museum. Who else would know more about this? I emailed them for more information. I was surprised when I got the response that they had never heard of Conner having any part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This book is the only place I have ever read of any involvement Conner had with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I just checked William Conner’s Wikipedia entry and it has no mention of him or his brother’s involvement with Lewis and Clark. But if the book is true, and I am sure it is, because it is simply the original letters copied verbatim, John Conner is much more than a footnote in local history. I just checked the Indianapolis Public Library website, they have a copy of this book as well.” (THANKS NICK!) I have found the book online
http://books.google.com/books?id=KqEmJgaYGIIC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ViewAPI and learned the following good stuff:
John Conner indeed expressed interest about being the interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition in a letter from Conner to Lewis in Februrary 1803. But Lewis had trouble reaching Conner and letting him know key details such as how much money was being offered ($300.00 per year) and departure dates of the trip. Simultaneous with Lewis promoting Conner for the job to Jefferson, behind the scenes Conner was being vetted by the government.
When Jefferson got the report back on Conner (through spies?) he learned that Conner was loyal to the British. Jefferson may have been willing to employ Conner anyway as a double agent:
(p. 43) 13 April 1803, Jefferson writes to Lewis: “We have received information that Connor cultivates in the first degree the patronage of the British government to which he values ours as only secondary. As it is possible however that his passion for this expedition may overrule that for the British, and as I do not see that the British agents will necessarily be disposed to counterwork us, I think Connor’s qualifications make it desireable to engage him, and that the communication to him will be as useful, as it was certainly proper under our former impression of him. The idea that you are going to explore the Mississippi has been generally given out: it satisfies public curiosity, and masks sufficiently the real destination.” (Wow, this really was a top secret mission and they needed to know they could trust all participants!)
The next obvious question is why did John Conner turn down the opportunity. Was there a love interest or was it the money? (IT WAS THE MONEY)
On 11 September, 1803 (p. 123) Clark writes to Lewis: “Agreeable to your wish I sent an express to the Dellaware towns on White River (Buckongahelas, 3 miles south east of Muncie) who has just returned. Connor has a very large assortment of goods onhand and can’t accompany us. He writes to me that your letter of last summer did not come to him until 17 July and you would set out 10 July and he therefore concluded the time was too short for him to arrange his business and join you. He said if he had nothing to do in the present he would not oblige himself for the sum I offered him ($300 pr) and should not think himself too recompensed for $5000 even if he was able to leave. (Congress had appropriated $2,500 as the total sum for the expedition.) As this man does not speak any of the languages to the west of the Mississippi, I do not think the failure is very material, I still have applications from young men to accompany us.”
And later in September 28, 1803 Lewis writes to Clark: “Conner has deceived me very much. I do not much regret the loss of Mr. Conner for several reasons which I shall mention to you when we meet.”
(I love this “dig” that Lewis makes about Conner to Clark. It is obvious that Lewis had promoted Conner without properly vetting him and he was disgraced/embarrassed in front of his boss (Jefferson) by what was revealed to him about Conner by others! Ouch. RR)
For more on John Conner see Connersville History: http://www.visitconnersville.com/connersville_history.htm
“On a mid-summer day in 1808, a group of people and a number of pack horses loaded with Indian trade goods forded the Whitewater River and moved north along the high bluff on the western side. Included in the entourage were two white men, John Conner and Michel Peletier, their wives and children, and several Delaware Indians. They were leaving their store near Cedar Grove and looking for a new location in the Indian Territory and nearer the villages of the Delaware Indians. The group moved up the west bank to a bluff over-looking the river where they made camp. For the next several days they worked on the construction of a large, two-story log cabin. Based on the research of J.L. Heineman, this cabin was probably in the middle of present day Eastern Avenue at the west end of Charles Street. This cabin was to be the center of Conner’s fur trading business for several years. This was the beginning of Connersville.”

About Ross Reller

I am pleased you have expressed interest in learning more about the historic Traders Point area in Indianapolis, Indiana. From 1980 to 1982 I was employed in the PR department at Conner Prairie Museum in Hamilton County. There I learned about William Conner, an important figure in Indiana's pioneer days. A decade later I became interested in the history of the Traders Point area and was surprised to learn that William Conner had been the first land owner in the area. In 1823 he acquired, through the Federal land office in Brookville, a patent for an 80 acre tract carved by Eagle Creek and an Indian trail that was about to be named the first toll roadway through the township (Lafayette Road). Thirty years later a village took shape within this tract. A grain mill on the creek, houses, churches, stores, restaurants, and two gas stations would take shape here in the creek valley hamlet of Traders Point. By 1962 all improvements (except a farmer's co-op) had been removed by the Indianapolis Flood Control Board to make way for Interstate 65 and a new reservoir. This blog is dedicated to preserving evidence of this historic area but I will occasionally use it to discuss related topics. To activate this follow, simply click the confirm button below. If you don't want to follow, ignore this message and we'll never bother you again. I am also a member of the Old Pleasant Hill Cemetery, a non profit association still selling burial plots for those who would like to spend all eternity in Traders Point, and I am an officer in the Pike Township Historical Society and the Traders Point Association of Neighborhoods.
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