Not long ago I ran across an 1898 Indianapolis News story that got me thinking about my Conner Prairie days.
When I worked at the museum as a costumed interpreter in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, all the public buildings, with the exception of the visitors center, were portrayed as existing in the year 1836 — even the Conner house.
Occasionally, we’d get visitors familiar enough with that time period to ask some good questions about it. One of those questions was, “Did William Conner fight in Black Hawk’s War?”
The short answer is “No,” but it’s actually a little more complicated than that.
For those of you unfamiliar with Black Hawk’s War, Black Hawk was a leader of the Sauk (or Sac) and Meskwakis (or Fox) tribes.
Under the terms of an 1804 treaty, those tribes were supposed to surrender their land between the Mississippi and Rock Rivers in western Illinois. Most tribe members eventually did that and moved west to Iowa.
However, Black Hawk disputed the treaty’s validity, and in April, 1832, he led a group of Sauk, Meskwakis and Kickapoos back to the Sauks’ former home in Illinois, which alarmed the white settlers who’d begun to stream into the area.
The U. S. Army and the Illinois militia (including 23 year-old Captain Abraham Lincoln) were called out to meet the Native Americans, and over the next few months, a number of armed confrontations took place in Illinois and Wisconsin.
All that fighting was a little too close to home for Hoosiers’ comfort, so Indiana’s Governor Noah Noble authorized the raising of a militia to help put down the uprising.
In early June, 300 mounted militiamen from Indianapolis and the surrounding counties gathered at the corner of West and Washington Streets in Indianapolis and prepared to march off to the war. (Ironically, today that’s the site of the Eiteljorg Museum which celebrates Native American history and culture.)
William Conner, “who seems to have been familiar with every trail and ford in Indiana” according to the Indianapolis News article, was called on to serve as the militia’s guide.
Armed with rifles, tomahawks and knives, the band set off for the small village of Chicago. When they arrived at their destination, however, they discovered the hostilities were essentially over and their services weren’t needed.
They remained in Illinois for two or three days. During that time the only action they saw took place one night when a guard got spooked by a cow and fired his rifle, rousting the company out of their beds.
The militia’s route home took them through South Bend. The day they arrived in that city, the local newspaper ran a story that mocked them for leaving Illinois before they got even “a smell of war,” as the expression went in those days.
Fueled by a considerable quantity of whiskey and angered by the jab at their valor, members of the militia cornered the newspaper’s editor, John D. Defrees, and threatened to dunk him in a pond.
Undaunted, Defrees stood his ground, ridiculing them and calling them cowards until they backed down.
When the newspaper’s next issue came out, Defrees couldn’t resist poking fun at the militia again. He referred to them as the “Bloody Three Hundred” and the name stuck for years after that.
So, not only did William Conner NOT fight in Black Hawk’s War, neither did anybody else from Indiana.
In fact, one source described the militia’s trip as little more than a glorified hunting and fishing expedition.
The only blood spilled in the whole affair belonged to a man who shot off a cannon to salute the troops when they left Indianapolis. The cannon discharged prematurely, causing him to lose both hands.

Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears each Wednesday in The Times. Contact her at younggardenerfriend@gmail.com