of the modest benefits of getting older is that some young people actually find
it interesting to listen to your recollections. When that happens, it allows those
of a certain age to feel a bit more relevant and opens the possibility that the
bright-eyed listener might actually learn something – even if years go by before
they realize it.|
That’s a dynamic that played out in the early 1850s at
a military post on the western frontier of Texas.
Fortunately for posterity, the younger person later wrote about the time he spent
with the older one. Unfortunately, he’s bound to have left a lot of fascinating
The men were Richard Irving Dodge, a young Army officer
who would serve in the military for 41 years and John Conner, a noted Delaware
Indian. (The Army employed Delawares as scouts.) The meeting – actually, a series
of interactions – happened at Fort
Martin Scott, a garrison established in December 1848 a couple of miles east
of the relatively new German settlement of Fredericksburg.
Lt. Dodge, an 1848 West Point graduate assigned to the 8th Infantry, was stationed
at the Hill Country fort for a time during the post’s brief interval of military
value. That came in the first few years of the 1850s when the post and the nearby
community amounted to the last vestiages of civilization for west-bound travelers.
lay only wild, open country and hostile Indians.
At first, those who lived
in and around Fredericksburg
considered themselves reasonably safe from Indians. But by 1850, despite a peace
treaty between the area Germans and the Comanches made three years earlier, trouble
seemed eminent. Escorted by troops from Fort
Martin Scott, Indian agent John Rollins met on the San
Saba River with several war-minded bands and worked out another accord. What
came to be known as the Fort Martin Scott Treaty turned out to be one of the few
such covenants in the history of the Old West that both parties continued to honor.
new to the military to have played much of a role in this peace-keeping effort,
Dodge became acquainted with Conner and quickly understood he was no ordinary
man. How much time they spent together is not clear, but with a new treaty in
place, Fort Martin
Scott soon lost its military relevance. The post was abandoned in 1853.|
years went by before Dodge got around to writing about his experiences at Fort
Martin Scott in his classic book, “The Wild Indians.”
Dodge wrote, “was then [at the time of their meeting at Fort
Martin Scott] a man of about fifty years, and was justly renowned as having
a more minute and extensive personal knowledge of the North American continent
than any other man ever had or probably will have. He was fond of telling of his
adventures, and boy-like, I was never tried of listening to them; so we soon became
great friends.” |
Born in 1802 near a bend in the White River in present-day
Hamilton County, Indiana, Conner was the first child of pioneer trader William
Conner and Mekinges, a Delaware woman. William Conner had only been in Indiana
for a year or two. Mekinges had grown up in one of the first of the Delawares
who came to Indiana in 1795.
“He told me that when a boy of eighteen or
nineteen,” Dodge wrote of Conner, “he conceived the most intense desire to see
This wanderlust arose when his band was on the Mississippi
“There were too many white people towards the East, so he
decided to go West,” Dodge continued. “Traveling on foot, generally alone, but
occasionally with white or red trappers, he made his way to the mouth of the Columbia
River, then south along the Pacific coast for many miles, until he came to a country
occupied by Mexicans [possibly present California.”]
Continuing his journey
all the way to Durango in the Chihuauan Desert, Conner developed an affinity for
Mexico and its people. He learned to speak Spanish “with…ease and fluency.”
ready to see his people again, Conner traveled north from Mexico into Texas in
1824 only to discover that some elements of his tribe had a few years earlier
split off from the others and settled in Texas at
the invitation of the Spanish government. From then until the late 1850s, when
he moved to Kansas, he spent most of his time in Texas.
During that interval, he married and acquired land. Conner also became a friend
and ally to Sam Houston.
the long adventure that brought him to Texas would
stand as the longest continuous journey he ever made, life on the trail clearly
appealed to Conner. Still, in 1858 he became principal chief of all the Delawares.
(Eventually he settled in Oklahoma, where he died around 1872.)
journeys [he] crossed and recrossed, north, south, east and west, the vast expanse
of wilderness, until he seemed to know every stream and mountain of the whole
great continent west of the Mississippi River,” Dodge went on. “His brain seemed
to be a vast reservoir of landmarks, arranged in sequence, ready for use for journeys
in any direction or for any distance.”
And that was all Dodge had to say
about this remarkable yet relatively unknown figure.
Cox - June
21, 2012 column
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