Clinton TownshipJuly 2, 2012
Clinton Township gravesite marks resting place of a Michigan legend
By Nico Rubello
C & G Staff Writer
CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Nobody really visits the gravesite of Richard Conner anymore. After all, he died more than two centuries ago.
At Clinton Grove Cemetery, sales manager Kerry Shuttleworth runs his fingers over the coarse, white, stone obelisk that rises about 12 feet into air. It’s by far one of the oldest, if not the oldest, gravesite in Clinton Grove.
More than a century-and-a-half of exposure to the elements has nearly washed away the engraved lettering, but the name Richard Conner on one of the sides is still discernible, as are these words:
“DIED April 22, 1808
AGED 89 YEARS”
A plaque below it, dedicated by the Birmingham chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, declares that Conner was a Revoutionary War soldier.
Local historian Donald W. Green — a past Clinton Township Historical Society president and Macomb County Historical commissioner — disagrees.
Green, a Clinton Township resident, has spent nearly 40 years researching Conner as part of the greater history of the township. And while there is no evidence that Conner served in the Revolutionary War, there is plenty of proof he was living and trading during that time with American Indians and the Moravians as a frontiersman, Green said.
But Conner’s life was surely an adventurous one nonetheless, one deeply rooted in the frontier history of Macomb County.
Born in 1719 in Maryland, Conner moved to Pennsylvania and developed a reputation as a trader. He gained the trust of several American Indian tribes with his knowledge of their traditions and ability to speak their dialects well.
“He thought like they did; he talked like they did,” Green said. “He blended in.”
During his travels, Conner met his wife, Margaret Boyer, while she was living with a Shawnee tribe in Ohio. Boyer, her sister and brother had been captured by the Shawnee as children.
Given Conner’s reputation, the chief sold Boyer to him for $200, plus the promise that their first child would belong to the tribe.
Ever a man of his word, Conner honored the agreement; the couple heartbreakingly turning over their first born son, James Conner, to the chief until they were able to work up the money to buy him back several years later.
Conner and Boyer ultimately had four sons and a daughter, Susannah, who is buried alongside her father at Clinton Grove Cemetery. She is credited as being the first child born in Macomb County to English-speaking parents, Green said.
But you can’t talk about Richard Conner without mentioning his close friend until death, David Zeisberger, a highly educated Moravian minister who founded one of the first inland settlements in the Michigan territory. The settlement, which Zeisberger called New Gnadenhutten — translated to “huts of grace” — was founded in the oxbow of the Clinton River. The settlement was located across the river from what now is George George Memorial Park.
The Moravians’ road to Detroit, now known as Moravian Drive, is Michigan’s oldest inland road.
At the time, “places like Flint, Grand Rapids and Lansing were never even heard of,”
It was Zeisberger and his Moravian missionaries that Conner followed from Pennsylvania to Ohio, then to New Gnadenhutten. It was uncommon, Green said, for a Moravian community to welcome a non-Moravian such as Conner to live among them. But such was Conner’s friendship with Zeisberger, his friendship with the American Indians, and the respect that his knowledge of the wilderness had earned him, Green said.
“(Conner and Zeisberger) lived on the cusp of life,” Green added. “There were many times they were captured by hostile American Indians and hostile troops (from the Revolutionary War), and their lines were by a thread, so to speak. Yet they lived through all this, and both men died in bed in their 80s.
“They were really rugged, really hard folks. They even starved sometimes because they couldn’t get food. It’s a remarkable story of survivorship. Conner’s children were the same way.”
In the eyes of many historians, Richard Conner’s sons — namely William, John and Henry — went on to eclipse their father’s fame. After spending their teens in Clinton Township, they became widely known liaisons to the American Indian communities and among them helped negotiate dozens of treaties with the tribes.
William and John Conner each founded cities in Indiana — Noblesville and Connersville, respectively — and both were intricately involved in the founding of Indianapolis, Ind.
Henry Conner, meanwhile, moved to Detroit and served in the Michigan Legislature and as a state and federal commissioner for Michigan’s American Indians.
“(Conner) and his sons ended up as real heroes in a lot of places,” Green said. “You go down to Indiana and (the Conners) are well known down there.”
But it was the lessons they learned from Richard Conner that led them to ascend as “great arbitrators and negotiators” of American Indian treaties, Green said.
His only daughter, Susannah, went on to marry Elisha Harrington, who served in the War of 1812 and rose to prominence serving as an associate judge in Macomb County.
As for Richard Conner, however, it was there, nestled in the bend of the Clinton River, that he remained with his family until the age of 89 — a long life even by today’s standards.
Later on in his life, federal courts granted him private claims for thousands of acres of land in the Clinton Township and Mount Clemens area. A good share of Mount Clemens and northern Clinton Township was built on the Conners’ private property, Green said. “(James Conner) sold property to Christian Clemens for Mount Clemens,” he said.
Historical accounts indicate that at the time of his death Richard Conner owned more than 4,000 acres of land, likely making him one of the richest men in the area, Green said.
However, Conner wasn’t always buried in Clinton Grove Cemetery. His body was reinterred there when the cemetery opened in 1855; before that, he was buried in a cemetery on Moravian Drive, not far from New Gnadenhutten.
Today, at 87 years old, Green is working to revive the memories of Conner, Zeisberger and the Moravians.
He is writing a historical account of their experiences, which he hopes to publish as a book. Additionally, he has written numerous articles and given speeches in several states about the topic. He is scheduled to speak at 2 p.m. on Aug. 14 at the Crocker House Museum in Mount Clemens.
“(It’s about) reminding people that Clinton Township and this area is very historical,” Green said. “It’s not just a made-up story. This is part of real history, solid history that is studied by historians all over.”
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