You might never have heard of Napoleon, a small town in southeastern Indiana. But in the 1820s it was an important point of entry for people settling in central Indiana. The Michigan Road is its main street, and was then the major route to Indianapolis, 60 miles to the northwest. Moreover, Napoleon was an important stop on the stage route between Cincinnati and Indianapolis, with many inns available to serve travelers.
Elias Conwell was Napoleon’s most prominent citizen in those days, and this was his house.
The house’s current owner told me that Conwell built it in about 1822, making it one of the oldest houses still standing on the Michigan Road. She went on to say that it features eight working fireplaces and that its interior was restored by a previous owner to its 1820s appearance. She told me that it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
I did a little research on Mr. Conwell. He was born in Delaware in about 1785 but moved to the Ohio River town of Aurora, Indiana, in 1819. There he was a postmaster and a businessman, opening Aurora’s first store. He came to Napoleon in about 1821 and opened a store there, as well as a brewery, a brickyard, and a tannery. His ventures were successful, and with his growing wealth he purchased 160 acres along the Michigan Road north of what is now Wilson Street. He also purchased four town lots on the northwest corner of that intersection and built his house there.
Conwell’s dealings in Aurora continued through at least the 1820s. Court records show that he wasn’t always a gentleman. In 1823, he was convicted of assaulting another prominent Aurora businessman named Horace Bassett, for which the penalty was a $2 fine plus court costs. He was also sued in Aurora in 1825, accused of taking unlawful possession of a building belonging to someone named Luke Erill. Conwell lost, but my research didn’t reveal his penalty.
Despite Conwell’s rascally ways, a street in Aurora is named for him. It seems fitting if nothing else because he was involved in roadbuilding, forming the Sparta and Napoleon Turnpike Company in 1851 with six other men. Sparta is an unincorporated town about nine miles northwest of Aurora on what is now State Road 350. The road was to pass through Milan and Prattsburg (which doesn’t appear to exist anymore) on its way to Napoleon. It looks like the road was built; I can trace a likely route among these towns, starting on State Road 350 in Sparta, following some county roads (and places where those roads clearly used to go but which no longer exist), and ending on State Road 229 in Napoleon.
Aurora is about 30 miles southeast of Napoleon. We can drive between the two towns in no time today, but in the 1800s this trip probably took all day. Despite his business interests so far away, Conwell lived in Napoleon with his wife, Esther. They entertained politicians and other notable people in their home in what is said to have been the height of refinement.
Conwell died in Napoleon in 1862. He was 73.
I wrote an earlier version of this post in 2010. This rewrite includes photos of the house I took in March, 2016, and additional biographical information about Conwell.