Elias Conwell may have been a rascal, but he sure had a nice house

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 Conwell 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.

Detour Conwell St.
Detour of Conwell St. in Aurora

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.

The Conwell House

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16 responses to “Elias Conwell may have been a rascal, but he sure had a nice house”

  1. The Trailhead Avatar

    Fascinating history. That house! Do they ever open it for historic tours?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I don’t think they do, sadly! I wonder what other great houses are hidden in Indiana’s tiny towns?

      1. The Trailhead Avatar

        I know! 1822…that’s early for here, though I guess it makes sense since Aurora is close to the river. I have an ancestor who settled in Aurora around then. I wonder if he knew Mr. Conwell. Small world, small history.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Yes, the earliest Indiana settlers were down along the river, so generally you’ll find the oldest buildings in the south!

  2. hmunro Avatar

    I literally laughed out loud at your post title, Jim! Excellent research, too. Although I don’t think I would have much liked the “rascally” Mr. Conwell, he did leave behind a rather lovely legacy.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, I’m kind of proud of that title. My favorite title so far on this blog is “Paul McCartney kind of saved my life once; he has no idea, of course.”

  3. Liz Meyer Avatar

    Have you acquired a copy of the Napoleon Sesquicentennial book? It is a wonderful collection of pictures and stories. It was published for the 1970 celebration through the historical society.

    My husbands great grandparents owned what is now recognized as the Strober house. The father and two sons died in the house from scarlet fever. Eventually the house, farm and dairy were lost by my husband’s grandfather due to a “poor choice” in regards to gambling.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m sorry for the extremely delayed reply; your comment got caught in my blog’s spam filter. I haven’t seen the Napoleon sesquicentennial book! I’ll be on the lookout.

  4. Tim A. Avatar
    Tim A.

    Just getting around to responding. Thank you for writing this! I read it not too long after learning that Elias was my fifth great grandfather and it was a big help.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Hey, that’s awesome. I’m happy to fill in a couple blanks about your ancestor!

  5. Beth Lutes Avatar
    Beth Lutes

    My husband was born in that house in 1961.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Very cool! Thank you for stopping by.

  6. Gene Eaton Avatar
    Gene Eaton

    How can I get a printed copy of this. Napoleon has a lot of interesting history including underground railroad sights.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This blog doesn’t have a printed version. You are free to print this post yourself however!

  7. Samantha Avatar

    This is our house. It actually was on the Underground Railroad with a tunnel that connected to Loves Railroad Inn and Conwell’s store which no longer exists. We have met people born here who used to play in the tunnel before the street infrastructure filled it in.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m so pleased you found this post and commented! From the exterior anyway, you have done a wonderful job keeping this old house in nice condition. Thank you!

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