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William Elsey Connelley

Educator, businessman, author, president of the Kansas Historical Society (1912), secretary of the Kansas Historical Society (1914-1930) Born: March 15, 1855 Married: Julia Frances Witten (1858- 1892), in 1874, two children Married: Sarah A. Fife (1857-1933), in 1885, two children. Died: Kansas City, Kansas, July 15, 1930. 

William Elsey Connelley was born to Constantine and Rebecca Jane (McCarty) Conley in Johnson County, Kentucky, on March 15, 1855, the oldest of five children. During the Civil War his father served in the Union army with the 45th Kentucky Mounted Infantry. Connelley’s mother died in 1862, leaving him to care for his siblings. His father returned from the war in 1865 in poor health to face financial struggles. Connelley was primarily self-educated with limited educational opportunities. He met the educational requirements of public instruction and at age 17 became a schoolteacher in Johnson County, Kentucky, where he remained 10 years.

Connelley moved to Wyandotte County, Kansas, in 1881 and continued to school for a short time. He became Wyandotte County clerk in 1883 then moved to the wholesale lumber business in Springfield, Missouri in 1888. He worked in banking in Kansas City, Kansas; land, title, and abstract in Beatrice, Nebraska; then Crane and Company publishing in Topeka, Kansas. He was appointed special pensions examiner in 1902 and soon was involved in the oil industry near Chanute, Kansas. Connelley called a meeting of independent oil men in Kansas in 1905, and the Kansas Oil Producers Association was organized. He became active in the crusade against the Standard Oil Company in Kansas, which eventually led to the dissolution of Standard Oil Trust by the U. S. Supreme Court.

An author of 14 books, Connelley contributed five volumes to Crane’s Twentieth Century Classics: Provisional Government of the Nebraska Territory, James Henry Lane, Wyandot Folk-lore, Kansas Territorial Governors, and John Brown. His other works include Overland Stage to California with Frank A. Root (1901), Life of John J. Ingalls (1903), An Appeal to the Record (1903), The Heckwelder Narrative (editor, 1907), Doniphan’s Expedition (1907), Quantrill and the Border Wars (1909), Ingalls of Kansas (1909), Eastern Kentucky Papers (1910), and Life of Preston B. Plumb (1913). Connelley also compiled a five-volume History of Kansas (1917, 1918, and 1929) and a five-volume History of Kentucky with E. M. Coulter, edited by Judge Charles Kerr (1922).

Connelley’s contributions to journals and magazines include scientific journals on the folklore and ethnology of the Wyandot tribe and is credited with compiling the first written vocabulary of the Wyandot language. He also researched the history and language of the Delaware, Shawnee, and other Indigenous tribes. Although not a scholar or professional historian, Connelley used principles of historic research with analysis and conclusions based on careful review of documentary evidence and extensive interviews with individuals involved in the events under investigation. His conclusions were frequently at odds current research. His interest in recording the documentary and oral evidence put him in dispute with others who had different conclusions. He hoped to present John Brown’s papers “as they were written,” without “editing and correcting of important papers and letters.”

Served 16 years as secretary of the Kansas Historical Society, Connelley oversaw the agency's move from the Kansas State Capitol across the street to the new Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall at 10th and Jackson in downtown Topeka. He hoped the Historical Society would grow a reputation for its significant repository of artifacts and records, which he worked to expand in collections and membership. He worked to expand a relationship between the Historical Society, educators, and the public school system. The Historical Society solicited biographical information from returning World War I veterans and families in 1919, particularly Gold Star Mothers who had lost sons in the war.

Connelley was awarded an honorary master’s degree from Baker University in 1911. He served as president of the Mississippi Valley Historical Society, the Kansas Sons of the American Revolution, a member of the Masons, and other civic organizations. Connelley died in Topeka on July 15, 1930, and is buried in Kansas City, Kansas.

Entry: William Elsey Connelley

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 2022

Date Modified: November 2022

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.