This is a biography and reminiscence of the Tacoma African American pioneer John N. Conna written by his grandson, Douglas Q. Barnett (1931-2019).
When I was a young tyke at my mother’s knee I became aware of a large portrait that dominated the living room of our small wood framed house. The portrait was that of a man in military uniform. When I became older, my mother proudly informed me that the man in question was her father, John N. Conna, who had been a Captain in the Civil War. As life went on, I would occasionally overhear stories and snippets of conversation about John Conna from my parents and relatives. But I was too busy growing up, hanging with the homeboys, adventuring, and trying to figure out life. Sports, particularly baseball, and later, theatre consumed my time. Family genealogy was not on my radar screen.
But in 1980, we had our first and only family reunion and it became a pivotal experience in my life. Meeting so many relatives and hearing so many disparate stories started me on a lifelong quest to find my families “roots.” Over the years information was culled from a variety of sources, and slowly a comprehensive picture of the family emerged. But the most compelling person of them all by far was John Newington Conna: progeny of a mixed marriage, Civil War veteran, father of 19 children, realtor nonpareil, advocate and recruiter of blacks to the Northwest, attorney, staunch Republican politician, consultant to railroad magnate James J. Hill, and friend and confidante to Tacoma attorney, James J. Wickersham, former Tacoma attorney and later Federal Judge in Alaska’s third district.
Family lore had proudly proclaimed him a “free man of color.” But recent documentation reveals the fact that he was a slave from San Augustine, Texas; the product of a liaison between an Irish immigrant, and an unknown black woman. He changed his name after gaining freedom because he was tired of being called a “black Irishman.”
The first written documentation of John Conna comes from the Surviving, Soldiers and Sailors list that informs his enlistment in the 1st Louisiana Native Guards -- an all-black Union regiment -- on April 3, 1862. Records show that his regiment fought in three major engagements: the bloody siege at Port Hudson and battles at Milliken’s Bend and Tonica Bayou.
On May 4, 1865, a month after the war ended, a battle-hardened and more mature John Conna was honorably discharged. His adventurous spirit led him first to New York City where he resided briefly before moving north to Hartford, Connecticut. There he met and married Mary L. Davis who was half African American and half Indian in 1870. They resided in the Park River section of Hartford for nine years during which time they had seven children. During that 10 year period, the country moved toward a more industrialized base, and railroads expanded exponentially with an eye toward western expansion.
In 1879 the Connas moved to Kansas City, Kansas, where he became active in the Missouri National Guard. He was commissioned as Captain of the “American Rifles,” his unit with the Missouri Guard. The transcontinental railroad, long stalled by political infighting and financial instability, finally became a reality in 1883 when the last spike was driven at Tacoma, Washington, the western terminus. Tacoma, the “City of Destiny,” as it proudly proclaimed itself, was overjoyed. They came by the thousands to this primeval wilderness of muddy streets, 30 saloons, seven churches, and a brewery!
Among those who came in 1883, were John and Mary Conna, and their nine children! Two more had been added in Kansas City. They became the first African American family to reside in Tacoma, Washington. The year 1883 was a pivotal one for Tacoma because not only John Conna, but also Allen C. Mason and James Wickersham came to Tacoma. These three strangers' lives would intersect in significant ways. All three would play seminal roles in the development of Tacoma.
City of Destiny
In 1884 John Conna used his Civil War benefits to prove up a 160-acre homestead in north Tacoma which today is part of Federal Way, Washington. Shortly thereafter he was hired by Allen C. Mason as a real estate broker. Conna, at 51 years of age, flourished in the role and quickly became its leading real estate broker. He also branched out politically as shown in this tidbit from the Tacoma Daily Ledger of September 30, 1889:
“John Conna of Allen C. Mason’s office is the leader of the best elements of Tacoma’s colored society, and it is said he rules it with an influence as strong as his command of Tacoma’s colored vote.”
Conna also began to actively recruit African Americans from other parts of the country to migrate to the Pacific Northwest. He also placed ads in Eastern newspapers recruiting colored coal miners for work in the mines at Roslyn. By the time Washington became a state in 1889, he was the titular leader of the black voting bloc in Tacoma as president of the John Brown Republican Club and the Washington State Protective League. He was also a member of the Afro-American League, the predecessor to the NAACP.
Due to his political influence he was selected Sergeant At Arms for the first Washington State Legislature in 1889. While there he helped frame and successfully lobby for Washington’s first Public Accommodations law. By this time he had left the employ of Allen C. Mason, and established his own company. He worked even harder and succeeded to the degree that he and Mary decided to give back to the community they loved so much. On December 24, 1889, as a Christmas gift to the City, John and Mary Conna donated some 40 acres of land to the City of Tacoma “for public use forever.” It is bounded by Kansas Street, Baltimore, and E. St, and is formally titled, “The Conna Addition.” Today, it is the 5400 block of 41st Avenue North.
Despite his success as a realtor and politician, life was not all peaches and cream for the Conna clan. Between 1870 and 1890 they had spawned 19 children, but the record shows that three children were lost at childbirth, and daughter Bessie at the tender age of 19. As he gained more stature and influence, the Tacoma Morning Globe in its Annual Review edition dated January 1, 1891 stated “The crown of success does not always rest upon locks of silver, but frequently is worn by men in the prime of life, who by energy and perseverance accomplished the results of a lifetime. Mr. Conna furnishes a striking illustration.”
The year 1893 was a milestone year. It had been 10 years since John Conna, Allen C. Mason, and James Wickersham had arrived, and all three were playing pivotal roles in shaping Tacoma, the City. Mason was already a millionaire, and Conna and Wickersham were at the pinnacle of their professions in real estate and law. John Conna also practiced law as indicated in this letter from the U.S. Treasury Department dated April 17, 1893. “In reply to your letter of the 8th instant, I have to inform you that your name has been enrolled upon the list of attorneys authorized to practice before the Treasury Department.” John Conna was also an attorney and consultant to railroad magnate, James J. Hill. The friendship between Conna and Wickersham deepened over the years, and eventually paid off big time for Conna when Wickersham was appointed Judge of the 3rd Judicial District in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The year 1893 also brought the great financial “panic” that rolled across the country like a tidal wave. It caused a significant drop in the value of the dollar, bank closures, and massive layoffs. Of Tacoma’s 21 banks, only seven survived. It hit the monied interests first, then rolled down to the common man. Jobs disappeared. Poorhouses were overcrowded. Berry bushes were picked clean! People began to leave Tacoma in droves, and the great westward migration that held such promise ground to a shuddering halt! Conna, like many others, lost money. He was forced to regroup, and moved his office to a storefront operation. But he persevered, and as the economy slowly righted itself, he eventually began to acquire property outside of Tacoma as evidenced by this excerpt from Horace Cayton’s Seattle Republican newspaper dated January 4, 1896.
“The Hon. John N. Conna is the pioneer real estate man in the state, and he owns property all over the state. Mr. Conna has served as Deputy United States Marshall, and in other federal places of trust and honor. He is now agent for one of the largest blocks in Tacoma, and is being favorably mentioned as a candidate for the next state representative for his district.”
Further cementing his political and social influence, Conna was chosen as a delegate to the National Republican Convention at St. Louis, Missouri in 1896.
The critics scoffed when the United States purchased a frozen wilderness called Alaska in 1867. But in 1896 when the steamship Portland arrived in Seattle with over two tons of gold, the jeers turned to cheers! Gold! Gold! Gold! announced the Seattle Post Intelligencer, and just like that,the rush was on! Seattle Mayor W. D. Wood, who was in San Francisco on city business, wired in his resignation and caught the next boat for Alaska! Word spread quickly, and within 10 days, over 1,500 people had departed for Alaska, the lust for gold ever present in their minds.
In Tacoma, John Conna and three leading black businessmen, George H. Grose, Con A. Rideout, and Robert L. Dixon, pooled their money and started the Seattle Klondike Grubstake and Trading Company. Articles of incorporation were filed on September 15, 1897, and capitalized at $100,000. The articles clearly outlined their attempt to exploit the gold rush in every way imaginable. One of the investors, George Grose, eventually set off for Alaska in search of gold, but John Conna -- with a gold lust of his own -- sat in Tacoma and watched!
The rule of law was stretched to the breaking point when an estimated 40,000 people -- all looking for the same thing -- descended on Alaska. Lawlessness prevailed. The government was finally forced to stop treating the Territory like an unwanted step-child. Still, it wasn’t until June 1900 that Congress passed reform legislation that provided for a civil code, revised the criminal code, and divided Alaska into three Judicial Districts.
In June 1900, John Conna’s buddy, James Wickersham, a political chameleon of the highest order, was appointed by President William McKinleyto the Judgeship of Alaska’s third Judicial District. It was a surprising appointment because his 17 years in Tacoma had been marked by controversy, particularly his involvement in the forced expulsion of Chinese immigrants from Tacoma in 1885.
But John Conna -- still lusting for gold -- saw this as a golden opportunity. He would be traveling to Alaska with a federal judge. Alaska’s first! He furiously lobbied his family to move with him, but they demurred. He was equally unyielding, selling his business and leaving his family with as much money as could be afforded. On July 2, 1900, the S.S. Seattle left Seattle for Alaska with a full complement of passengers. Judge Wickersham, his family, and some business associates were on board.
Among them was 64-year-old John N. Conna.
The first stop was Eagle, Alaska, the pre-determined headquarters for the 3rd District. But three years later the operation was moved to newly founded Fairbanks, Alaska, because of a huge gold find in the Tanana Valley. The record shows that John Conna, like many others, did not meet a lot of initial success. The fact that he was a minority within a minority worked against him. But he persevered, and the fact that he and Judge Wickersham were the best of friends, worked to his advantage. Judge Wickersham hired him as a janitor at the courthouse where he worked, and later, as his chef and general housekeeper.
The record shows that although Conna worked in menial positions initially, he also moonlighted at his craft as a realtor using a letterhead stating: John N. Conna, Real Estate and Mining Property for sale. It was not until 1911 that he was able to solidify his holdings and open his own business specializing in real estate and mining. By this time he had renounced his Republican affiliation, transferring his allegiance to the Socialist Party! An eloquent and passionate speaker, he gained celebrity by running for Senator in 1912, and City Councilman in 1914. Neither candidacy was successful, but it established John Conna as the ‘sui generis’ of Alaskan politics. He became a familiar figure in Fairbanks, speaking at various political and social functions, periodically wearing his old Civil War uniform.
Sadly, during this period, John lost his wife, Mary. She died in Seattle in 1907 being cared for by some of her children, including my mother. The other children were scattered from California to Iowa, to China! Newspapers of that era published real estate and mining transactions on a daily basis, and records show John Conna doing a steady, if unspectacular business. But in February of 1921 the 85 year old had a leg amputated. In failing health with diabetes and a heart condition, John Newington Conna died on October 11, 1921. He was buried in the historic Clay Street Cemetery in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The family was never notified of John Conna’s passing. It was many years later in piecemeal fashion that they learned of his demise. The family and subsequent descendants believed that since none of the family claimed the estate, and the statute of limitations had run out, that either the City of Fairbanks or the State of Alaska had claimed the estate of John Conna. The acquisition of the probate file in 2001 however, tells a far more revealing and disturbing story.
John Conna’s last will and testament left his substantial estate to his and Mary’s children, “share and share alike." The probate file states that the Executor, Emil Pozza, notified John’s heirs of his death and of being the beneficiaries therein. This is not true. As stated previously, Conna’s heirs only learned of his death many years after the fact.
Conna’s assets at the time of his death were considerable for that period in history. In today’s dollars, his net worth would have exceeded $100,000. His estate included six houses in downtown Fairbanks, most of them rentals. He also ran a small second-hand furniture store out of his home and owned a share in the Cripple Creek mine, one of Alaska’s great gold producing streams.
The file shows that over an 11-year period, from 1921 to 1932 when the file was finally closed, Executor Pozza systematically sold all the property and the Cripple Creek share. The probate document also shows that Pozza stated that all funds from Conna’s estate went to pay off hospital bills, funeral costs, and business expenses. Yet some debt, specifically the hospital bill from Conna’s last stay, remain unpaid until this day!
Vashti Pierre, a grandchild of the Conna family traveled to Fairbanks in 1953 in an effort to solve the mystery of what happened to the Conna estate. Her every effort was stonewalled, and she was followed everywhere she went. Being a single woman and in a strange city, she feared for her life and returned to her California home.
This oral and documented research has dispelled some of the myth and mystery of John N. Conna, the man. He leaves behind a sterling legacy of accomplishment, and a significant contribution in the development of the “City of Destiny,” Tacoma, Washington. It is hoped that this history will not fall on barren ground, but take root and become a source of pride for the present generation. It is hoped that they will follow in his footsteps and be all that they can be in following the American Dream of hard work, perseverance, and the rewards thereof.
The large portrait of John Conna that once dominated my home is no more. But in my minds eye, it still resonates as the image of an exceptional American. Born a slave, but a man who fought in the Civil War, who became an attorney, realtor, businessman, politician, and leader of his people wherever he went. He succeeded in every measure of the word, success. It is hoped that history will recognize his contribution to his family, his people, society as a whole, and judge him accordingly.