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History Minute: Elias Nelson Conway


Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist

Elias Nelson Conway was the fifth governor of Arkansas. He presided over a prosperous two terms in office and was part of the dominance of the Conway family in the state in the decades after joining the Union.
Conway was born in eastern Tennessee near the North Carolina border in 1812. His father, Thomas Conway, was a successful planter. With his wife, the former Ann Rector, they had ten children, including seven sons. His father arranged for tutors for his children to give them the best education possible for a frontier family. In 1818, the whole family moved west to Missouri.
Many of his older brothers, excited by new opportunities in Arkansas, left for the new territory in the 1820s. His eldest brother, Henry Conway, was a popular territorial delegate to Congress before he was killed in a duel with political rival Robert Crittenden in 1827. After his death, the distraught brothers and cousins and their allies banded together to destroy Crittenden’s political career and influence. In the process, the Conways and their cousins, the Ashleys, Rectors, and Johnsons came to dominate the most important political positions in Arkansas.
Elias Conway arrived in Arkansas in 1833 and soon became U. S. Deputy Surveyor. In 1835, he was appointed territorial auditor. By the next year, his older brother, James S. Conway, was elected governor. Shortly afterward, the state legislature appointed the younger Conway as state auditor.
In 1843, he was briefly considered as a candidate for governor to succeed Archibald Yell, but controversies over the nomination and questions about his own lack of experience ended his election bid. Conway stepped down as state auditor in 1849 and spent the next few years as an attorney and working in real estate.
In 1852, Conway won the Democratic nomination for governor. Gen. Bryan Smithson, a Democrat upset with the Conway family’s domination of the party, broke away and ran as the Whig Party candidate.
The campaign centered on how to best build the state. Conway especially was interested in developing the internal infrastructure of the state. While some were pushing for the aggressive construction of railroads, Conway was uncertain about their future. Instead, he insisted that the state should concentrate on wagon roads for farmers and merchants. Because of his insistence on these dusty trails, he began to be called the “dirt road candidate.” Conway won the election that fall with 55% of the vote.
Nevertheless, railroads dominated the first legislative session of Conway’s term. The state approved corporate charters for five railroads. Conway worked diligently to erase the state’s debt from the collapse of the Real Estate Bank in 1837, cutting the debt in half without a tax increase. He also committed the state to reclaiming swampland to make it available for settlers. He initiated the first geological survey of the state and the state takeover the Arkansas School for the Blind. He won re-election in 1856 with an even wider margin than 1852, with a 13,000-vote margin and 65% of the vote.
By most historical accounts, Conway was a very successful governor. The economy thrived under his administration, and the standard of living for most Arkansans rose steadily. The population rose as well. At eight years in office, he was the longest-serving governor of Arkansas in the nineteenth century and is the fourth-longest serving governor in the entire history of the state, behind Governors Orval Faubus, Bill Clinton, and Mike Huckabee.
Once Conway retired in 1860, he largely stayed out of the public eye for the remainder of his years. He died at his home in Little Rock in 1892.