Collections Blog

Collections Blog

New Acquisitions: Elias Nelson Conway

Old State House Museum - Monday, August 29, 2016


Elias Nelson Conway was born on May 17, 1812, in Greeneville, Tennessee, to Thomas Conway, a planter, and Ann Rector. He spent most of his childhood in Missouri and received his formal education at the school of Alonzo Pearson and at Bonne Femme Academy in Boone County. Shortly after moving to Arkansas with several of his brothers, Conway began his political career through his position as U.S. deputy surveyor. One year after Conway became old enough to run for governor, he received the Democratic nomination at the party convention on December 5, 1843. However, he withdrew from the campaign after widespread criticism. The Conway family, along with their relatives the Seviers and the Johnsons, were known as “The Family”, due to their domination of pre-Civil War politics in Arkansas. Because Conway was so young and seemingly inexperienced, many believed the Family had selected one of their own over a more qualified candidate.

Conway returned to the political scene in 1852 after he was once again nominated for governor by the Democratic Party convention. Conway defeated General Bryan H. Smithson in the election and also won reelection four years later. His term of service from November 15, 1852, to November 15, 1860, has only been exceeded by three other Arkansas governors: Orval Faubus, Bill Clinton, and Mike Huckabee.

During his terms as governor, Elias Conway led Arkansas through several historically significant moments. The 1850s were marked by excitement over the promise of railroads, largely driven by the California gold rush. After the 1853 meeting of the Arkansas General Assembly, five railroad companies were chartered and Congress granted land to the state. Eventually, locations were selected and on August 26, 1857, a locomotive named Little Rock carried dignitaries on the first railroad ride in Arkansas. Conway also helped decrease Arkansas’s bank debts, which has been called one of his greatest triumphs. The State Bank and the Real Estate Bank, created during his brother James’ administration, were once thought to be vital components of a healthy, growing state. However, both entities failed and burdened the state with long-term debt and bad credit. Conway persuaded the General Assembly to create a new court of chancery in Pulaski County and pay down the debt as far as the remaining assets were allowed. By the end of his term, Conway had paid off more than $2 million on the state’s banking debts.

Check out the "We Make Our Own Choices: Staff Favorites From the Old State House Museum Collection" exhibit to view two recently acquired pieces — a bust and a portrait — related to Elias Conway.The Kentucky Historical Society donated a marble bust of Gov. Conway. The bust was made by American sculptor Henry Dexter in 1860. A portrait of Gov. Conway was donated to the museum by one of his descendants, Mrs. Carolynn Conway Coleman.