| ||Henderson County, Illinois
||History & Genealogy
Stephen Sumner Phelps was born in Palmyra, Ontario county, New York, August 1, 1805. His father and mother, Stephen and Lois Phelps, were natives of Wethersfield, Connecticut. The parents of both removed to Palmyra at an early day, and there the young people were married and remained until after the birth of their children. From thence they moved to Canandaigua, where they opened a hotel, which, as late as 1860, was known as the "Phelp's House." Very recently the fire fiend destroyed the building, but the old well remains to mark the spot. Although they did not formally unite with the Quakers, yet the elderly people attended the meetings and held some of the tenets of the Friends, and their children were instructed in many of the principles of that freedom loving people. Stephen Sumner was the fifth child in a family of seven, having two brothers and two sisters older, and two brothers younger than himself. In Canandaigua he attended such schools as the place afforded, and succeeded in mastering the arithmetic as far as the celebrated "rule of three." Emigration commencing to went its way westward, the Phelps boys, among others, turned their eyes toward the undeveloped west. Alexis, the oldest boy, starting out to find a home for the family, walked from Canandaigua to Kentucky, where he taught school for several months, after which returned to New York via Illinois, performing the return trip also on foot. In 1820 Alexis, accompanied by a younger brother, the subject of this sketch, came to Illinois, and selected a residence for the family, near the present sight of Springfield, Sangamon county. Here they broke eighty acres of land the next spring and built a log house. In the fall of 1821 they were joined by the remainder of the family. They remained in Sangamon county four years, and then removed to Lewiston, Fulton county. S. S. Phelps engaged in the Indian trade for his father and traded through all the country north and east of Peoria. In the fall of 1826 he build a trading house at Starved Rock on the Illinois river, and not far from where Ottawa now stands. It was at this place that he met Shabbona, who was then a dignified chief of sixty-five, and took great delight in narrating many reminiscences of his life.
In 1828 S. S. Phelps was married to Miss Phebe Chase, of Fulton county. Leaving his young wife at her home, he went to join his brother Alexis, who had in the mean time gone to Galena, and engaged extensively in lead mining, and who now wrote, that if Sumner would come and assist him, he would give him one-third of the profits and assume all risk. He accepted the offer of Alexis and arrived at Galena on the first of March, 1828. Alexis sent him on to Dodgeville, on the Wisconsin river, where he put up a furnace, as the brothers proposed to extend their business by engaging in smelting. Mr. Phelps also put up a log house at Dodgeville for his home. Everything being now ready, he started to Fulton county for his wife. On his slow and toilsome journey through a wild and unsettled country, he was taken sick from mineral poison, caused by working with the lead, and was obliged to abandon mining.
About this time Jeremiah Smith, who afterward build the mill commonly known as Jack's Mill, landed at Yellow Banks and preceeded to Lewiston on foot. He brought the news that Galland, who had settled at Oquawka, was discouraged and wished to sell his claim. The father of Mr. Phelps sent Smith back to buy the claim for his son, and paid $400 for it. As soon as he had sufficiently recovered his health he and his wife took possession of the purchase, and September 10, 1828, set up their household goods in the rude log house previously occupied by Dr. Galland. One wagon held all their earthly wealth. Their table was a box that had contained their goods, their couch was formed by rough poles fixed in the side of the house, called in old settler parlance, "the state and rider bedstead." S. S. Phelps was accompanied by a younger brother, William, and for many years the lives of the brothers were inseparable. They had expected supplies to be brought up the river to them on a boat, but an early and severe winter prevented navigation, and the little family suffered much from the cold and from the scarcity of provisions. Their bread was made from corn pounded in a vessel formed from a piece of a hollow trunk of a tree, their meat was the wild game killed by the brothers, who were good marksmen with both rifle and shot gun.
The brothers soon established quite an extensive trade with the Sac and Fox Indians. William went to New Boston, or Upper Yellow Banks, as it was then called, and notwithstanding the opposition of other traders, succeeded in holding position opposite the mouth of the Iowa river, for the purpose of trading with Keokuk's people, who had a village on the Iowa about ten miles above, where it emptied into the Mississippi. After remaining there until their trade with those Indians were secured, William returned to Oquawka. Dr. Galland had retired to the head of the lower rapids of the Mississippi, and again becoming discouraged, sent work to the Phelps brothers that if they could hold his claim they were welcome to it. William moved down and after several severe skirmishes with both red and white men, maintained his position, and they thus had access to the Indian villages of a large scope of country.
In 1830 the trade with the Indians on the Des Moines presented a good opening for adventurous men; the brothers procured a United States license, and William moved to Iowa, and established a trading post near Farmington. S. S. Phelps remained to hold possession of Yellow Banks. the American Fur Company, with John Jacob Astor, of New York, at its head, and Pratt, Shonteau & Co., of St. Louis, as assistants, opened a determined resistance to what they considered an infringement of their rights. They made many threats of robbing and destroying the pack trains of S. S. Phelps, who passed from trading packs upon his own shoulders. He hesitated at no danger, but ever dauntless and alert, he conquered where defeat appeared certain. He was so successful in overcoming all obstacles, and met danger with such bravery of action and flashing eye, that he acquired great popularity with both Sac and Fox Indians, who united in giving him the name of Wah-wash-e-ne-qua-Hawkeye, because they said his eye flashed in anger or in danger like that of an angry hawk.
Amid these struggles and trials, difficulties between the Indians and the agents of the government were increasing, which finally culminated in 1832 in the Black Hawk war. S. S. Phelps was offered the office of commisary, and ranked as major, but remained at the trading house at Yellow Banks, as it was thought that he could exert more influence so near the villages of the dissatisfied savages, than in more active service. The settlement at Oquawka now consisted of the log dwelling, and a rude structure, which was called by courtesy a store, and rejoiced in the honor of being the, first frame house in Warren county. The mill, situated about a mile and a half from town, on what had been termed the Devil's Half Acre, by Peter Cartwright, had been built, and the Samisen settlement had also been made. The Indians, at this time, were divided into two bands, one under Keokuk, and the other under Black Hawk. Trusting to his friends among the Indians, promised to warn neighboring settlements, also, if any difficulty with the red men should arise. Their only safeguard against an attack was the huge logs, which formed the walls of their dwellings, in which were formed loop-holes, through which the inmates could fire upon an attacking enemy. The wave of battle swept to the north. Stillman had been defeated. Many hearts beat anxiously for fear the victorious savages would descend the river, and massacre the settlers in the Mississippi valley. Gov. Reynolds, of Illinois, passed up to Rock river to meet the conquering chief, Black Hawk, and on his route stopped at Yellow Banks, and left a case of twenty-six guns, and the requisite ammunition, with Mr. Phelps, that they might be prepared for an attack by the Indians. Things were in this unsettled state when one night Tama, an aged Fox chief, arrived at the trading house to inquire if his white brother had heard any news from the seat of war. He was accompanied by his wife and son. Tama had a town about three miles below the town on the Iowa side. He had been a great chief and noted scout. In the war of 1812 he had given valuable assistance to Edwards, then Governor of Illinois territory, and carried papers from the Governor, certifying to the fact, and recommending Tama as the friend of the white man. He was kindly welcomed, and soon the silence of night brooded over the little settlement.
At early dawn the household was awakened by the trampling many hoofs. All sprang from their beds with visions of torch and tomahawk of the red man before their eyes. Oaths and demands for admittance in the unmistakable English tongue somewhat reassured them. Passing from the house, Mr. Phelps found it surrounded by more than fifty dunken soldiers, led by a Capt. White, who was as much under the influence of drink as his men. Capt. White approached Mr. Phelps and angrily addressed him: "You are accused of harboring Indians, our natural enemies, and I demand that you surrender them to us." Mr. Phelps replied: "Tama, his wife, and son are the only Indians here. Tama you know as well as I do, and that he has always been the friend of the white man, and has rendered valuable assistance as a scout in our army. Now he is aged and in the last stages of consumption. If I should give him up, the blood of every white settler for miles around would be the forfeit. I will not give him up." Capt. White then said he would give him time to reconsider the matter, and, leaving half his men to guard the house, he withdrew the remainder to a short distance, breakfasted, cleaned and reloaded the guns. Mr. Phelps and men did the same. At the expiration of an hour the captain returned and again demanded the surrender of the Indians. He received a negative answer, and then order Mr. Phelps to accompany him to the store. Not wishing to appear afraid, he replied that he would in fifteen minutes. Mr. Phelps re-entered the house, and not pausing in count his men, which should have consisted of Joe Smart, William Cousland, and two other hands, he called Smart and told him to station the men at the loop-holes, and defend the family and Indians till the last, and to avenge him if he fell. The young chief glowed with anger, like the war-horse that smells the battle from afar; and Tama, tottering on the verge of the grave, announced himself willing to reload, all that his feeble hands could now do. Grasping his faithful gun, Mr. Phelps announced himself ready and proceeded to the store. He entered and sprang over the rude counter, which thus formed a partial breastwork, and resolved to sell his life as dearly as possible. The soldiers crowded into the little building and thus formed one solid target of humanity, for the ball from the man at bay could not fail to cut down many in its flight. Capt. White again demanded: "Are you ready to give up the Indians? If in three minutes you do not promise to surrender them to us, we will shoot you, throw body into the river, burn your house, and kill your men." Regardless of consequences, Mr. Phelps exclaimed: Shoot, and be d____d! I will never yield the Indians to you. The safety of all the whites in Illinois forbids it. If you take them by force, upon your heads will rest the murder of many innocent families; and upon you will fall the displeasure of your superior officer, who never intended that the aged and the true should fall, to satisfy the vengeance of a defeated soldiery." As he gazed into muzzles of the leveled muskets of the soldiers, visions of his family (which consisted of his wife and two children, Isabella and Alexis) at the mercy of the red men flitted through his mind. Capt. White clearly counted, one, two, and just as Mr. Phelps was about to pull the trigger, determined to have the first shot, shouts of "Shoot the drunken dogs; give no quarter to cowards!" were heard, and the men rushed from the house and threw down their arms before they saw their foes. These proved to be the hands from the mill and farmers of the Jamison settlement, led by Judge Pence, and accompanied by Jeremiah Smith and Thomas Wells. some were without coats, some without hats, and mounted on horses with the plowharness yet upon them. William Cousland had slipped from the house at the beginning of the trouble, and protected by the scrubby "black jack" trees, which grew nearly to the door, had succeeded in warning the friends who hastened to the rescue.
Judge Pence assumed command and ordered the soldiers under arrest. Although they were six to one, they submitted without any resistance. Capt. White made profuse apologies, and wished to shake hands with Tama. This Judge Pence refused, saying: "Such as you are not worthy to grasp the hand of the noble Tama." He then guarded the Indians to their canoe, and watched them out of danger. When the Indians were safe, Mr. Phelps thanked his friends and said: "I told you I would warn you when it was time to fortify. The time has come when we must protect ourselves; not from Indians, but from white men." When the crestfallen soldiers were released, they marched to Rock river, to join the army there. The settlers now proceeded to arrange for protection in case of more trouble. A fort was built on the Pence farm, and one at Oquawka. Several kegs of powder were placed under the store, in order that it might be blown up in case of an attack. A train was lad underground from these to the fort, by sewing up strips of linen bags," but there was never any necessity for using them.
Not long after this Mr. Phelps visited Keokuk's village on the Iowa in hopes of hearing more definite news concerning the progress of the war. He was accompanied by one had, and took the precaution to carry a pack of goods as if on a trading expedition. He found his friends absent on a hunt, and the town in the possession of a band of braves from Black Hawk's army. Angry from defeat, for the tide of war was now turning, and inflamed by drink, they shook the gory scalps of innocent women and children in the faces of the white men, and threatened to served them in the same way. by appearing unconcerned, and bent on trading with the squaws and the aged men in the village, and giving where he could not sell, Mr. Phelps was enabled to dispose of all his goods. Then, as if that was his only object in coming, he quietly got into his boat and leisurely paddled down the stream, until a bend in the river hid the boat from the view of the savages, when he bent to the oars and hurried down the river momentarily expecting to hear the war-whoop of the pursuing enemy. On the way he passed the floating body of a murdered man, which did not tend to allay his fears. Black Hawk was conquered and taken to St. Louis a prisoner. Gen. Scott passed down the river with a portion of his army, and en route, stopped at Yellow Banks. He was in the prime of life, and as he bent his tall form to enter the doorway of the humble log house, he grasped the hand of Mr. Phelps and thanked him in heartfelt words for his services. Drawing up his magnificent proportions until his head reached nearly to the ceiling, he utter curses, not loud but deep, against the miscreant captain who dared to risk the murder of so many innocent victims. After the close of the war, William Phelps, who had been in active service on the Rock river, returned, and the brothers bent all their energies to establish their trade with the Indians in Iowa. In the meantime, the members of the American Fur Company had used every means in their power to drive out the intruders, as they considered them, and had succeeded in getting the governor of Iowa enlisted on their side. Many were the charges brought to the governor's ears against Sumner and William Phelps for selling whisky to the Indians. At last they resolved to put a stop to the false charges by stratagem, as all fair means had failed. They sent a man to Burlington who innocently threw himself in the way of the secretary of Governor Lucas. After many hints of knowing something about Mr. Phelps that the governor would like to know, he said the hands had buried some kegs near the trading house on the Des Moines. He also gave the secretary a drawing of the place, and indicated the precise spot where the kegs could be found. As soon as the governor heard the news, he sent the secretary and a United States marshal with orders to search the premises. The party arrived at the government agency at night, but did not make their presence known to Major Beach, who was then government agent, and a staunch friend of Mr. Phelps, until morning. They then demanded that the agent should accompany them and assist in the search. This he willingly did as he knew the charge to be false. They arrived at the trading house while the inmates were at breakfast, and proceeded at once to business. They preferred the charge and demanded tools to work with, but were refused on the plea of not believing in furnishing the means of condemning themselves. Major Beach began to suspect some joke and offered to pay the hands, if Mr. Phelps would lend them to him as a friend. This was done, and two colored men, Dick and John, were soon at work, and after a few minutes digging, the spades struck a keg, and Dick, rolling up his eyes, said: "here he am, Mars." The excavation showed the heads of other kegs and the secretary eagerly called for an auger, which was lent to Major Beach, after much demurring. The secretary commenced boring for whisky, while all awaited the result in breathless silence. After energetically working for a short time he triumphantly drew out the auger to find it covered with lard. Amid the audible smiles of the spectators, the secretary turned silently away only to meet his wiley informant leisurely riding past, and thus addressed him: "See here, sir! have I not met you some where?" The man calmly replied, "Very likely; I have been there frequently." Like the last straw that broke the camel's back, this was the last of the opposition of the fur company. They proposed to S. S. Phelps that he should join their company and take personal charge of the entire business, which he did in 1834, and remained in it until after the larger portion of the Sacs and Foxes removed to Kansas, having a trading post between Fort Scott and Topeka.
In 1833, S. S. Phelps had been joined by his brother, Alexis, who made Oquawka his home until his death. After the close of the war they interested themselves in improving the town. The little log-house had given place to the building long known as the pioneer, and S. S. Phelps had the large columns which supported the front, hewn of solid logs and ornamented by hand in St. Louis and brought up the river on a boat. In 1836 the town of Oquawka was laid out and made the county seat of Warren county, and S. S. Phelps was the first sheriff of the county.
Pioneer life made such inroads on the naturally delicate constitution of the wife of Mr. Phelps, that after ten years of wedded life she left him with six small children, in a comparatively new country. In 1838 he was married to Miss Salome Patterson, who still (1882) survives him. Salome Phelps was born in Stowe, Vermont, in 1814, moved to Mentor, Ohio, in 1824, afterward removing to Saybrook, Ashtabula county, and from thence to Monmouth, Illinois, in 1835. Three children were the fruits of this marriage. In 1840 Mr. Phelps finished and moved into the house in the southern suburbs of the town, and where he resided during the remainder of his life. Death entered the family circle April, 1845, and claimed as his victim Isabella, the oldest child, a bride of a few months, she having been married to David B. Rice, in the January previous. In September of the same year Mr. Phelps was called upon to lay his oldest son, Alexis, by her side. Alexis, accompanied by Norman Patterson, a brother-in-law of Mr. Phelps, and for years an inmate of the family, had taken a drove of horses to the Indian country, and on the return trip, under the scorching August sun, they were obliged to drink of the impure waters by the roadside, wells being unknown in that unsettled country. They thus contracted a malarial fever which terminated fatally to both. They died within forty-eight hours of each other. Mr. Phelps remained in the Indian trade until 1849. He retired with the respect and the firm friendship of the members of the company and the love of the rude men with whom he had spent so much of his life. For many years some of the tribe visited him annually and were ever welcome guests. Mr. Phelps frequently made pilgrimages to visit them in their homes, and their white brother, as they delighted to call him, was greeted with all the manifestations of joy that an Indian can give. He thououghly understood their nature. He had eaten with them, and smoked the pipe of peach in their wigwams. Never did he fail in his promise, nor in the bringing to them the quality of goods for which they contracted, knowing that an Indian is like a child, if they are once deceived their confidence is gone forever. He frequently trusted them with large amounts and seldom lost by the uncivilized savage. But their intercourse with the whites was so corrupting that he made it an invariable rule to refuse to credit them when they could ask for it in English. He could speak and understand their language as well as he could his own. While he contended that the red men should be thoroughly conquered when in rebellion, he as firmly believed that if the white men were honest in their dealings, the Indians would never rebel, for as they never forget an injury, so also do they ever remember a favor.
Mr. Phelps was ever first in forwarding the interests of the town, nor was his aid confined to his own state. It was he who furnished Edwards with funds to start a paper in our neighboring state of Iowa, and which he named Hawk-Eye, in honor of his friend and benefactor. He and his brother Alexis built the first school-house and supported the first teacher. When Henderson county was separated from Warren, in 1841, the brothers donated 100 lots to the county, thus securing the permanent location of the county seat at Oquawka. They largely assisted in building the Presbyterian church, donating the bell, which was rang for the first time at the funeral of Alexis, men working all night in order to get it in position for that purpose. They also built the court-house. S. S. Phelps was the president of the first board of officers, was the first merchant, the first banker, the first and last mayor of Oquawka. He also at one time was owner of the steamer Pavilion, and frequently acted as pilot, as he was perfectly familiar with the river. At an early day he piloted the Pavilion up the Iowa, being the first pilot who had ever taken a boat up that river. In 1852 while on his trip to the east to buy goods, Mr. Phelps narrowly escaped death by the burning of the steamer Henry Clay, on the Hudson river. The providence which had watched over him through the struggles of his early life, preserved him from the death which overtook so many who were passengers on the ill-fated boat. Many sorrows and troubles attended his declining years, yet he ever met them with the same courageous spirit with which he encountered the dangers of his pioneer life. He retained, amid all his trials, that jovial nature which rendered him a favorite with young and old, and his hard earned wealth, and retired permanently from business, but always felt a lively interest in the welfare of the town of which he was founder, and was president of its board of officers at the time of his death.
In 1866 he was called to mourn the loss of his daughter, Emily, and in 1867 another, Laura, the wife of E. H. M. Patterson was laid by the side of the loved ones gone before. The youngest child, S. S. Phelps, Jr., was cut down by the murderer's hand only a few months previous to his father's death, making the fifth that preceded the father to the spirit land. From this blow Mr. Phelps never fully recovered. After many escapes by land and by water, from the ax of the red man, and the malice of the white, he met with the accident which caused his death, in the door yard of his own home. On the morning of the 4th of November, 1880, he left his house with a step remarkable elastic for one in his seventy-sixth year. He slipped upon the sidewalk, falling with such force as to break the shoulder bone and also fracturing the large bone in the right arm. Whether the fall also injured his lungs is not known, but certain it is, that from that hour he steadily declined, evincing every symptom of that fatal disease, consumption, until December 23, just eight weeks from his fall, he "went home." From the first he said it was impossible for him to recover and he earnestly set about putting his house in order. Owing to the paroxysms of coughing he was unable to converse with his friends, yet he delighted in their visits, and no one was refused admittance if he knew of their call. A word of greeting and a kindly grasp of the hand was all that was in his power to give, but those he gave with the earnestness of a heart filled with love toward all. No fears entered into his contemplation of death, but calmly he prepared for it, as if he were indeed going home. Although he never united with any church, he firmly believed in the power of Christ to save and felt that he was his savior. Mr. Phelps was always identified with the whig and republican party. The love of liberty instilled into his mind by the Quaker parents made him the enemy of oppression in any form, and that of slavery was particularly obnoxious to his principles. Ever generous, many owe to him their start in life, and if in the days of his adversity a few, like the adder, turned and stung the bosom that warmed them, the majority remained his friends through life. The troubled heart is at peach, the weary brain at rest. In the beautiful grounds which his generosity furnished for a cemetery to the people of Oquawka, lies all that is mortal of S. S. Phelps, awaiting the call of the resurrection morn. After life's fever he rests well. (The foregoing, a labor of love, is by Mr. Phelps' daughter, Phebe E. Button. - Ed.)