Contributed by Gordon Merritt
This closes the narrative of Mr. Phelps. Mr. Phelps set
clearing up his lawns and making arrangements for spring work, in which he felt greatly
interested. He exposed himself in the cold, damp weather and was taken with a congestive chill
on Saturday. On Sunday he sat up part of the day but on Monday he had another chill. The
physicians held a consultation and exerted all the skill in their power but without avail. He died
on Wednesday at nine o' clock, April 1st, 1874. He was buried on Good Friday, April 3rd, in
Greenwood Cemetery, above Oregon. Since then a Scotch granite monument has been erected to
his memory, at an expense of $2,000.
In his biography here were many things of much interest omitted by Mr. Phelps. He was the judge of Probate (now termed County Judge) of Ogle County. He was elected by the legislature of Illinois. At that time Stephen A. Douglass, Gen. James Shields and the Rev. Peter Cartwright were members of the Legislature, and several companions of his youth also, and were strong friends of Mr. Phelps, and did all they could to assist him in carrying out his views, his opponent for the judgeship being a Dixon man by the name of Galbraith.
Mr. Phelps, with two others, was commissioned to select three permanent county seats in Northern Illinois. Oregon being one of them, the first Circuit Court ever held in Ogle County was in his building at Oregon. He went to the city of Washington and secured the contract for carrying the mail. He then became a partner of the noted stage company Frink & Walker, and thereby brought the first line of stages ever through Oregon. After Oregon was established as the county seat, it was discovered that in placing the Government stakes by the surveyor, it was about four rods from the proper point and on the quarter section that Mr. Phelps had laid out his town and on which he had spent several thousand dollars in erecting building for taverns, stores and private dwellings, and, consequently, of great value.
A new set of County Commissioners having been elected, they commenced suit to dispossess him of his property. The suit was taken to the courts at Washington and, after a long and vexatious suit, Mr. Phelps lost his case and was compelled to buy of the County the lots he improved, at exorbitant prices - whatever value the Commissioners chose to place upon them. The Attorney for Mr. Phelps at Washington was the noted Francis Scott Key, author of The Star Spangled Banner.
The first saw-mill built in Ogle County was erected by Mr. Phelps on Pine Creek. He cleared the first year $5,000.00, and it was run for many years - until it was worn out. An exciting time commenced with said mill occurred shortly after it commenced running. There was a large number of logs he had caused to be hauled to the mill, and, at the time, a man living near Dixon claimed the land on which the mill stood, and one day he brought ten or twelve teams and commenced hauling the logs away from the mill. The lawyers put in a protest and sent word to Mr. Phelps at his farm six miles away. The next day, Mr. Phelps mustered his neighbors and brothers to go down and give battle, he taking command and telling them that no man was to strike a blow only as he directed. He thought his brothers and himself could defeat the pirates; if not, he them would order the charge. They numbered about fifty men. They went on horseback in single file. The enemy were busy hauling the logs and he ordered his brothers to lead off and attack the leading men, which they did by knocking them down. The enemy seeing what was taking place, ran away - two or three of them - leaving their teams. The parties knocked down called for quarters, which were granted, they agreeing to go away and surrender any claim they had set up, and not molest or interfere with anything in the future. The teams were given up to them, so the war ended.
The following is an extract from a letter received from a gentleman living in Tennessee, who was an intimate friend:
"I have been acquainted with Mr. Phelps sixty years, having formed his acquaintance in 1816. The most prominent trait in my mind was in the campaign of New Orleans in 1814 and 1815; that long journey from his father's house, through a wilderness and savage country, swimming swollen water courses, steering his course by the moss on the trees, without the sign of a track that human foot-steps had made to travel on, until he affected a junction with the army. This was a feat of suffering and patriotic heroism, and devotion to his country's service, which perhaps could not be found again amongst an army if one hundred thousand boys of eighteen summers, which was about his age when he set out on that campaign."
Another gentleman of Tennessee says Mr. Phelps was the
greatest benefactor of the public in that region, as his enterprise kept the country in a flourishing
condition. He bought the produce of several counties around him when there was no market for
it, and made provision for freighting for those who professed to do so and transacted their
business in distant parts of the country and cities.
Before the use of steamboats, they used flat and keel boats, and the first steamer that ever ascended the River above Nashville was chartered and freighted by him. Hartsville being her destination, we loaded there for New Orleans. The name of the boat was "President". Thousands of people lined the Banks of the River to get the first view ever had of a steamboat. The boat load consisted principally of cotton and tobacco, also farm products, such as are raised in that climate, were sent off to market. Amongst the oddities of commerce of that day, peacock feathers formed an item. One old lady had her feathers manufactured into fly brushes. She sent ten of them to New Orleans by Mr. Phelps and received, as a net return, sixty dollars or at the rate of ten dollars each.
Taking him all in all, he was a remarkable man. He had an indomitable will. When he undertook an enterprise it was forced through to an end, whether it was a success or a failure. He never swerved from the track he had marked out and carried out enterprises that many others in the same circumstances would have become faint-hearted and lost all. He was a devoted friend and was just to an enemy. He valued honor far more than wealth or fame. At his death two physicians stood over him. One remarked -- "he is conscious to the last and reminds me of some old Roman chieftain, fearing nothing."
The following poem was written by J. Willard Glidden, of DeKalb, April, 1874, in memory of Mr. Phelps.
He hath gone to his rest, how calm he lies sleeping,
WHEREAS, We recongnize the fact that to the early settler and pioneer, the present generation are indebted for their enjoyment of the greatest and best country and land ever given to man, and who with iron arm and will, fearlessly met all dangers, and suffered all privations and hardships incident to those who first open the road for civilization in the remote wilderness, which can be fully appreciated only by those who have experienced them; and
WHEREAS, Our numbers are fading away, link by link, we feel the bond of unity growing stronger among the few of us who are left, and
WHEREAS, In the death of our friend and brother pioneer - John Phelps - we feel that the key-stone to a strong arch had become broken, we feel thankful to an all wise Providence, that we remain to bear testimony to his worth, his unswerving fidelity to his manhood, his generous hospitality, his detestation of a mean or small act, his indomitable energy and enterprise, his kindness to his friends, his tenderness and generosity as a husband, father and relative, his embodiment of a greater share of those qualities of head and heart, all combine to command our warmest admiration and esteem, and stir within us the deepest notes of grief for the loss we have sustained, and of sympathy for the family circle which has suffered this sad bereavement. To the aged companion of his life we tender our heartfelt sympathy, and with her mingle the tear of sorrow.
To the children and relatives who have been guided to the summit of the pathway of life by his counsel, we desire to express our grief for their loss from the web of life which no living thread can replace, that our words of consolation come not from the lips only, but from the depths of the heart also.
RESOLVED, That a copy of these proceedings, signed by the President and Secretary, be sent to
the family, and furnished to the Grange and Reporter, and the other papers of the county be
requested to copy
James V. Gale, President
Wm. J. Mix, Secretary
By request of his family, Mr. Phelps several years since, wrote a brief history of his life, which at the time of his death was carried to the 1st of January, 1867. We here present, very briefly, a few incidents we have collected from its pages. Only a week previous to his decease, Mr. Phelps was the recipient of a letter from the secretary of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, requesting his history for publication, in book form, for the archives of that State, - which he intended to commence writing up the following week. [Summarized is the Narrative of Mr. Phelps].
Mr. Phelps would have been seventy-eight years of age on the
eighth of next August. He was endowed with a strong vigorous constitution, and had not been
seriously ill for the last forty years. Two weeks ago today he walked from his residence to that of
John Wagner [see obituary below], on an adjoining farm, nearly two miles distant, to visit his old
comrade and friend... who was then not expected to live... Saturday following, Mr. Phelps himself
was taken sick, and on the following Wednesday expired about nine o'clock in the morning... He
was a kind and indulgent father and husband, the very soul of honor, never stooping to a low or
mean action. He abhorred hypocrisy and deceit...During the last fall he paid a visit to Mr. and
Mrs. Lighthizer at Madison, Wisconsin. -- He made the trip with horse and buggy, -- and during
this winter, he made a very pleasant visit, accompanied by his daughter, Mrs. S.L. Johnston, to
the scenes of his youth in Kentucky, and in Tennessee, where he spent nearly four months, and
had been home but a little over three weeks, at the time of his decease. In fond anticipation of
that visit this Spring, by some of his boyhood companions, he overworked himself clearing the
rubbish from his lawns, and getting everything in order to give them glad surprise, and thus
brought on his last sickness.
...The funeral took place at Mr. Phelp's late residence, on Good Friday at ten o'clock A.M. The services were conducted by Rev. Stroh and Lipe. Military honors were accorded to the deceased, as a soldier of the war of 1812... The funeral cortege was large and imposing, being about one mile in length.
...The corpse was interred in the cemetery one mile above Oregon, laid out by Mr. Phelps, and in a lot selected by him when Oregon was in its infancy.
>From the same paper:
The relatives of the late Mr. John Phelps tender their thanks to the band, Military Escort, Old
Settlers, and citizens generally, for their sympathy, and high honor paid on the occasion of the
>From the same paper:
Personal. -- Mr. John Shafer, of the firm of Phelps & Shafer, dry goods merchants, of Aledo, Mercer Co., Ill., spent a few days in town last week and this. He was up here to the funeral of his old friend, Mr. John Phelps, by whom he was employed over sixteen years. As the funeral procession was passing through the town on Friday, Mr. S. reached the depot on the freight train. He heard the bell tolling, and ran from the depot to town, procured a horse and buggy at Cross and Start's livery stable, and reached the cemetery just in time to witness the last rites. <> [Quoted from: "The Ogle County Reporter", ["The Oldest Paper in the County, and Having the Largest Circulation"] April 9, l874, Oregon, Illinois; T.O. Johnston, Editor and Proprietor [grandson of John Phelps, son of Sarah Phelps Johnston].
Obituary: Mrs. John Phelps, Sarah Rogan Carlin Phelps, The Ogle County Reporter, Oregon, Illinois, 17 April 1879, Published by Timoleon Oscar Johnston
The deceased lady, whose biography appears below had been suffering for several months prior to her death. Her debility was due to old age and its attendant train of infirmities, rather than due to any inherent physical ailment. We have never seen more intense suffering or a more heroic fortitude displayed, than by the lady whom we mourn. While tortured in body, her mind was clear and peaceful. Well spent days -- reaching out to the infinite, without a murmur. The gentle spirit was "wafted across the river" in the silent hours of the early morn, when the turmoil of the world was hushed, -- the solitude of the night unbroken -- fit time to part with sorrow and enter the radiant mansions of eternal joy.
Mrs. Phelps character is happily depicted by the poet:
"Beautiful lives are those that bless,
Silent rivers of happiness,
whose hidden fountains but few may guess"<> Deceased was relict of the late John Phelps, who founded the city of Oregon and surveyed the old government road from Chicago to Galena. Mrs. Phelps died at the residence of her son-in-law, Mr. Wesley Johnston, in this place. Mr. J.C.T. Phelps of Rockvale [township], and Mrs. Sarah L. Johnston are the surviving children, Napoleon, the third child, having died in New Orleans in 1858. The funeral, April 8th, was largely attended, at the M.E. church. The remains were buried in the family lot at Riverview cemetery. During the funeral discourse Rev. H. Crews read the following sketch, embodying some facts with reference to the departed not given elsewhere:
Mrs. Sarah R. Phelps was born in Franklin County, [rather probably born near present Lambsburg, Carroll County] Virginia, April 29, 1797, and on the 29th inst. would have been eighty-two years old. She was married in Tennessee, on the 14th of March 18l6. She survived her husband five years and six days. Her maiden name was Sarah R. Carlin and was a [second] cousin of Governor [Thomas] Carlin of this State. She was a very exemplary woman, had a pleasant smile for all, kindness of disposition that endeared her to all of her many acquaintances in this county and in Tennessee. She with her husband settled here in the year l835, on their farm three miles from Oregon. We can give you some insight of the appreciation in which she was held by her husband from an extract of a letter from him to her in l860: "I am now entering my sixty- fourth year. My life has been, on the whole, rather an eventful one. Sometimes flushed with success and at others sunk in the deepest despair, sometimes basking in the sunshine of prosperity, at others, overshadowed by gloom. -- When I have been beset with troubles without, I have always found comfort and happiness at home in the bosom of my family. You, my dear companion, whose destiny has been chained to mine for the last forty-three years, sharing with me the toils, troubles and disappointments which us poor mortals have to encounter through the rough journey of life, always bearing your part with noble fortitude and always submitting to what could not be helped, without a murmur when borne down by misfortune, and destitute of common comforts, you did not complain, but always ready to assist in trying to elevate our condition. It is your kindness, prudence and forbearance under the most trying circumstances of misfortune, that has always inspired me with new zeal, and made my rough paths smooth." --
Mother Phelps was a model wife and woman. You have evidence of the one who knew her the longest, taken from a private letter, which was written when the heyday of youth was gone. Her life will remind you of the beautiful expression of Ruth. "Entreat me not to leave thee; for whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and they God my God; where thou diest will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me and more also, If aught but death part thee and me."
Published in the same newspaper, April 10, 1879:
Sarah R. Phelps -- This esteemed lady departed this life Sunday morning [April 6] about one o'clock... The funeral was held at the M.E. church Tuesday afternoon [April 8] and was largely attended...
Sarah R. Phelps applied for a War of 1812 Claim of Soldier for Service Pension [for widow].
Claim number 26.543, under Act of March 9, 1878. She had to send in the original approval for
John Phelps (see above)
Geo. W. Hormell
St. of Illinois, Ogle County, Office of the Clerk of the County Court. Oregon June 13,1878
Commissioner of Pension
You will please return this notice of Allowance of Pension, that was sent John Phelps after you get through with it, to Mrs. Sarah R. Phelps as she wishes to preserve it
Sarah's application, 13 Jun 1878, gave the following information about him: John Phelps, a Private, in the company commanded by Captain Beverly Williams in the Second regiment of Tennessee Mounted Volunteer Gunmen commanded by Thomas Williamson, Colonel, in War of 1812. ... He was 1st Lieutenant in Capt. Vanis (sp?) company, think 6th Reg. Ill. Volunteers in Black Hawk War in 1831. He resided Wilson County, Tennessee from 1815 to 1820, then at Hicks Ferry Arkansas until 1821 from thence to Hartsville, Sumner County, Tennessee until 1827, from there to White Oak Springs, Wisconsin Territory until 1829 from there to Madison County Illinois until 1830 then to Schuyler Co. Ill. to 1834 then Ogle County Illinois until 1857 then to Austin Texas to 1860 then Rockvale Ogle County Illinois until death April 1, 1874.
Description at the time of his enlistment, viz: He was 18 years of age was born in Bedford County Virginia before war was a farmer height at enlistment 5 ft. 11 inches color of hair and eyes at that time black. Complexion dark, ever since the war was engaged in the mercantile business. He got a land warrant don't know the number. He drew pension from Feb 14, 1871 until death certificate no 14695.
Another notice was sent the Pension Commissioner, on the letterhead of the County Court Clerk
asking for a decision or information on what more was needed..."she has heard nothing since
August last, and is in need of the money. Please let us hear from you on receipt of this.
J W Mack
She filed the claim 13 June 1878 and the claim was rejected April 17, 1880, when the Postmaster of Oregon notified them that she had died 27 April 1879.
June 14, 1883, Ogle County Reporter, Oregon, Ill.
Administrators Notice of Filing of Final Settlement
State of Illinois)
Ogle County )
Estate of John Phelps, Deceased. To the heirs of John Phelps, deceased. You are hereby notified that on Monday, the 23rd day of July, A.D. 1883, the Executor of said Estate will present to the County Court of Ogle County, at the Court House in Oregon, Illinois, his final report of his acts and doings as such Executor, and ask the Court to be discharged from any further duties and responsibilities connected with said Estate and his administration there of, at which time and place you may present and resist such application, if you choose so to do.
Henry P. Lason
This is John Phelps own narrative, except for the small part at the end, that is written in the second person after his death.
It was originally written by John Phelps, or probably dictated to his daughter Sarah Phelps Johnston in 1861 and an addition was done later (in 1874?).
I typed a copy from a typescript carbon copy made from an original written copy in the 1920's by his legal secretary by lawyer John Phelps Fridley, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. A condensation was published by John Phelps' grandson Termolean Oscar Johnston, in 1874, as an obituary for John Phelps in his paper, the Ogle Co. Republican.
Various family lines of descendants of John Phelps have a copy of this work. The family mailed a written copy of the earlier section to Lyman Draper at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. This society also has a typescript of the newspaper summary, obituary article.
I received the 1861 partial written copy from the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and compared it to the typescript copy of the whole narrative. I did not notice any material difference in this story in any of the copies. If the legal secretary made 1920's spelling changes in the typed copy she made, I changed it to reflect the written copy's spelling.
There was a 1930 novel about the "Prarie Pirates" which told a little of the life of John Phelps. It did not quote his narrative. It told some of the more negative sounding Ogle County, IL history of his life that was left out of the narrative. Some of this was told in general by Mr. Phelps neither Judge and later Governor Thomas Ford in 1854, in his A History of Illinois.They were apparently friends from 1829 in Galena.
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