Stephen Sumner Phelps – The Original Iowa Hawkeye.

The Hawkeyes – a very familiar moniker for most college sports fans. And, for me and my Boller family, we’ve been Hawkeyes from Iowa since 1853.

So, where did this Iowa Hawkeye name come from, anyway? In an earlier post, I began the explanation by taking you to Burlington, Iowa. But here, I’d like to focus on one unique man from New York. A fur trader who came West to Illinois around 1820, and while canoeing the tributaries of the Great River – the Mississippi, working alongside Native Americans, he earned the honored nickname – Wah-wash-e-ne-qua – an Algonquin word that translates… Hawkeye.

Born in Palmyra, New York on August 1, 1805, Stephen Sumner Phelps was the fifth of seven children born to Stephen and Lois Phelps, whose ancestors came to America from England in 1630. Sumner and his older brothers – Alexas and Myron – along with a younger brother – William – all came to Illinois soon after The Prairie State joined the Union in 1818.

Wanna read more about the Phelps family and the entire history of fur-trading in Johnson County? Marybeth Slonneger’s amazing book Remembrance Park. Click here to find out more.

According to family historians Oliver S. Phelps, Andrew T. Servin, and other Phelps family members…

From Lewistown, Sumner began his life-long work as a fur trader, partnering with the Pottawattamie people living up and down the Illinois River (see map above). In 1826, he built his first trading post on the river at Starved Rock – about sixty miles northeast of Peoria.

In 1828, Sumner married Phebe Chase of Fulton County, and then, taking a break from fur trading, moved off to Galena to join his older brother Alexis in his lead mining operation – a move that paid off handsomely. On the down side, that same mined lead that made the Phelp brothers rich almost killed Sumner when he came down with a near-fatal case of lead poisoning!

The Galena lead-poisoning experience must have convinced Sumner that fur-trading was a safer profession, because he returned to the trade, moving to Yellow Banks (Oquawka), Illinois – just south of where the Iowa River meets up with the Mississippi. Here, Phelps and his brothers formed a fur-trading operation called S.S. Phelps and Company, developing strong working relationships with the Sauk and Fox tribes who lived up and down the Great River.

By 1834, S.S. Phelps & Company was doing such a bang-up business, the American Fur Company – the Phelps brothers’ major competitor – bought out their business, offering Sumner and William lucrative jobs as managing over-seers of trading posts across the Mississippi River valley.

Historian Laura Rigel gives us a descriptive look at The American Fur Company (AFC), the organization the Phelps brothers ultimately ended up partnering with as they worked the fur-trading business in the Upper Mississippi River Valley…

The American Fur Company was founded in 1808. Shipping trade goods (cloth, blankets, hardware) from their New York warehouses east on the Erie Canal, or by sailing ship to New Orleans, the AFC supplied traders up and down the Mississippi, using St. Louis as a central distribution center, at the juncture of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers.

Located on the Des Moines River, Sumner’s brother, William Phelps, built the Sac and Fox Outfit in Iowaville (center of the map above), overseeing fur-trading operations throughout Iowa Territory for the American Fur Company.

By the mid-1830’s AFC was managed by Pierre Chouteau out of St. Louis, while William Phelps (Sumner’s younger brother) managed much of the Iowa/Illinois/Missouri conglomerate of AFC posts from his own trading post (Sac and Fox Outfit) in Iowaville on the Des Moines River. With a near monopoly of the (Native American) trade in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, the American Fur Company epitomized the urban and industrial character of the changes that came to the Iowa River after the Black Hawk War of 1832.

American Fur Company
Fur-trading brought the first Europeans to Iowa.

There were traders like (Phelps brothers and John) Gilbert on virtually every major river in southeast Iowa. Some ran small posts called “whiskey stores” or groceries. Other, larger posts were located at or near present-day Burlington, Muscatine, Clinton, Rochester, Eddyville, Moscow, Iowa City, Iowaville, Keokuk, and Ottumwa. The stores consisted of one or more log cabins (with puncheon floors, and few if any windows) surrounded by fencing, storage sheds, and outbuildings. These were inevitably built on river landings where trade goods (nails, whiskey, bacon, salt, sugar, tea, calico, blankets, thimbles, beads, and “Bateman’s (opium) Drops” were unloaded from keel boats or canoes, and where furs or skins were packed.

This rare 1835 map from Albert Lea shows the first American Fur Company trading post on the Iowa River and identifies Chief Powesheik’s villages in that same area. (P-0263) Click here to read more about Lieutenant Albert Lea and his 1835 expedition.

As the first white man – known by name* – to step into what would, in 1837, become Johnson County, Sumner Phelps, circa 1832, canoed up the Iowa River (in Keokuk’s Reserve) and found some of his former business associates, Poweshiek, Wapashashiek, and Totokonock, all living on unclaimed land just outside the Black Hawk Purchase, near where Snyder Creek and the English River dump into the Iowa. Read more about the early days of Johnson County here.

Watercolors of early Johnson County by Jo Myers-Walker. See more here.

This 1835 map by Lt. Albert Lea shows the Mississippi River Valley where the Phelps brothers built their successful fur-trading business. Starting in the north: Galena (1828) where Alexis & Sumner were lead miners; Yellow Bank (Oquakwa, IL) just south of where the Iowa River meets the Mississippi where Alexis and Sumner finally settled; Johnson County (1832) where Sumner canoed up the Iowa River; and Iowaville (1830’s) where William (below right) settled on the Des Moines River, managing the entire fur-trading operation.
This unfinished mural by Mildred Pelzer Roused Bear 1838 – depicts the earliest days of Iowa City. Read more here.

In all the biographical material we’ve found on Sumner Phelps and his brothers, everything seems to point to their desire too build open, honest and trusting partnerships with the Native American tribes they worked with. Below are a few examples…

It’s in this day-to-day process of the fur-trading business where Sumner Phelps truly excelled, acquiring great influence and favor with the Sauk and Fox tribes with whom he traded on a regular basis. Here, from the Phelps family recollections, is the story of how Sumner got his famous “Hawkeye” moniker – Wa-wash-e-ne-qua

Interestingly enough, Sumner’s brother, William (above right), received an Algonquin nickname as well. In historical records from Wapello County, Iowa – the Ottumwa/Agency area where Phelps had his Des Moines River trading post – we find this interesting bit of trivia…

Captain (William) Phelps was so jolly that the Indians termed him Che-che-pe-qua, or Winking Eyes.

It was this camaraderie with the Sauk and Fox tribes that not only earned the Phelps brothers their special nicknames, but also the great respect of many white settlers as well.

During the Black Hawk War of 1832, Sumner served as a major and was personally thanked by General Scott for his great service in finding a satisfactory conclusion to the bloodshed. As a result of this work, Sumner, and his brother Alexis, developed a life-long friendship with the Sauk chief, Black Hawk, who came to Yellow Banks (Oquakwa, IL) on occasion to visit the Phelps family.

Read more about Chief Poweshiek and his visit to Washington DC.

Which now brings us to the Flint Hills of Burlington, another stopping point along the Great River, where Sumner, through his long-standing relationships, became the key financier of James G. Edwards‘ fledgling newspaper, The Iowa Patriot.

You can read the full story here, but suffice to say that Editor James Edwards returned the favor by re-naming his newspaper, The Burlington Hawk-Eye, in tribute to his two good friends, Chief Black Hawk and Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps.

Before we leave Sumner Phelps’ story, we must address one final aspect of his life…

As you might have noticed, Sumner bears a striking resemblance to another prominent man from Illinois living in The Prairie State during this same time period. As a matter of fact, Mr. Phelps and Mr. Lincoln were quite good friends. So, allow me to close with one of the best stories surrounding their friendship as shared here from the Phelp’s family history…

According to an article from the Monmouth Daily Review Atlas the knife story concludes with this antidote:

The next day Phelps was whittling [with Abe’s former knife], surrounded by some acquaintances who were enjoying the joke. “Well boys,” (Sumner quipped), “see what you missed by being so handsome.”

Today, Lincoln’s knife is part of the privately-held George Morris collection of Lincoln memorabilia in Monmouth, Illinois. The Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, IL believes this “pocket-knife” event occurred when Honest Abe spoke in Oquawka, IL on Oct. 9, 1858, while campaigning for the Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate then held by Stephen Douglas. Click here for the full story.

Eventually, Stephen Sumner Phelps reduced his traveling schedule, returning home to Oquawka (Yellow Bank) in Henderson County, Illinois, where he is still remembered today as her first merchant, banker and mayor! Phelps died, at the age of 75, in 1880, and is buried in Oquawka Cemetery, alongside Phebe Chase Phelps (1811-1838) and Salome Patterson Phelps (1814-1886).

Here is the restored home of Alexis Phelps (Sumner’s older brother) in Oquakwa, IL. Alexis partnered with his brothers (Sumner and William) to form S.S. Phelps Fur Trading Company. Alexis hosted both Abraham Lincoln and Chief Black Hawk here. Read more here.
Click here to read about Remembrance Park – a new effort to recognize the importance of these earliest days in Johnson County history.

DYK-April 6, 2022
DYK-April 20, 2022

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Wanna read more about the Phelps family and the entire history of fur-trading in Johnson County? Marybeth Slonneger’s amazing book Remembrance Park. Click here to find out more.

Stephen Sumner Phelps, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society Vol. 12, No. 2 (July 1919), pp. 252-258

Watershed Days on the Treaty Line 1836-1839, Laura Rigel, The Iowa Review, Vol 39 – Issue 2 Fall, Article 36

Leading Events in Johnson County History, Charles Ray Aurner, Western Historical Press, 1912, pp. 43-45

A History of Wapello County-Trading Posts, Wapello County Museum website

*some historians believe there might have been a handful of unidentified French fur traders who ventured up the Iowa River around 1800 in order to trade with the Ioway tribe, but no actual names or places have been recorded. See The Ioway Indians, Martha Royce Blaine, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995

General Charles Wood Irish, Find-A-Grave

Been There? Done That? — Alexis Phelps House Museum, The Burlington Hawkeye, Craig Neises, November 4, 2016

Knife History: Is This Abraham Lincoln’s Pocket Knife? Robert Buck, Blade Magazine, February 12, 2018

Original Pocketknife Recipient Had a Connection with Lincoln, John Willard, Quad City Times, February 11, 2013

Phebe Chase Phelps, Find-A-Grave website

Salome Patterson Phelps, Find-A-Grave website

Stephen Sumner Phelps, Find-A-Grave website


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