Biography of John S. Phelps

JOHN S. Phelps; This well-known citizen of the State of Missouri was born in Sunburn County, Conn., December 22, 1810, and came of English stock, his early ancestors having come to this country from England and settled in the State of Massachusetts some time prior to the year 1630. In about 1633 they migrated to Connecticut and founded the town of Windsor, where the family became well known and many of its members attained posi-of prominence.

His father, Elish Phelps, was a distinguished lawyer, who for many years held a front rank at the bar of Hartford, and he was frequently honored with public trusts, having been at different times a member of the upper and lower house of the Connecticut Legislature, and twice Speaker of the House. He was also comptroller of the State and was a com-missioner to revise the statutes of that State. He represented his district three times in Congress, where he distinguished himself as an able legislator. He was called from life in 1847. His father, Noah Phelps, served his country as a Revolutionary soldier, in which he attained the rank of captain, and his eldest son was also a soldier in that war. Noah Phelps was a member of the committee that planned the capture of Ticonderoga and lent his country great service in the capacity of a scout and spy. He served his country in the State Legislature several times and for many years was a member of the Probate Court.

Gov. John S. Phelps was reared in Simsbury, Conn., and there received his initiatory educational training which he finished in Trinity (then Washington) College, Hartford, Conn., in 1832. He then began the study of law with his father, continuing with unremitting diligence for three years, and on the twenty-first anniversary of his birth he was admitted to the bar, after which he practiced in Hartford for two years. He then came to Missouri, and from that time until his death, which occurred in St. Louis in 1886, he practiced his profession the greater portion of the time and became one of the leading attorneys and ablest statesmen of which Missouri could boast. At the time of his location in Springfield, in 1837, it was an insignificant village, but he at once secured a paying practice, and although but twenty-three years of age his store of legal knowledge enabled him to cope successfully with the most experienced members of the bar. However, his talents fitted him better for public life, and in 1840 he was elected to represent Greene County in the State Legislature, and four years later was elected to Congress on the general ticket, and his career as a congressman only closed in 1863. From 1847 to 1849 he was a member of the committee on post offices and post roads, and at that time was a strong advocate for the reduction of postage to 3 cents. From 1851 to 1863 he was a member of the committee on ways and means, a portion of the time acting in the capacity of chairman. Such was the estimate placed upon his ability and sound judgment that at the close of each Congressional session, during his service, he was placed on the conference committees to settle disagreeing votes of the two houses, and it is a fact worthy of note that he never agreed to a report that was not adopted. At the called session of Congress in July, 1861, he was placed on the ways and means committee and he was chosen one of the committee of thirty-three in 1860 to devise some measure for the settling of the difficulties between the North and South. He was a strong Union man, and he steadfastly opposed all measures not in accordance with the Constitution of the United States. He made an able speech against the Confiscation Act, and at the close of his congressional service, in 1863, he returned to his home in Springfield. However, before the close of his public career, he raised a regiment of Union soldiers, known as the Phelps Regiment, which gained distinction at Pea Ridge, being under the command of Col. Phelps himself. In July, 1862, he was appointed military governor of Arkansas, which position he reluctantly accepted and went to Helena, but his health failed after a few months and he returned to Missouri. In 1864 he resumed his practice at Springfield, but when Gen. Price led a Confederate force through Missouri, Gov. Phelps raised a force of militia for the protection of Springfield and its vicinity, but the place was not molested. After the war he was appointed by President Johnson to adjudicate on the war claims of Indiana against the Government, and although his appointment was confirmed by the Senate he declined to accept the position. In 1868 his eminent ability placed him at the head of the Democratic party for the office of governor of Missouri, and although this honor was unsolicited by him, he made a vigorous canvass, but owing to the fact that a large number of Democrats were at that time disfranchised, he was defeated. Eight years afterward, in July, 1876, he was again nominated for governor by the Democrats and owing to the peaceful condition of affairs, he was elected by a larger majority than any preceding governor of Missouri. His administration was marked by ability, conservatism and economy. He was always a man of great steadfastness of purpose, based upon intelligent judgment and high principles, and fealty to justice, loyalty to principle and faithfulness to duty were his watchwords. In his home his political friends and enemies recognized in him a man of unimpeachable honor and strictest virtue. Although he had been honored by his State, he had also conferred honor upon it, and whether as an official or citizen, a statesman or a lawyer, a friend or an enemy, his manly bearing, lofty integrity and many virtues were apparent. In his noble and accomplished wife he found a fitting helpmate, and her name is indelibly imprinted upon the history of the State.

Her maiden name was Mary Whitney, a native of Portland, Me., and in that city she became the wife of Gov. Phelps, after which she came with him to the, then, wilds of Missouri. While her husband was a State official, she was active in religious and educational work, and, possessing a fine mind, rare business ability and great push and energy, her undertakings always reached a successful termination. After the battle of Wilson’s Creek, she took charge of the body of Gen. Lyon, and had it buried on the old Phelps homestead near the city of Springfield, but it was afterward removed. During the war her house was turned into a hospital and it also became a refuge for the orphan and home-less, and it may be said with truth that no one sought her aid in vain. She established an Orphans’ Home in Springfield during the war, of which she was general superintendent and the principal teacher, although there were at one time 250 orphan children to be cared for. When the war was over she found homes for them or secured for them employment. She was often seen in camp and was on the battlefield of Pea Ridge, where she helped to care for the dead and wounded, her kind, thoughtful and loving words and care soothing the last hour of many a poor fellow whose last hours were numbered. She was an untiring worker and was an active organizer of sewing clubs for the purpose of making clothes for the soldiers. During the eighteen years that her husband was in Congress she became well known in political circles as well as in social circles, her brilliant mind and kind and ready courtesy winning her the friendship of all. She was well known to President Lincoln, who entertained for her the highest admiration and respect and who appointed her to look after the suffering people of Greene County during the war. Her death, occurring later, was mourned, not only by her immediate and sorrowing family, but by all who knew her. She became the mother of five children, only two of whom are living: Col. John E. Phelps and Mary A., the wife of James B. Montgomery, of Portland, Ore. Thomas died in infancy, Lucy J. at the age of three years, and Lucy at the age of seven years. Mrs. Montgomery has inherited many of her worthy parents’ mental and moral attributes. Although her home is in Portland, she is now living in Paris, France, with her seven children: May, Antoinette, Elsie, Phelps, C Russell and Marguerite.


A Reminiscent History of the Ozark Region: comprising a condensed general history, a brief descriptive history of each county, and numerous biographical sketches of prominent citizens of such counties. Chicago: Goodspeed Brothers Publishers. 1894.

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