Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

First House and Birth in Van Buren County

Within the area that would eventually become Van Buren County, there is some controversy in terms of when the first settlers built homes and when the first birth took place.

Most historians regard Abel Galland as the first settler, having a claim at Farmington in 1833 where he built the first cabin. The first white child born in Farmington is thought to be J.P. Alfrey, son of James and Maggie Alfrey, born January 17, 1836.

However, it appears that Dr. Galland purchased the claim from a young squatter who traded the land for a suit of jean clothes. Also, in digging around through the early history of Farmington, I have discovered a source that lists a much earlier claim and birth.

Finton Brock, mayor of Farmington in 1861, was a descendant relative of Bill Phelps. According to Brock, Captain James Jordan and William Phelps established themselves with trading posts in the Des Moines valley in the 1820's.

Captain Jordan's post was a few miles above the site of Farmington while Phelps built a house in 1827 at a site that is now the corner of Front and Tremont Streets. He claims that Mrs. Phelps was Farmington's first white woman, and her son Richard was born here in 1827. He further tells a story about an ice jam in Farmington in 1832 when Mr. Phelps carried his wife to safety through knee deep ice and water.

R.B. Gray, a resident of Salubria, who came to the area with his father and Mr. Phelps in 1832 disputes Brock's claim stating that Richard Phelps was born in Illinois. He believed that Abel Galland's house and Alfrey's birth were the earliest in Farmington history. Furthermore, he did not believe that William Phelps ever had a trading post at Farmington.

William Phelps did appear on the scene in the area of the lower Des Moines River valley, then occupied by the Sac and Fox Indian nation, long before the area was open for settlement. But, if Mr. and Mrs. Phelps had a trading post at Farmington in the 1820's, Bill did not have the same wife.

Ralph Arnold says that William and Caroline Phelps, "A bride of seven months," built the Phelps Trading Post on the Des Moines River in September, 1830 to establish trade with Chief Keokuk and his tribe, and Caroline kept a diary of their exploits. The area around the log house trading post was later laid out as the village of lowaville, about a mile up the river from the present village of Selma in northeast Van Buren County.

Also according to Ralph Arnold, this cabin was Caroline Phelps' first Iowa home. When they loaded furs onto their keelboat in the spring and ventured to the mouth of the Des Moines River to meet a steamboat that would carry them to Lewistown (Illinois) to market the furs, no mention was made of having spent time trading along the river at Farmington.

A few years later in 1837, "Wild Bill" Phelps ventured up the Des Moines River for the first time on a steamboat. From 1837 to 1839, Phelps made several trips up and down the river by this method. Coming downstream in 1841, Capt. Phelps tried to jump the brush dam at the mill in Farmington. He cleared the dam but struck a small island and damaged his boat. A Farmington blacksmith was employed to repair the damage.

This experience at Farmington ended Bill Phelps' steamboating on the Des Moines River. Phelps lodged in Farmington while his boat was repaired, but it is not clear if this was actually his first visit to the village.

From the diary and other historical accounts, it appears that Phelps first ventured onto the Van Buren scene near Selma in 1830. James Jordan is known to have wintered on the banks of the Des Moines near Kilbourne in 1831. It is fact that Abel Galland came to Farmington and built a cabin there in 1833. Although it is possible that Mr. and Mrs. Phelps had trading posts at both Iowaville and Farmington, since we cannot connect the dots with Finton Brock's information, it is probably premature to place the Phelps family and James Jordan in Farmington in the 1820's.

- -
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick