Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


The Phelps Diary

I was working on my graduate thesis about Van Buren County, when Ralph Arnold asked, “Have you read the Phelps diary?”

He was referring to the diary of Carolyn Kelsey Phelps, wife of Captain “Wild” Bill Phelps who kept a record of their exploits in the wilderness.

Moving west from Lewistown in western Illinois, Bill and Carolyn Phelps established a trading post with the Sauk and Fox Indians ninety miles up the Des Moines River near Iowaville. When they arrived at their new home in September, 1830, she was a bride of only seven months.

Ralph Arnold was excited about the diary and referred to it often in his articles. After all, Mrs. Phelps provided more detail about pioneer life in the Des Moines Valley than any one single person.

For example, Carolyn describes her home within the Indian village as having a puncheon (small split logs with the flat side up) floor, a one-legged bed supported by poles, and a rock fireplace with no hearth. Her entire household possessions consisted of a featherbed, two blankets, a quilt, a trunk and a skillet. In fact, the skillet is all she had to cook with!

Each spring Carolyn and her husband packed their furs in a keelboat and headed downstream once the ice was out of the river. Carolyn often did the steering. It took three days to reach the mouth of the Des Moines, where they camped. They took the furs by steamboat to a place called Yellow Banks where the precious cargo was loaded on a wagon and hauled to Lewistown for trade.

In 1837, Phelps became a partner with the American Fur Trading Company of St. Louis and purchased a steamboat named the Pavilion. He captained the boat up the Des Moines to Iowaville, and thus expanded his trade.

All of this and much more is detailed in the diary. Mary L. Phelps, a granddaughter of the couple, published the diary in 1930.  Copies are prized possessions of both the Illinois Historical Society and the Iowa Historical Society and are part of the historical collection at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

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