Phelps Prairie History

Phelps Prairie lies west of the center of West Marion Township, broadening to the north of, and narrowing to the south of, Bainbridge. It was one of the earliest points of settlement in the county, because of the trails that crossed at Bainbridge. The first book written in Illinois about the state as a whole, printed in 1834, said of this prairie:

“In Franklin county on the waters of Crab Orchard Creek, twelve miles south of Frankfort, is good land, and somewhat rolling.”

John Phelps came there in 1811 and gave the place its name, though he moved to Union county six years after. Mr. Phelps saw Tecumseh, the great chief of the Shawnees, that summer when the Indian and his escort of twelve warriors crossed the county on his way south to rouse the Creek Indians as a part of his confederacy to make a united stand against American settlement. Tecumseh conferred with General William Henry Harrison at Vincennes July 27, 1811, and then made his trip south from which he had not returned when the premature attack at Tippecanoe thwarted his plans.

Mr. Phelps thought his end had come when the Indians surrounded him somewhere south of Marion. But Tecumseh talked with him in a friendly way and asked about the Massac trail which he followed out of the county. In 1814 Mr. Phelps went north along the trail to aid Thomas Griffith in capturing a murderer at Odum ford.

John and James Maneese (Meneese), father and son whose name remains to us in Meneese school, came to Phelps prairie in 1811. They soon moved to Saline river, where they found better hunting.

Joseph and Thomas Griffith, who lived at the Saline crossing that became known as Ward’s mill; William Donald who lived northwest of the Saline on the Kaskaskia road; the men who lived at Odum ford; and some settlers from Cache river to the south built a blockhouse between Phelps and Poor prairies that year. Governor Ninian Edwards of Illinois territory had instructed the settlers in the wilderness between the rivers to build these defenses against hostile Indians roused by the British as a part of the War of 1812 campaign.

The blockhouse in West Marion Township was built of hewed logs and rooted with slabs. Portholes were left open eighteen from the ground, where they were of no use to an assailant. The fort was twenty feet square, and all the people went into it at night. Nineteen white dogs were left on guard outside.

When peace returned Phelps prairie became the part of the county where modern improvements first made their appearance. The pioneers were accustomed to grinding their corn by hand either with mortar and pestle, or with a grater. The more mechanically inclined, rigged up two millstones with a handle that two men could work.

Ragsdale Rollins built a horse mill on the north side of the prairie in 1817, the first in the county. Harnessing horse power to do work that had worn generations of human hands and backs was a marvel. People came for miles to see whether it could actually be done. Solomon Snider bought the mill and moved it to Eight Mile prairie. Mr. Rollins made his land entry in West Marion Township in 1818.

John Nelson built his home on Phelps prairie the year the mill was built. It had the first shingled roof in the county. William Benson, who gave the county a town site twenty-two years later, made the shingles.

Martin Duncan built Phelps prairie’s second mill about 1819, at his home on the north side of the prairie. He came to the county with his brother John Duncan who had been one of Colonel Clark’s messengers and liked the country of the Illinois so well he brought his three brothers to new homes. At sixteen, John Duncan was sent from Post Vincennes on the Wabash with a message for Fort Pitt at the head of the Ohio.

Phelps prairie and the surrounding land were set up as a road district, where Alexander Arnett supervised road building in 1838 and James F. Chineworth, in 1839. On June 11, 1839 the Franklin county commissioners’ court laid out the bounds of this road district: “Commencing at the Center of Lake Creek where the road Leading from Frankfort to Jones Borough (Jonesboro) road crosses said Creek, Thence West to Harrison’s (Herring’s?) prarie road district. Thence south to a branch West of John Duncan’s old place …. Thence To the North East corner of Section 16, Thence East to the range line dividing 2 & 3, Thence North with said Line to the Lakefork of pond creek. Thence down said creek to the Beginning.”

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(Extracted from Pioneer Folks and Places, Barbara Barr Hubbs, 1939 which is on sale at the Williamson County Museum)