Compiled by Arthur Paul Moser
Phelps County has three parent counties -- Crawford, Pulaski and Maries, and its birth was attended with considerable struggle.
There was passed in 1857, the following act of the General Assembly -- "An act to organize Phelps County."
Be it enacted, etc., as follows:
All that territory lying within the limits of Crawford, and embraced within the following described limits, is by this act organized into a county, to be known and called by the name of the County of Phelps, to-wit: Beginning on the range line dividing Ranges Nos. 5 and 6 West, where the township line between Townships Nos. 39 and 40 crosses the same; thence West along said section lines to the middle of Range No. 8 West, of the fifth principal meridian; thence South along the middle of Range No. 8 to the township line between Townships Nos. 37 and 38 North, Range 8 West, thence West on said line to the middle of Range No. 10, or to the northeast corner of Section 21, in Township No. 37, Range 10 West; (?) thence South with the subdivisional line to the Southeast corner of Section No. 4; thence due East to the Southeast corner of Section No. 3, in Township No. 35; thence due West to the Southeast corner of Section 21, in Township No. 35; thence South to the Southeast corner of Section 33, in Township No. 34, Range 10 West, thence due East on the Township line between Townships Nos. 33 and 35 to the Southeast corner of Section No. 33, in Township No. 36, Range No. 8 West; thence East to the range line dividing Ranges Nos. 5 and 6 West; thence North with said line to the place of beginning. (An excerpt). Approved November 13, 1857.
This was the county named in honor of the Hon. John S. Phelps, a popular congressman at that time. The territory embraced, as stated in the faulty terms of this act, all the county as it is practically at the present time (1889) ... It should be mentioned, too, that while the county was made from portions of three counties, the act mentions only Crawford.
The hostility of Crawford County to the formation of Phelps County was so great that when the legality of Phelps' representation was questioned in 1861 it was looked upon by many as a scheme from Crawford County. This question hinged upon the proper legislation to secure representation; but it came to naught.
It is believed that the first store was opened by a Mr. Summerville and James Steel, on the site of Old Ozark, but they soon sold out to James Harrison. (circa 1830). About this time Benjamin Wishon built a log, weather-boarded store (20 X 30 feet) in Dillon Township. He was also postmaster of the Little Prairie Post-Office there ... The first election is thought to have been held at James Harrison's where the first post-office is said to have been located, with Mr. Harrison as postmaster. (--State of Missouri, History of Phelps Co., 1889, Goodspeed Bros., pp. 631, 632, 633.)
Phelps County is a county in the southeast central part of the State bounded on the north by Maries and Gasonade, east by Crawford and Dent, south by Dent and Texas and west by Pulaski and Maries Counties ...
The first permanent settlement of which there is authentic record was made in 1818 by James Harrison near the mouth of the Little Piney on the Gasonade. A few years later settlement was made in the vicinity of the present site of Rolla. About 1821 McCagor Wallace took up his residence at what was called Big Island, and James S. Dillon, S. M. Nichols, John Welber, Benjamin Wishon, Martin Miller and others settled at the latter place. In 1826 Samuel Massey, of Ohio, entered about 1,500 acres of mineral land for himself and Thomas Jones, of the same State, and immediately set about the erection of the iron furnaces later known as the Meramec Iron Works at the Meramec Springs, which they opened in 1829 ... In the rich bottoms of the Gasconade, Little Piney and the Bourbeuse, rude grist mills were built, and a few "stills" were run, the first "still" in the section being on the Bourbeuse and run by a man named Hawkins.
Phelps County was organized by legislative act, approved November 13, 1857. It was formed out of parts of Crawford, Pulaski and Maries Counties, and named in honor of John S. Phelps, who was a member of Congress and subsequently became Governor of Missouri. The first county court was comprised of William C. York, presiding justice, and John Matlock and Hiram Lane associate justices, with Lyle Singleton, clerk and Francis Wishon, sheriff. The court held its first meetings at the house of John A. Dillon, six miles east of Rolla. The board of commissioners appointed to locate the permanent seat of justice was composed of George M. Jamison, of Crawford, Cyrus Colley, of Pulaski, and Gideon R. West, of Osage County. They were instructed to locate the county seat on the "southwest branch of the Pacific Railroad, without regard to the geographical center of said county." The first meeting of the county court was held November 25, 1857, at the house of John A. Dillon.
In 1858, the records of the county court show that Edmund W. Bishop had donated to the county fifty acres of land, now a part of the site of the City of Rolla, for county seat purposes. There was lively competition over the location of the county seat.
The contractors who did much of the grading of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, had secured several hundred acres of land, now the site of Rolla. E. W. Bishop was a member of the company, and through him the other members donated fifty acres of land to the county upon condition that Rolla, which was then the terminus of the railroad, be made the county seat. A protest was made to the courts against the acceptance of the land by a number of citizens who desired that the seat of justice be located six miles east, at the temporary seat, the house of John A. Dillon. The decision of the court was that Rolla be the county seat, and it was ordered on February 8, 1858, that future meetings of the county and circuit courts be held in the railroad office at Rolla until a court-house could be built ...
At the outbreak of the Civil War the sympathy of the majority of the people of Phelps County was with the Confederates. In April, 1861, the "Phelps County Minute Men" were organized. Later vigilante committees were started, the chief of which was the running down and marking Union sympathizers. The press of Rolla was strongly in favor of the Southern cause and Rolla became recognized as a Confederate strong-hold. Matters were changed, when on June 14, 1861, the Confederate flag was pulled down by a small detachment of German volunteers under Colonel F. Sigel and the Stars and Stripes hoisted in its place. The Federals took possession of the town peaceably and retained it throughout the war, making it the headquarters for operations in the central southern part of Missouri. Many residents of the county joined the Federal forces, though Phelps County supplied but few to the Confederate side. Rolla was an orderly place during the war and enjoyed unusual prosperity.
Phelps County is divided into ten townships, named respectively, Arlington, Cold Spring, Dawson, Dillon, Liberty, Meramec, Miller, Rolla, St. James and Newburg. (--Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri, Conrad, 1901, Vol. 5, pp. 110, 111, 112 & 113.)