Our Iowa Heritage: Sumner Phelps – The Original Iowa Hawkeye.

The Iowa Hawkeyes.

A very familiar moniker for most college sports fans.

And, for me and my Boller family, we’ve been Hawkeyes from Iowa since 1853.

So, where did this Iowa Hawkeye name come from, anyway? In an earlier post, I began the explanation by taking you to Burlington, Iowa. But here, I’d like focus in on one man from New York who came West to Illinois in the 1820’s, and while canoeing the tributaries of the Great River (Mississippi), working as a fur-trader alongside Native Americans, earned the honored nickname Wah-wash-e-ne-qua, an Algonquin word that translates into English as…


Born in Palmyra, New York on August 1, 1805, Stephen “Sumner” Phelps was the fifth of seven children born to Stephen and Lois Phelps, whose ancestors came to America from England in 1630. Sumner and his older brothers (Alexas and Myron), along with a younger brother (William) all came to Illinois soon after The Prairie State joined the Union in 1818. According to family historians Oliver S. Phelps, Andrew T. Servin, and other Phelps family members…

Mr. Phelps was one of the pioneers of Illinois, as noted in a brief account of his brother Alexis. After remaining in Sangamon Co. for four years, and Lewistown until 1826, he built a trading house near Starved Rock (Ottawa) to trade with the Pottawatomie (people). In 1828, he joined his brother Alexis at Galena, in lead mining, and when he was on his way back after his family, suffered severely from lead poisoning.

Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps Comes to Iowa.

American Fur Company
Fur-trading brought the first Europeans to Iowa.
This 1835 map by Lt. Albert Lea shows the Mississippi River Valley where the Phelps brothers built their successful fur-trading business. Starting in the north: Galena (1828) where Alexis & Sumner were lead miners; Yellow Bank (Oquakwa, IL) just south of where the Iowa River meets the Mississippi where Alexis and Sumner finally settled; Johnson County (1832) where Sumner canoed up the Iowa River; and Iowaville (1830’s) where William settled on the Des Moines River, managing the entire fur-trading operation.

Over the next few years (1825-1834), Phelps and his brothers formed a fur-trading operation called S.S. Phelps and Company, located out of Yellow Bank (Oquakwa) Illinois, just south of where the Iowa River meets up with the Mississippi. Phelps and his brothers developed a strong working relationship with the Meskwaki tribes who lived on the shores up and down the Great River, but after the Black Hawk War of 1832, all of the Sauk and Fox tribes were forced westward, settling on the many tributaries of the Mississippi throughout east-central Iowa. The following account firmly ties the Phelps brothers fur-trading business with Johnson County history…

This historical account (above) comes from author and historian Charles Ray Aurner (1912), indicating that at the 1886 50th anniversary gathering of the Johnson County Old Settlers Association, C.W. Irish spoke about the first fur-traders in Johnson County. Though he had the dates wrong (1832 – not 1822), he did correctly state William Phelps‘ history in Iowa, saying that “a brother of Captain Phelps (Sumner) came up the Iowa River and built his fort inside the lines of Johnson County.”

Click here for an overview of how Iowa historians have disagreed over what fur-trader came first to Johnson County, Iowa and how C.W. Irish’s story seals the deal for Sumner Phelps.

This rare 1835 map from Albert Lea shows the first American Fur Company trading post on the Iowa River and identifies Chief Powesheik’s villages in that same area. Click here to read more about Lieutenant Albert Lea and his 1835 expedition.

While Johnson County historians might argue a bit, many believe Irish’s story that around 1832, Sumner Phelps canoed up the Iowa River (in Keokuk’s Reserve) and found some of his former business associates, Poweshiek, Wapashashiek, and Totokonock, all living on unclaimed land outside the Black Hawk Purchase, near where Snyder Creek and the English River dump into the Iowa. Read more about the early days of Johnson County here.

Above is a map of Iowa in 1833 – just prior to the Black Hawk Purchase opening to white settlers. Click here for an overview of maps of Iowa Territory available during these pivotal years.

It is, indeed, a known fact that Sumner’s younger brother, William, was working in a similar way (at the same time) on the Des Moines River, and this fact was correctly shared by C.W. Irish in 1886.

What we do know, for certain, is that by 1834, S.S. Phelps & Co was doing such a bang-up business, the American Fur Company (the Phelps brothers’ major competitor) bought out their business, offering Sumner and William lucrative jobs as managing over-seers of trading posts across the Mississippi River valley.

The American Fur Company.

Historian Laura Rigel gives us a descriptive look at The American Fur Company (AFC), the organization the Phelps brothers ultimately ended up partnering with as they worked the fur-trading business in the Upper Mississippi River Valley…

Circa 1837 – John Gilbert’s American Fur Company Trading Post located in Napoleon (Johnson County), Iowa. Gilbert’s cabin replaced Sumner Phelps first trading post established in 1832.

The American Fur Company was founded in 1808. Shipping trade goods (cloth, blankets, hardware) from their New York warehouses east on the Erie Canal, or by sailing ship to New Orleans, the AFC supplied traders up and down the Mississippi, using St. Louis as a central distribution center, at the juncture of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers. By the mid-1830’s AFC was managed by Pierre Chouteau out of St. Louis, while William Phelps (Sumner’s younger brother) managed much of the Iowa/Illinois/Missouri conglomerate of AFC posts from his own trading post (Sac and Fox Outfit) in Iowaville on the Des Moines River. With a near monopoly of the (Native American) trade in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, the American Fur Company epitomized the urban and industrial character of the changes that came to the Iowa River after the Black Hawk War of 1832.

There were traders like (Phelps brothers and John) Gilbert on virtually every major river in southeast Iowa. Some ran small posts called “whiskey stores” or groceries. Other, larger posts were located at or near present-day Burlington, Muscatine, Clinton, Rochester, Eddyville, Moscow, Iowa City, Iowaville, Keokuk, and Ottumwa. The stores consisted of one or more log cabins (with puncheon floors, and few if any windows) surrounded by fencing, storage sheds, and outbuildings. These were inevitably built on river landings where trade goods (nails, whiskey, bacon, salt, sugar, tea, calico, blankets, thimbles, beads, and “Bateman’s (opium) Drops” were unloaded from keel boats or canoes, and where furs or skins were packed.

Located on the Des Moines River, Sumner’s brother, William Phelps, built the Sac and Fox Outfit in Iowaville (center of the map), overseeing fur-trading operations throughout the Iowa territory for the American Fur Company.

Sumner “Wah-wash-e-ne-qua” Phelps; Iowa’s First Hawkeye.

It’s in this day-to-day process of the fur-trading business where Sumner Phelps truly excelled, acquiring great influence and favor with the Sauk and Fox tribes with whom he traded on a regular basis. Here, from the Phelps family recollections, is the story of how Sumner got his famous “Hawk-eye” moniker (Wa-wash-e-ne-qua)…

Interestingly enough, Sumner’s brother, William, got an Algonquin nickname as well. In historical records from Wapello County, Iowa (i.e. the Ottumwa/Agency area where Phelps had his Des Moines River trading post), we find this interesting bit of trivia…

“Captain (William) Phelps was so jolly that the Indians termed him Che-che-pe-qua, or “Winking Eyes.”

It was this camaraderie with the Sauk and Fox tribes that not only earned the Phelps’ brothers their special nicknames, but also the great respect of many white settlers as well. During the Black Hawk War of 1832, Sumner served as a major and was personally thanked by General Scott for his great service in finding a satisfactory conclusion to the bloodshed. As a result of this work, Sumner, and his brother Alexis, developed a life-long friendship with the Sauk chief, Black Hawk, who came to Yellow Banks (Oquakwa, IL) on occasion to visit the Phelps family.

Which now brings us to the Flint Hills of Burlington, another stopping point along the Great River, where Sumner, through his long-standing relationships, became the key financier of James G. Edwards’ fledgling newspaper, The Iowa Patriot.

You can read the full story here, but suffice to say that Editor James Edwards returned the favor by re-naming his newspaper, The Burlington Hawk-Eye, in tribute to his two good friends, Chief Black Hawk and Sumner “Hawk-eye” Phelps.

Stephen “Sumner” Phelps (1805-1880).

Eventually, Sumner Phelps reduced his traveling schedule, returning home to Oquawka (Yellow Bank) in Henderson County, Illinois, where he is still remembered today as her first merchant, banker and mayor! Phelps died, at the age of 75, in 1880, and is buried in Oquawka Cemetery.

Here is the restored home of Alexis Phelps (Sumner’s older brother) in Oquakwa, IL. Alexis partnered with his brothers (Sumner and William) to form S.S. Phelps Fur Trading Company. Alexis hosted both Abraham Lincoln and Chief Black Hawk here. Read more here.

Sumner & Abraham: The Illinois Connection.

In closing, before we leave Sumner Phelps’ “Hawk-eye” story, we must address one final aspect of his life.

As you might have noticed, Sumner Phelps bears a striking resemblance to another prominent man from Illinois living in The Prairie State during this same time period. As a matter of fact, Mr. Phelps and Mr. Lincoln were quite good friends. So, allow me to close with one of the best stories surrounding their friendship as shared here from the Phelp’s family history…

Today, Lincoln’s knife is part of the privately-held George Morris collection of Lincoln memorabilia in Monmouth, Illinois. The Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, IL believes this “pocket-knife” event occurred when Honest Abe spoke in Oquawka, IL on Oct. 9, 1858, while campaigning for the Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate then held by Stephen Douglas. Click here for the full story.

According to an article from the Monmouth Daily Review Atlas the knife story concludes with this antidote:

The next day Phelps was whittling [with Abe’s former knife], surrounded by some acquaintances who were enjoying the joke. “Well boys,” (Sumner quipped), “see what you missed by being so handsome.”

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Stephen “Sumner” Phelps, Pioneer, Phelps Family History

Watershed Days on the Treaty Line 1836-1839, Laura Rigel, The Iowa Review, Vol 39 – Issue 2 Fall, Article 36

Leading Events in Johnson County History, Charles Ray Aurner, Western Historical Press, 1912, pp. 43-45

Stephen Sumner Phelps, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society Vol. 12, No. 2 (July 1919), pp. 252-258

Stephen “Sumner” Phelps, Find-A-Grave website

A History of Wapello County-Trading Posts, Wapello County Museum website

General Charles Wood Irish, Find-A-Grave

Been There? Done That? — Alexis Phelps House Museum, The Burlington Hawkeye, Craig Neises, November 4, 2016

Knife History: Is This Abraham Lincoln’s Pocket Knife? Robert Buck, Blade Magazine, February 12, 2018

Original Pocketknife Recipient Had a Connection with Lincoln, John Willard, Quad City Times, February 11, 2013

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