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Noble Phelps Moves West to Illinois

The Journey from Massachusetts to the Illinois Frontier

The Second Great Awakening Sends Noble Phelps West to Illinois

In the early 1800s, a religious fever swept much of the upper Ohio Valley and into New York State. This was part of a nationwide series of religious revivals called the Second Great Awakening, which lasted from the 1790s to the 1830s. This awakening established revivalism as a fixture of American religion and became intertwined with the westward expansion of the new nation.

Among those affected by this spate of religious ferver and social activism was the family of Ronald Aaron Noble Phelps of Massachusetts. In 1836, Ronald set out with his mother (his father having died in 1830), his wife Clarissa, their two daughters and one son. They also brought along two nieces and one nephew, the children of Clarissa's brother, Riley Root, who had preceded them to Galesburg earlier in 1836, his wife Lavinia Butler having died in 1834.

Land in the West is Purchased

The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, had become a pathway for many to migrate west. "In 1834 Rev. George W. Gale of Oneida county, New York, matured a plan for planting a colony in the West which should be a center of moral and intellectual influence. Later he issued a circular setting forth his plan and soliciting subscribers.(1)" A subscribers' committee led by George Washington Gale purchased 17 acres in Knox County in 1835.

"The subscribers sold their farms in New York, packed their household goods, hitched their work horses to the farm wagons, and got ready for the toilsome journey to Illinois. Some made a round of farewell visits to relatives they never expected to see again, going miles out of their way to spend a night with parents who shook their heads at so wild an adventure, as age ever does at youth.(3)"

The first settlers, including Riley Root, arrived in 1836. His sister and brother-in-law, Clarissa and Noble Phelps, were among the second group of settlers.

The "Ill-fated" Canal Boat Trip West

According to the History of Knox College(3), "The historic canal boat trip of the spring and summer of 1836 was made up of a series of vicissitudes and disasters seldom paralleled in the history of pioneer emigration. John C. Smith, of Oneida County, New York, one of the subscribers to Mr. Gale's enterprise, was the owner of a number of boats on the Erie canal. It occurred to him that such a boat could be utilized in making the trip by water to their far distant future home in Illinois.

"Accordingly he consulted with others of the subscribers, with the result that a company was formed to buy a canal boat on shares, fit it up for passenger service and embark in it for a trip of a thousand miles or more over an untried water-way, untried, at least, in so far as that kind of a venture was concerned. A strong team was bought which could be used on the tow-path, and all preparations being completed they loaded their goods, stowed them away in the men's cabin and embarked."

Members in the Company

"The company numbered thirty-seven, and was made up of men, women and children, ranging in age from a babe of three weeks to men and women of forty or fifty years. Mr. Smith was the captain of the boat and backer of the party; his wife at first did the cooking and the housekeeping, but these duties proving to be too heavy in so large a family, the cooking was afterward shared with two others, Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Mills."

"The persons making up the party were Captain Smith and wife; Miss Catherine Ann Watson, a niece of Mrs. Smith, and two little sons of Dr. Grant, a Nestorian missionary, who came under their care; Mr. and Mrs. Mills, two sons and a daughter; Miss Hannah Adams, a sister of Mrs. Mills; a girl named Mariah Fox, and a negro boy named Harry, who was under the charge of Mr. Mills; Mr. Lyman, his wife, two sons and two daughters; Mr. Orrin Kendall, his wife and two little sons; John Kendall; N. H. Losey, his wife and one child; Henry Hitchcock, a brother of Mrs. Losey ; Mrs. Clarissa Phelps, two daughters and one son, two nieces and one nephew (the children of Riley Root); John Bryan and a negro who steered the boat. This negro expected to stay with the colony, but when he heard that the law of the state required some one to be responsible for his behavior he went back to New York."

Travel by Canal

A packet boat on the Erie Canal, towed by horses. Packet boats were a luxurious mode of travel when compared to stage coaches. They flourished from 1825 to 1850 and carried hundreds of thousands of travelers and emigrants to the West.

The canal around the rapids at Louisville had just been completed, so they were able to get by where formerly travellers by steamboat had been transferred to another vessel. Between Louisville and the Mississippi lay the bottom lands of Egyptian Illinois with their dreary water-logged deadly towns, Shawnee­town, Ft. Massac, Golconda, lawless, disorderly, and inhospitable, hardly safe for such unworldly pilgrims to stop at. In caves along the river lurked bands of pirates who robbed and murdered defenseless travellers by water.

"Relatives or neighbors banded together to make up a train. The parties must needs be small so as not to overtax the indoor accommodations they hoped to find for at least part of the way, but it was desirable to have enough horses in a train to pull wagons out of mudholes. These "slues" or sloughs were one of the hazards of the prairies, horses and even wagons sometimes disappearing altogether. During the years 1836 and 1837 seven companies averaging twenty to forty persons each, men, women and children, set out from New York and Vermont. The journey was hard, but not especially dangerous, except to health. Two children were buried by the wayside, one woman died, and three men succumbed to the malaria that lurked in the low lands along the western rivers.

Log City circa 1837
Log City, Illinois in 1837 as remembered by Mrs. John G. West. The arrow points to number 5, the home of Aaron Noble and Clarissa Root Phelps and her brother, Riley Root.

Traveling By Road

"As long as their routes lay among the comparatively settled districts of the East, they stopped at taverns. As these became fewer, they looked for settlers' cabins, where the women and children at least could sleep under a roof, and the use of a cook stove be secured to prepare the evening meal. It was also necessary to be on the watch for opportunities to buy food and forage for their horses. Some had cows tied to the tailboard, or drove a small herd ahead of their wagons. Each family looked after its own supplies. There was no common larder. Game was plentiful, and in each wagon was a long rifle. At the stops, the children picked wild fruit and berries. It was for them a perpetual holiday, and most of them, as well as the men and women, walked the entire distance."

On the Mississippi

"In the Mississippi there was constant delay. Even experienced river pilots are often fooled by this treacherous stream. The propeller refused to work. Parts of it continually dropped off into the river, and Noble Phelps acquired such experience in diving that when Captain Smith lost his watch over the side, he went in and recovered that also. At St. Louis they refused an offer of $1000 for their boat; it would have been wiser to have accepted. Slowly they worked north while the sick lay in their bunks and longed for land..(5)""

"None of these pious pilgrims would travel on Sunday, no matter what their necessities. They were taking their uncompromising creed to the rowdy and riotous West, and their every act along the way was mute witness of their disapproval of the morals of the less scrupulous whose trains passed their encampments, desecrating the Lord's day. They boasted in their diaries that they always overtook these Sabbath-breakers before the week was out, proving that God was on their side."

"An incident reveals the uncompromising, not to say intolerant, attitude of the Yankee emigrants. Sunday morning a steamboat arrived having on board southern delegates to an ecclesiastical convention. Seeing the canal boat alongside, several went aboard and invited the company to attend the meetings. Up spoke Sophronia Phelps:

"Didn't we see you arrive this morning?"

The puzzled dominie admitted it.

"We do not attend meetings conducted by men who travel on Sunday," was the spirited reply. Thus was visible the thin edge of the wedge that was to split Galesburg in its first great controversy, for what Sophronia meant was that these ministers not only travelled [sic] on Sunday, but were from slave-owning states where the church connived at sin.

"As the ill-fated bark moved away from the Cincinnati landing and down the Ohio, things grew worse. The river was low, the air foul with miasma, the sun scorching, and the mosquitoes ferocious. They knew as little about malaria and fever and ague as they did about navigating a river full of snags and sandbanks. Often in the middle of the day when the heat became unbearable they tied up to the shore, and the party took refuge in the shade of the trees along the bank. Every one was more or less sick..(6)

"Log City was the name first given to the settlement and by 1837 its populaton was estimated at two hundred and thirty.(4)"

Knox College was founded by the same social reformers in 1837 who opposed slavery and were committed to help all individuals uncover their potential, to learn, grow and contribute to the greater good of the community.

Related story: Settlement of Galesburg, Illinois, Including Noble Phelps and Family

^ 1 They Broke the Prairie: Being some Account of the Settlement of the Upper Mississippi Valley by Religious and Educational Pioneers, Told in Terms of One City, Galesburg, and of One College, Knox. Published 1937 C. Scribner's Sons. 451 pp

^ 2 Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, 1908. vol. 1, 1902-1908 The origin of the system of land grants for education, by Joseph Schafer. Madison, Wisconsin, 1908.

^ 3 History of Knox College 1837-1912 By Martha Farnham Webster. Galesburg, Ill, Wagoner Printing Company 1912 p. 32

^ 4 Historical Discourse: A Commemorative of the Settlement of Galesburg. Delivered in the First Church of Galesburg. June 22, 1866. By Rev. Flavel Bascom, a Former Pastor of the Church. And by Rev. Frederic T. Perkins, Present Pastor of the Church. Galesburg, Ill. Free Press Book and Job Printing House. 1866., p 25.