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Rolla Area

Phelps County Formed in November 1857

Phelps County was created by the Legislature on November 13, 1857, from territory originally belonging to Crawford, Pulaski, and Maries counties. The county was named for John Phelps of Greene County, who was governor from 1877-1881.

The county seat locating commission designated the area now known as Rolla to be the county seat. When the locating commission made its report, considerable protest was voiced concerning the choice of sites. Approximately 600 citizens of the county signed a petition of protest, citing the fact that only two of the three commission members had met to consider the possible sites for the county seat.

The matter went first to the Circuit Court and then to the Supreme Court. Before the high court could make a decision, however, the Legislature took action on January 14, 1860, confirming the location of the county seat at Rolla. Smarting under a considerable amount of criticism concerning the matter, all members of the county court resigned during April 1858, but later withdrew their resignations.

The town of Rolla did not exist as of November 13, 1857, when the county was created. Only the J. Stever office and John Webber's home were located in the area. Early court business included the location and opening of roads from the county seat to various places within the state, including St. Louis, Springfield, Jefferson City, Lake Spring, and Salem. It is in this last road order, dated in July 1858, that the use of the name Rolla first appears in the court records. The name was used earlier, in May 1858, in a deed of railroad land to the county.

On April 26, 1859, the county court ordered the 50 acres donated by Mr. Bishop for the site of the county seat to be surveyed. The survey was conducted by A.E. Buchanan, a young railroad surveyor. Buchanan delivered his plat to the county court on May 31, 1859.

On February 9, 1861, the day of Rolla's first town council meeting, a county-wide meeting was held to determine whether to join the Confederacy in secession. The consensus at that time was not to take any action until there were further developments. Further developments came in April of that year when Fort Sumpter was fired upon, and county residents decided to support the South.

The May 10 Circuit Court session saw a heated debate of secession, which broke up the court. Circuit Court Judge James McBride departed to assume command as a Confederate general under Sterling Price. Outside the courthouse, a group of men drew down the United States flag and raised a Confederate flag, which had been sewn by the women of Rolla.

The group then moved to the newspaper office of Charles Walker, a Union supporter and editor of the Rolla Express and forced him to close his shop. Southern sympathizers patrolled the town day and night, often ordering Union sympathizers to leave town. On June 14 of that year, General Franz Sigel arrived by train with his 3rd Missouri Infantry and took over the town. From that day until the close of the war, Rolla was in Union hands.

The 13th Illinois Infantry Regiment, under Colonel John B. Wyman, was brought in to guard Rolla and the Pacific Railroad's terminal. It was this regiment that did the basic planning and building of Fort Wyman, although other regiments undertook the task of finishing it.

President Lincoln's personal order was that Rolla should be held at all costs. Being situated at the terminus of the railroad, military wagon trains went out from Rolla to all Union armies stationed southwest in Arkansas, Hartville, and Springfield and northwest to the Linn Creek area, now known as Lake of the Ozarks.

After General Price's defeat at Pea Ridge in March 1862, several troops that were organized by Governor Jackson returned home. Confederate sympathizers, unwilling to profess their loyalty and support to the Union after the battle, were treated harshly. One example is the shooting of former presiding Justice Lewis F. Wright and four of his sons in 1864, after being taken from their homes for "questioning."

Other towns within the county included Newburg, incorporated in 1888, and St. James, incorporated in 1869. Arlington and Jerome were both incorporated in 1867, but neither is incorporated at this time. Doolittle, the last of Phelps County's towns to be formed, was incorporated on July 2, 1944. Other Phelps County communities include Edgar Springs which was incorporated during the 1970s.

Prepared by Meramec Regional Planning Commission

Article from the Welcome Newcomers publication available at the Rolla Chamber of Commerce. Reprinted with permission of the Rolla Daily News.

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