Contributed by Patty Smith. 2018

When Sylvanus Phillips, who was born 1765, in Mecklenburg, North Carolina to William Phillips and Lussy Buchanan Phillips, left home at an early age to travel westward, no one could envision the successful prospects that lay in store for this young man. He left Mecklenburg, and traveled west until he arrived in St. Louis, Missouri circa 1790 – 1795. Whether he fought in the Indian Wars and earned a Spanish Land Grant in what was to become Phillips County, Arkansas, or whether he purchased the land grant from Charles Stinson is not known. He is listed in the Spanish Land Grant Register for Arkansas as owning the claim in 1817 in right of Charles Stinson.

In late 1796 or early 1797, Sylvanus left St. Louis and travelled south by flat boat to the confluence of the St. Francis and Mississippi Rivers in the proximity of his land grant. Here he built a log cabin and cleared the land. He was the only settler for miles around, his nearest neighbors living at the mouth of the Cache River. In 1798 he explored the Arkansas River for some distance above the Arkansas Post, but found no other settlements in that direction. Shortly after his arrival, he was joined by Daniel Mooney, William Patterson, Moses Burnett, and Phoebe Clarke Dunn, all living in fairly close proximity for the time period.

In 1799, the Spanish Commandant, fearing an Indian uprising, ordered Phillips, Mooney, Patterson, and Dunn ( all soon to be related by marriage) to the Arkansas Post. It was during this time at the Arkansas Post that Sylvanus married a daughter of William Patterson. No one is certain of her given name, but it is known that by 1808 she was deceased. It was also during this time that William Patterson married Phoebe Clarke Dunn, widow of William Dunn, and mother to six Dunn children.

In late 1799. or early 1800, Sylvanus was back on his home site and joined by several other families over the next few years. During the time Sylvanus was at the post, there was much speculation on the boundries of the Spanish Land Grants. While we know that Sylvanus lived originally at the mouth of the St. Francis, and had a saw mill at Phillips Bayou, at some point, before 1808, he moved about a mile south of his original home as shown by early plat maps. It is speculated that this move may have been due to the boundary disputes. Whatever the reason, Phillips lived in this new location until his next move in 1815.

In 1808, William Patterson was shot while resting in front of his fireplace at home. The publication, “Courts and Lawyers on the Arkansas Frontier’ states that Moses Burnett, another early settler, was arrested for the murder. William’s wife, Phoebe, is now left alone with a a dozen children to raise, one no more than a babe in arms. Within a few months, Sylvanus married the widow, Phoebe Clarke Dunn Patterson, bringing her six children by William Dunn, as well as her six children by William Patterson, to his home.

While living just south of the mouth of the St. Francis in his second home, Sylvanus and Phoebe were visited by a traveling Fortesque Cuming in 1808. In his book, “Sketches Of A Tour To The Western Country”, Mr. Cuming states “that he landed at a fine, well opened farm, a mile below the mouth of the St. Francis, with a nice, comfortable looking two story log cabin with a piazza.” Mr. Cuming, hoping for refreshments, could find none, especially milk, as the family had just made cheese that morning. Mr. Cuming stated to the Phillips family that he had been swarmed by mosquitoes and had seen swans on the river. Traveling southward three and one-half miles, Mr. Cuming arrived at William Bassett’s pretty, cattle-stocked place on Big Prairie, but still no milk. He continued for more than four miles to Anthony’s place where he was able find refreshments of eggs, salad and milk, and spent the night in Anthony’s harbor which was relatively free of mosquitoes.

To understand the hardships faced by these early settlers, one needs to understand the lay of the land. They lived north of what is now Helena, in an area nestled between the bluffs of Crowley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River. Early maps show this area, called The Great Swamp, extending from south from the Arkansas River all the way into Tennessee. A drive through what is now the Mississippi River State Park/St. Francis National Forrest, will give one an idea of what the terrain resembled. Cane grew profusely and had to be cleared, as did the many hardwood trees and brush that grew abundantly along the wetlands. Bear, panther, bobcat, and other animals roamed extensively and freely during these early years, as did water moccasin, copperhead, and timber rattlers. Many times, livestock, as well as pets, and even children became prey to these wild animals. Weather was no friend either. Rains caused flooding in the area, and heavy rains caused the Mississippi River to overflow it’s banks, subjecting the settlers not only to crop loss, but loss of land, homesteads, and burial sites, as chunks of land were washed away into the river. Mosquitoes were large, and ever present in warmer months, causing much discomfort, and often illness, and even death, from Malaria and Cholera. Mr. Learner Blackman, a Methodist circuit rider, writes of his visit in 1813 and spoke of landing on the banks of the Mississippi to talk with a white man with a small family. The family had been there one year, and had one acre of cleared land. On that one acre, the man had raised sixty bushels of corn, which he was beating into meal with the butt of his pistol. Mr. Blackman stated that the family’s mode of living was only but a “small grade above the Indians.” Life was not easy for these first immigrants, and the Phillips family was no exception, even with the wealth Mr. Phillips was accumulating.

By the early 1800’s Sylvanus was heavily involved in land speculation and politics. His name is found in the ‘Territorial Papers of the United States’, in connection with land deals, and while not involved with the worst frauds of the day, he and his partner, William Russell, were probably not entirely legitimate in their land speculations. He was a representative to the first Territorial Legislature of the Arkansas Territory, as well as Court Clerk In 1820, this same legislature carved out a part of Arkansas County and created a new county, called Phillips County in honor of Sylvanus. During this same year, a new town was platted out from the village. Previous to this time, the village had been known as St. Francis, and plans had been made to call the new town, Monticello. However, the name was changed to Helena very shortly after the platting, in honor of Sylvanus’ daughter Helena Phillips.

During the time Sylvanus was conducting business at the Arkansas Post, or at the new capitol in Little Rock, Phoebe was busy raising her twelve children from previous marriages. Many of the older Dunn children had married by 1810, and about that same year, Phoebe presented Sylvanus with his first child, a daughter named Harriet Phillips.

In 1815 Sylvanus and Phoebe, along with many others, left their first home in the settlement and moved into what would soon be called the town of Helena, often referred to in later years as ‘Old Helena’. He built a large log cabin, overlooking the Mississippi River, on a seventy-five foot bluff of Crowley’s Ridge. Sylvanus probably knew The “Legend of Pacaha”, passed down among the Indian tribes, stating that the mound, or bluff was sacred ground of the Pacaha Indians and that Hernando De Soto had erected a silver cross on the bluff during his 1541 visit to the area. (A somewhat different version of the legend states that the cross was built in the same location, but made from a pine tree rather than silver.) Regardless, Sylvanus also knew the bluff would be safe from the horrific flooding that often occurred. During that same year of 1815, Sylvanus’ father died in North Carolina. Whether he attended his father’s funeral is not known. He was listed in the will, with his father saying, “if he comes to get them”. This reference was to the two slaves that were willed to him, and most likely means that Sylvanus had not often returned to his homeland of North Carolina, if in fact, he had ever returned after his departure.

One year after the move, in 1816, Phoebe presented Sylvanus with yet another daughter, this one named Helena Phillips. By 1817, Phoebe Phillips had raised, or was raising, fourteen children, her last birth occurring somewhere between her fortieth and fiftieth year. She had buried two husbands, and time was running out. Sometime around 1817, Phoebe died and left Sylvanus with the care of the young children who remained at home. It is interesting to note that after Phoebe’s death, Sylvanus tried to extract $750.00 from William Patterson’s and Phoebe’s oldest son, John Patterson, for the cost of raising the Patterson children after their father’s death. The local courts supported the suit, probably due to Sylvanus’ station in the town, but when John Patterson took the matter to higher courts, they sided with John.

The children of Phoebe and Sylvanus were still young when their mother died, and in August of 1818, Sylvanus married again, this time to Rebecca Kendrick. It is believed that Rebecca was a Catholic, and as there were no organized churches in the area at the time, Sylvanus built a Catholic Chapel next to their home for worship. According to Viola Rightor Walker, granddaughter of Nicholas Rightor, this chapel was a ‘plain but pretty frame structure. (This chapel could have been built before Phoebe’s death, but knowing of Rebecca’s Catholic faith, it is more likely the chapel was built for her and any children she might have.) In 1819, Rebecca gave birth to Sylvanus’ third daughter. She was named Caroline Phillips. The Phillips household was now complete once more, and the home site became the gathering place for many notable Helenians. Nicholas Rightor, surveyor who created the Helena town plat map, met his future wife, Minerva Craig at the Phillips home while taking tea and eating mush and milk out of wooden bowls. Celebrations were in order during this year of 1820 as Sylvanus and other notables in the area had achieved the goal of seeing that Phillips County, carved out from Arkansas County, was now a legitimate county in its own right. Times were good for many of the residents who had struggled to create a life for themselves in the wilderness. In her teen years, Caroline was noted in both the local and state papers as the ‘belle of the ball’. Rumor had it that she was a beauty. But after a few years, life changed. Harriet had married a much older gentleman, Eli J. Lewis, in December of 1825, and soon presented Sylvanus with his first grandchild Eli J Lewis II. In May of 1832, the Arkansas Gazette reported that Harriet Lewis, daughter of Sylvanus Phillips died after a short, but painful illness at the age of 22. Her son Eli followed in death the following year.

The Arkansas Gazette reported that even though Sylvanus suffered from severe rheumatism, he still “fulfilled his duties in a noble manner”. His goal now was to see his village incorporated as a town. Once the proposal was made, the state newspaper began calling this village Helena, rather than St. Francis as it had previously been known. Sylvanus did not live to see the incorporation in 1833. He died October 31, 1830, and was buried on ‘the slope of the hill’ at his home site, overlooking his beloved Mississippi River. The following year, his youngest daughter, Helena died at the age of fifteen. She was buried next to her father. Little did Sylvanus know that within two years of his death he would lose his two firstborn children, and within another year, his grandchild.

Obituary for Sylvanus Phillips

Arkansas Gazette, November 10, 1830. Died at his residence at Helena, on the evening of the 31st ult., after a painful illness of between two and three months, Col. Sylvanus Phillips, in his 65th year of his age. He was one of our earliest settlers, having emigrated to the country before its cession to the United States in 1803, and has filled several public situations under the different governments hat have excercised jurisdiction over the country, the duties of which were discharged with fidelity to his country and credit to himself. He was an ardent and sincere friend, an oblinging neighobor, and a respectable and enterprising citizen. To his family and numerous connections, his death is deeply afflicting, and it is sincerely deplored by a large circle of friends and acquaintances.

Obituary for Helena Phillips

Arkansas Gazette, September 14, 1831. Departed this life at Helena, Arkansas Territory, on Sunday evening, the 28th August, about 8 o’clock, Miss Helena Phillips, daughter of the late Sylvanus Phillips, deceased, aged about 15 years. Her illness was lengthy, and the latter part was unusually distressing, yet she did not complain. Long and patiently did she wait the approach of death, and when she was convinced he was at hand, a new light beamed from her eyes, and a smile in inward peace and satisfaction sat upon her countenance. She gave to each of her relations and friends the parting hand of her last farewell, exhorting them to meet her in the prescence of the Great Redeemer, there to enjoy his smiles eternally, and commended her spriit to the protection of her God. The death of this young lady is a heart-rendering bereavement to the only parent left to weep (her mother), besides her other relations and friends. Oh, what a glorious moment is death to the believer! How full of the brightness of a dawning heaven – how hallowed with the presence of the blessed Redeemer.

But life moved on. Rebecca remarried in April of 1832 to John Mahan Burris/Burress and very possibly remained at the old home until her death in 1842 – 49. She bore three more children: Helen, Rebecca Jane, and Benjamin A, before her death. Her daughter Caroline, by Sylvanus, followed in her mother’s footsteps and married another notable Helenian, Judge Thomas B. Hanly in 1838. From this union, the many descendants of Sylvanus Phillips would multiply and fill the nation from Pennsylvania, to California, and from Texas to Illinois, Nevada, Oregon, Arkansas, Arizona and other states. Caroline Phillips Hanly died in 1898. Both the local Helena paper and the Arkansas Gazette covered her life in detail. She outlived all of her eleven children, and is buried in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Helena, Arkansas, next to her husband Thomas B. Hanly. For more information on the descendants of Sylvanus Phillips through Caroline Phillips Hanly and Thomas B. Hanly, see Thomas B Hanly under First Families in the website

The hill where Sylvanus built his home was to become even more legendary in the years to come. In 1862, during the Civil War, Union troops overtook the bluff, leveled the land a bit, and built Fort Curtis. It is not known whether the house and chapel of the Phillips family was still standing at this time. If they were, they were destroyed, along with the beautiful old trees that surrounded the hillside and the home, the wood used to help construct the fort. It is almost certain that the monument(s) for Sylvanus and any family members buried with him, were destroyed during the building of the Fort Curtis.

Caroline Phillips Hanly, as only living child of Sylvanus, still owned the land where the fort stood, and it was not until 1874 that she sold much of the acreage that she had inherited from her father, including the hill where Sylvanus lived and Fort Curtis was built, which now stands between Perry and Porter Streets on the North and South, and between Franklin and Columbia Streets on the East and West in Helena, Arkansas. After Caroline Hanly sold the land, it was divided into two lots. The Wooten family and the Fitzpatrick family each purchased a lot and built homes on the Franklin Street side. In 1881, Sidney H. Hornor, son of John Sidney Hornor, built what is now known as the Hornor-Gladin home on the southwest corner of the infamous hill. This home is still in existence and is located on the corner of Columbia and Porter Streets. The other corner of the Phillips hill was known as the Staub lot. Refugees from the flood of 1897 camped on this lot, and Albert Hornor recalls he and the neighborhood children used this lot as playground. By the late 1940’s, members of First Baptist Church of Helena were working to procure the entire hill, other than the southwest corner occupied by the Hornor Gladin home. Soon after the purchase, members built what is now the present day First Baptist Church. Six to eight feet were taken off the top of an already leveled hill, leaving a much smaller bluff than what originally stood.

Two hundred and twenty-one years have passed since Sylvanus stepped off his flatboat into the wilderness north of Helena, and over two hundred years since he sat on the porch of his Helena home viewing his beloved river. While few, if any, of his descendants remain in the locale, the memories of his life and the legends of the infamous hill, will remain in the hearts of Helenians for years to come.


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