Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Phelps-Lyon Family Papers, 1803-1894

Finding aid created by
Galen Wilson, 1987

Summary Information
Title: Phelps-Lyon family papers
Creator: Phelps-Lyon family
Inclusive dates: 1803-1894
Extent: 84 items
The Phelps-Lyon family papers consists of the correspondence of two Michigan families written while home and away, including letters from Louisiana, California during the gold rush, and serving with the Union during the Civil War.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

Donated 1977 and 1987. M-1785, M-2359.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown.


Thirty-three of these letters, all of Phelps origin, were the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman H. Schairer, a descendant of Norman A. Phelps (1808-1887). An additional fifty-five letters and other manuscripts were the gift of Janet Lyon Holm, a descendant of Norman Phelps' sister Adaline Lyon (1819-1872). The two accessions bring together related material which was separated for a century or more. The two donors, third cousins, were unknown to each other until genealogical research brought them together.

Preferred Citation:

Phelps-Lyon Family Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


The saga of the Phelps and Lyon families is, in the American tradition, one of westward movement and fortune-seeking. Both families were of English descent and started out in Connecticut. After marriage to Sarah Stevens, Phineas Lyon, Sr. settled in Otsego, New York, where he worked as a tanner and shoemaker. The Quaker couple raised six children and, at a time of life when most settle down to a quiet retirement, joined son Phineas, Jr. in migration to the new state of Michigan in 1837. They bought land in Oakland County, became farmers, and lived out the rest of their years there. Sarah died in 1843 at 67, while Phineas, Sr. survived her by 16 years, living to be 89. Phineas, Jr. was seemingly content in Michigan, for after a period of work away from home he married and settled down on the family farm for good. Two of his brothers were of a more adventuresome spirit. Thomas went to Louisiana territory as a surveyor and Elijah moved westward to Chicago, then to Wisconsin, and wound up in New Orleans.

Connecticut-born Alexander and Elizabeth (Eno) Phelps also decided to try their luck in Michigan, and moved their family to Scio Township, Washtenaw County in 1831. Son Amos, born in 1824, caught gold fever and headed for California in 1851. He stuck it out for three years, then returned home, not much better off than when he had started, to marry his long-suffering fiancée, Elizabeth Pacey. Pacey, the daughter of English immigrants Edward and Hannah (Swales) Pacey, was born in Dexter, Michigan in 1832. The Phelpses spent their entire married life on a Scio Township farm, where they raised four children. Amos died in 1879, Elizabeth in 1891. Adaline, a daughter of Alexander and Elizabeth Phelps, married Phineas Lyon, Jr. in June, 1846 and moved to his farm in Oakland County.

Another family member represented in the collection, Edgar A. Phelps, was the son of Norman Phelps, older brother of Amos and Adaline. In 1862, while a student at the University of Michigan, he enlisted as a private in Co. D, 20th Michigan Infantry. Promoted to corporal in 1862 and sergeant in 1863, he was shot in the back at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. He died from his wounds at Carver's Hospital, Washington, D.C., on June 4, 1864 and was buried in Washington.

Many other Phelpses and Lyons figure in the correspondence, but there is not enough information available to warrant noting them individually. They can be identified by referral to the collection guide's family tree and to the genealogical material in folder one.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Phelps-Lyon papers feature all that one would expect of a family correspondence -- birth, death, marriage, sickness, religion, housekeeping, making a living, and socializing. About half of these letters to and from various family members chronicle such matters in homey style, generally without a lot of detail. The other half represent those who left home, and had other tales to tell -- of cholera and yellow fever, the Wisconsin prairie, rough characters in the gold fields, bloody Civil War battles. Their experiences of unfamiliar worlds form a vivid contrast to the daily work and rituals of the family circle.

Four letters from Sarah Phelps Cook to her aunt Adaline Phelps Lyon and her grandmother Margaret Bigelow Phelps, written in 1868-1869, are typical "domestic correspondence." They discuss church and visiting, new babies, dress-making, fourth of July and Christmas, weddings and funerals -- the range of family and community concerns which comprised a woman's world in this era, place and socio-economic setting. Men's home-based letters, such as those of Phineas Lyon, Sr. to son Thomas in 1831 and 1833, are less focused on the social, although they include gossip and news of illness and accident. Of central concern are economic issues such as business conditions, prospects for crops, building of houses, and the like.

Thomas Lyon recorded his impressions of exotic Louisiana in three letters dating from the 1830's. The young man was articulate and insightful, if somewhat misinformed in health matters. In October, 1833 he writes that news of the cholera outbreak is exaggerated. "I have witnessed many cases of cholera and have no doubt that people are more frightened by the suddenness of death and the howling and yelling of those taken than by the number of deaths. ... I have seen enough of the cholera and yellow fever to convince me that neither is infectious." Thomas was not impressed with New Orleans, finding it "a miserable looking place of business all mud and tobacco smoke. The streets full of Negroes and mulattoes, Mexican, Spaniards, and Indians, every man with a segar in his mouth and a bunch of them stuck in his hat band and perhaps his pockets full into the bargain."

Another son of Phineas Sr. and Sarah, Elijah Lyon, wrote four letters from Illinois and Wisconsin in 1837-1838. With the enthusiastic optimism of the newcomer he describes the fine land and abundant crops, plentiful wildlife, ready money and high wages, and healthy climate of these up-and-coming areas. Moreover, the native Indian population is obligingly selling out and moving on. He writes from Green Lake, Wisconsin in November , 1837: "... the fatest [venison] I ever saw is brought almost every day by the Indians and sold very cheap which with their furs make somewhat of a chance of speculation a few families of Winebagoes still take up their residence about here though the greater part of the tribe have gone beyond the Wisconsin river having sold all their lands this side."

Amos B. Phelps corresponded with girlfriend Elizabeth Pacey while prospecting for gold in California from 1851 to 1854. Amos, a level-headed and temperate young man, cast a critical eye on the squalid living conditions and degraded specimens of humanity he found in the gold fields. In these 20 letters he makes up for clumsy grammar and spelling with sharp observation. He writes from Placerville in December, 1851: "There is all kinds of beings here and from all parts of the world. As for calling them men, they are not, only in form and I do think that some of them have not as much intellect as a dumb brute. ... There is thousands of men that would go home if they could raise the money, but when they get a few dollars they go to gambling in hopes of making a pile in a short time. But instead they loos all they have. As for me, I am determined not to go in the way of temptation." The young man's resolve was strengthened by his wish to return home and marry Elizabeth, and their on again-off again courtship takes up much of the correspondence.

The scenery within Amos's view likewise did not impress: "immagine yourself standing on the top of a high mountain in a vast willderness. Then extend your eyes in all directions and you will see vast wilderness covered with lofty pines ... and miners with pick and shovel stragling in every direction to find the precious juel. Then take a peep down into the ravines and you will see men of all descriptions at work diging the ravine still deeper. Then take a look at the sides of the mountains and there you will see caves that men are diging and under mineing them. Then take a look into some valey and you will see a city built of staves. Then take a squint inside and you are satisfide that it is not a [sic] very pleasant to behold. Such is the scenery, Elizabeth, that I am obligd to look upon. But I care not if I am able to get a good pile of gold and return in safety to Michigan." He did return in safety, though without the pile of gold, married Miss Pacey, and settled down to life as a Michigan farmer.

Phelps's nephew Edgar had his adventures in the more dangerous setting of the Civil War battlefield, and described them in three letters to his uncle Amos and eight to his aunt Adaline Phelps Lyon. In November of 1862 he writes of his experiences in the Fredericksburg campaign, cheerfully stating that he doesn't expect much hard fighting before they get to Richmond, "where we will give them hail columbia and make our winter quarters in the city." By December, engaged in battle at Fredericksburg, perhaps he was learning that it would not be so easy: "I can judge we have gained nothing yet but have lost a great number killed and wounded. There was one of the fourth here just now he says that they are very strongly fortified and we can never drive them out unless we charge on them in a mass. You need not worry about us I guess that we will come out all right." He next writes home from Mississippi. Two letters of June and July, 1863 describe the siege of Vicksburg and fighting at Jackson. An October 1863 letter from Knoxville, Tennessee discusses rampant pro-Union sentiment among the civilians, and one written in December of that year describes in detail the fighting at Fort Sanders the previous month. Photocopies of Edgar's service records included with the collection reveal that he did not "come out all right," but died from an infected wound on June 6, 1864.

Two letters from Phineas Lyon, Sr. to son Thomas, and two to Phineas from an old New York State neighbor, Wells Rathburn, are interesting examples of Quaker writing style. Rathburn's July 1, 1851 letter bemoans the dispersal and shrinking of the Quaker community. The collection also includes a printed epistle of the yearly London Friends meeting for 1804; an 1822 yearly meeting document was transferred to the Books Division.

Folder one contains extensive genealogical material on the Lyon and Phelps families which is helpful in identifying the cast of characters and their relationships

Subject Terms

    • California--Description and travel.
    • California--Gold discoveries.
    • Cost and standard of living.
    • Courtship.
    • Family.
    • Oakland County (Mich.)
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    • United States. Army--Michigan Infantry Regiment, 20th (1862-1865)
    • Washtenaw County (Mich.)
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   1  
    Phelps-Lyon family papers,  1803-1894 [series]
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Alternate Locations

    From our Yearly Meeting, held in New-York, from the 27th of the 5th month, to the 30th of the same, inslusive [sic], 1822: to the Quarterly, Monthly, and Preparative Meetings, thereunto belonging. New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. 1822. Books Division small broadsides.

    Photograph of Phelps, Edgar A, 1838-1864 Ann Arbor, Mich. c. 1862. Graphics Division C.3.3

    Partial Subject Index
    Acapulco (Mexico) --Description and travel
    • 22 December 1851
    • 1 July 1851; 22 September 1855; [1868]; n.d.
    Agriculture--Illinois, Michigan
    • 24 July 1831; 5 March 1837
    • 28 June 1841; 1 July 1851
    Big Black River (Miss.)
    • 25 July 1863
    Birth announcements
    • 20 October 1842
    Burnside, Ambrose Everett, 1824-1881
    • 9 October 1862
    California--Description and travel
    • 9 November 1851; 22 December 1851; 8 February 1852; 6 April 1852; 28 May 1852; 12 July 1852; 26 September 1852; 3 October 1852; 20 [October] 1852; 28 [November] 1852; 15 February 1853; 27 March 1853; 8 May 1853; 12 June 1853; 31 July 1853; 18 September 1853; 26 October 1853; 24 December 1853; 9 March 1854; 12 April 1854; 9 September 1854
    California--Gold discoveries
    • 9 November 1851; 22 December 1851; 8 February 1852; 6 April 1852; 28 May 1852; 12 July 1852; 26 September 1852; 3 October 1852; 20 [October] 1852; 28 [November] 1852; 15 February 1853; 27 March 1853; 8 May 1853; 12 June 1853; 31 July 1853; 18 September 1853; 26 October 1853; 24 December 1853; 9 March 1854; 12 April 1854; 9 September 1854
    Campbell's Station, Battle of, 1863
    • 26 December 1863
    Chicago (Ill.)--Description and travel
    • 5 March 1837
    Chinese Americans
    • 27 March 1853; 8 May 1853
    • 29 October 1833
    Churches, Methodist--Michigan--Ann Arbor
    • 7 October 1867
    Cost and standard of living
    • 22 December 1851; 8 February 1852; 28 May 1852; 3 October 1852; 28 [November] 1852; 15 February 1853; 12 June 1853;
    • 12 July 1852; 30 [October] 1852; 28 [November] 1852; 15 February 1853; 27 March 1853; 8 May 1853; 18 September 1853
    • 22 December 1851; 6 April 1852; 12 July 1852
    Custody of children--Michigan
    • 21 July [1855]
    Davis, Jefferson, 1808-1889
    • 20 June 1863
    • 26 December 1863
    • 28 February [1803]; 24 July 1831; [October 1865]; 30 April 1866; 29 May 1871; 25 February [no year]
    Deserters, Military--Confederate States of America
    • 5 October 1863
    • 8 March 1863
    Drinking of alcoholic beverages--California
    • 8 February 1852; 6 April 1852; 3 October 1852
    • passim
    • 18 September 1853
    • 15 September 1862; 25 July 1863
    Fort Sanders, (Tenn.)
    • 26 December 1863
    Fourth of July celebrations
    • 11 July 1869;
    Fredericksburg Campaign, 1862
    • 12 November 1862; 15 December 1862
    • n.d.
    • 8 February 1852; 6 April 1852; 3 October 1852
    Gold mines and mining--California
    • 9 November 1851; 22 December 1851; 8 February 1852; 6 April 1852; 28 May 1852; 12 July 1852; 26 September 1852; 3 October 1852; 20 [October] 1852; 28 [November] 1852; 15 February 1853; 27 March 1853; 8 May 1853; 12 June 1853; 31 July 1853; 18 September 1853; 26 October 1853; 24 December 1853; 9 March 1854; 12 April 1854; 9 September 1854
    Indians of North America--California, Wisconsin
    • 29 July 1837; 12 November 1837; 25 May 1852
    Jackson (Miss.)
    • 25 July 1863
    Johnston, Joseph E. (Joseph Eggleston), 1807-1891
    • 20 June 1863
    Knoxville Campaign, 1863
    • 5 October 1863; 26 December 1863
    Land titles
    • 14 February 1806; 9 April 1816; 2 Feburary 1846; 31 August 1853; 8 February 1856
    • 23 September 1873; 16 June 1876; 12 March 1879
    Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865
    • 9 October 1862
    Louisiana--Description and travel
    • 19 October 1833; [postmark 25 June 183-]
    • 29 July 1837
    • 9 October 1862
    McClellan, George Brinton, 1826-1885
    • 9 October 1862
    Men--Conduct of life
    • 9 November 1851; 22 December 1851; 8 February 1852; 6 April 1852; 28 May 1852; 12 July 1852; 26 September 1852; 3 October 1852; 20 [October] 1852; 28 [November] 1852; 15 February 1853; 27 March 1853; 8 May 1853; 12 June 1853; 31 July 1853; 18 September 1853; 26 October 1853; 24 December 1853; 9 March 1854; 12 April 1854; 9 September 1854
    New Orleans (La.)--Description and travel
    • [postmark 25 June 183-]
    New York City--Description and travel
    • 9 November 1851
    Ocean travel
    • 9 November 1851; 22 December 1851
    Panama--Description and travel
    • 9 November 1851
    Panic of 1837
    • 16 April 1838
    Pemberton, John C. (John Clifford ), 1814-1881
    • 10 July 1861
    Picket duty--Washington, D.C.
    • 10 July 1861
    Quakers--Michigan, New York
    • 1 July 1851
    Railroads--West Virginia
    • 21 April 1863
    Real estate investment--Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin
    • 11 January 1835; 16 April 1838
    Sharpsburg (Md.)--Description and travel
    • 9 October 1862
    • 8 February 1852
    • 15 September 1862
    • 15 December 1862
    • 21 April 1863; 20 June 1863
    • 29 October 1833; [postmark 25 June 183-]
    • 26 September 1852
    Union sympathizers--Tennessee
    • 5 October 1863
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Causes
    • 4 August 1861; n.d.
    United States. Army--Enlistment
    • 13 January 1862; 25 August 1862
    United States. Army--Michigan Infantry Regiment, 20th Co. D
    • 13 January 1862; 25 August 1862; 15 September 1862; 9 October 1862; 12 November 1862; 15 December 1862; [1862-1864]; 21 April 1863; 20 June 1863; 25 July 1863; 5 October 1863; 26 December 1863
    Universalists--New York (State)
    • 1 July 1851
    Vicksburg (Miss.)--History--Siege, 1863
    • 20 June 1863
    Virginia--Description and travel
    • 21 April 1863
    • 14 January 1869; 7 January 1872
    Wisconsin--Description and travel
    • 29 July 1837; 12 November 1837
    • 26 September 1852; 6 December 1863
    Wounded soldiers
    • 9 October 1862
    Yellow fever --Louisiana
    • 29 October 1833