Sylvanus Phillips (1775–1830)
Sylvanus Phillips was an early American pioneer and Arkansas settler. As a prominent land speculator and town developer who held numerous offices during his roughly thirty years in southeastern Arkansas, Phillips helped shape settlements and communities in Arkansas Territory just before statehood.
Little is known about Phillips’s early life, family, and education. He was born in the Piedmont region of North Carolina in April 1775, but his exact birthdate and the names of his parents are unknown. The Piedmont region was inhabited by Waxhaw and Catawba Indians as well as Scotch-Irish and English settlers, and it is possible that he was of Scotch-Irish descent.
In 1797, he traveled to Arkansas by crossing the Appalachian Mountains and going through Kentucky. He lived in a log cabin that he built near the mouth of the St. Francis River in northeastern Arkansas. Phillips moved to Arkansas Post in southeastern Arkansas in 1799 after encountering trouble with local tribes.
In the 1680s, French traders established Arkansas Post to trade in furs with local tribes and trappers. The French still had influence over the region in the early nineteenth century, and Phillips was likely one of the few Americans in the area. Phillips explored the area and discovered rich deposits of minerals and timber. By 1803, Phillips had become a well-known land speculator working alongside William Russell, a speculator from St. Louis, Missouri.
Phillips County, Arkansas—formed on May 1, 1820, as the seventh county in Arkansas Territory, was named for Phillips. The area had fertile soil and good crop production. Phillips had served in the region as a member of the Territorial Council and was also a clerk in the county prior to it being named for him. Purportedly, he was called Colonel Phillips, which likely meant he also served in some leadership capacity in the local militia. He also was aligned with Henry W. Conway’s political faction in Arkansas, which became “The Family”—a powerful group of Democrats who dominated Arkansas politics between statehood and the Civil War.
Phillips married Phoebe Dunn in September 1808; they had two daughters: Harriet and Helena. After his first wife died, he married Rebecca Kendrick on August 25, 1812; they had a daughter named Carolina. Helena (Phillips County), located near Crowley’s Ridge, was founded in 1820, named after Phillips’s daughter from his first marriage.
Phillips died near his home in Helena on October 31, 1830, and is buried in the town cemetery.
For additional information:
Branch, Bill, and Paula C. Oliver. Helena and Phillips County. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2013.
Carter, Clarence Edwin, ed. The Territorial Papers of the United States: The Territory of Arkansas, 1819–1825, vols. 19–20. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1952, 1954.
Dougan, Michael B. “Phillips, Sylvanus.” NCPedia. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/phillips-sylvanus (accessed July 27, 2023).
Shinn, Josiah H. Pioneers and Makers of Arkansas. Chicago: Genealogical and Historical Publishing Company, 1908.
Smith, David A. “Preparing the Arkansas Wilderness for Settlement: Public Land Survey Administration, 1803–1836.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 71 (Winter 2012): 381–406.
“Sylvanus Phillips Land Record, 1820.” Digital Heritage Arkansas, finding aid 1520. https://digitalheritage.arkansas.gov/finding-aids/1520/ (accessed July 27, 2023).
Michael J. Megelsh
Blue Mountain Christian University
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