Skip to main content
Identifier: MC 1523

William Walter Phelps Papers


  • 1845-1911

Scope and Content Note

The documents comprising the papers of William Walter Phelps, attorney, Congressman, investor, and minister, span the years from as early as 1846 to 1902. The bulk of the collection however is between 1870 to 1898. The papers that date back to 1846 are his fathers' tax receipts in New York City. Mr. Phelps' father was the famous and wealthy merchant John J. Phelps. The papers that document Mr. Phelps' life are written during a period in which Mr. Phelps holds highly prominent positions.

A considerable amount of papers written to Mr. Phelps are in the time period when he was a US Congressman from New Jersey. During this time period also Mr. Phelps was a successful investor in lands ranging from as far as Texas, Michigan, and as close as New York City. Other papers are received by Mr. Phelps when he was appointed as minister to Europe, particularly Germany. In essence, what the collection illuminates is Mr. Phelps' activities as a public figure for New Jersey and the United States. What one will find in this collection is that Mr. Phelps was indeed a wealthy capitalist, who kept a very accurate and elaborate account of his investments throughout the country. He was very conscious of where his money was being allocated and this is quite conspicuous in the collection.

It should be noted that at one time Mr. Phelps was a lawyer early in his career. But not many letters pertain to his activities as a prominent lawyer in New York City. We do not know what kind of cases he was arguing, although it is known that he did practice some criminal cases. One will find in the collection that the letters written during the time he was an attorney relate to personal matters to friends and colleagues, and not anything significant dealing with his law practice.

As one researches the collection one will find that Mr. Phelps received an enormous amount of letters, and very little sent to colleagues and associates. His legal agents, responsible for assisting Mr. Phelps with his estate and pecuniary matters, also received quite a prodigious amount of letters. One will also find speeches and writings, circular letters, tax documents and receipts, bills, financial and investment documents, letter and memo books. It is here that the researcher will learn about Mr. Phelps' personal and business affairs.

The first series in the Phelps collection is a short BIOGRAPHY of his life, and then some WRITINGS writ ten by Mr. Phelps himself as Congressman . The letters that are in the collection are categorized as CORRESPONDENCE. The first group are letters received which comprise the years from 1871 until his death in 1894. The collection does not possess all of Mr. Phelps' correspondence. There are gaps between the letters and one may have to research thoroughly to make a connection. Next are his Legal Agents which fall under the years from 1873-1892. Finally under the CORRESPONDENCE heading is Other Individuals, ranging from 1871-1892.

The next series of information is what is known as POCKET MEMORANDA. Here the years range from 1881 until his death in 1894. Most of the material written here is personal information pertaining to Mr. Phelps' everyday life . Personal appointments, business matters, and simply writing down persons names.

Though there is a considerable amount of letters in the collection, the bulk of it deals with Mr. Phelps' INVESTMENT DOCUMENTS. The first subseries is a compilation of Memo Books ranging in years from 1871-1895. These books enumerate taxes Mr. Phelps owed, most probably his land taxes, and people who owed him money. Next comes Record of Stocks and Bonds, a listing of shares he owned in various companies. The years here range from 1871-1875. The next subseries and the few that follow pertain to his investments in land throughout various parts of the country . The material here is basically tax receipts for the years 1870- 1885, and comprise areas in the East, known as Eastern Lands, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Illinois, and Iowa. They do not reveal much information but simply tell us the taxes and monies owed on those lands.

Following his investments in lands comes his investment in the International and Great Northern Railroad, comprising the years from roughly 1871-1887. The documents here pertain to the organization of the railroad, which was formally organized on February 19, 1872. Its predecessor was known as the International Railroad Company but there was an amalgamation between the latter company and the Houston and Great Northern Railroad Company. His next big investment is a company called the New York and Texas Land Company, previously known as the Texas Land Company. Some lands were bequeathed to the Texas Land Company from the International and Great Northern Railroad, previously known as the Houston and Great Northern Railroad. The lands were first issued to a Mr. Edwin Hatfield, who in turn transferred the lands to the Texas Land Company. Both the railroad and the land company were organized under the rules and regulations of Texas. In 1880, then, Mr. Phelps played an instrumental role in the organization of this new company, of which he becomes a principal shareholder. The documents relating to the company are in the area between 1870-71 to approximately 1910. Documents pertain to the incorporation of the company, circular letters, and other miscellany materials. There are also two maps for the New York and Texas Land Company that are dated approximately around 1880.

The last two folders under the INVESTMENT DOCUMENTS are titled the Colorado Bridge Company, 1880, and the Sandy Hook Lease Proposal, 1885. Mr. Phelps apparently owned some stock in the Colorado Bridge Company, and there is a pamphlet regarding a contract made between this company and the International and Great Northern Railroad. The contract calls for the construction of a bridge which will be used by the International and Great Northern Railroad. The Sandy Hook Lease Proposal calls for the construction of a summer resort which Mr. Phelps may have been involved in.

The next to last set of materials in the collection before Phelps' death is a category known as FINANCIAL DOCUMENTS between the years 1867-1887 . The first subseries is Accounts dated 1870, 1873- 1874. They are recorded accounts of monies allocation for Mr. Phelps.Then Mr. Phelps has receipts for property assessment taxes in New York and New Jersey, and tax returns which pertain to his financial incomes in the years 1866-72 . And there is a folder entitled Miscellany with various years ranging from 1870 to 1888 . and loans recorded in this folder. There are valuation taxes

The last heading under FINANCIAL DOCUMENTS is an Account Book ["Mortgage Interest Book"] with years dated between 1869 and 1880. The book deals with Mr. Phelps' financial transactions regarding mortgages, loans, and leases.

The last two series are entitled ELECTION FILES and UNIDENTIFIED AND EXTRANEOUS DOCUMENTS. The former has a total of four folders ranging in years between 1872 to 1888. The campaign literature can tell the reader two things. Either Mr. Phelps was running in a campaign or he was contributing to a campaign for a friend. It must remembered that Mr. Phelps did indeed serve in the Forty-third Congress in 1872 but by 1886 declined to run for reelection . So the materials for 1887 and 1888 maybe campaign contributions. There is also a broadside dated 1872 in which Mr. Phelps' name appears.

Finally there are three folders entitled UNIDENTIFIED AND EXTRANEOUS DOCUMENTS, ranging in years from 1871-1911. Some of the materials in these folders are wills made by other individuals. It is not positively sure what connection these individuals had with Mr. Phelps.

The next series is entitled PHELPS ESTATE AND LEGAL SUCCESSORS, which relates to materials in the collection after his death. Again the collections starts with CORRESPONDENCE which deals with Letter Books . These books vary in years from 1885 to 1912. Most of the books in the collection belong to his Legal Agents. Then the next CORRESPONDENCE deals with Letters Received by his Legal Agents from the years 1893-1906. As earlier in the collection there is another subseries entitled INVESTMENT DOCUMENTS pertaining to land investments in Michigan and Wisconsin 1897-1899 and 1905-1906. The information for the first set of years are simply tax receipts, but the latter deals with correspondence from what appears to be agents residing in Michigan and Wisconsin. They are reports regarding tax valuations and calculations for the lands in Michigan and Wisconsin. It appears that the price of taxes for these lands were changing, so it was necessary that the changes were recorded and calculated. For the New York and Texas Land Company there are documents regarding the dissolution of that company in the very early twentieth century. After the INVESTMENT DOCUMENTS there is again FINANCIAL DOCUMENTS. Here there is an extensive compilation of tax receipts pertaining to Mr. Phelps' estate. These receipts apparently tell the researcher that the estate was being taken care of accordingly. And finally in this series there is a subseries entitled PERSONAL MISCELLANY/Jacob Wetmore . Here the years vary and the documents pertain to cemetery records that Mr . Wetmore, Phelps' legal agent, kept in his possession.

The next series, a short one, is entitled PHELPS FAMILY/JOHN J. PHELPS, which is Walter's father as mentioned above . Under this series is the FINANCIAL DOCUMENTS in which there are tax receipts for John J. Phelps' property in New York City. The dates roughly are from 1845-1879 . Then there are tax returns for the years 1865-1868. And finally for John J. Phelps there are two books, a cash account book and a ledger. The former is dated between the years 1851-1865 and the latter is dated from 1849 to 1864. The cash account book is a listing of cash allocations, while the ledger deals with stocks, loans, and mortgage payments.

Finally, the last series in the collection is PHELPS FAMILY/ELLEN SHEFFIELD PHELPS, the wife of William Walter Phelps. Here in this folder there is miscellany material regarding Mrs. Phelps. There are only two or there materials in this folder and the years vary.


2 cubic feet (5 manuscript boxes)

Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

No Restrictions.


The documents comprising the papers of William Walter Phelps, attorney, Congressman, investor, and minister, span the years from as early as 1845 to 1911. The bulk of the collection however is between 1870 to 1898. The papers that date back to 1846 are his fathers' tax receipts in New York City. Mr. Phelps' father was the famous and wealthy merchant John J. Phelps. The papers that document Mr. Phelps' life are written during a period in which Mr. Phelps holds highly prominent positions .

Biographical Sketch

The prominent William Walter Phelps was born at Dundaff, Pennsylvania, August 24 , 1839.(1) (Though another source say he was born in New York City.)(2) His ancestors arrived in the New World from Plymouth, England in 1630. His father was John J . Phelps, one of New York City's most well-known and wealthy merchants in the nineteenth century. The son of this great merchant grew up imbued with the principles of energy, hard-work , and ingenuity. He went to the best schools, the first of which was a private school at Golden Hill, near Bridgeport, Connecticut. He excelled so rapidly that by the time he was fifteen he was ready for college. But his health hindered his progress for some time that he had to postpone school . Close to his sixteenth birthday, however, he entered Yale College.

Upon graduation he married Ellen Maria, the daughter of Mr. Joseph Earle Sheffield. After the marriage he and his wife sailed for Europe, spending much of their time in Germany. Mr. Phelps eventually learned that country's language, the intricacies of it society, and its institutions. Upon return to America Mr. Phelps entered Columbia Law School. He graduated in 1863 and at once began his law practice in Exchange Place , New York City. Desiring not to reside in New York City for the entire year, Mr . Phelps moved to Englewood, New Jersey. However, he eventually a cquired a large tract of land and an old Dutch he eventually acquired a large tract of land and an old Dutch farmhouse in Teaneck, New Jersey. Subsequently he would acquire adjacent farms and his estate would extend from the Hackensack to the Hudson Rivers. In all, his estate would comprise nearly five miles and two thousand acres. (As a sidenote, Mr. Phelps would amazingly plant six-hundred thousand trees on his estate from 1870 to 1893.)

After practicing law for some time, Mr. Phelps quit his profession and attended to his father's estate after the latter died in 1869 . But he did not remain idle. In 1870 he invested in lands in Texas and by the time he was thirty-four years of age he would be a prominent New Jersey politician, serving in the Forty-third United States Congress. Here his achievements would not end. Subsequently, Mr. Phelps was nominated Minister to Austria but resigned his commission shortly thereafter. For the second time in 1883 Mr. Phelps was elected as a New Jersey Representative to the Forty-eighth and Forty-ninth United States Congress . During his terms as Congressman Mr. Phelps gained an extensive knowledge of politics . Political friends in New Jersey urged him to run for governor of the state, but he declined. After accepting the nomination for Congress in 1886, Mr. Phelps decided that he no longer would run for his Congressional seat. He believed he had done all he could for New Jersey in the U. S . Congress and decided to move on.

In 1889 Mr. Phelps accepts to act as an acting commissioner in the Samoan affair, one of Europe's most tumultuous events in the nineteenth century. It is here that Mr. Phelps is highly rewarded and commended by prominent citizens in the United States for his meritorious service.

In his last years Mr. Phelps was appointed minister to Germany from 1889-1893. After his tenure as minister, the final position he holds is as Judge of New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals. At the young age of fifty-five William Walter Phelps passed on. Many people across the country, including his personal friends, acquaintances, and newspaper editors lamented his death. He would always be remembered for his services first to New Jersey, then to his country.


(1) Hugh M. Herrick, William Walter Phelps: His Life and Public Services (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1906)

(2) Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 177 4-1989, (Washington D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1989).


(1) Hugh M. Herrick, William Walter Phelps: His Life and Public Services (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1906)


(2) Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 177 4-1989, (Washington D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1989).

Inventory to the William Walter Phelps Papers
Edited Full Draft
Lenny Bussanich
January 1998
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English.
Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University received an operating support grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the Department of State.