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Murder of John Hays

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The village of St. Paul, 1844. Etching by Charles William Post.

The village of St. Paul, 1844. Etching by Charles William Post.

The first murder to reach the courts of what would become Minnesota took place during the early infancy of St. Paul, in the late summer of 1839. Though both victim and main suspect were quickly identified, the case was never solved.

On September 27, 1839, Dakota boys found a body washed up under Dayton’s Bluff, near Carver’s Cave (Wakan Tipi). The victim had been beaten to death, almost every bone face smashed. An official party, summoned from Fort Snelling, recognized only the gray hair and distinctive long nose; they belonged to Army sergeant John Hays. Suspicion quickly centered on his cabin-mate and business partner, Edward Phelan.

Hays and Phelan were both Irishmen—Hays from Waterford, Phelan from Derry. They had met in the U.S. Army at Fort Snelling. Hays, born around 1800, was slight and well-liked. Phelan, eleven years younger and a muscular private, stood over six feet tall and cultivated a reputation for violence.

When the Treaty of 1837 opened the land just across the Mississippi from Fort Snelling to (legal) white immigration, Hays and Phelan made a deal. When Phelan’s enlistment expired, he would make two land claims, one for him and one for Hays, and build a shelter. Hays would supply the money and join Phelan when Hays’s army term ended.

Phelan left the army on June 8, 1838. He duly claimed two land parcels in what later became downtown St. Paul, along the Mississippi from the foot of Eagle Street to the Robert Street Bridge. Only Pierre Parrant, the famous Pig’s Eye, who occupied a shanty near Fountain Cave, has an earlier claim to be the first resident of St. Paul. Hays joined Phelan on April 25, 1839. The two men took up farming.

On September 8, Phelan reported to his neighbors Benjamin and Genevieve Gervais that he had not seen Hays since he had ferried him across the Mississippi in his canoe the day before. Hays, said Phelan, believed someone from the Dakota village Kaposia, a few miles downriver, had stolen a calf of his, and Hays wanted to pursue the thief. Two search parties followed Hays’s supposed path to Kaposia but found no trace of him. When Hays turned up murdered three weeks later, all eyes turned to Phelan.

At that time, the future St. Paul consisted of perhaps twenty dwellings scattered between Hidden Falls on the west and Carver’s Cave on the east. The nearest law resided at Mendota, in the person of justice of the peace Henry Sibley. Sibley ordered Phelan arrested, then turned the case over to Joseph R. Brown. Brown represented the proper legal authority: Crawford County, Wisconsin Territory, the western point of which contained the future St. Paul.

Brown held a hearing on November 1, 1839. The dozen witnesses mostly contradicted Phelan’s tale. Hays’s missing calf, never stolen, had soon returned. Four men had seen Phelan in his canoe at the time he said he ferried Hays across the river; all agreed that Phelan was alone.

Observers had noticed a great quantity of blood and some strands of gray hair in trampled vegetation near the Hays–Phelan cabin. The only evidence supporting the story that Hays had gone off and been murdered by someone else, possibly Indians, came from Phelan, and his versions of the tale had varied. On November 3, Brown concluded that Phelan had likely committed the murder. He sent him to jail in Prairie du Chien, the seat then of Crawford County, to await a grand jury and likely trial.

In the spring or summer of 1840, Phelan returned to his cabin and his disputatious life. In 1848, his neighbors elected him a delegate to the Minnesota Territorial Convention. In 1850, a grand jury indicted him for perjury. Rather than face charges, Phelan took off for the goldfields of California. He never got there; companions murdered him along the way.

It remains unknown what happened to Phelan after he arrived at the jail in Prairie du Chien. Though the evidence against him was powerful, the grand jury may have declined to indict him, or he may have been acquitted at trial. All court records of his case have been lost. The namesake of St. Paul’s Lake Phalen, Phalen Creek, Phalen Boulevard, and Payne-Phalen neighborhood was almost certainly the city’s first murderer.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Brueggemann, Gary. Minnesota’s Oldest Murder Mystery: the Case of Edward Phalen, St. Paul’s Unsaintly Pioneer. Eden Prairie, MN: Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013.

Williams, J. Fletcher. A History of the City of Saint Paul to 1875. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1983.

Related Images

The village of St. Paul, 1844. Etching by Charles William Post.
The village of St. Paul, 1844. Etching by Charles William Post.
Black and white photograph of Carver’s Cave (Wakan Tipi), 1875.
Black and white photograph of Carver’s Cave (Wakan Tipi), 1875.
Black and white photoprint of Joseph Renshaw Brown photographed c.1860.
Black and white photoprint of Joseph Renshaw Brown photographed c.1860.
Black and white photograph of Benjamin and Genevieve Gervais, ca. 1875. They were Phelan’s nearest neighbors and the first to hear from him of Hays’s disappearance.
Black and white photograph of Benjamin and Genevieve Gervais, ca. 1875. They were Phelan’s nearest neighbors and the first to hear from him of Hays’s disappearance.
Drawn portrait of Pierre Parrant, ca. 1840.
Drawn portrait of Pierre Parrant, ca. 1840.
Water color painting of Little Crow’s village on the Mississippi by Seth Eastman c.1846–1848.
Water color painting of Little Crow’s village on the Mississippi by Seth Eastman c.1846–1848.
Black and white photograph of the present-day Site of the Hays–Phelan cabin, ca. 2000s.
Black and white photograph of the present-day Site of the Hays–Phelan cabin, ca. 2000s.
Map of St. Paul in 1839
Map of St. Paul in 1839

Turning Point

On November 3, 1839, justice of the peace Joseph R. Brown sends Edward Phelan to Prairie du Chien for grand jury proceedings and, if indicted, trial for murder.

Chronology

ca. 1800

John Hays is born in Waterford, Ireland.

1811

Edward Phelan is born in Derry, Ireland.

1831

Phelan lands in New York City. Four years later, he enlists in the U.S. Army and is posted at Fort Snelling, where he meets Sergeant John Hays.

1837

The Treaty of Mendota opens the area between the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers to legal white immigration.

June 8, 1838

Phelan completes his term of enlistment in the Army. Soon after, he buys claims to two parcels of land in what is now downtown St. Paul.

April 25, 1839

Hays leaves the Army and takes up residence with Phelan.

September 5, 1839

A witness makes the last known sighting of a living John Hays.

September 9, 1839

Phelan and Benjamin Gervais commence a search for Hays in Dakota country, across the river from Hays’s claim. They go as far as Kaposia but find no trace.

September 15, 1839

Fort Snelling commander Major Lawrence Taliaferro records in his journal that he suspects Phelan of the murder.

September 27, 1839

Hays’s body is found near Carver’s Cave.

Late September or early October, 1839

Mendota justice of the peace Henry Sibley orders Phelan arrested. The case is soon transferred to Joseph R. Brown, a justice of the peace operating out of Grey Cloud Island.

November 1, 1839

Brown holds a hearing, with testimony from at least twelve witnesses. He concludes that Phelan is probably guilty.

November 4, 1839

Phelan is taken 200 miles downriver to Prairie du Chien for a grand jury hearing and, if he is indicted, a trial.

1840

In spring or summer Phelan returns to St. Paul and takes up residence again in his shanty. A few years later, he relocates a short distance northeast, along Phalen Creek.

1848

Phelan is elected a delegate to the Minnesota Territorial Convention.

1850

In the spring, a grand jury indicts Phelan for perjury and he leaves St. Paul for the California gold fields. He is murdered before arriving.