In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the islands in the Missouri River were often used by cattle rustlers to hide and move stolen cattle. One of the most unusual was Phelps Island located between Lyman and Brule counties and about seven miles north of the southern Lyman County line.
The island became famous in the 1890s when Henry Schroeder and Frank Phelps were tried for the murder of a homesteader by the name of Mat Matson in May of 1893. The trial became sensationalized with numerous stories in the area newspapers.
The trial was held at Alexandria in Hanson County because of the difficulty of seating an honest jury in Lyman County. At that time, Lyman County was widely recognized as a place where juries, if ever or seldom found a cattle rustler guilty.
Mat Matson lived on the river bottom on the west side of the river with his sister, Christine, and an adopted 12 year old boy. Opposite the Matson place in the main channel of the river was an island, known for many years as Phelps’ Island. On it lived Frank Phelps and a hired man named Henry Schroeder.
Rumor was that Phelps had for years been engaged in rustling, the success of which depended on having the bottom land opposite the island clear of settlers. He did not relish having settlers located so close to his rustling operation. From the moment Matson located on the land some years earlier, Phelps had hard feelings toward him and publicly expressed his dislike and hatred for him.
Mat was of an inoffensive disposition and did not care to be in trouble, but his sister had considerable spirit and was not afraid to maintain her rights or the rights of her brother. In December of 1892, she saw Phelps and a young man named Will Spalding swimming one of her brother’s cows to the east side of the river.
It was natural that she would file a complaint with the authorities in Chamberlain. Lyman County was then an unorganized county and was attached to Brule County.
For some unaccountable reason Brule County State’s Attorney Porter struck the name of young Spalding from the warrant. Porter had promised to explain his action, but he suddenly moved to the State of New York without explaining his action. Phelps was arrested for stealing the cow.
After the cow stealing episode Phelps was very bitter in denouncing the Matson’s, often making threats against them to numerous persons. He made no secret of his hostility, it seemingly being a hobby of his to denounce them to anyone with whom he entered in conversation.
Phelps told folks he would take his gun some day and “clean off the bottom” and “clean out the Norwegian nest.” However, Schroeder, his hired man, was on fairly good terms with the Matson’s and occasionally visited in their home.
On the evening of May 20, Mat returned home as usual from his work in the field. Supper was prepared for him, but feeling tired and warm he said he would first bathe his feet. Getting a basin of water he seated himself in the open doorway.
His sister had lit the lamp and had started to read to him when the report of a rifle shot rang out. Instantly the lamp was extinguished and the room became filled with smoke. The bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly.
It was still quite light outside and Christine saw the blood pouring from her brother’s head. She raised his head and shoulders into her lap and pressed her fingers over the ghastly wound in an effort to stop the flow of blood.
She looked up and through the doorway saw Henry Schroeder standing in front of the house. Later, she was unsuccessful in crawling out the back window and going for help. In the morning, the boy went to the nearest neighbor, a mile away, to explain what had happened and get help. In a few hours officers arrived and captured Schroeder, who showed no resistance. Phelps was later arrested as an accessory.
Schroeder, at his trial on the 26th of September, who all along proclaimed his innocence, surprised everyone by changing his plea to guilty. This is when the Phelps attorney asked for a change of venue.
Later, Frank Phelps was found guilty and was sentenced to prison for life. At the time he was “reported to be in very poor health, but no one knew what was the matter with him.” He died of a heart attack in the Alexandria jail on June 6, 1894.
Earlier that year, woodchoppers on Phelps Island made an unusual and totally unexpected discovery. While chopping in an out of the way place on the island, they found an underground cave where cattle and horses had been hidden. It was large enough to hold eight horses. The carefully concealed opening was discovered by accident. This island later became the rustling headquarters for Harry Ham.
While Phelps lived on the island, it was always believed that his home and island was the headquarters for a gang of well-organized thieves. The finding of this cave created quite a sensation among those who always suspected the illegal activities conducted by Phelps and his associates on the island.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on August 17, 2022