Phelan was the son of John D. and Anne Harris Phelan. He grew up in Perry County, attending local schools, then enrolled at the University of Alabama. After graduating he was commissioned a Captain in the 45th Alabama Volunteer Regiment in Barbour County. He was promoted to Major in Fowler's Battery before he was wounded at the Battle of Atlanta. After the war he was admitted to the Alabama State Bar and opened a solo practice in Elyton.
Phelan established a homestead on 80 acres on the northern slope Red Mountain around 1869. There he built a 16' x 18' log house and stable and opened a law office in the town of Elyton with Robert McAdory. He married the former Amy Hawkins of Elyton in 1870. In 1875 he was associated with Edgar Clarkson, and in 1882 with James Garrett and Oscar Underwood in the firm of Garrett, Phelan & Underwood, with offices in the National Bank Building. Amy died on February 1, 1881 from pneumonia, having born four children.
At some point early in the development of Birmingham Phelan acquired another 80 acres adjoining the Southern part of the original city limits, which he began subdividing for residential development in the early 1880s. As president of the Irondale Company he sold the property that was used for Red Mountain Cemetery to the City in 1889. Phelan Park, a small triangle between 13th and 14th Avenue South at 15th Street, is named in his honor.
Phelan's first public appointment was as Clerk of the Alabama House of Representatives during the 1870-71 session and kept the post through 1877. In 1882 he was elected to the first of two terms as Alabama's Secretary of State under governor Edward O'Neal.
In 1884 Phelan married his second wife, the former Mary A. Frisbie of Waterbury, Connecticut and a second cousin of his first wife. The Phelans moved to Waterbury the following year. He was elected to the Probate Court of that district in 1888 and 1890, but resigned to return to private practice. Mary bore him two more children before his death in 1897.
- Owen, Thomas McAdory and Marie Bankhead Owen (1921) History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography. 4 volumes. Chicago, Illinois: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co.
- Burkhardt, Ann McQuorquodale and Alice Meriwether Bowsher (November 1982) "Town Within a City: The Five Points South Neighborhood 1880-1930." Journal of the Birmingham Historical Society. Vol. 7, Nos. 3-4
- Phelan, Robert Frisbie (January 1992) "The Frisbie-Welton-Phelan connection" Bulletin of the Frisbie-Frisbee Family Association of America. Vol. 42, No. 1, p. 18
- Ellis Phelan at archives.alabama.gov