Robert Lee Bybee

May 4, 1838 - October 4, 1929


The Life of Robert Lee Bybee

The first to the Bybee people that I have any record off, left England early in the 16th century and settled in the state of Virginia, and the natural migration of the families led them into the surrounding states, and on May 4, 1838; I was born on the banks of the Eel River in Clay County, Indiana, the son of a family of 10, and my first experience in life was on the farm. The land, we were killing was not open for entry, but was held as a vote “squatters right." The house was of logs, a dirt roof and without a floor, built on the bank of the river. Father was not healthy, and mother was taking responsibilities, generally, and as I view the happenings of the immediate future, we were near the stage waiting for the cue to enter and play our part. This cue was furnished by the humble Mormon missionaries, and the entire family, with one exception, placed themselves under its influence, and in 1842, the family moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, and immediately we felt the heavy hand of the oppressor as he waged war his war without mercy on the people.

During my three years residents in and around Nauvoo, I received two years schooling, the balance of the time we were moving from place to place either driven by mob, or in fear of them. Joseph Smith, the Prophet was a military man in no small degree, and it was his interest in the youth of Nauvoo that prompted him to ask the parents of the community to allow their sons to subject themselves to the conditions and discipline of military training. It was touring one of the sermons he preached appealing for the support of the parents and their sons, that he said in effect, if they would allow their sons to come to him and subject themselves to this training and discipline, he would promise them that they would never be killed by the bullet of an enemy. In our own family, this was readily accepted and as a result, I received some of the early experiences of the wonderful teachings of the Prophet Joseph, and this is more vivid in my mind than many of the things that were, seemingly, of greater importance.

There were only two of my brother's old enough to take part in the organization. The companies were formed of different age groups; my brother David and myself were the fortunate ones. I recall very distinctly, the uniforms we used. They consisted of practically anything that would cover our nakedness. The only thing in the line of a uniform was a cap. It consisted of two stripes of pasteboard fastened and so arranged so that it would slip over the head, with blue yarn tassels on both ends, and one on top. The difference in the uniforms of the two companies was, in the red trimmings on the caps of the older company. I've regretted, and do now regret that I did not use every care I knew to preserve this headpiece. I now recall just what happened to that cap. My mother's love for the cap was equal with my own, and it had its place in the bottom of mother's wooden chest.

I was about 16 or 17 years of age and living in Uintah, Utah when I was prevailed upon by Malan Chase, a neighbor of ours, who had aspirations toward the stage, and always wanted the cap, and felt more successful when he had it on, to trade it to him for an old slate. A good slate in those days was considered quite a valuable piece of property, they were being not tablets or blackboards in use in the homes are in the schoolrooms.

Myself and my younger brother Byram, spent much of our time during this period watching the progress of the work on the temple as the men raised the large stones to their places on the top of the high walls with the crude implements at their command. The old block and tackle rendering the mechanical advantage. I recall the men after the stone was ready to hoist, they would sing, in time with their movements,

"Rolling, a bolling the ship is a rolling, Ho! Ho! Ho!
Rolling, a bolling the ship is a rolling, Ho! Ho! Ho!”

Following the last Ho! They united their efforts and up went the stone.

Another form of amusement that we enjoyed very much, was to watch the progress of the steamboats on the Mississippi River. A little distance below our home in Nauvoo, a projection of rock, in the channel of the river produced a rapid, above which the larger vessels could not go. There were some side-wheelers, a boat built with the power wheels on either side that could pass up over the Rapids. There were also some stern wheel boats. I think one or two of them could pass over also, and one the "Warsaw", we were especially interested in, because it not only carried the mail either up or down the river from Nauvoo, but it always appealed to us because of the ease with which it did come and go. While again, the name of the vessel reminded us of a community by that name whose people were embittered against the states.

There was very little work in Nauvoo that winter. The work on the temple was all donated. Aside from this there was a Cooper institution making barrels and cakes for the transportation of whiskeys, etc. There was some employment offered by this company and getting "hoop poles" which were used to hold the status of the barrels and cakes in place. These "hoop poles" were made from the second growth of Hickory, perhaps in their second season, and very tough and pliable.

He was during the late spring and early summer of this year, 1844 that the activities ever enemies made it necessary for us to locate a home elsewhere.

While the exodus of the Saints was not undertaken at this time, it was nevertheless a paramount subject for discussion and the route and the direction had received considerable attention. With those helps in mind, and the pressure of our economic problems, it was a relief to start on the western trek. The activities of our enemies around us and the effect of driving the Saints into the city of Nauvoo where they remained as a body until the enactment of the terrible tragedy of June 27, 1844.

When I review this period of my life from my advanced age, I can recall the clearest and most impressive fashion of my boyhood memories the person and personality of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I remember very distinctly hearing in case the people on Sunday in the beautiful grove in the eastern part of the city. My father was sick at home, but mother took weak children and help to impress the lessons taught there, on our memories. I remember the excitement that prevailed among the Saints when the news of the assassination reached Nauvoo. My mother took us to see the bodies, my father still ill at home. I'm thankful I saw and heard these men in life, and that I was permitted to view their remains. Their teachings in their manner of living have been ideal to me and after seeing and hearing the many trials of their brief lives, and the manner of suffering, it has made my cross easy to bear. I can recall how beautiful he appeared at the head of the parades and drills of the Nauvoo Legion, seated on his beautiful bay mount, in the uniform he war which was as neat as in new pin. I remember him as he would call on visit our company when we were training. The prophet always spoke to us, urging us to always be good, clean boys. The last time I recall seeing the prophet a live was on the one of the parades of the Legion.

It seems to me now that the remaining months of 1844 and the early spring of 1845, my life was somewhat uneventful, unless it was the fact that we labored under a false impression in regard to the preparations necessary for our trip west. There was a general impression that there was a scarcity of fuel for use in crossing the planes, and we were told to cook and prepare as much food as we could before starting across. So we parched all the corn we could spare for the trip. We found out in plenty of time that this bit of information was not well founded, that with care of there was plenty of fuel, so the practice of preparing food was discontinued.

If I remember correctly the first move of our migration was made about this time. The general move of the Saints was not yet a reality, but when we cross the Mississippi River in May 1845, we always considered it the first of the moves we were to make with the Rocky Mountains as our goal. I remember that the leaves were just coming out on the trees, and the plants just coming in flower, the birds were returning from the south and their cheerful songs rang out merrily through the woodland.

When our preparations were completed we all assembled on the east bank of the Mississippi and waited our turn for the ferryboat. This was a large flat-bottomed boat with room enough on it for two teams and two wagons at the same time. It was a very sturdy affair, surely not easy to sink, and not at all likely to capsize. No cables were used in handling it, ores in sets of one, two or three pairs were with each boat and manipulated by manpower. A man at the stern of the boat with the rudder would guide it to the port intended. At this point the river was 1 mile wide, and to offset the current of the stream the boat was toed up some distance above the proposed landing on the other side. Needless to say it did not have the speed of our rocky mountain streams.

Levi Hammon, who married my sister Polly, and who joined us at Nauvoo in 1843, was with us here and the boat would accommodate both our outfits at once, so we were loaded on and the crossing made without accident. We landed at Montrose, Iowa, almost opposite Nauvoo. At this point the river forms the boundary between the present states of Illinois and Iowa. My father often remarked about the cloudy future of the Saints, and anticipated the mobbings and sufferings of them, and it was these things that urged us on to the west, even ahead of the main body of the Saints.

While we were preparing to cross my father was in contact with one Dr. Todd who owned a large tract of land in Iowa, near Montrose, he wanted it fenced. The fence was known as the "worm-fence", the rails in other materials for the fans were to be gathered from the land in question, and it was with the intention of doing this work that we settled on the place. Father and Levi Hammon had contracted the work, so that we made the trip to the property from Montrose together, and made our home together, such as it was. We didn't have a house to move into so we arranged the best we could and that was none too good. There were many things that served to make things hard for us, the presence of snakes and insects made it impossible to sleep on the ground so we cut steaks long enough to stand about 3 feet above the ground when in place, with crosspieces on these we could place the wagon boxes on them and maintain sleeping quarters. In the new arrangement Levi and his family lived in a tent nearby, protected as well as could be done. To my knowledge father was never able to do any strenuous labor, so in this case all the heavy work fell on David who was 15 and John who was 17.

Doctor Todd furnished our axes, and a crosscut saw, and two or three iron wedges. The wooden wedges or gluts we made our-selves. The rail in the fences were to be 12 feet long and made of the wood easiest to obtain. The boys preferred walnut. It split easily and straight and made a nice uniform rail. David was an excellent worker, and his work was to start splitting the trees after they had been sawed into sections by John and Levi. Like most any work there is an art to splitting rails, and the boys mastered that art, the placing of the wedges and of the gluts at proper distance, according to the size of the log, making even rail splitting interesting. The piece of land we were fencing was a small portion of the entire tract.. It was one half-mile square, which meant we had two miles of fence to build. Our supplies, particularly corn and pork, were furnished by Dr. Todd as part pay for our work. I do not know the particulars of the contract but when we completed the work just before September, after paying for our summer’s provisions, father left there with a good wagon and a good young yoke of oxen.

Dr. Todd was certainly a fine friend to our family, and I believe that father could have made his home with him there, but father's aims and desires were to go west with the Saints, and nothing was permitted to interfere with the plans. I enjoyed the stay at Dr. Todds, Byram and myself were free to roam the woods, going and coming when we would. About the only duty we had was to carry water for mother from a nearby spring. I remember on one occasion I took a couple of hours to get a turn of water and as father went to his work he found me and told me to tell Mother to punish me. I returned to camp but hoping father would forget it, I said nothing. When father returned about the first thing he asked me was if I told mother, then he administered the whipping. I liked this arrangement – two from father is better than one from mother. She has a process that commanded respect, and no efforts on her part were misdirected.

When Byram and I were alone, our greatest pastime was hunting quail nests. It not only afforded us great fun, but the eggs could be used by mother in her cooking. Sometimes we went with father in the woods to hunt squirrels, there were a great many of them there, principally of two kinds, the gray and the fox squirrel, either was very fine meat. Father owned a small bore Kentucky rifle and prided himself in his marksmanship, often dropping the clever squirrel from the top of the highest tree where he thought himself hid. The squirrel meant more to our family than meat. My mother had very poor feet and only leather pelt of the very softest kind was used in the making of her shoes. The squirrel pelt when properly tanned made good, tough, endurable leather, and her shoes were always made of them by father. The ash hopper was made about two feet long and two and one half feet deep and in shape like the letter “V”, open at the bottom, and a trough to catch the liquid. In this hopper we place the ashes and when the time came to make soap, we would moisten the ashes and as the water passed through them and into the trough at the bottom it became charged with a strong solution of lye, and this was used in making the household soap. Besides this we used the ashes for tanning the different hides that we used for leather. We would bury the squirrel pelt about three or four inches deep in the ashes, keeping them damp. In about three or four days, or until the hair would slip, then after removing the hair it was thoroughly washed and placed in some soft soap. After 3 or 4 days it was again washed, then worked by hand near a fire until it was entirely dry. It was then very soft and pliable.

Another thing that happened in our lives worthy of note, maybe more so then than now, was one of mother's Johnny-cakes. After we crossed the Mississippi into Iowa we were rarely ever out of corn meal, our supply of white flour increased also. Mother was an expert on the well-known corn Dodger. But the times mother made Johnny-bread everyone would sit up and take notice. The ingredients used to make both the dodger and the cake were practically the same, but the method was quite different. The corn meal and the salt and the water was mixed as for the dodger, but the big thing happened when the cracklings were added. The cracklings are the portion left when the fat of the hog has been rendered. Johnny cake days were certainly rare days to us then. They usually came during the winter holidays and usually represented grand occasions, and were out of the ordinary for us. I believe in my boyhood days I never enjoyed any bread and cake better than these.

It was quite a trick to cook these cakes, for they were not cooked like the dodgers. Our cooking implements were of the very simplest. The dodger was cooked in the Dutch oven, but the Johnny cake was cooked before the open fire. We had no dripping pans, so we used an oak board about 1 and ½ inch thick, 15 inches wide and 18 inches long, with sides of wood to hold the cake on the board. It was then placed before the fire to cook, at an angle of course, and then the cake was cooked on one side it was turned over so the other side would cook. Except that we were fulfilling an ambition of my father's life in moving westward, it was with real regret that we moved from Dr. Todd's place. Our plans for the move West were constantly spoken of, and revised and kept up to the minute.

We went from Dr. Todd's place to Daniel Smith's place somewhere in the vicinity of Kainsville, Iowa. We moved slowly so we could take advantage of all the work we could get so we could get all the money and property we could. I do not recall a great deal that happened on the way to Kainsville, but I know that we reached there a mighty little in advance of winter. We were fortunate here in that we could move into a house, and that near where Daniel lived. Daniel had moved west from Nauvoo about one year ahead of us, and had gone to the place near Kainsville some fifteen miles North of the town as fast as he could. He and his family were industrious and when we joined them they were very comfortable. I am not sure as to who owned the house we moved into, but I am inclined to think it was one built and abandoned by some pioneer in his westward flight. We were very comfortable here and enjoyed the winter very much.

When Daniel first came to Kainsville he located on the first stream north of the town, then known as Little Pigeon, and some 8 or 10 miles farther north was Big Pigeon. He located in the district on account of the supply of wild game, making it easy to secure his meat. Wild bees were plentiful also. When we reached his home he had many gallons of wild honey.

It is interesting at this point to note an observation by Levi Edgar Young in “The Founding of Utah” - "This was the age of new American inventions, when the McCormick reaper, the plow, threshing-machine and the sewing machine were changing the entire industrial history of America ---Always on the frontier the Mormons had learned inventiveness and resourcefulness; … They had felled trees and reclaimed thousands of acres of land …They had entered on that period of industrial and social life … and the church and school were the centers of social and religious activities! The thought we were living in this wonderful time, and doing our bit in the great program of affairs, and eventually to found the greatest commonwealth of all time, has been a source of no small degree of satisfaction to me, and was so to my father whose vision of the west was in keeping with the wonderful things that have taken place.

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This page last updated on April 19, 2012 .