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.