Finding Ancestors wherever their trails led


Clay County

Genealogy and History


Lee Family Story

Originally written by Claribel Lee, ca. 1937
Updates through the early 1960s
Some minor edits by Linda Lee Tafel, 2008
Additions made based on confirmation with census records by Craig Tafel, 2010,

Not least significant in the centennial celebration of the coming of the Lees to Illinois is a review of the history of the
clan in the United States before its removal to Illinois, as well as its history during the last century. For younger
members of the group, knowledge of the past beyond that of their immediate memory is very difficult. To our
grandfathers one hundred years ago seems not so far away, but to us who have been accustomed during the greater
part of our lives to riding in automobiles, trains, and even planes, it is an especially hard task to try to visualize our own state [Illinois] of one hundred years ago, when there were not only no cars or trains, but there were very few roads as well. Plans for the first railroads in Illinois were yet dim. The farmer of that day raised his own food, and his wife often times spun her own cloth.

I sometimes try to shut my eyes and imagine the Prairie as it was before people settled this country. In sharp contrast to the wilderness that then existed we have today paved streets and artificial lights and dime stores where we buy articles, that though they are necessities to us, yet they were utterly unknown to our forefathers of a century ago.

Most of the information of the history of the Lees I secured from my grandfather who in turn had had it passed to him from earlier members of the family. My grandfather is Richard Henry Lee, son of the James Lee mentioned later. In addition to this source of material I have found it interesting to quote in one or two places from old travel books of one hundred years ago, that accurately describe the state for the benefit of the incoming settlers.

The first of the Lees in which we are interested was, like the first of the famous Lincolns, an apprentice to the weaver's trade in England. At present we have little knowledge of this, our ancestor; we have no way of knowing what his name was. We only know from stories that have been passed through the family: that he worked at the weaver s trade in England until he had saved enough money to marry and come to America. Even in America we have little knowledge of his comings and goings. That he was quite prosperous in Virginia where he had settled, we do know. He was the father of seven sons. There was, however, no mention of there having been any daughters in the family. The older of these sons were well educated, one of them being a surveyor who helped in surveying the state of Kentucky.

A group of these sons came on an expedition through the Cumberland Pass and into Kentucky to kill buffalo. The state was completely wild and un­inhabited. The less daring of the brothers, probably the older ones, were frightened by the Indians that lurked about in the thickets and killed the white men. But three of the Lees, and we have reason to believe that these were the three youngest of the seven, remained in the beautiful wilderness for six weeks, and were there when the heavy rains flooded the creeks that they had to head on their return journey.

But the lust for adventure and the wide west made the young Virginians restless and the following spring the three again came to Kentucky. It was at the time when the Indians were especially aggressive and they were forced to live in a fort for some time. The youngest of the brothers was Joseph Lee, and he seems to have been a very bold adventurer. At about the time he became of age, he departed from his brothers in Kentucky and moved on into Ohio. There he was situated not far from Wheeling [West Virginia], and even when he was old he, with pleasure, recalled the names of people he knew there. The famous Indian hunters, the Wetzel brothers, who roamed through the wilderness in search of their prey, he knew. Those were the times when the western border had not moved much beyond Zanesville, Ohio and Wheeling, West Virginia.

Joseph's oldest brother, Hiram, resided in Zanesville, and his ancestors may still be there as we have no records of the movements of branches of the family other than our own. There are, however, reported to be a number of Lees to this day, living in and around Zanesville. It was there that the young Joseph married, though he did not remain there long. The frontier was moving westward, and with it Joseph moved to Rush County in Indiana, where James, his son, was born February 3, 1811. Soon afterward in 1819, the family moved to Decatur County in the same state. James was then about nine years old. He lived with his mother and father there until he was nineteen, when he was married. The circumstances of this marriage are very amusing, as he himself used to recall later for the benefit of his children.

One day when Jim was not far from nineteen, his father said to him "Well, Jim, if you want to get married this spring, all right." Evidently Jim had already made a choice for a wife, but marrying her was a different thing. He name was Sarah Brown, and she was nineteen, his own age. She was of German descent and her father was a huge man, one who drank heavily, and one who seems to have been opposed to his daughter s affair with James Lee. The young lady's mother was even larger than her father, so her prospective son-in-law said, and he accordingly arranged for a secret ceremony. Sarah was aided in her plans by a sympathetic neighbor. They planned to meet at the church, and from there to go on and be married. Before Sarah set off for church that morning, and how she must have trembled in doing it, she very sweetly and. as calmly as possible asked her father if he would not like to accompany her, knowing quite well that he would not do so. He suspected nothing.

As soon as church was over, they set off for the squire s, but alack and alas, on their way they met an acquaintance who suspected their intentions! I bet you re a stealing you a wife, the young man said, and James had to admit that very thing. "I'm a goin' and tell ole man Brown," the other retorted. "Well, go ahead and do it," James said, and drove ahead with his bride. Perhaps he was uneasy about what the old man would do, and he probably whipped up his horses a little faster at the thoughts of his irate father-in-law. At any rate, the marriage was performed before old man Brown came in, storming in his rage, and prophesying starvation for the young couple, just married. His prophecies, however, were beside the point, for the young couple prospered soon. They lived together for more than thirty-six years, and Sarah was the mother of eleven of James Lee's children. There was, on the one side, a possibility of starvation before the young people when they first began keeping house together in the spring of 1819. James, years later, said that they set up together with an axe, a peck of meal, and a slab of bacon. For their little cabin, James planned to make a Puncheon floor, but a neighbor gave him the loan of a whipsaw, so he sawed out his first floor. It gave James a great deal of satisfaction the second year of his married life when his father-in-law, who by that time had forgiven them, bought his winter's supply of meat from the young whippersnapper for whom he had so recently prophesied starvation.

The squirrels were so bad, however, that it was almost impossible to raise a crop of corn during his first few years. Sarah was a very enter­prising young lady, and he often recalled how she helped him in his battle with the squirrels. At that time, she yearly raised a bed of flax for her own use. By herself she tended it, scutched it, and worked it into thread that she eventually wove into soft linen. In the year 1830 when the squirrels were especially bad, she used to take her spinning wheel down to the edge of the corn field and there by "the hour spin and sing and scare the squirrels away.

When James Lee moved to Illinois in 1837 there were three children in the family. His father, Joseph Lee, was also living with the family, not because his wife had passed away, but, because, as she expressed it, they were just too old to live together. A short time before the removal to Illinois, the old couple sold their farm and she took the money and went back to New York. I believe she, on one occasion, made the long trip to Illinois to visit her husband and her son, but she did not like the pioneer life, so she soon went back to civilization. Old Joseph Lee lived with his son until his death in 1845. He is buried in Mount Zion cemetery [Clay City, IL], and a small, unlettered sandstone with one corner nicked marks the grave. If one searches carefully it is possible to find the marker.

By 1837, James Lee had decided to move westward. He had nothing to lose in Indiana. The frontier had passed him by. Land prices had gone up, and he wished to go farther west to cheap lands, that, according to the travel books of the time, were marvelous in their fertility. J. M. Peck's New Guide For Emigrants in The West, published in 1836, told the would-be emigrant that, a cabbage head, two or three feet in diameter including the leaves, is no wonder on this soil. Beets often exceed twelve inches in circumference. Parsnips will penetrate our light, porous soil, to the depth of two or three feet. Tobacco, though a filthy and noxious weed, which no human being ought ever to use, can be pro­duced in any quantity, and of the first quality in Illinois.

This, I'm sure a lot of us can take as a warning. The old book continues in this vein, We can hardly place limits on the amount of beef cattle that Illinois is capable of producing. A farmer calls himself poor, with a hundred head of horned cattle around him. A cow in the spring is worth from seven to ten or fifteen dollars. And, let it be understood that a poor man, once and for all, can always purchase horses, cattle, hogs and provisions, for labor, either by the day, month, or job. From the springing of grass till September, butter is made in great profusion. It sells for about ten cents. Pork that is made in a domestic way, will sell from three to four to five dollars. The price of bacon, taking the hog around, is about seven and eight cents. Good hams command eight and ten cents on the St. Louis market. We shall see later how important to these early Illinois settlers was this St. Louis market.

Thus, in 1837, we find James Lee with Lige Baker and Jonathon Davis, leaving Decatur County, Indiana and passing across Illinois in search of a favor­able spot on which to homestead. The period and the settlers were picturesque. People were moving across the country, the land uncultivated, grew high with prairie grass. There were no cities, only an occasional tavern to break the monotony of the prairie. The young men went to Missouri and on to within twelve miles of the Kansas border. There, although they were not entirely satisfied with any land they had seen, they turned around and came back again.

Baker and Davis had homes in Indiana to which they could return, but great grandfather Lee determined to stake claim to some tract of land on the way back. He no longer had a home in Indiana. The winds from the prairie swept so violently that at times it was very difficult to keep the wagon sheet on. After they had crossed Ellum Branch on the old stage route (that was about where the millroad now crosses Ellum on this side of [the town of Flora, IL) there was only one house before coming into old Maysville and that was a dwelling on Mt. Zion Hill. There a man by the name of Wickersham lived. Before the young men came to this house they left the road and prepared to camp for the night. It was June, and the air must have been alive with thousands of sounds, the cries of animals and the motion of the insects, the stirring of the prairie breeze in the fresh foliage. The horses were let out to graze with only a bell. Their money was concealed in moneybags in the wagon. As the three surveyed the stretch of lands that encompassed them, they could see the seemingly high place in the land down toward where the Harmony Church now stands, where the grass looked rich and blue. Accordingly Baker and Davis, who were of the opinion that the rise was much closer to them than it was, set off to inspect the country there. Great Grandfather Lee returned to the wagon and set about preparing supper for the three. Before long he heard shooting near at hand, and soon after a man came up to the wagon carrying squirrels. It was Wickersham, and soon he was telling the stranger about the fine land in the region. There was only one thing the country needed, he said, and that was men.

He asked Great Grandfather to go up to his house for the night, and explained to him that the hilly lands that the others had gone on to inspect were so far away that the men would get back long after dark. Naturally, he urged, they'll never find the wagon in the dark and so will come on up to the light at the house. He was right in thus supposing, for about nine o'clock they returned, tired, drenched in the heavy dew, and thoroughly disgusted with the country.

For three days the men surveyed the region and on the third day they went east of Mt. Zion and looked over the land there. There they de­cided on the land they wanted and staked off their claims. Great Grandfather staked eighty acres west of the present Os Lee farm and another eighty where Bill Lee is now. Farther south of his other claims he staked eighty acres of timber. On the fourth day they set off for Vandalia to record their claims. Great Grandfather and Davis were fortunate in their claims, but Baker found that a part of his land had already been entered at the [land] office.

In the early fall of 1837, James Lee returned with his family and 1ive­stock, which at that time, consisted of two yoke of cattle, one team of horses, and some milk cows. He came to a place about one-fourth mile south of the Os Lee place where there was an old cabin, and there the family lived during the winter. In the spring of the year a new cabin was built, and this time it had a Puncheon floor. There they lived for four years. In 1840, Great Grandfather bought the land of the Os Lee farm from the speculators Berry and Gregory. There he built a log cabin, where later a new log house was built. Before long he put up a frame house there, of the kind that was being built throughout the country, a rambling house with flat porches and a big living room with a fire­place.

In 1860, he built a big house on the same site. It was two and one-half stories high. That was the spring the war broke out and the builders were in a hurry to go to the war, so the house was put up in a short time. The house, which was large and imposing, cost him about $1200.00.

There are many family stories that might recall about the Civil War and the experiences of that stirring time, but we shall pass over that period now. Perhaps it would be best to stop here and speak of the children of James and Sarah Brown Lee. There were eleven of these children, and I believe that I have them listed in the proper order.

    *   William Harrison Lee was the oldest of the children. He married a cousin whose name I do not have, and lived               at home until he and his child both died in 1859 of milk sickness.
    *   Rhoda Lee, the second child, became the wife of Lankum Babcock. She and one of her children died while she           was still young. Her other child was Ed Babcock who has only recently passed away.
    *   The next child was Mary Lee, who during the Civil War married Dick Markland, a deserter. She was the mother          of four children of which only one we have any kind of a record. His children are said to be located in Stoddard            County, Missouri.
    *   Sally Lee, the next child, married her cousin, Jake Lee, who was the son of her father s brother Amos. Jake was          a soldier in the Civil War and was involved in many battles (including the march on Atlanta). Sally and Jake had            two children known to us today.
          o   Katie Agnes, a daughter of Sally and Jake Lee, is a wife of Len Payne and lives in the southwestern                                county of Colorado. She may be addressed at Yellow Jacket, Colorado.
          o   Charley Lee, a son, lives in LaSalle County, Illinois, and may be addressed at Magnolia, Illinois.                                    Charlie Lee married Sophia Hawk of Clay County. They had four children, Vonnie, Leslie, Genelle,                              and Carroll.
                +  Vonnie married Pearlie Edens of Clay City. They had four children, Naomi, Leora, Harold and                                      Charles.
                      #   Naomi married Chalmer B. Turner of Ransom. They had four children, Marilyn, Mary Lou, Wayne,                              and Linda.
                      #  Leora married Joe Malone of Streator. They had two daughters, Jane Lee, and Nancy. Jane Lee                                 married Louie Lindeman.
                      #  Harold married Helen Losier of Lacon. They had two children - Joyce and Marvin.
                      # Charles married Dorothy Lightner of Grand Ridge. They had three children - Sandra, Charles and                                 Darnell. After Pearlie s death, Vonnie married August Larson of Cornell.
                +  Leslie married Vera Powell-Entwistle, a widow.
                + Genelle married Ray Waldon of Flora. They had three children - Louise, John and Marie. Marie married                       Leon Bolton of Indiana. They had two children, Danny and Betty.
                + Carroll never married.
    *      James E. Lee, who was always known as Erv, was the next of the children. Erv served as a volunteer soldier                in  the Civil War. He married [Margaret] Ellen Dooley, and they were the parents of seven children (1 daughter            and six sons the sons all grew to manhood):
          o  one daughter, Margaret, who died at the age of one year
          o  George, the first of the sons, married Annie Williams. He did not live long, nor were there any children.
          o  Homer married Minnie Williams, George's sister-in-law, and they had two sons, Frank and Raymond Lee,                   who live in LaSalle County.
                +   Frank Lee may be addressed at Lostant, Illinois. Frank Lee married Clara Barr of LaSalle County. They                      had three children, Marion, Marjorie and Willis.
                      #   Marion married Mildred Gray of Tonica, they had two [sic] children, Homer, Max and Karen.
                      #   Marjorie married LaVerne Wiesbrock of Lostant and they had one son Danny.
                      #  Willis married Joan Petersen of Tonica.
                +  Raymond Lee married Ruth Ikerd of Monmouth. They had three sons, Thornton, Myron and Bob.
                      #  Thornton died in infancy
                      #  Myron married Lillian _____ of South Dakota. They had two sons, Raymond and Marion. After                                    being divorced, Myron married Patricia Kelly of California. They had a daughter Myla.
                      #  Bob married Joyce McBride of Alexis and they had two children, Mark and Laura.
          o  Clarence Lee, third son of Erv and Ellen, died young.
          o  James Sprigg, the next son, is located somewhere in Washington State. He married Myrtle _____ of                             Minnesota. They had two daughters, Geneve and Luella.
          o  Oliver M. or Bob, is in LaSalle County, Illinois. He married Bessie Patterson of Clay City, Illinois. They had                   seven children; Edgar, Charles, [Robert] Clyde, Roscoe, Lois, Bill and Doris. After Bessie's death Oliver                    (Bob) married Rose Holton of Lacon.
                +   Edgar married Eva Roselieb of Sycamore.
                +  Charles married Jeanette Bollinger of Sycamore; they had two daughters, Janet and Donna.
                + [Robert]Clyde married Iola Bogle of DeKalb, they had three children, Linda [Su], Randy [Randall Scott]                      and George [Byron].
                +  Roscoe married Violet Mattelin of Magnolia, Illinois, was divorced and married Uzella Tomes Johnson of                     Kentucky.
                +  Lois married Marion Hull of Magnolia; they had two children, daughters, Louanne and Sandra. Louanne                     married Norman Eckstrom of DeKalb and they have two daughters and one son, Patty, Elizabeth and                           Brian.
                +  Bill married Noreen Maxwell of Genoa; they had three sons, Bob, Jerry, and John.
                +  Doris married Walter Wilson of Sycamore; they had two children, Janet and David.
          o  Bert, the youngest brother, also of LaSalle County, Illinois, married Gladys Figg of Clay City; they had five                  children, Joe, Dorothy, Naomi, Edward and Bill.
                +   Joe married Margaret Wales of DeKalb; they had three children, Joe, Shirley and Jimmy.
                      #   Shirley married ______ and has one daughter.
                +  Dorothy married Raymond Bozell of Sullivan; they had one daughter, Janice who married and had one                         daughter.
                +  Naomi married Harry Robinson and had one daughter Betty.
                +  Edward married, they have two children.
                +  Bill married Mary and have children.

    *    The next children were the twins. Jack, known as A.J. Lee was married five times to four wives, the first of                   whom was Mary E. Malone, to whom was born two children, the now Mattie Mulvaney and Lulu Hardy, both             from around Flora. Then he married Addie Cooper who soon died. Then he married Jane Cisne, from
          whom he was divorced and later remarried. Jane Lee was the mother of Bill Lee, who lives only about a quarter          of a mile from the old Lee place, and Lillie Lambert from around Flora. and
    *   Joe Lee, twin of Jack (A.J.), died in infancy.
    *   The seventh of the children of James Lee and Sarah Brown Lee was Jerushal Lee, who married LaFayette                    Aperson. There are no survivals of this family.
    *  Next was Melissa Lee, who died when she was scarcely grown.
    *  Then came Nancy Elmira Lee, who married George Curry. They had two children, Owen and Homer.
    *  Last was Emma, who died in infancy.

That life was exciting and pleasant in Illinois before 1850, but in many ways living was almost too exciting. In 1875, to cite an instance of this kind, after a forest fire during which the horses were kept in the barn, great grandfather went out and found the horses out and several of them were down. Someone had crept in during the night, put poison in the feed trough, and left the barn door open. He had six head of horses, and in spite of all he could do, all of them died but one. Everyone knew who had poisoned the horses, but there were no police officers; border justice was the only justice that ruled. Most of us have heard of the murder of the Post Boy, so I will not bother to repeat the story.

In the spring of 1857, James Lee was married to Sarah Jane Adkisson, his first wife having died two years earlier. Sarah Jane was the daughter of a big Irishman, Noah Adkisson. I know very little about this woman, but one thing I do know about her. Grandpa one time showed me her little Bible that he still has. Before she was married she wanted a Bible, but she had no money to buy one. So, she went to work for a preacher and at the rate of 75 cents a week, in two weeks earned a $1.50 Bible. I wonder how many of us would want a Bible that much if we were found without one.

Sarah Jane Adkisson and James Lee had nine children, and of these nine, four survive.

    *   Richard Henry Lee was the oldest of these children and incidentally is not only still living, but is the grandfather              who furnished me the material for this article.
    *  One little girl Naomi was born between the first two boys.
    *  Francis Lightfoot Lee was the second of the boys. Frank lived in Clay County until his death some four or five               years ago.
    *  Josie Lee was born in 1865. She became the wife of Sam Tolliver, and her children live around Flora. The                   children are three, Everett, Albert and Nellie. Josie died about five years ago.
    *  Ella was born in 1868, and became the wife of Dave Slade of Flora. Aunt Ella still lives there.
    *  Talitha Cumi was born next in the family. She became the wife of Freen Robinson. I believe their son lives in                 Iowa.
    *  Flo, the next child in the family, became the wife of Charles Hilgenberg. She is living at Loami, Illinois.
    *  The eighth child, Hiram, died while young and
    *  the youngest and ninth child of the family was Oscar, who lives on the old Lee place not far from where his father,         a hundred years ago, staked claims and founded a home. Oscar was born in 1874; his wife was the former Millie        White. They had six children, Roy, Grant, Mary Etta, Calvin and Vick, all living around Flora.

These were the twenty children of James Lee.

Maintaining a large household in Illinois one hundred years ago was a problem. We who have to go to a grocery store every week to buy provisions certainly would be at a loss in 1837. On the farm all the meats, grain for the flour, potatoes, and vegetables, were raised. There was never a very large supply of sugar on hand and that was saved for company.

Twice a year James Lee went to market in St. Louis. Such a trip that must have been, driving in a big wagon all the way to St. Louis. In November he loaded the wagon with dressed poultry, honey, and all kinds of fresh products. In St. Louis he drove the wagon into the open market and people came from the city and bought from the wagon. After he had bought his own provisions, he loaded his wagon with all the salt he could haul back for Uncle Davy Duff who kept the store. With the salt he got credit for those things he had to buy in the Maysville store.

Again in the spring the long trip to St. Louis was made for provisions. I have also heard from Grandpa [Richard Henry Lee] that on these occasions his father [James] brought back newspapers and reading materials for himself and the family. He was always interested in politics and national affairs. Perhaps you know the story of his politics better than I do. He was an ardent know-nothing in the period before the war and joined the Republican party soon after its formation.

The old trail from Maysville through to St. Louis was the old state route for many years. Before that it had been an Indian trail for too many years to remember. Near the cabin where James Lee first lived, he found the part of a skeleton that was supposed to have been that of a white man killed by a warrior of Tecumseh when he camped nearby in collecting Indians for an attack on the forts toward the East. It was then that old man McCawley, aided by a friendly Indian, was able to retreat to Vincennes and safety.

Between 1840 and 1850 a company came in wanting to make a pike road of the trail with charges for operating the road. The company broke up before the plans were completed.

McCawley for a great many years kept tavern in Maysville, that was earlier Hubbardsville, and that now is known to us as a part of Clay City. Mays­ville was the first county seat of Clay County. The old log courthouse is still standing in Old Maysville.

James Lee died in 1877 and Sarah Jane in 1886; both are buried in Mt Zion [Cemetery, Clay City, Illinois].

Claribel Lee



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