Early Years of John Doyle Lee (1812-1886)



At the time of John Doyle Lee's birth, Kaskaskia, Illinois was the capital city of the Territory of Illinois, the most important town on the Mississippi River and the center of activity for a large area. It was settled in 1803 when a French Jesuit priest gathered a small Indian tribe on the site. It was captured by the English during the Indian Wars of 1763. In 1778 it was taken from the English in a stroke of military genius by the American general, George Rogers Clark. One member of that intrepid little army of Americans was John Doyle, the maternal grandfather of John D. Lee.


Early records of Randolph County, Illinois showed that John Doyle was among the first to claim land in that area by reason of his service in the army. His four-hundred-acre allotment lay on the bluffs opposite the village and below the point where the Kaskaskia River emptied into the Mississippi. Of his wife Elizabeth Smith, we know nothing except that she must have been the daughter of Henry Smith whose will named the two Doyle daughters as his only heirs. Those two girls, Elizabeth and Charlotte Doyle, were the only children of their father, John Doyle.


Elizabeth Doyle, the older, married first Oliver Reed, by whom she had a daughter, Elizabeth Reed, who was usually called Eliza Virginia, and a son, William Oliver Reed, who died early. In 1802 her husband Oliver was brutally murdered by a man named Jones, who was tried and hanged for his crime. Oliver Reed's widow Elizabeth then returned to live nine years in the home of her father, where she remained until her marriage to Ralph Lee on February 26, 1811.


John Doyle Lee was born eighteen months after Elizabeth Reed's marriage to Ralph Lee. Writing of his mother later, Lee said she was always in poor health and an invalid for more than a year before her death. He also said that his father, at first ambitious and thrifty, began drinking later until he became a confirmed alcoholic. The court record of Randolph County showed that Ralph Lee and his wife, Elizabeth Doyle, in May 1815, executed a deed of trust to George Fisher of all property to be held in trust for the children, Elizabeth Reed and John Lee. That gave some proof of John D. Lee's statement, for his mother died in November 1815 within a half year after the deed was executed. Some months later, his father, Ralph Lee, left and was never heard of again in that area.


After the death of the mother, her daughter, Eliza Reed, then about fourteen years old, went to live with the family of her guardian, George Fisher. Little three-year-old John Doyle Lee was taken to the home of his aged grandfather where he was placed in the care of a colored nurse who spoke only French. His grandfather spoke Indian as well as French and English and had often been employed as an interpreter. He had also been a school teacher and was known generally as a man of honor. But he was an older man whose health failed until he died on October 20, 1819. Charlotte Doyle's husband, James Conner, was named administrator of the Doyle estate.


John, a seven-year-old orphan, was then sent to live with his Aunt Charlotte Conner's family. Years later he wrote with bitterness of the treatment he received in the Conner home and of the difficulty of adjusting to a new language and a family of children. His aunt was a quick-tempered, sharp-tongued woman who did not spare the rod on her own children nor on the extra little boy in the home.


By the time he was sixteen John D. Lee was so thoroughly sick of life there that he left the Conner home to make his own way. He first secured a job carrying the mail on horseback through a long stretch of sparsely settled country. Later he worked on a river boat on the Mississippi. Still later he was employed at a warehouse and store in the northern mining town of Galena. During those years, he built a reputation for industry and trustworthiness.


He left Galena and returned briefly to the home of his Uncle James Conner, then went to visit his half-sister, Eliza, who was married and living near Vandalia. There he met the Woolsey family and soon fell in love with the oldest daughter, Aggatha Ann. They were married on July 24, 1833 and set up their home nearby. Their first child, William Oliver, died before he was two years old. Their second child, Elizabeth Adaline, also died young, soon after the third child, Sarah Jane, was born.


A short time before the death of his second child, Lee had sheltered some Mormon missionaries and had listened to their message but was not impressed. When his neighbor, Levi Stewart, brought him a copy of the Book of Mormon and told him of a personal meeting with the youthful prophet, Joseph Smith, Lee decided to read the book, finishing it on the night he sat up with the corpse of his little Elizabeth Adaline. As he neared the end and read the words of Moroni in Chapter 10, Verse 4, he received such an impressive manifestation that he knew without a doubt from that moment that he had found the true church. Throughout the remainder of his life, that strong testimony of the truth proved invaluable as he was tested beyond measure.