“Who was Jonathan Bye, really?”

“Who was Jonathan Bye, really?”

I remember growing up in the small village of Byesville back in the 1990’s and everybody getting excited about the “Annual Jonathan Bye Days” festival. I was much like every kid in our small town of 2,000 people, with our one stop light. After driving my Mom crazy for $10, I can remember cutting through the wind on my bike to get to the park and then trying to decide what I was going do from there. I remember that hot–almost wet air– from the humidity we get in Ohio during the summer months combined with the smell of concession food stands permeating the wind as it passed through the basketball court. The more brave and wild kids, filled my ears with the sounds of pop snaps, as they ran about smashing box after box on the concrete. The sights of people walking with golf caps on backwards, over their sprayed red hair, wearing baggy Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren t-shirts with even more baggy JNCO jeans. A kaleidoscope of taste, sound and sights percolated through the fun: talent shows, basketball tournaments, Elvis impersonations, concerts, and skydivers.

I remember my stepdad commenting on the festival and how ridiculous he thought it had became, “Every year they try to do something bigger and better than the year before to get people to show up down there.” The gossip was rampant: “Who was boyfriend and girlfriend with who?”, “Why were those two headed off to the dugouts earlier?”, and “Why did so and so get into a fight with so and so?”  We spent our days running out energy in as many different ways as we could find: I feel a bit tacky and even old for saying I remember when only rich people had cell phones. In Byesville nobody was really rich so there was not anyone walking around with a phone to their face. We were social animals not social media animals and because of it our lives were very animated. A story about a fight could start off with, “John” breaking, “Doe’s” jaw and by the time that same story made it’s way around the park, “Doe” broke “John’s” nose and now the police were looking for them both. In all this craziness, the question hardly even crossed my mind, “Who is this Jonathan Bye guy and why am I celebrating him?” After asking the question one time before and being told “Jonathan Bye was the founder of Byesville”, my curiosity was satisfied.

As I have gotten older and learned to love history, I still wonder, “Who was Jonathan Bye, really?” I get that he supposedly “found” Byesville, but beyond that I knew nothing. Despite being such an important person–we celebrate him over 150 years after he passed away–you cannot “Google” him and find a Wikipedia page. There is no photograph or painting of him anywhere. The village of Byesville has a festival every year to honor the man, but there is not a shred of information out there about him unless you are willing to dust off old books at the local library and research him. So I answer the question, who is Jonathan Bye?

The Times of Jonathan Bye the Traveler 


President James Monroe

Jonathan Bye was not the first settler in what is now known as Jackson Township. However, it can be said he was the first to settle in what is now Byesville, Ohio. Jonathan came to the area in 1820 from Pennsylvania. To put that into perspective, just 8 years before we were fighting the War of 1812 which produced a song that would have been sang in every smoky tavern across the land–including the ones in Cambridge–known as the Star Spangled Banner. In the 1820 election James Monroe was re-elected to his 2nd term. After 59 years on the throne the famous–or infamous depending on who you talked to–King George III (the king we fought against to gain Independence) passed away, ending the longest tenure as King in British history. Susan B. Anthony and William Tecumseh Sherman were born, we’re 15 years from having Morse Code and a practical form of photography. We’re 40 years before the Civil War. Here is Jonathan Bye, an ambitious young man traveling through the wilderness west for opportunity.


Jonathan Bye the  Pioneer, Entrepreneur, and Civic Leader


An 19th Century (1800’s) Grist-Mill (not Jonathan Bye’s)

A devoutly religious man, Jonathan was a Quaker like many pioneers of his time. He finds and settles on what is known as Wills Creek. He builds a cabin and being very ingenious and innovative he sets up a water-powered grist mill. The mill proves to be a profitable idea for the young man, as it allows him to grind grain into flour and sell it to the areas people. Now having some income Jonathan is filled with the spirit of an entrepreneur and decides to invest into a saw-mill that also proves to be a good investment. Now having much in surplus to sell he establishes a store and his little compound of businesses becomes known around the area as “Bye’s Mill.”

Having his businesses expand and with the area’s population growing, Jonathan Bye is ever imaginative. At the time having only horse and wagon on trails to get his products to market north in Cambridge and being surrounded by wilderness, he goes around to his nearest neighbors with pen and paper and gathers support for a road to be built from his mill to the City of Cambridge. In December of 1823 he travels to the county seat with signatures in hand and presents the petition to the Guernsey County Commissioners. Records at the commissioners office state the following:

“Jonathan Bye presented a petition for himself and sundry (many) citizens for a road from Bye’s Mill on Big Wills Creek, running the nearest and best way to Cambridge.”

In 1826, he repeats the process to have a road built in the other direction to Senecaville.

I think it’s quite obvious Jonathan was attempting to attract as many customers as the area could provide him while at the same time building an infrastructure of roads citizens needed and wanted at the time. Bye’s flour business flourished so much eventually he builds the “Maria Bye:” a large keel boat made to float his surplus in the shallow waters of Wills Creek. With this boat and eventually more he was able to ship his flour down the Ohio and subsequently Mississippi River. In 1832, he may have finally bit off a little more civic duty than he could chew when he led an unsuccessful movement petitioning the State of Ohio. He wanted them to dredge Wills Creek so that larger boats could navigate up and down his stream, the state apparently did not see the advantages that he did, as the project never manifest. Nevertheless, Jonathan was able to build a profitable efficient business and live a comfortable life through using his keel boats to send his manufactured products to the maximum amount of markets, while at the same time leading civic movements to develop the area.


Jonathan Bye Made Flat and Keel Boats to Ship his Manufactured Flour

Jonathan Bye the Abolitionist 

It is somewhat common knowledge between those in the intelligence industry, that when a person of interest is hiding from those who are interested in finding them, they must have people rich with resources helping them move and survive in hiding. The reason it took the CIA so long to capture Bin Laden is that they never thought a supposed ally receiving aid from the United States would give him sanctuary. The government of Pakistan was Bin Laden’s largest resource. Likewise when trying to solve the mystery of Hitlers death, former CIA and Military guys, have formed a theory that Hitler escaped Germany through the sanctuary of Spain, and eventually made his way to a compound in the backwoods of South America. They believe he was able to do this through having the help and cover of loyal German business families whom had acquired loads of wealth and resources in Argentina. Not that I am comparing completely innocent slaves to the most evil men the planet has ever seen, that is absolutely not what I am doing. I am simply making the point that, fugitives need people of wealth, connections, and resources to stay hidden for extended periods of time.

Jonathan Bye spent his life acquiring wealth, making business connections, as well as acquiring and utilizing resources . As I said before, he was also a devoutly religious man. Quakers are famous for their principles. They were often criticized for refusing to fund wars. Being vehemently against violence and holding humanitarianism close to their hearts; Quakers were naturally and passionately against slavery. So with Jonathan having been a man of considerable means and relentlessly against slavery at his very core, he was the perfect kind of person to hide and move slaves in the 19th century. As a result he used and risked his home and businesses to become a conductor and set up a station on the famous Underground Railroad. When the slaves entered Guernsey County they would do so at one of its most southern borders in the village of Senecaville. Having made connections in Senecaville through civic leadership and business, Jonathan would accept the slaves from an Underground Railroad station there and move them to his home. Here he would provide them with beds, shelter, food, and clothes until it was time to move them further north where he would drop them off to Alexander McCracken or Samuel Craig, both station-masters in Cambridge.


Fugitive Slaves Running on the Underground Railroad

It just fascinates me to think of the different scenarios:

I imagine it being a very cold fall evening at Bye’s Mill. You know where a lot of the leaves have changed colors, some are hanging onto their branches for dear life while piles of others are lying on the floor of the wilderness. I picture Jonathan on his horse pulling a wagon full of flour to Senecaville on the very road he led a movement to build. Puffs of smoke from the cold weather coming from his and his horse’s mouth’s. He has dressed the wagon for what looks like a typical business trip. When he gets to Senecaville he drops off the flour and at the same time picks up a slave man. He instructs him to hide between some large barrels that are stacked perfectly in the wagon to conceal the man’s presence. On his way back, he passes John Beymer, who is currently serving one of his eight years as Guernsey County Sheriff. With Jonathan being a respected, prominent member of the community, this conversation goes very smoothly, the Sheriff having no idea Bye has hidden a fugitive slave on his wagon. I imagine them getting back to Bye’s Mill in the darkness where Jonathan’s windows are lit up and smoke is coming from the chimney on the roof. The closer they get to the door, the more it smells like wood burning.

When they get inside candles light the rooms and a nice flame is going in the fire pit to warm the cabin. They sit to eat with Jonathan’s daughter Maria; conversation fills the room about the mans journey hitherto. I figure Jonathan has a hidden basement under his floor boards where a nice bed is awaiting the fugitive slave. They awake before the sun comes up, Jonathan has another load of flour on his keel boat waiting to take up Wills Creek to Cambridge. Jonathan has a discreet location at which to load the flour onto a wagon. When they arrive, Samuel Craig of Cambridge is waiting there for them. The fugitive is hidden once again on a wagon with the loaded flour until he reaches the home of Mr. Craig’s. Jonathan takes his keel boat back down Wills Creek to his home awaiting the next fugitive to come his way. 


It is not known why but in the 1850’s Jonathan Bye sold off all his wealth and businesses and moved from Jackson Township to Sterling, Illinois. Unfortunately in Sterling he built another collection of Mills that were a financial failure for him. I would think him being in the latter years of his life, he might not have had the youth it would have taken to run a successful startup in those days. Some of his descendants are buried in Byesville.

Jonathan Bye spent the majority of his lifetime in our beloved area. He left such an impression and was liked by the people–so much–that when a small town was platted in 1856 near his old Mill they named the town “Byesville.” Jonathan never lived in Byesville when it was called Byesville; by this time he had moved on to Illinois. I’m sure when he passed away people must have felt he made a mistake leaving an area that had served him so well and eventually named a town for him for a place he did not succeed. This should not prevent us from celebrating an interesting an extraordinary life. Given his participation in the Underground Railroad, I think it is a great thing for the village to celebrate his life with an annual festival.


Comments are more than welcome 🙂
Sources for this article include William G.Wolfe, “Stories of Guernsey County” 1943 and History of Guernsey County, Ohio by Sarchet, Cyrus P. B. (Cyrus Parkinson Beatty) 1911

2 thoughts on ““Who was Jonathan Bye, really?”

  1. I grew up in Byesville. I heard bits and pieces of his life but knew very little . Thank you for putting this together. I’m much better informed


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s