The Melancholy of James Ryerson Kays
Those of us who read history these days, and I doubt that there are many, are drawn to stories of the pioneers who set out courageously, defying all odds to conquer an untamed land. Their indomitable spirits overcame all hardships; disease, Indian attacks, blizzards and plagues of locusts that would have crushed Pharaoh. That is the story we hear, but what is the truth? From my reading of the stories of those men and women of yore, they seem just like us. They had the same fears, the same passions, and the same reactions when overwhelmed by misfortune and loss. Take for example, the “Memories of James Ryerson Kays”, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1835, and came with his parents to Platteville in 1849. We have a partial copy at the museum, and the Wisconsin State Historical Society has a full copy of the unpublished document. He wrote his story in the manner of a man of common language and modest education. His spelling, like that of many of his contemporaries, was atrocious. In that we see another similarity with today’s younger folks, whose skins are saved only by the spell checkers on their word processors.
Kays writes first of his youth, spent on various farms in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He describes making maple syrup and sugar, going to fairs, and orchards full of fruit free for the taking. He writes frankly of his youthful misdeeds with a friend: “ Once he and I sliped a way and went to a Peach Orchard when the Peaches was ripe and we eat Peaches to our harts content and we could have all the Peaches we wanted without stealing them but they tasted better when you could steal them.” His life back east as he recalled it was very good, with friends and relatives all about. This came to an end in 1849 when his father was convinced to move to the “far a way west” by his sister, Martha Neely who had emigrated to Platteville, Wisconsin earlier with her husband John. The parting with family was not easy:
“and now my father having everything ready we must make a start and the time had come to bid my mothers People a last goodby, And it proved to be the last goodby for the most of our Family. Did you ever get ready to start any place in a Prairie Schooner and the time had come to start and your Relatives and Friends had come to see you off And you must say gooby. Did you feel that big lump come up in your throat and that big tear run down your cheek and when you tried to say gooby you couldent say it. Well if you did not you don’t know what it is to part with Loved ones.”
They drove their wagon to the small town of Cleveland, Ohio and took a ship to the even smaller town of Milwaukee, where they disembarked and started west across the state of Wisconsin. “We followed the Emegrant road a cross the great Prairie country and traveled miles and miles without seeing a house…we made pretty good time and crossed the Rock River at Janesville Wis…On this trip a cross the western Wild we seen and hurd many new and strange things…We had never seen so much Grass and so little Timber until we got into Wisconsin.” Soon they were in Platteville and reunited with his father’s sister.
The Cholera epidemic of 1850 changed his life. James and his father helped to bury a man named Feathers, who had come from St. Louis to visit a local family. He had contracted the disease, which started with stomach cramps, and died in a short time. He wrote:
“the next one to die with Cholera was my brother Martin…on Saturday morning my brother in law come after me for my Brother Martin was dying and he said we would have to hurry for the doctor said he had the Cholera and could not live very long. I can see my brother as he sat up in the Bed shakeing hands with all the rest of the Family and biding them good by. I was the last one to take his hand in death he bade me good By and layed down and was gone his eyes closed in Death with no signs of anguish or pain, just Good by Good by GOOD by.”
His mental pain was not over. On the following Wednesday his sister Maryann, who was his mother’s favorite, began cramping at about eight in the evening. That morning she had been fine and “full of mischief.” On seeing her daughter ill, his mother came down with the same symptoms. The killer worked quickly. By ten o’clock that same night, both were dead. They were buried next to Martin. The following Sunday his father was stricken:
“He must have suffered teribly for 2 or 3 hours and then he seemed to get better then he said he guessed it was all over now, but I took the rong meaning to what he said I thot he ment he would get well. But my hopes was soon turned to sorrow for he took my hand and said goodby my Boy and then quietly and peasfully passed a way…shortly after, Little Emma Alvira Died Mothers Grave and Coffin was opened and she was laid on her Mothers Brest.”
He and his four younger brothers were farmed out to area families. All but James were too young to live alone or support themselves. “What could I do” he wrote, “for after Father and Mother died I did not care where I went or where I stayed and I told them so.” Mental Depression was poorly understood then. The persistent sadness, feelings of emptiness and hopelessness, exhaustion, restlessness and irritability were given the broad term “Melancholy” of which “Depressing Passions” was one variety, Mania being the other. It was felt by most authorities of the day that this malady had its origin in the body, perhaps in an overabundance of black bile. Nasty purging and bloodletting were often prescribed. In 1809, Dr. John Haslam, one of the more enlightened physicians of his time described depression thusly:
“Those under the influence of the depressing passions, will exhibit a different train of symptoms. The countenance wears an anxious and gloomy aspect, and they are little disposed to speak. They retire from the company of those with whom they had formerly associated, seclude themselves in obscure places, or lie in bed the greatest part of their time. Frequently they will keep their eyes fixed to some object for hours together, or continue them an equal time "bent on vacuity." They next become fearful, and conceive a thousand fancies: often recur to some immoral act which they have committed, or imagine themselves guilty of crimes which they never perpetrated: believe that God has abandoned them, and, with trembling, await his punishment. Frequently they become desperate, and endeavour by their own hands to terminate an existence, which appears to be an afflicting and hateful incumbrance. “
“I stayed” he wrote “and helped Uncle John Neely to finish cutting our grain But I wasn’t much good. I could not set myself to work. It seemed to me that there was something the matter with me. I could feel sore spots all over my boddy and I could not work what I had to work for - anyway it all looked dark to me.” He was examined by a doctor who told him he had to quit eating green corn or he might get Cholera. Such was the medical knowledge of the typical frontier doctor. “I told him I didn’t care what I got. He said I had better take a dose of salts (laxative) but I did not take any salts…” Since Cholera is a disease of the intestinal lining that causes massive dehydration through diarrhea, a laxative would be the worst thing to take. The medical treatment of the time called for withholding fluids. We now know that maintaining hydration is the most essential thing in the treatment of Cholera. He tried field work for others who told him he was “no good.” This continued into 1852; “I went to work for a farmer by the name of Utt. I worked for him untill about the first of June then he said I was no good and turned me off.”
So what happened to James Ryerson Kays? He eventually found his calling as a blacksmith, a profession he followed into his seventies. He moved to Washburn (now Arthur) and worked there for many years as a blacksmith. His four younger brothers joined the Union Army during the Civil War. One, George, lost a leg in the war. James was rejected for service due to a rupture and rheumatism. Slowly he regained an enjoyment for life. He married. He sought entertainment, writing “Our principal Amusement was going to Dances or Balls, Fourth of July celebrations, and once in a while a Circus. We went to one circus in Platteville where we seen Tom Thumb and his Wife, they were Dwarfs, And a Man that could write better with his Toes than I can with my fingers. In those days we didn’t know anything a bout the Grizzly Bear dance nor the Tango dance nor the Bunny Hug and such fancy dances as we hear of now days.” He regained his wry sense of humor. Among his activities was attending religious revival meetings: “We had the Old Shouting Methodist Camp Meetings where everybody went, Even the Harlot Gamblers and Thieves was ever present at these Camp Meetings. It was more of a place of Amusement than a place of Worship.”
In October of 1865, he moved with his wife and three daughters to Independence Iowa, where he continued his trade, shoeing the oxen of the thousands moving through Iowa to the new frontiers in the far west. Later he worked for race tracks in Eastern Iowa, shoeing the horses. By 1929 he was 95 years old and living with his daughter in Waterloo, Iowa. At that time his four younger brothers were still living, ranging in age from 81 to 87. Kays lived to be 100 years old. His100th birthday was on January 4, 1935, and a local newspaper reporter paid a visit for an interview. By that time all of his younger brothers but George had passed away. The reporter asked him how to live to be 100. He said; “Be moderate in all things. Abstain from hard liquor and tobacco. Recognize 9 p.m. as bedtime. Keep abreast of the world and its events.” Perhaps the reporter should have asked him the secret of happiness, for what was taken from him in his youth was returned in family, and health, and a long life. He died 15 days after attaining the century mark, and crossed the river to meet his family and friends who had gone so long ago.