When Lana Myers wrote a biography of Kansas poet May Williams Ward, she had no idea it would lead her to research another writer who came to Kansas from England and played an instrumental part in our state's history.
Ward's grandfather, Reuben Smith, sailed to America at the age of 22 and staked a claim on land near Osawatomie.
"The Diaries of Reuben Smith, Kansas Settler and Civil War Soldier," is a compilation of Smith's narratives from 1854 through 1905 and edited by Myers.
Myers will speak about Smith and her book at 7 p.m. May 15 at Newton Public Library, 720 N. Oak. Copies will be available for purchase at the event.
A part-time freelance writer for more than 30 years, Myers' book "Prairie Rhythms: The Life and Poetry of May Williams Ward" was named a 2011 Kansas Notable Book. She also wrote "Newton Medical Center: Merging the Past with the Future" and was a weekly columnist for The Kansan for seven years.
"The people in history are what make history come alive," Myers said.
As a graduate assistant at Wichita State University, Myers worked in the special collections department. While organizing Ward's materials, she ran across an excerpt from Smith's diary.
"He wrote about the voyage over — it took six weeks," Myers said. "I couldn't stop reading it, it was so beautifully written and it just grabbed you. He wrote (about) everything from the sailors' songs to a burial at sea."
Years later, the name of Reuben Smith caught Myers' eye again.
"Just by chance, I saw in a state historical society newsletter that this descendent in Texas had just donated all of the original diaries of Reuben Smith to the state archives," Myers said.
Smith's diaries chronicle several years before Kansas became a state.
"His first child was born in a log cabin with no windows and a dirt floor," Myers said.
Drawn to the United States in part because of its democratic principles, Smith joined the Union army to defend those ideas. Documenting the tumultuous times of the Civil War, Smith wrote about skirmishes he was involved in along the border between Kansas and Missouri.
"He got his hands on a couple of books on military tactics and discipline...and he just learned it himself," Myers said.
Through the war, Smith encountered many high-ranking officers and also came in contact with notorious figures such as William Quantrill and Cole Younger. Smith recorded in his diaries that he gave the order for Younger's mother's house to be burned.
"He knew some of these characters up close and personal and describes it like you were there," Myers said.
Smith would also serve as a spy for the Secret Service.
After the Civil War, Smith went into politics and became a state representative.
"He kept this extensive library that he would loan to not only his family, but to anyone in town," Myers said. "He was very well-read."
Smith also spent some years as a steward of the Kansas State Insane Asylum, which is now Osawatomie State Hospital.
"He's just at the center of all this Kansas history, and I knew he just had to be on the shelves and be accessible," Myers said.
Myers transcribed all of Smith's diaries, and decided to put stories together categorically, rather than have the book follow a strict chronological timeline.
"It's been a project," Myers laughed. "A real project."
Since she grew up near Kansas City, Myers took her father along on research trips to area museums.
"It became a personal journey for me," Myers said.
Notes about the places, people and events mentioned in Smith's writings were added by Myers to each chapter of her book so readers can better understand the times, but she noted she refrained from interpreting the narrative from a modern perspective.
"I want the characters to tell their stories as much as possible and I wanted to stay out of the way," Myers said.
The pages of Smith's diaries, which were typed on one of the earliest typewriters, can be viewed online at http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/47491.