Thursday, March 17, 2016

Unconventional Medicine: The Wells Family & Herbal Remedies

Long before the days of modern medicine, people relied on home remedies to treat ailments using herbs and 'potions' that were passed down through generations.  Most people who were called 'doctors' during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Kentucky were just simply a title only, as they couldn't afford to attend a medical school, and most couldn't even read or write.  Regardless, these people were highly regarded and trusted to treat, and sometimes cure, any illnesses they were presented.

Botanical practitioners, as they were formally called, were predominate in early Appalachian settlements.  They were said to have received their recipes for their medicines from the Native Americans or they were brought over from Europe generations before.  They relied on roots, seeds, leaves, bark and other natural resources that could be mixed and used to heal problems from sore throat to gastrointestinal ailments.  Side effects, however, could be deadly if not mixed properly.  Some of these practitioners also used faith-based techniques and local folklore combined with the herbs and roots to heal the sick. Even today, there are still botanical practitioners prescribing their home remedies in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky.

Bath County had its own botanical, or herb, doctors that were from the same family, and relatives of mine. They were William Mayhall Wells and his sons, Zachary Taylor and Benjamin Franklin Wells.  The Wells family story starts when the early descendants immigrated from England in the 1600's and settled in Baltimore, Maryland.  William Wells, born in 1710 to Richard and Catherine Wells in Baltimore, moved to Lee County, Virginia with his family, where in 1780 he was reportedly killed by Indians.  William's son, Zachariah, served in the Revolutionary War with the Virginia Continental Army's cavalry, participating in battles at Germantown, Brandywide, Bordentown (or Bonhamtown).  He was captured on December 12, 1777 near Fox Chase, Pennsylvania and held in a British camp as a prisoner of war for five months.  After Zachariah's release, he resettled in Lee County, Virginia and led a quiet life until his death in 1826. One of  Zachariah's sons, also named Zachariah, is the first to have been known as an herb doctor.  It is a fair assumption that he learned the practices of botanical medicine as it was passed down the generations.  Zachariah Wells, II moved to Wise County, Virginia where he died in 1870 at the age of 92 years; an almost unheard of age during that era.

Mayhall Wells, my third-great grandfather
William Mayhall Wells, my third-great grandfather, learned medicinal practices from his father Zachariah at an early age. He was born in Lee County, Virginia around 1823 and grew up in the rural part of Wise County, Virginia near Pound Gap, a mountain pass at the Virginia & Kentucky border.  He married Lavina Stidham in 1883 and together, they reared eight children.  During the Civil War, Mayhall was commissioned as a captain in the Virginia Home Militia and tasked to help defend the Pound Gap.  An interesting short story entitled The Army of the Callahan written by John Fox, Jr. in 1902 as an article for Scribner Magazine recounts the adventures of Mayhall and his 'home guard' during this era.  The article is dated and speaks in in a heavy Appalachian dialogue, but is an interesting tale.  Around 1865, Mayhall and his family moved from Big Stone Gap, Virginia to Morgan County, Kentucky.  It was there that he was first officially known as a physician in an 1870 census record.  It was interesting to know that Mayhall was unable to read or write, but was able to use his knowledge of herbal medicine passed down verbally to treat illnesses.   Sometime within the next decade, Mayhall relocated to Bath County near the Forge Hill community and applied for a formal medical registration.  His unique medicinal recipes were widely known; many people traveled long distances to be 'cured' of a variety of ailments.  The recipes were never written down, but he passed his knowledge to three of his sons, Benjamin Franklin, Jeremiah and Zachariah Wells.

Lavina Wells died in 1888 on the family's farm and was buried in Knox Hill Cemetery off Adams Road in Bath County.  Soon after her death, Mayhall moved to Breathitt County, Kentucky where his daughter Rebekah resided.  It was there in 1889 that Mayhall received his certificate for a botanical system and became known for his famous 'blood poisoning cure'.  This medicine seemingly cured blood infections that would otherwise constitute the loss of a limb or death. The remedy made Mayhall a much sought after celebrity of sorts.  He remarried a woman named Mary Fugate and treated patients well up until his older years, passing away in Breathitt County on March 3, 1902.

Mayhall's sons Zachariah and Benjamin, or Frank as he was called, stayed in Bath County and continued to practice the unconventional medicinal ways as they were passed to them.  Zachariah
 settled in the Preston area and Frank in the Forge Hill community.  They stayed busy treating patients and curing otherwise incurable ailments with their botanical system.   Frank married Effie Hunt and their daughter, Wynona, was my great-grandmother.
Doctors Zachariah and Frank Wells
  By the time Frank and Zachariah were older, the Wells name was household for their remedies, but the advent of modern hospitals and licensed physicians soon began to edge out the botanical practitioners in more populated areas of Kentucky.  Regardless, people still sought the Wells brothers for their blood poison cure.  The recipe was closely guarded by the family; in fact, only a few people were ever told and it's a mystery of who actually may have written it down and kept it over the generations.  Frank died in 1916 at the age of 68 and was buried next to his mother at Knox Hill Cemetery.  Zachariah died in 1944, aged 93 years, and is buried at the Kendall Springs Cemetery.  My great-grandmother Wynona married Thomas Ensor of the Bethel/Sherburne area of Bath County and lived in Sherburne until her death at the age of 95.  More descendants of the Wells family still live in Bath County near the Preston and Peasticks communities, and if they still have the blood poisoning recipe, they aren't revealing it.  Today, the botanical practitioners of Bath County have disappeared; modern medicine and strict regulations by the Food & Drug Administration have all but made the home remedies obsolete.  In recent times, Amish families have moved into parts of Bath County and brought with them some home remedies.  In one very recent incident near Preston, an Amish family was investigated and their remedies confiscated for not following FDA guidelines.  There are still a few botanical practitioners in Appalachian mountain communities nestled in hollows, but their practices aren't widely known; whether it be to protect a family tradition or just to plainly protect themselves from being prosecuted.

The Wells family doctors were a unique breed who had an art for healing using what we now call unconventional methods.  It makes one wonder if their art had been further honed within an institution of higher learning, would they had found cures to ailments much sooner than modern times?  For those who were treated by the Wells family, they attested to the abilities of the men and their home remedies as being the best in the medical field. 


  1. I enjoyed the information you have listed. I believe we have the same Grandfather. I have a Mayhall Wells who married Lavinah Stidham. Mayhall is buried at the cemetery in my hometown of Breathitt County at a place called T Point Cemetery. They had a daugther named Rebecca Ann Wells who married Marcus duff in my line of grandparents. my contact info is

    1. Hi Raymond, I know this post is several months old. Lavina Stidham is my great great great grandmother. I fall in the line with Lavina's Rachel Well, Rachel married a Collins and had a daughter Mattie, and Mattie married a Toy, which is my maternal grandmother; Gladys Toy Cartmill. I'm signed in on my work account, but you can email me at My name is Kymberly L. Hawkins King.

  2. I am also interested in sharing notes on the Wells line as my line lived in the Olympia area of Bath County.

    rwells1938 @