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Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

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Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

3/5 (2 évaluations)
1,750 pages
21 heures
Jan 9, 2013


Spanning the last 500 years, this exceptionally detailed and well-researched guide focuses primarily on the ways North American Indians have used plants, trees, and shrubs for medicine, food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities. The plants considered are native to eastern Canada and the northeastern United States, although some are also found as far south as Florida and Texas and as far west as the Pacific coast.
In addition to extensive chronological historical citations dealing with documented usages of plants as far back as the fourteenth century, this book also provides data to enable even amateur botanists to identify plants in the field. Thus, accounts of herbalists, explorers, botanists, doctors, and scientists are accompanied by useful information about the plant’s range, common and scientific names, nontechnical physical description and more. To make the book especially easy to use, plants are grouped according to habitat: wet open places, woods and thickets, and dry open places. Moreover, a detailed line drawing of the plant’s leaves, buds, twigs, seeds, and other characteristic features accompanies the textual descriptions.
Scholarly, yet readable, exceptionally thorough but never dull, this classic reference belongs in the library of botanists, naturalists, herbalists, ethnologists, archaeologists — anyone interested in the long and fascinating story of how plants have served humanity.
“Charlotte Erichsen-Brown is a noted and inspired student of the ethnobotany of eastern North America. She has completed a study of great imagination and energy. Whether on a library’s reference shelf or in a backpack along the trail, her work will inform and educate, and often amaze.” — J. L. Riley, Botany Department, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada.
Jan 9, 2013

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Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants - Charlotte Erichsen-Brown


I want to thank Dr. J.H. McAndrews of the Royal Ontario Museum for his explanation of the analysis of pollen from archeological sites and for the material and advice he gave me. I want to thank John Riley for making the nomenclature, botanical index, habitat and distribution of the plants discussed in this book technically correct and botanically accurate. The time he has spent and his interest and encouragement have meant much to me. I want to thank Mrs. Norman Endicott for reading the Sources cited in this book and for her useful comments.

I want to thank those who lent me or gave me their family recipe books, manuscripts and books. These are listed in the sources.

For books written in English I wish to thank the librarians in the science and Medicine, Botany and Pharmacy libraries of the University of Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum and the inter-library loan service of the public libraries of Canada. Articles written in French and published in Quebec have proven extraordinarily difficult to obtain. This book has not been funded either as to research or publication.

Without the patient understanding of my husband, John Price Erichsen-Brown throughout the years this book never could have been written. His criticism, advice, and comments upon the manuscript were always pertinent and are deeply appreciated.

Copyright © 1979 by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown.

All rights reserved under Pan American and International Copyright Conventions.

This Dover edition, first published in 1989, is an unabridged republication of the work originally published under the title Use of plants for the past 500 years by Breezy Creeks Press, Aurora, Ontario, Canada, in 1979.

Manufactured in the United States of America

Dover Publications, Inc., 31 East 2nd Street, Mineola, N.Y. 11501

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Erichsen-Brown, Charlotte.

[Use of plants for the past 500 years]

Medicinal and other uses of North American plants: a historical survey with special reference to the eastern Indian tribes / Charlotte Erichsen-Brown.

p. cm.

Reprint. Originally published: Use of plants for the past 500 years. Aurora, Ont. : Breezy Creeks Press, c1979.

Bibliography: p.

Includes indexes.


1. Ethnobotany—United States. 2. Ethnobotany—Canada. 3. Botany—United States. 4. Botany—Canada. 5. Indians of North America—Ethnobotany. I. Title.

[GN560.U6E75 1989]




Table of Contents

Title Page


Copyright Page















Between the conception of a grand idea and its fruition there is an uninviting and barren ground. How many times has the suggestion been made that one of the significant gaps in our knowledge concerns the historical and modern uses of our native flora? How many times have we asked or been asked about the past uses, practical or medicinal, of some wild plant encountered in our travels?

In most cases, we feel sure that the plant was put to good use and that the original peoples of eastern North America were masters in their own home, but often we can’t go much further. If we went to the trouble of assembling a small library of articles and books, many of them recent and derivative works, the same difficulties remain. The knowledge hides, like some rare orchids, in unexpected and inaccessible places.

We know that the aboriginal knowledge of plants was communicated to the early explorers and settlers. Much of the material is recorded as the anecdotal asides of gentlemen explorers, traders and missionaries who were chronicling the more pressing details of commerce, transportation and salvation for their profit-wise European sponsors. Professional naturalists and scientists from Europe toured eastern North America a century later, producing volumes of observations. Ethnologists, some of them native, were the recipients and recorders of threatened aboriginal cultures. Upon this scattered and original data base there later flourished, predictably, a field of opportunistic misinformation, often with a pseudo-medical flavour. The popularization of such information, though laudable, often resulted in plagiarism and miscegenation of the original knowledge, confusing much of it.

The purpose of this work was to cull the available sources, explore the earliest and original materials, and to present the chronology of the recorded data in its original form, in such a way that it would serve the needs of the interested public as well as the more specialist needs of historians, ethnologists, botanists, archaeologists and pharmacists. This volume is the first step towards that goal. No synoptic work of this kind can be complete, but it roughs out the trail we have taken out of the past and raises a myriad of questions as to how we might use our native plants in the future.

There are many technical problems in compiling such a sourcebook. Interpreting casual references to plants unknown to Europeans 300 years ago is often difficult at the generic level and sometimes impossible at the species level. The usage of common names varied considerably. Knowledge of the present distributions of the plants and their preferred habitats was often valuable. The decision to order the material in roughly recognizable field groupings created many problems but will make it more useful to those with practical, rather than reference needs.

Charlotte Erichsen-Brown is a noted and inspired student of the ethnobotany of eastern North America. She has completed a study of great imagination and energy. Whether on a library’s reference shelf or in a backpack along the trail, her work will inform and educate, and often amaze.

J.L. Riley, Botany Department, Royal Ontario Museum.

March 1979. Toronto.


This book is not intended for prescribing medication or for curing afflictions. Its purpose is not to replace the services of a physician but rather to serve as a reference in matters relating to the use of plants. The use of any of this information for purposes of self-treatment without consulting a physician can be dangerous. The publisher cannot assume any responsibility for any injury resulting from the utilization of information contained in this book.


Powerful are the things we use. Menomini.

This book is a record of man’s use of some of the plants, trees and shrubs that grow in an area bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the east, the barren lands of the arctic on the north, south down the western boundaries of Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri, and east along the southern boundaries of Missouri, Kentucky and Virginia. Many of these plants also grow as far south as Florida and Texas and as far west as the Pacific coast. They supplied the various Indian peoples with food, fuel, fiber, clothing, shelter, utensils, transportation and medicine.

I first saw the need for this book seven years ago when I was collecting and drying plants that grow around the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron for my personal herbarium.

I found many books on eating wild plants but only a few of these explained how to identify the plant in the field. There were some older books on the medicinal use of native plants but only about a third of the plants I had collected were mentioned in them. Several good accounts of the use of native plants by the different Indian peoples have been written.

It seemed to me that a book that would bring together the reports of the use of our native plants over the past 500 years would be of help to many people.

Dr. Richard Evans Schultes listened to my outline of such a book and encouraged me to write it. He took me over the Oake Ames Library in Harvard and showed me some of the types of sources I should consult.

As the number of different accounts of the use of each plant grew I saw that they would be more valuable if left in their original form and if they were presented in chronological order. Then the contradictory assertions on the use of each plant would be clear to the reader or researcher. The full record of each plant should always be read as there are frequently conflicting reports on the safe use and the dangers of using a plant or parts of a plant.

As a result of my experience in trying to identify plants in the field, I decided that a non botanical description with a line drawing of each plant would ease the task of the amateur collector, as would also the grouping together of plants found in the woods, or in wet open places or in dry open places.

However, as this is primarily a book about the use of plants, where different species, growing in different habitats, were used for the same purpose, I have placed them together. For instance I have done this with the three main fiber plants, milkweed, dogbane and nettle because it is difficult to know to which of these plants the earliest records of Indian use of a plant for fiber refer.

The first written European reports on the use of a plant in America rarely make plain the species or even genus. Here, only by considering subsequent uses, can a reasonable hypothesis as to the identity of the plant be made. Where it has seemed possible to do this I have included the early reports under the most probable species.

A case in point is Cartier’s tree annedda, included in this book under the spruce tree. It could equally as well have been put under the hemlock tree.

The earliest certain record of the use of any species of plant by man is the recovery of its pollen or seeds in a dated archeological site. This indicates that these plants were used by the peoples who occupied that site at that time. It does not tell us how they were used, except in the case where fiber made from a specific plant is found. This book is based on the premise that only when a species is identified by a competent observer, who is told by the user how he uses that particular plant, is there a valid record of use.

The Indians of Virginia, so clearly portrayed in John White’s drawings of 1590, the tribes described by Champlain as he explored the Atlantic coast from 1604-07 from Tadoussac to Boston, the Iroquoian peoples of the St. Lawrence and both sides of Lake Ontario as well as some of the Algonquin tribes to the north and west of them, cultivated corn, beans, pumpkins and tobacco. Cartier’s description in 1536 of Hochelega (Montreal) where he found a palisaded village of 50 long houses is confirmed by archeological reports from all over eastern north America of similar village sites surrounded by former corn fields.

All these peoples had a sophisticated agriculture and a net work of trade routes. They had brought corn to its northern limit of development by carrying north with them the seeds of frost resistant plants. They had planted the good edible nut trees near their fields for easy harvest, again bringing some of these trees to their northern limits by choosing the nuts from late budding trees for planting. They spread the native apples, choosing the largest and sweetest to plant near their fields. There is some question as whether they knew how to graft as well. They soaked their corn seed in a decoction of plants before sowing it to protect it from slugs and birds. They sprouted their pumpkin seeds in their houses near their fires ready to plant out as soon as danger of frost had passed. They semi-cultivated the raspberry, two kinds of strawberries, grapes, juneberries, milkweeds and the citron or may apple for its delicious yellow fruit. This is another plant they brought to its northern limit of growth.

They burnt the climax forests around them to make large clearings of sixty acres or more in which to plant their corn and to encourage the growth of those plants they semi-cultivated for medicine, fiber and food. They had a complete knowledge of what roots were good to eat and how to prepare them. They gathered the sweet sap of the maples, birch, beech, hickories and other trees. By 400 A.D. they made ceramic pots and so could boil the maple sap down to a syrup and probably a sugar. Their oil they obtained from nuts, from the seeds of the sunflowers they cultivated and from other seeds they gathered.

The plants that the Indians improved by selection and cultivation exist to-day in many different varieties, i.e. the juneberries or Amelanchier. The number of varieties of these plants is much greater than that of the flora as a whole. Not all the plants in our area known to be used by the Indians are discussed in this book for reasons of space. Cultivated plants are outside its scope. However tobacco is dealt with at length because the Indians smoked many plants long before they smoked tobacco in our area and they continued to smoke these plants after they could obtain tobacco.

The Indian smoked primarily in order to please the spirits upon whose goodwill his whole existence depended. The smoke ascended as an incense. Their pipes were hollow stone tubes and, later, tiny pipe bowls. They drew the smoke slowly through their mouths and swallowing it, exhaled it through their nostrils. Several of these plants, as well as tobacco, produced for them a narcotic effect when smoked in this manner. The north eastern American Indian did not ferment plants to produce alcohol deliberately. Vinegar may have been produced and used—this is conjecture —but alcoholic drinks they did not know. Instead they were a civilisation that relied upon narcotics whose effects were obtained by smoking, chewing or drinking a decoction of plant material. Sweet flag was one such plant brought north along the trade routes and planted near the villages.

The Indians also smoked many plants for their medicinal properties. They smudged them upon the fire as revivers of consciousness, or to drive away insects, or as purifiers. Tobacco is of course a potent insecticide and bacteriocide.

There is throughout man’s recorded history a duality in his approach to disease and the curing of it. Medicines from plants were used to cure a sore and magic spells were intoned as the plant material was applied. This was the usual method of healing all over the world.

This duality in man’s approach to the use of plants for medicine and magic is found in his earliest records, the clay tablets of Sumer of 4000 B.C. There are tablets which contain straightforward prescriptions, giving the names, parts of plants, methods of preparation and dose. There are other tablets, such as the one containing the hymn to the patron deity of the art of medicine, naming half a dozen of the demons who were believed to get into a man’s body and cause serious illness. This duality has persisted in all accounts that we have of man’s treatment of disease for the last 6000 years.

As man’s mastery over his environment grew his fear of unseen evil forces around him lessened. He experimented with different parts of plants for different diseases. The Egyptians were sophisticated users of plant drugs, as their mummies testify. The school of medicine founded by Hippocrates in fifth century Greece represents a plateau in man’s long climb out of ignorance and superstition. It is the epitome of man’s medical knowledge to that date.

Pliny’s exclamation Is there anything more astonishing than the commerce in plants, which from all points of the globe arrive [in Rome] for the aid of mankind, illustrates the part plants played in the Roman economy. Many of those plant drugs are still traded internationally today.

Dioscorides, the Greek physician gathered together in a book the sum of man’s knowledge of the use of plants for medicine up to the first century B.C. Galen wrote in the 2nd. century A.D. his textbook on the medical use of plants that was the bible of the medical profession of the western world for the next 1500 years.

That man had been using plants to heal and for magic for a very much longer period of time was dramatically demonstrated by the finding in 1975 by Leroi-Gourhan of concentrated deposits of pollen in some of the earth taken from near a Neanderthal skeleton in a dig in Iraq where Solecki was excavating a 60,000 year old burial. The pollen in these deposits was from Achillea (yarrow), Senecio (groundsel), Centaurea (knapweed), Liliaceae (grape hyacinth), Althea (mallows) and Ephedra-type plants. These plants still grow in the area of the tomb to-day and are used by the people living there for medicine.

Solecki wrote (1975) One thing is certain from Leroi-Gourhan’s discovery, these flowers were not accidently introduced into the grave and hence represent clumps of flowers purposely laid down with the Shanidar IV burial. One may speculate that Shanidar IV was not only a very important man, a leader, but may also have been a kind of medicine man or shaman in his group. Richard Evans Schultes remarked that the shaman was usually a knowledgeable botanist and probably the oldest professional man in the evolution of human culture.

Ariemisia species also grew wild around the tomb and its pollen was found within it, but not concentrated in any one spot. I put forward the hypothesis here that Artemisia dracunculus, linear-leaved wormwood, which grows throughout the steppes of Asia, was carried by wandering bands of hunters as they crossed the land bridge to north America. Possibly during the time that Beringia (the land bridge and parts of Yukon and Alaska) was practically cut off from the rest of north America during the last Ice age but open to central Asia where man was slowly mastering his environment.

Artemisia dracunculus grows on the steppes of Asia and then is not found until one reaches southern Alaska and the Yukon (Beringia) where it grows in a few places. Again it is found spottily across the northern plains eastward to Lake Superior. It is also found down the Pacific coast and around the Mesa Verde cave village in Colorado.

Dioscorides wrote that dracunculus checks cancer, is an abortifacient, killing the foetus, cures gangrene, prevents putrefaction, is good for the eye sight and that those who thoroughly rub their hands with the root cannot be stung by vipers. A woman who belonged to a tribe of hunters which had to move as their game moved would be at a disadvantage at times if she carried a foetus. There would be many wounds to be healed. She would need a plant with the supposed properties of dracunculus.

Densmore found Artemisia dracunculus, dracunculus, or linear-leaved wormwood, used on the White Earth Chippewa reservation in Minnesota in 1925 where it was regarded as a chief medicine, the only plant that must be pulled not dug, a sign of its magic power. The women of the Chippewa used it for difficult labor (plants that abort are also useful to bring down the foetus when its term is reached or to bring on the menses). The leaves and flowers were chewed and used as a poultice for wounds. For stoppage of woman’s periods and for heart palpitations the dried leaves and tops of the sterile plant were steeped, and the infusion drunk. This was also drunk for dysentery.

My hypothesis is strengthened by the large degree of variation in the plants of A. dracunculus in herbaria and presumably in the wild. This is one of the accepted signs that the plant was semi-cultivated by native people. However only the finding of its pollen in a dated archeological site would be real confirmation.

There is a clone of A. dracunculus var. sativa, called tarragon and propagated only by root divisions or cuttings. It has a strong anise flavor and leaves a biting sensation in the mouth on being chewed. Fascinatingly enough it was listed in a representation made to the Dutch government in 1650 by some of the Dutch settlers in the New Netherlands (New York) as being among the medicinal plants native to the country that they could find with little search.

The simplest explanation is that it was brought over by some settlers from Holland as a medicinal plant and had escaped from their gardens. It is not a spreader and so would not escape very far. Equally it could have been planted before 1600 by Europeans who stopped over on Manhattan while exploring the coast. Alternatively, it might have been the A. dracunculus of western America, traded from hand to hand by Indians as a valuable plant.

The introduction of portulaca (Portulaca oleracea) from the south into northeastern north America is on much firmer ground. Neiderberger in her excavations of the Playa phase (6000 to 4500 B.C.) in the Basin of Mexico found in a hearth area an assemblage of well manufactured, ground stone tools, relating to the preparation of food plants, including small grinding slabs. The plant remains identified include seeds of portulaca, a plant with edible fleshy leaves. Neiderberger suggests that this points to an experimental cultivation of plants for food on the shores of Lake Chalco from 6000 B.C. onwards. Her find of nettle seeds, Urtica dioica indicates human occupation as well. Nettles were one of the important European and Indian fiber plants of the historic period.

Yarnell reported finding portulaca archeologically in north America from 3000-2500 B.C. and considers it spread by Indian use. McAndrews and Boyko found portulaca pollen in Crawford Lake, Ontario near an Indian village of 1380. They postulate that the women came to the lake to wash the portulaca before preparing it for food.

Interestingly portulaca is also mentioned in the Icelandic medical manuscript of 1475 as a medicinal plant good to drink for jaundice, flux of blood from the stomach, crushed and applied to a toothache or to sore eyes, and good for those who spit blood. When the Jesuit fathers found portulaca growing in Huronia in the seventeenth century they scathingly said that the Indians did not use it but that they themselves put it into the drink they gave their sick.

In spite of all this evidence the leading eastern American taxonomic botanists to-day still refuse to recognise portulaca as an indigenous plant.

Besides influences and plants entering our area from the west and south it is possible that they came from the north also. 400-1200 A.D. was a warm period in the climatic history of the world. By the year 800 very little ice remained in the waters around Greenland. A papal bull of 835 mentions Gronland and Christian settlement there. Mowat (1965) suggests that these may have been Celts driven westward by the Vikings. Erik the Red found human habitations, skin boats and stone tools there when he landed in 985. These could be considered Celtic remains. It is all very speculative as yet.

The evidence for the Viking occupation of Greenland from 985 to 1400 is not speculative. Leif Eriksson’s 995-96 voyage to Newfoundland and the existence of several Viking camps there from 1004-7 is now established. The small wooden statue recently found under the floor of a Thule house, the figure dressed in a 13th. century Scandinavian long-hooded cassock with a cross incised on his breast, attests to the continuing presence of the norsemen there. That they penetrated into the interior of the continent as far as Lake Nipigon is not yet accepted although Mowat makes a persuasive case.

What is known is that there was a trade route from the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario to Lake Superior and further north. Furs of the Algonquin tribes of the north were traded to the Huron and Iroquois peoples for corn, tobacco and nets. Crawford Lake village was a thriving community in 1380.

Given the long occupation, almost 400 years, as long as the current European occupation of North America, of the Vikings and norsemen in the north and the trade routes from there to the south, ideas, and the valuable cult objects and medicinal practices of the norsemen could have influenced some of the Indian nations to the south.

The evidence has been accumulating that the Atlantic coast was a busy place from 1400 onwards. It was then that the Bristol merchants sent ships to trade with Iceland and possibly Greenland, as well as to fish and whale. The Basque whalers, who also fished for cod, came over each year to their chosen cove, often on Newfoundland. They would leave some of their men ashore to process the fish and go out to the banks.

These ordinary seamen, while they held firmly to the old European beliefs in demons and charms, also knew that many illnesses could be cured by using the appropriate plant. They certainly did not set out in the early 1400’s across the Atlantic without taking with them a few of the plants they would need to cure dysentery, poison, fevers, and other troubles. Nor can it be credited that they did not plant the seeds of those that they considered most efficacious near their temporary summer camps, especially as they seem to have come back year after year to the same spot.

At Quiddy Viddy, near St. John’s Newfoundland is found the European plant, Tormentil, one of the very few spots it grows in north America. Tormentil has traditionally been regarded as an antidote for all poisons and good against the venom of any creature. It guards against the plague and is good for pestilential fevers and contagious diseases. Clearly a valuable plant to have by one when long voyages on crowded, unsanitary, small ships bred these pestilential fevers.

That these seamen were trading with the Indians is witnessed by the finding of two copper trade beads in the 1500 A.D. Draper site in Ontario by Finlayson (1975). Few commodities have been regarded by man as more valuable than drugs and these may very well also have been traded.

In 1514 it was stated that the French had been paying a tax on the fish caught off the coast of the new world and other islands for the last 60 years. The St. Lawrence is said to have been explored by Jean Denys in 1506. In 1508 Thomas Aubert brought back Micmac or Boethuk Indians to France where they were used as models for part of a work in bas-relief which is still preserved in the Church of St James in Dieppe. Aubert is said to have ascended the St. Lawrence to a distance of 80 leagues. There was a Portuguese whaling station on Newfoundland 1520 – 25.

Cartier was told by the Indians who boarded his ship, as freely as if they had been Frenchmen, along the north shore of the St. Lawrence in 1534, that the ships had all set sail from the bay laden with fish. Showing that by then the fishing vessels had begun to penetrate beyond the strait of Belle Isle. The crews of some of these fishing boats occasionally may have passed the winter with the Indian bands.

On his second voyage Cartier wintered at Stadacona (Quebec) in 1535-36 and visited the thriving Laurentian Iroquois village of Hochelaga (Montreal). His men sickened of scurvy and were so debilitated by it that he was afraid to let the Indians know of their condition. He saw that his friend dom Agaya, who had been sick with scurvy, was completely cured and asked him what he had taken. Dom Agaya showed Cartier the tree they used and sent some women with branches and instructions as to how to prepare and use them. Some of his men finally drank the decoction of the branches, washed with it and were cured, an evident miracle.

Cartier’s account of this affair is quoted in full in translation from his original French because it is so often repeated in part and at second hand. Also it is the first record of a specific use of a north eastern north American plant to cure a disease.

The Laurentian Iroquois of Cartier’s time certainly knew how to cure scurvy, by using a drink made of the branches of a tree very high in vitamin C, almost certainly either the spruce or the hemlock, as the green branches were picked during the winter. This knowledge of the Indians was far in advance of that of the Europeans of that time. Indeed they anticipated by 400 years the European discovery of the correct cure for scurvy. An account of the scourge that scurvy was to the Europeans in America from 1535 to the early 1700’s and even later, is also given under spruce in the text. Cartier apparently did not succeed in bringing back to France either the seeds or seedlings of the tree annedda that cured his men. As the Laurentian Iroquois of Cartier’s time were conquered by Algonquin who did not know of the use of either the spruce or the hemlock to cure scurvy, the secret, so badly needed, was lost.

The Indians, dom Agaya and Taignoagny were taken to France by Cartier on his return from his first voyage in 1534 and returned to Quebec with him in 1535. It was then that dom Agaya told Cartier of the tree annedda. The Chief Donnacona went back with Cartier in 1536 to tell the King of all the marvels to be found in his country, Canada. He obliged by weaving some fantastic tales. Thevet talked to Donnacona while he was in France.

Champlain on his first voyage to America in 1603 tells of DuPont bringing back to Tadoussac two Indians he had taken to France. They told their tribe, who assembled to hear them, how well they had been treated in France and of the castles, palaces, peoples and their manner of living.

Nearly one hundred years earlier in 1509, seven Indians and their birchbark canoe were taken to Rouen. It seems to have been a consistent practice to return from a voyage to the New World with some of the native people. Those who returned to their tribes would have brought knowledge of European medical practice with them as they were treated for their illnesses while in France.

The next reported medical use of a plant was that of Alfonse who wrote of his 1542 voyage to the St. Lawrence that there were large numbers of cedars. . .arbre de vye which contain medicine, they have a gum that is white as snow. . .also some very large cedars. Here arbre de vye best fits the Canada balsam, Abies balsamea. The Indians used its gum as medicine. Boucher (1663) reported that the gum was used on wounds like balm and had much virtue. It was in use in English Canada for healing wounds at the end of the 18th. century. It is known today that the gum is antiseptic, another Indian use that we would consider the correct one, if my hypothesis is right.

The next report is that of Thevet in France in 1557, writing of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which he knew only through Donnacona and Cartier’s accounts, that: when the savages are ill with fever or persecuted with other interior illness they take the leaves of a tree which is very like cedars, and take the juice which they drink. In 24 hours they are not as sick, the drink cures them. Christians have tried this drink and brought the tree to France. White cedar was reported growing in Paris in 1558. Seventy-five years later Father LeJeune reported that the Huron cured dysentery by drinking the juice of the leaves or branches of cedar which they boiled, and that a child had recovered after taking this medicine. Dysentery was endemic for the next 300 years or more in north America. The Huron also used cedar branches as an emetic. One hundred years later the Algonquin were reported to be using cedar branches in an enema for bloody flux.

What was the state of man’s knowledge of medicine in Europe in 1534? What did Cartier’s surgeons on board his vessels know?

After the fall of Rome the knowledge of medicine summed up by Dioscorides and Galen was kept alive in Egypt at Alexandria, in the Jewish colleges, in Iran (Persia) and in the middle east. Alexander’s conquests in Afghanistan had made the amalgamation of Greek and Indian medicine possible, from this the Arabian medicine developed. The monasteries in Europe copied Dioscorides’ and Galen’s books, and each had their medicinal plant gardens.

But it was the flowering of the Arabian civilisation from 750-1450 A.D. that saw the establishment of medical schools, each with its medicinal plant garden, where material for use and experimentation could be at hand, and foreign medicinal plants collected and grown. These were established wherever the Arabs conquered and ruled. The great Arabian books on medicine were, along with those of Galen and Dioscorides, the foundation of European medicine.

When Salerno was retaken from the Arabs in 1060 Constantine Africanus was made head of the former Arabian medical college there. The teaching at Salerno was based on that of Greece and Rome, with a minimum of magic incorporated. It was on the writings of Constantine Africanus and of Macer, also of the School of Salerno, that the Icelandic medical manuscript of 1475, quoted in this book, is based. This manuscript is valuable in that it gives in clear terms how a particular plant was used from 1000-1600 in European medicine. It is also valuable as it was written by and for norsemen, our first authenticated white settlers.

Cabot was sent by Henry of England in 1494 to north America to look for spices and drugs. Cabot had been to Mecca in a caravan in 1476 and Henry wanted to establish a spice and drug depot in England larger than that at Alexandria through which most of the valuable drugs used in medicine in Europe passed. It was not Cabot who found the drugs but the Spaniards landing much further south.

The medicinal plant gardens of the Aztecs amazed the Spaniards when they first saw them. These gardens had been established in 1467 by Motecuzoma I and were maintained primarily to provide the Aztec medical profession with raw materials for medical formulas and experimentation. The Emperor’s envoys had orders to seek out additional species wherever they went.

Some Spaniards had the wit to understand that the Aztecs had a medical knowledge in many respects comparable if not in advance of their own. It was a Spanish axiom that native diseases should be treated by native medicines. Some members of the Franciscan order arrived in Mexico in 1529 just after the conquest and started schools where they taught the sons of Aztec nobles latin as well as other subjects. These schools and a college founded in 1536, were encouraged by Emperor Charles V and funded by his viceroy. In this college, for a short time, these Aztec boys studied science and the medical use of native plants taught them by Aztec physicians. It was here, in 1552, that one such physician wrote what is known as the Badianus manuscript, an illustrated book giving the Aztec medicinal use of many native plants.

The foundation and cherishing of these schools was the work of a Franciscan, Father Sahagun, who himself wrote a book on the Aztec medicinal plants using as his source Aztec physicians. This flowering of tolerance and understanding was brief. The conservative forces in the Church triumphed. It was these forces that ruled when the Jesuit Fathers poured scorn on the medical knowledge of the native peoples among whom they lived in northeastern north America. One can’t help speculating how much valuable knowledge of the use by the native peoples of their plants has been lost because a man of Sahagun’s calibre did not live in Huronia in the 1630s.

By 1600 there had been about 200 years of European contact with the various Indian tribes on the Atlantic coast from Virginia northwards. The fishing boats did a little buying of furs on the side and came into the natural harbors where the Indians waited for them to obtain the iron pots, hatchets and knives that could save them weeks of work with their stone tools.

Lescarbot wrote (1609) that the Indians from Port Royal to Tadoussac spoke a pidgin Basque and called Frenchmen Normans in the Basque language. Various settlements of Europeans, stranded on the Atlantic coast from Tadoussac in the north to Roanoke in the south, had disappeared. The young boys who accompanied all expeditions at that time probably would have been adopted into any Indian tribe that found them alive.

All this long and continuous contact of Indian and white makes it quite possible that the Indians learnt how to use some European medicines from the various ships’ surgeons, who, it has been recorded, were not above trading the contents of their medicine chests for furs. The Indians were eager to try European medicine because the white gods were obviously more powerful.

Lescarbot describes in 1609 the Indian medicine man, Membertou, curing a wound by scarifying it, sucking it and then placing slices of the beaver’s stones upon it. The Icelandic medical manuscript of 1475 recommended beaver’s stones to help all sores and injuries, to ease swelling, pressure and pain.

Beaver’s stones are known by the name of castor, or castoreum which is a reddish-brown substance consisting of the preputial follicles of the beaver and their contents, dried and prepared for commercial purposes. It has long had a high repute as a medicine and contains salicin which is antiseptic and eases pain. It is also an important commercial article in perfumery. The beaver used to be a common animal in all the northern parts of the world.

While not a plant the use of castoreum is mentioned because it is a specific medicine cited in one of the earliest written reports and also because it was used for the same purpose, the correct one as we now regard it, by both the Indians and the Europeans in 1600.

The arum is another example of a medicine used for the same purpose both in Europe and by an Indian nation, in this case, by the Huron, as reported by Sagard in 1624. He recommended bringing the plant to France. Obviously he did not know that Galen had prescribed the root of the arum to purge phlegm, the same purpose for which it was used by the Huron.

Pine gum is another such medicine. In England Gerarde in 1633 remarked that the liquid resin issuing from wild pines was good for healing wounds. Boucher in Quebec in 1663 wrote that the savages use pine gum for wounds for which it is a very sovereign remedy. In all these cases the remedy could and probably was discovered on both sides of the Atlantic independently. These remedies could, on the other hand be very ancient ones going back to a common source. Finally as has been shown, it is entirely possible that some Indian tribes could have learnt of these remedies from the white man during the 200 years of contact before 1600.

There are equally confused reports as to what the whites learnt from the Indians. Fenton (1942) claimed that the Iroquois taught the settlers the virtues of sassafras. The facts are that Monardes in 1577 promoted its value in Europe where it was enthusiastically received as it was hoped it would alleviate syphilis which was rampant there. Boats from 1601 onwards sailed across the Atlantic and returned loaded with sassafras. The Europeans experimented with sassafras for at least 50 years before they had any contact with the Iroquoian nations in what is now New York state. Incidentally, sassafras does not grow naturally at Quebec or Montreal where Cartier first met the Laurentian Iroquois.

The Europeans were reluctant to try Indian medicine. They much preferred their own with a few exceptions such as sassafras. Father Garnier in Huronia in 1641 writes of the dearth of this country and asks for some medicinal seeds from France such as purgatives. All around him were excellent purgatives in the native plants. The Huron medicine men and women knew which plants purged. They knew when and what part to collect, the preparation and the dosage. One example is the dogbane Apocynum androsaemifolium or A. cannabinum, which Clayton in 1687 mentions the Indians of Virginia using as a purge. Millspaugh cites it as an emetic and a cathartic. The Hurons almost certainly used it as such as it was one of their fiber plants, and there is a wide Indian use of these plants in medicine.

Elder root bark was used by the Onondaga in 1809 as the emetic of choice when poisoned by the root of Cicuta maculata, the poisonous plant called water hemlock. Sagard mentioned in 1624 that when a Frenchman ate some of this root, becoming very ill, the Hurons immediately gave him emetics, saving his life. Elder has been used in Europe and the middle east since the time of the Egyptians as a purge. The Indians knew it was a strong purge, one to be handled with caution. Elder also grows all over Huronia.

All early European accounts are in agreement that the Indian nations, and this seems to apply to all of them, had better methods of healing wounds than they did. Lescarbot says Membertou when called on to heal a wound, sucked the bad blood from it. Clayton some 60 years later wrote that the Virginia Indians sucked the nasty matter out of a wound with their mouths until the wound was clean. A very nasty but no doubt the most effectual way and the best imaginable. This demonstrates the Indian knowledge of poisons, they apparently knew that if the matter was held in the mouth, not swallowed but spat out, there was no danger of poisoning. Morice in 1901 reported that the Carriers of the north have some members of their tribe who are known as He whose mouth effects cure.

Champlain mentions that his friend Chief Yroquet brought his son, who had been badly mauled by a bear, to the winter camp of the Algonquin near Cahiague (Orillia) in the winter of 1616. The Algonquin, perhaps because of their Medewiwin, or grand medicine lodge, were considered to be great healers.

Cadillac wrote from Detroit (1698) of the Potawatomi and other Algonquin tribes gathered there, They are very good anatomists and so when they have an arm or any bone broken they treat it very cleverly and with great skill and dexterity and experience shows that they can cure a wounded man better in a week than our surgeons can in a month.

Deliette reported in 1702 that the commander of a Miami war party carried with him on the war path herbs for healing the wounded. The gum of the Canada balsam and that of the pine tree have been mentioned as being used by the Indian tribes to heal wounds. Sagard wrote in 1624 that the Huron chewed the root of a plant called oscar to heal all sorts of sores and wounds. This is considered to be American sarsaparilla, Aralia nudicaulis. The 1724 memoir on the Miami medicinal plants lists it as used by them for sores and cuts. Zeisberger says the same of the Delaware in 1779. Rafinesque reports the same use by whites and Indians at the beginning of the 19th. century. This plant is a relative of our American ginseng, Aralia quinquefolia. Perhaps its chemistry should be fully investigated.

Smartweed juice was sprayed on the wound by the Virginia Indians in 1687. Over one hundred years later Tournefort in Paris found that a decoction of smartweed restrained the progress of gangrene.

Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) is an entirely Indian remedy, as is American sarsaparilla. It was a textile plant of importance being found in archeological sites dated 400 B.C.-250 A.D. in Ohio. Sarrazin 1708 wrote that the Indians used the cooked bark of leatherwood to alleviate the pain of old ulcers, hemorrhoids and cancer.

Another area of medical knowledge in which the advanced Indian nations of northeastern north America were ahead of contemporary European practice was in that of childbirth. In Europe bearing a child often meant the loss of both mother and child from infection or botched delivery. The tombstones of our oldest cemeteries tell the same story on this continent several hundred years later. The native peoples had a much better system. The medicine woman of the tribe kept the mother on a special regime for weeks before delivery. She was given a tea made of the root of the blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and her delivery was usually easy and swift. The root possesses caulosaponine which provokes strong uterine contractions, intermittent and more successful ones that those provoked by ergot, the plant fungus used by white physicians for the same purpose in childbirth. The Indians also used the blue cohosh root to control profuse menstrual discharge. White women who were settled far from doctors and even other white women were glad to have the help of the Indian midwife. The blue cohosh became widely known and appreciated. It was adopted by the Eclectic doctors. Among other plants used to facilitate childbirth by the Indians were the roots of trilliums, yellow clintonia and wild ginger.

The wild ginger root is known to contain an antibacterial substance against gram positive pus forming bacteria. The Illinois in 1724 used the root, crushed to powder, for putting stop to the pains of women in childbirth. Much later the Algonquin used it in dressing wounds. The Meskwaki put it into any meat they considered might be tainted when cooking it. Warriors were reported to mix it with the rations they carried on the warpath. It was considered to guard food against sorcerers.

Rafinesque reported that the Indians used wild ginger root to abort the foetus and to-day it is considered an oral contraceptive thought to excite temporary sterility. Indian women were experts in methods of birth control. Wandering bands could not afford too many children, everyone would starve if there were more mouths than food to feed them. Bloodroot was mentioned by Sarrazin in 1708 in Quebec as being used by the Indian women there as an abortifacient. Sarrazin did not consider it had this property but used it instead to control the menses. Rafinesque in 1830 considered it an abortifacient but he knew nothing of the previous Indian use. Plants that brought on the menses, could also abort the foetus and were useful when it had grown to full term to help deliver it.

Any woman reading this book would be very foolish to try dosing herself with any of the plants mentioned. Indian medicine women spent years learning to know the plants, the parts of a plant, their preparation and dosage. They learnt of the difficulties and dangers that could arise from taking these medicines. They learnt what to do in such cases. They had a full, practical knowledge of the poisonous properties of the plants that grew around them. In most cases a dose that aborts, if a little too much is given, can kill. The case histories are full of tragedies. The fine line between killing and curing is not learnt by reading any book.

It is in the knowledge the Indians had of the poisonous properties of their plants that they demonstrated their undoubted control of the plant material they used in their medicines.

In 1628 de Rasiere in the New Netherlands describes the training young Indian men were given. He must go out every morning (in May) with the person who is ordered to take him in hand; he must go into the forest to seek the wild herbs and roots, which they know to be the most poisonous and bitter; these they bruise in water and press the juice out of them, which he must drink, and immediately have ready such herbs as will preserve him from death or vomiting; for if he cannot retain it, he must repeat the dose until he can support it, and until his constitution becomes accustomed to it so that he can retain it.

Father Brebeuf in 1636 wrote of the performance of the curing ceremony in which those who took part gave each other poison. As it had not been practised before among this Huron band it is probable that the neighbouring Algonquin members of the Medewiwin, or grand medicine society, came and performed this dance. Brebeuf says that the members of the society often avenged their injuries and gave poison to their patients instead of medicine.

This knowledge of, and skill with, poisons, was obtained by scientific experiment. Father Biard writes in 1617 that some of the Indians of Gaspesia had bought some arsenic and sublimate from certain French ship’s surgeons in order to kill whoever they wished and boasted that they had already experimented upon a captive who died the day after taking the dose they gave him.

Raudot in 1709 wrote that the Indians were prone to commit suicide by taking the root of the poisonous water hemlock, Cicuta maculata, or that of the may apple, Podophyllum peltatum.

This mastery of the poisonous plants in their environment makes nonsense of claims that the Indian peoples stumbled by chance on the plants they used for medicine. They knew to a nicety the amount needed for a killing dose. They had birchbark measuring spoons to be sure the right dose was taken. They also knew of poisons that killed slowly, taking years to do so according to Zeisberger in 1779 writing of the Delaware.

Narcotic and poisonous plant material was also administered by scarification. This was the scratching of the skin until some blood flowed, the decoction then being rubbed into the scratches. This often left its color in the skin and this was regarded as a charm against the return of the disease. Tatooing and scarification for medical purposes blend into one another in aboriginal practice.

Champlain describes the head of a gar pike, given him on the Atlantic coast by an Indian. He was told that it was used when anyone had a bad headache to scratch the part where the pain was. The use of a decoction of the root of the poisonous water hemlock in scarification by various Indian tribes confirms their knowledge that this plant eases pain when administered in this manner.

Another important method of curing the sick was the sweat bath. Coe (1966) reports the existence in 850 A.D. in the ruins of the Classic Maya site, Piedras Negras in Mexico of eight sweat baths. These were complete with stone built hearths lined with potsherd, masonry benches for the bathers and drains to carry off the water used in the bath. Sweat baths were used in Saxon England. Their value and dangers are discussed in the Icelandic medical manuscript of 1475.

Huron Smith describes how the Ojibwe and Menomini used coils of the branches of Canada balsam, hemlock, white pine, white cedar and American yew in their sweat baths which they took for cleansing, medication or ceremonial reasons. Candidates for degrees in the medicine lodge must undergo a sweat bath in a ceremonial way. He remarks that the methods of taking a sweat bath had not changed much over time.

Lescarbot, writing of the Indians of Acadia in 1606 says, But yet they have other preservatives which they use very often, that is to say sweats, whereby they prevent sickness. He goes on to describe how they build and use the sweat bath. Capt. John Smith wrote of the Indian sweat baths in Virginia in 1612 and De Vries of those in the New Netherlands. Champlain wrote of the Huron practice when he wintered in Huronia in 1616. To bring a cure the Oqui will go and sweat himself with several of his friends. For two or three hours they will steam themselves under long strips of bark, wrapped up in skins with stones heated in the fire. They sing the whole time, stopping only to catch their breath or take a drink of water, for of course they get extremely thirsty.

Sagard reports the use of the sweat bath both for preserving health and curing the sick among the Huron. He says some of the French joined the Indians in the bath and was astonished that they could and would support it and that modesty did not persuade them to abstain. Thirty years later Evelyn (Diary 1655) reported seeing at St. Germaine in France some caves walled off and set aside for the sick to sweat in.

Sweat baths were also an important part of that other side of medicine, the magic side. The shaman or medicine man took a sweat bath in order to find the answers to questions such as whether his tribe would win the coming battle, the cause of an epidemic, where the game was, as well as to bring rain or make his medicine more effective.

Another purpose of the sweat bath was ceremonial purification prepatory to initiation into the Medewiwin. The candidate must also fast. Father Brebeuf wrote in 1636 that formerly it was necessary for a candidate for medicine man among the Huron to fast for thirty days in a cabin apart and for his servant who brought him his wood to fast also. The candidate must talk to the spirits during his fast.

The Winnebago shaman told the candidate for initiation, If you do not possess one of the spirits from whom to obtain this strength and power you will be of no consequence socially and those around you will show you little respect. . .If you are blessed by the spirits and if you then blow your breath upon people who are ill they will become well and thus you will help your fellow man (Radin 1957). This dual aspect, the spiritual and altruistic on the one hand, and the economic and social on the other, is part and parcel of all shamanism, as it is of society everywhere, even the 20th. century western medical profession.

In the best tradition, the Winnebago medicine man offers tobacco to grandmother earth, and asks her to let him take the herbs he needs. Make my medicine powerful, grandmother. The two most general theories of the cause of disease were the entry into the body of a foreign object which the shaman must remove before recovery could take place, or the loss of the soul which must be induced by the shaman to return. The practical and indisputable fact that herbs, sweating and purging were also effective did not in the least lessen the need of the tribe for the shaman.

While the shaman owed his power to his control over and ability to talk to the spirits, magic does not owe its power to any supernatural being. Magic forces an object to do what you wish it to do. This act of magic is dangerous and therefore the doer must protect himself by knowing the correct spells, the words, and the correct actions, the rites, so that his own magic does not turn around and harm him. A simple magic act performed by many to-day is spitting on the dice before throwing them, while intoning certain words. We can all think of many others.

Most of the magic charms listed by Densmore as used by the Chippewa were hunting charms. Before the Indian possessed firearms the ability to approach game close enough to kill with a bow and arrow required a magic charm to lure the game towards you. Clayton’s account (1687) in this book of the Virginia Indian who used the angelica root to call the deer to him is worth reading in this context. There is the possibility that something about the odor of the plant actually attracts the game sought. The female deer secretes a scent between her toes that attracts the male deer and the hunter tries to mimic this scent with his hunting charm. Sweet flag root was used to scent the nets and ensure a full catch of whitefish.

Love potions were also very important. They sold for the highest prices and few white inquirers were told of all the ingredients. Both the blue and red lobelia roots were used to reconcile quarrelsome couples. Doubtless if both men and women believed such potions worked, they did.

A curing ceremony of the Huron that impressed the Jesuits was described by Father Pijart in 1637. A number of stones about the size of pigeon eggs were placed in a fire hot enough to burn the cabin down. The medicine men placed their hands behind their backs and bending down took the red hot stones in their mouths, holding them well within the mouth for as long as a minute. They walked to the patients and blew on them. When one spat out a stone it fell on the ground and sparks of fire issued from it. Next morning one of the performers’ mouth was examined and found to be unmarked, unhurt and whole. Champlain and Sagard also describe such ceremonies where hot coals were taken in the mouth or rubbed by the medicine man’s hands. In other ceremonies the hands and arms were plunged into boiling liquid.

Younken (1924) reports that the Zuni of the southwest had secret fraternities who performed with fire. They chewed the flower heads and roots of yarrow beforehand and rubbed this mixture on their limbs. Those who danced in the fire used this same mixture for bathing beforehand. They placed some in their mouths before taking red hot coals in the mouth for as long as a minute. To-day it is known that yarrow stimulated the flow of gastric juices and is useful as a gargle in inflammation of the gums.

Father Lalement in 1641 writes of one Huron who pretended to handle the hot coals with the other medicine men but was very careful not to touch them. One night he dreamed that he was handling fire and heard a song which he remembered perfectly when he awoke. He sang this song at the next fire handling ceremony and found he could take live coals in his mouth and plunge his bare arm in boiling kettles without feeling any pain or being injured. On the contrary he felt a coolness of the hands and mouth.

Alexandra David-Neel (1931) describes the training undergone by anchorites in Tibet in order to learn how to sleep on the ice and snow in the depth of winter without any covering other than a cotton shirt. It was a process of concentrating the mind on warmth. Thinking of heat until finally they became warm. In Tibet power was obtained by learning to concentrate one’s energies.

The north American shaman learned by dreaming. All early reports agree that the guiding principle of the Indian’s life was the dream. Nothing of consequence could be done without the right dream. Every member of the tribe dreamt, but only those who had had several true dreams would be taken seriously.

The shaman fasted apart to dream of the plant that would cure a particular disease. The account of the dream of the muskrat root as told in the text under sweet flag is typical. Each shaman was therefore a specialist. He would treat only certain diseases. He consulted with other medicine men and was also often at odds with the various other ranks of sorcerers.

The Greek principle of nothing to excess guided the life of the American Indian to the extent that the shaman believed that if he tried to dream of the cures for too many disease, or tried to use his powers too often, they might leave him.

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