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Medical Encounters

Knowledge and Identity in Early American Literatures

Kelly Wisecup

Publication Year: 2013

The conquest and colonization of the Americas resulted in all kinds of exchanges, including the transmission of diseases and the sharing of medicines to treat them. In this book, Kelly Wisecup examines how European settlers, Native Americans, and New World Africans communicated medical knowledge in early America, and how the colonists represented what they learned in their literatures. Against the prevailing view that colonial texts provide insight only into their writers’ perspectives, Wisecup demonstrates that Europeans, Natives, and Africans held certain medical ideas in common, including a conception of disease as both a spiritual and a physical entity, and a belief in the power of special rituals or prayers to restore health. As a consequence, medical knowledge and practices operated as a shared form of communication on which everyone drew in order to adapt to a world of devastating new maladies and unfamiliar cures. By signaling one’s relation to supernatural forces, to the natural world, and to other people, medicine became an effective means of communicating a variety of messages about power and identity as well as bodies and minds. Native Americans in Virginia and New England, for example, responded to the nearly simultaneous arrival of mysterious epidemics and peoples by incorporating colonists into explanations of disease, while British American colonists emphasized to their audiences back home the value of medical knowledge drawn from cross-cultural encounters in the New World.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

This book would not have come into being but for the wise guidance and inspiration of my teachers and colleagues. Thanks go to Leslie Babcox, James Bell, David Dalton, William Horrell, and Stephen Kneeshaw for encouraging my early attempts at scholarship; this book owes much to their direction and intellectual curiosity. I thank my...

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pp. 1-36

In 1761, Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian and a Presbyterian minister, wrote an “Account of the Montauk Indians, on Long Island” in which he described several aspects of Montaukett culture. Occom had lived at Montauk since 1749, during which time he founded a school for Montaukett students, married and established a family with ...

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1. Epidemic, Encounter, and Colonial Promotion in Virginia

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pp. 37-65

In 1585, Sir Walter Ralegh sent an expedition to the “new found land of Virginia” with Queen Elizabeth’s nominal support and the use of her pinnace.1 The colony of several hundred men was England’s first attempt to establish a permanent settlement in the Americas, although Ralegh also directed the men to search for gold and a northwest...

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2. Healing, Medical Authority, and Moral Degeneration in New England

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pp. 66-96

Illnesses such as the one Harriot described in his Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia continued to devastate Native peoples throughout the Americas. In the seventeenth century, some tribes lost up to 95 percent of their members as a result of epidemics that swept the coast of New England. Southern New England...

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3. African Testimony, Dangerous Communications, and Colonial Medical Knowledge in the 1721 Boston Inoculation Controversy

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pp. 97-126

In 1721, Reverend Ebenezer Parkman, of Westborough, Massachusetts, received “two instance [letters] from friends who had just been innoculated [sic] for smallpox, [and] immediately burnt them both for fear of catching the disease from them.”1 The letters arrived during a smallpox epidemic that struck Boston after several enslaved...

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4. Obeah, Slave Revolt, and Plantation Medicine in the British West Indies

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pp. 127-160

Just as Africans throughout North America continued to use knowledge of inoculation to maintain the health of their communities, so enslaved Africans in the British West Indies also employed their medical knowledge to strengthen communal bonds. In several locations, they drew on obeah—a “medicinal complex” of interconnected herbal...

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5. Drunkenness, Syphilis, and History in Samson Occom’s Medical Writing

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pp. 161-196

Late in 1765, Mohegan Samson Occom boarded a ship in Boston and traveled to London with Nathaniel Whitaker, who, like Occom, was a Presbyterian minister. For the next two and a half years, Occom toured Great Britain, raising funds for his mentor Eleazar Wheelock’s mission school for Native children. In the course of his transatlantic...

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pp. 197-206

Texture—the narrative fragmentation and formal inconsistencies that signal colonists’ transcriptions of Native and African knowledge and the influence of that knowledge on colonial writing—is a key feature of colonial American literatures. Furthermore, a focus on texture and the cross-cultural communications it signals presents ...


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pp. 207-254


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pp. 255-258

About the Author

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pp. 259-261

Back Cover

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p. BC-BC

E-ISBN-13: 9781613762882
E-ISBN-10: 1613762887
Print-ISBN-13: 9781625340566
Print-ISBN-10: 1625340567

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 7 illus.
Publication Year: 2013