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  • New Worlds, New MedicinesIndian Remedies and English Medicine in Early America
  • Martha Robinson

In the late seventeenth century, a traveling clergyman named John Clayton wrote that Indians of Virginia had dozens of herbal cures for snakebite, which they held as "great secrets." Clayton, however, frankly doubted that any of these supposed remedies worked. To prove his point, he related the story of a pair of Virginia gentlemen who had been told that the herb dittany was so powerful that it could not only cure a snakebite, it would also kill the snake. Anxious to test the theory, the gentlemen tied a bunch of dittany to a stick and chased down a rattlesnake, waving the stick over its head. The snake slithered away, but unable to escape, "at last stretched her self out at length and lay seemingly dead." The plant had evidently worked, and the men, "tired with skipping about after the snake," laid the dittany on its head and retired for refreshments. Upon their return, they found their hypothesis disproved, for the snake was gone, and the gentlemen decided that the dittany had not harmed her, but she "had only stretched herself out, because she had been tired with the pursuit." The clergyman concluded that such mistakes were probably common, and thus many plants with no virtue at all had acquired great reputations.

Dittany's failure notwithstanding, the clergyman did not dismiss Indian medicine. Most of the Virginia Indians knew some useful remedies, he wrote, and they also had recognized medical specialists whom they sought out "upon greater Emergencys." The Indians held these doctors in great esteem, Clayton wrote, and for good reason. With nature as their "great Apothecary," [End Page 94] Indian physicians used the leaves, fruits, barks, and roots of plants and trees to cure both internal and external ailments, and were "most famous for curing of wounds." Some plants that Clayton described, such as angelica and sassafras, had long since been adopted by colonial doctors and folk practitioners alike. Others were less famous, whether "Tythemel," an unidentified plant used by the Indians as a purge, or the "Swamp-Plumb-tree," with which he reported the Indians "cure[d] the Dropsy." The reputation of Indian physicians was such that the colonists also sometimes asked them for help, and Clayton reported that one Indian doctor had saved a man from blindness after several white physicians had failed in the attempt. Not only were Indian doctors knowledgeable about local remedies, but they also sought to preserve their medical knowledge for future generations, preserving their remedies in "a kind of temple" and also passing their knowledge down to their students.

Despite this largely positive evaluation of Indian medicine, Clayton's praise was tempered with a degree of irritation. He had tried to learn more about Indian medicine than the physicians were willing to reveal, and in his frustration characterized the Indians as a "sullen close people [who] will answer very few questions." Because Indian physicians proved unwilling to reveal details of their medical recipes or treatment, Clayton leaped to the conclusion that they themselves did not know or care why their medicines worked. In short, unlike the English, they had remedies but no medical theory. "They know little of the nature or reason of things," he wrote. "Ask them any question about the operation of a remedy, & if in good humour, perhaps they will reply, it cures; otherwise they will shrugg their shoulders & you may ask 40 questions & not know whether they understood the thing, or what it that you say to them."1

John Clayton's account of Indian medicine illustrates themes that recur in much English colonial writing on the subject. The English assumed that the [End Page 95]

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Figure 1.

Supposed remedies for snake bites circulated widely in early America. Mark Catesby wrote that "a Gentleman of good Reputation in Carolina" had told him that he had seen an Indian rub himself with the juice of the purple bindweed, "immediately after which, he handled a Rattle-Snake with his naked Hands without receiving any harm from it, though thought to be the most venomous of the Snake-kind." Courtesy...


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