Two lessons are linked to this review of Mahican health and disease. The first lesson pertains to the history of health and disease or illness during the period of time the Mahican culture existed as a standalone, followed by the period of time that developed due to Moravian missions, the influx of colonial settlers, and the removal of Mahican converts westward through Pennsylvania and finally to Ohio. The second lesson focuses on exactly what this detailed review of Mahican history teaches us regarding the changes in health that occur due to such things as cultural assimilation, cultural changes in lifestyle, the impacts of social change and evolution over time on disease, and even the impacts that removal to new settlement regions can have on a population’s particular health status.
The history of Mahican and Moravian-Mahican community health and medicine will be reviewed on its own on this page. The history of the changes in Mahican and Moravian-Mahican medicine, disease and health that took place over time is actually a fairly complex series of events. In the second section, I will introduce two new concepts to this important story of our local history. Not only did the methods of living day-to-day change due to cultural and lifestyle modifications, so too did the medical problems this group experienced due to significant changes in living habits. This represents the merging of two unique theories popular in academia but almost unheard of in the everyday writings, the sequent occupance theory of geography and the epidemiological transition theory of epidemiology.
When considering epidemiology and illness, it is good to step back for a moment and try to define the types of medical conditions and ailments that may be suffered due to the Native American lifestyle.
First, there is traumatic disease to take into consideration, which requires no review here. The types of traumatic disease that can be suffered are fairly obvious, and are dependent mostly on lifestyle and the types of threats to health that exist, such as uncontrollable natural events and forces, injuries due to the types of tools that are acquired by a culture and their utilization requirements, and the effects of life habits and practices on health and well-being, such as the lack of an active lifestyle or not.
The second factor to consider with regard to 17th and 18th Century Native American health are the types of infectious diseases that exist. There are the obvious forms of infectious disease carried to and from people by hosts and vectors, like the mosquito borne fever maladies, lice- and flea-borne disease related to hunted wild animals, the intestinal worms they sometimes bear and should the native own a horse, equine illnesses native to the region. These disease are no doubt going to be very different from the livestock borne diseases of modern times. Nevertheless they existed at this time, of which little can really be told about this piece of local history.
Third, there are human borne diseases that can be transmitted from one person to the next. These in fact did exist in Native American settings, although we are often led to think that many such diseases were in fact brought to Indian settlements from afar. Whereas the most obvious human-to-human transmitted diseases that immigrants did infect natives with do exist, such as measles and small pox, there were also diseases that were transmitted in te other direction, such as syphilis and some of the more esoteric and unusual diseases typical to a region due to the unique combination of climate, ecology and culture.
Fourth, there were these unique sets of environment generated that each region had, like the fungal originated chiclero’s ear of Mexico, developed only the highly humid tropical environments where individuals gathering chicle latex were most susceptible. In some parts of the New York area, there were diseases related only to estuarine environments. In the Catskill, diseases linked to the high elevation and cold temperatures become more susceptible.
Fifth, there are diseases that are very much linked to the local foodways, a situation in turned also defined by local environmental factors. In what is Appalachia for example, healthy wild rice was a valuable food product, at lower elevations oxalate rich arum root crops were abundant. Deep within th forest settings, many foods were limited to just berries and pemmican, whereas closer to waterbodies, rivers and the like, a much healthier fish based diet was common. For Hunter-Gatherer systems, where tribes tended to move back and forth between inland forest settings and open settings adjacent to the shores of water, we find fish oil-rich foods capable of improving health and longevity abundant in the fishing areas, and animal fat or grease a more common commodity when residing in areas with less of the highly valuable fish and eel oil stores available.
We should assume that like many cultures, Mahican culture and foodways played an important role in the longevity and survival of their most important contributors–their elders. The survival to an old age, like the 80s, in the Native American 17th an 18th century setting was very much scarce if not rare. This was due to the stressors that had to be endured in such settings, and the threats to life that always existed, ranging from problems linked to the skirmishes always happening between tribal communities, to lack of adequate food or shelter, to the risk of disease brought on by changes in life style and more importantly, changes in traditional interactions with other social groups from afar, other disease carriers.
A typical part of a book reviewing another culture native to some colonial setting is the chapter on the lifestyle and health of these other social settings. Loskiel provided such a chapter in his book, which he began by stating:
“THE Indians here spoken of have in general a greater number of diseases than the Europeans, which is chiefly owing to their manner of living, especially in hunting, for they do not walk leisurely through the woods, to come suddenly upon their game, but run with such swiftness and perseverance that they even weary the deer, and sometimes follow it to the distance of ten miles from their huts. Besides this, they lift and carry burdens without the least thought or caution about the consequences. An Indian makes nothing of dragging a deer of one hundred or one hundred and fifty pound weight home, through a very considerable tract of forest; at least he asserts not to feel its weight, even when it is evident that he is quite exhausted. Sometimes they fast from morning till late at night, and then, making a sudden transition from hunger and want to the greatest plenty, they gratify their voracious appetites without constraint. The painful consequences of these irregularities are too visible in old age.
“The women carry everything on their heads, fastened by a thong round their soreheads. By means of this, they frequently support above an hundred weight, the load being placed so as to rest also upon their backs. This may be the cause of the frequent pains and stiffness of the neck and back, with which the old women are so frequently afflicted.
“The most common diseases among the Indians are the pleurisy, weakness and pains in the stomach and breast, consumption, rheumatism, diarrhœa, bloody flux, agues, and inflammatory fever’s. Epilepsy and madness are not frequent. Floodings are common among the women, even in old age.
“The small-pox- was brought by the Europeans into the country,and is one of the principal causes of their dislike to them. For they detest and dread this disease more than any other, and are never more destitute of courage and prudence, than when it appears among them. They leave their nearest relations to die in the woods, and content themselves with bringing them a little food and drink. The patients themselves appear in despair, and know not how to support life with patience. Most of them die before the small-pox appear.
“For some time past the venereal disease has also made its appearance among them”. They charge the Europeans with having introduced also this plague.”
Loskiel provides us with important insights as well into the use of the sweat lodge by natives, a topic pretty much reviewed extensively numerous times, by numerous authors, past and present. Loskiel writes:
“Their general remedy for all disorders, small or great, is a sweat. For this, purpose they have in every town an oven, situated at some distance from the dwellings, built either of stakes and boards covered with sods, or dug in the side of a hill, and heated with some red-hot stones. Into this the patient creeps naked, and the heat soon throws him into such a profuse sweat, that it falls from him in large drops. As soon as he finds himself too hot, he creeps out, and immediately plunges himself into the river, where he continues about half a minute, and retires again into the oven. Having performed this operation three times successively, he smokes.his pipe with composure, and in many cases the cure is complete.
“The women have either an oven for their own use, or do not attempt this mode of cure.
“In some places ovens are constructed large enough to receive several persons. Some chuse to pour water now and then upon the heated stones, to increase the steam, and promote a more profuse sweat. Many Indians in health, make a practice of going into the oven about twice a week to renew their strength and spirits. Some pretend by this operation to prepare themselves for a business which requires mature deliberation and artifice.
“If the sweat does not answer in removing the disorder, other means are applied. Most Indians believe, that no medicine has any efficacy, unless administered by a professed physician, which many persons of both sexes pretend to be. They have learnt their art either by instructions received from others, or by experiments made with different herbs and plants. Old men, who can hunt no more, commence physicians, in order to procure a comfortable livelihood. One is acquainted with the virtue of herbs, another with that of barks; but they seldom know how and when, to suit the medicine to their patient’s cafe, and thus many fall victims to their ignorance. They generally make a secret of their knowledge, which commonly perishes with them. Some however leave it as an inheritance to their children or friends, by instructing them before their death.”
These culturally-biased rants and raves provided by Loskiel are not atypical for early writers of this time, attempting to provide a description that is very much of a modern anthropological nature. This line of thinking, or better yet, socioculturally-derived redefinition of a peoples, is also demonstrated by the works of several of writers also given high status by many historians. Ignoring the overtly British-derived Anglo- and religiocentricity this portion of Loskiel’s writings bear, we do find some uses for his work, although quite limited and by no means directly correlated to any single group of Indian tribes or nations. Putting all of this aside for the moment, Loskiel’s coverage of Native American herbal medicines deserve brief mention (typical for most my reviews of these types of writing), in the least to ensure a sense of completeness for this review. Later, we may be able to link some of these herbs back to the Shekomeko Moravian Indian settlement.
Loskiel’s writings also draw us a little closer to understanding the disease Tschoop suffered. Just before his transgression in the herbal medicine list, he writes the following:
“In burnings and chilblains they use a decoction of beech leaves, as a speedy and successful remedy. A warm poultice, made of the flour of Indian corn, is laid upon all boils and impostumes, till they are ripe, when they are opened with a lancet. In letting blood, a small piece of flint or glass is fastened to a wooden handle, and placed upon the vein; which they strike, till the blood gushes out. Teeth are drawn with a common pair of pincers, and if the patient moans or cries out during such uncouth operations, lie is heartily laughed at by the physician and the company present.
“Rheumatism is considered by them as a mere external disorder. They therefore prescribe nothing inwardly, but scarify those parts of the body where the pain is most violent. In cupping, they make small incisions on the skin with a knife, upon which they place a small calabash, and for a lamp use a piece of lighted birch-bark. Some indeed take medicines inwardly, which often effect a radical cure. If a decoction of two or three different roots will not answer, they make a composition of twenty various forts. Yet bathing and sweating are considered as the most powerful remedies. Some apply the. bark of the white walnut to the part affected, by which the pain is frequently removed, and an eruption produced in some part of the body. It is extremely acrid, and occasions a pungent pain on that part of the skin to which it is applied, which afterwards appears as if it had been scorched. For the head-ach they apply a small piece of this bark on the temples, and for the tooth-ach, on the cheek, near to the tooth affected. A strong decoction of it used warm to a fresh wound, is an excellent styptic, and prevents a swelling of the parts. , But after it has been applied for a day or two, it must be changed for a decoction of the root of sarsaparilla, which is of such a healing quality, that the wound closes in a short time.”
Two important insights are provided here.
First, the notion of blood-letting by Indians is a common theme to nearly all missionary writings and explorer-trapper recounts published between the late 16th century and the early 19th century. This blood-letting practice may in fact resemble the European practice of the same, but has a different set of underlying philosophical notions promoting its use. Following a review of numerous accounts of this practice, which is not evident across all lines of Native American culture, we find this practice seems to resemble more a practice of spirit-release, in which the thorn (or lancet) is use to cause an opening in the skin, with the goal of releasing whatever spirit has been trapped within. There are significant numbers of accounts which all lead to this line of reasoning for better understanding the philosophical reasoning related to the thorn, flint, knife, or lancet. For the writer, the ability to detail this method whilst describing its philosophical purpose adds a bit of character and authenticity to the writing that had been produced. It also presents to the reader the notion that the writer is knowledgeable, making other topics covered seem less questionable and more credible. Loskiel is not the first to engage in such trickery as a writer, and most certainly will not be the last.
Second, rheumatism is mentioned as an illness experienced by Indians. This becomes important when we take into account Tschoop’s overall health and the physiognomic features of his illness. Rheumatism is one of the diseases suggested by myself as Tschoop’s primary test in life, and the reason for his possible acceptance, especially during his later years, following deformation and disability onset, as a medicine man. It is also te opinion of this author (myself) that Rheumatism is one of the two most likely diseases Tschoop suffered, the evidence for which is found in the historical painting of the converts produced by Haigt.
The interpretation of Mahicans as River Indians is found in a brief paragraph in Loskiel’s chapter on the different tribes being discussed (PART I, CHAPTER X. Historical Account of the Indians since the Arrival of the Europeans. Political Constitution of the Delawares and Iroquois.). He writes: “Detached Indian families living among the white people on the banks of rivers, and on that account called River Indians, are generally a loose set of people, like our gypsies. They make baskets, brooms, wooden spoons, dishes, &c. and fell them to the white people for victuals and clothes.” Loskiel also mentions the Mahicans by their authoritative name occasionally in passing in this section, often in association with the Delawares and Cherokees.