Hudson Valley Multicultural History


My work in the history of medicine for Dutchess County and the Hudson valley began in 1982 with the discovery of a recipe book written by hand by a Revolutionary War physician of Fishkill, NY–Dr. Cornelius Osborn.   I was not the first person to discover this manuscript.  It had actually been first discovered and discussed by Henry Booth in the form of an article several in the Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook for 1918 .   I accidentally came upon this journal in my university’s library while walking to the stairwell to get to the next floor.

What interested me in this article about Dr. Osborn was the type of information he had left behind in his recipe book or vade mecum.  Such a book was often kept by physicians in order to help them keep track of their favorite formulas or recipes and such.  For Osborn, its purpose was also to pass this knowledge on down to his son, James, who also was going to be a doctor.  In Booth’s review of this document, Booth listed most of the plants mentioned in the manuscript, a few of which I recognized from childhood since they grew in the woods behind my house.  My house was located about a half mile north of Osborn Hill Road. 

Then it hit me.  Could this be who they named Osborn Hill after?  Very quickly the answer to this question became clear to me as I reviewed the lists of plants and other medicines further.  The “pricere ash” that Osborn referred to was in the woods behind my back yard, the “poppel” one of the local poplar trees, “sasaprila”, “Clowns heal all”, “maden har” all plants that I came upon almost daily in the local woods.  I then realized I had discovered something of historical value and since I was trained in the philosophy of the much older doctors who made use of herbs, I figured I could probably identify all of these plants down to the species based on how he was using them.  From that point on I took on the task of deciphering his writing and text to see if I could come to an understanding of Osborn’s medical philosophy and beliefs.  By already knowing about the majority of the medicines he was using and the reasons for theses uses, I felt I had a significant amount of personal insight into this project and from that point on never set it aside except when I ran out of leads for my next  set of queries.

The Vade Mecum

Osborn began to composing this vade mecum in 1768, and probably composed most of it in fairly short time, perhaps over a couple of winters whilst staying warm in his small Dutch style home on the south face of Osborn Hill. This pocket-sized book measures about 4.5 inches by 6.5 inches and consists of 82 pages. Most of the pages have writing on both sides. The paper used to produce the manuscript probably came from one of the primary sources for paper at this time.  No watermark could be seen in the paper used for this document, so whether it was of local origin or one of many such products obtained from another city could not be determined with any certainty.  According to an early map produced on paper mills during the late colonial years, an Orange County paper mill, possibly associated with a Jewish merchantile store in Newburgh, was identified as the possible source.

Based on Cornelius’s penmanship, he was fairly well-educated in writing, was often a phonetic speller, and made the typical frequent use of the shortened spelling and raised letters typical of mid to late colonial handwriting. At times his spellings were considerably off, but not to such an extent that the meaning of each word in this document could not be determined.  One of the most important features of Osborn’s writing and word selection process was his use of both older and more recent abbreviations, sentence forms, medical statements and his selection of medical/pharmacal penmanship and terminology styles.  Osborn was obviously trained in using both the much older documents in which some of the more classic methods of treating illnesses are discussed, along with some of the more common contemporary cultural and medical slang expressions used to define a disease or medicine.


Based on appearances, and the apparent availability of the paper, Dr. Osborn, his wife, or a local artisan sewed this book together using a single piece of folded half-cut (half thickness) tanned cowhide for the cover and cordage made of hemp.  Forty-one pieces of folded paper were sewn to the crease or spine in this pamphlet so that the book could be closed and folded up in order to store well within a sachet or fit nicely into a coat or jacket pocket.  He used this book to compose the various recipes he used most often as a physician. These recipes were most likely related to the most common diseases he had to treat in the valley, and mentioned the most common medicines available to him for the time. This book begins with an introductory statement referring to his oldest son James.  Osborn then goes on to describe a little bit about his training in medicine, including references to his personal and professional philosophy about disease and illness, and his take on some of the more important ailments for the time locally. 

One of the more important philosophical aspects of this manuscript is it informs us of his philosophy for disease.  Osborn views a disease as an imbalance in the body, the effects of which can migrate from one part of the body to the next, taking on different organ systems in different ways.  This is a very common theory for disease at the time, including how and why diseases evolve from one kind of condition to the next in some individuals, and how to treat them in these cases.  Osborn also makes brief reference to the diseases of human psychology that were just beginning to be better understood, although his reasoning for some of these conditions relies upon some much older philosophies that have been around for about 30 or 40 years at the time of his writing.

There are several important and fairly new insights and discoveries I have made since publishing an article on Dr. Osborn back around 1993 (Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook).  Osborn did have some interactions with Yale University, in the least to visit its library, which was the prime source at the time for several of the medical books he refers to (i.e. Daniel Turner’s book on Surgery).  Second, a number of Osborn’s recipes trace back to the early 1700s, and one set of recipes related to a philosophy redefined and written about by a Harvard chemist/alchemist who removed from the Caribbean to Harvard at just the age of 16, learned his alchemy, and came up with a new and updated version of the Philosopher’s Stone, which he termed Ens Veneris.   He discussed his findings on this with another very important alchemist/chemist for the time. Robert Boyle, who understood his Ens Veneris philosophy.  This led the Harvard alchemist Charles Starkey to remove to London one year later (1651) where he continued to practice his alchemy and develop new formulas.  It seems that Starkey’s local history as an alchemist also led to some local fame, due to which an apprentice like Cornelius Osborn learned about this ens veneris as a part of his apprenticeship and so includes this remedy and its use in the vade mecum.

Three Families.

To better understand Osborn’s teachings as a physician, we need to understand the culture of his life as a child and into his early apprenticeship years at about the age of 13 (1735). Around this time in New York/New Netherlands history, roads were still being laid to assist in the north-south-east-west travels at times required of the colonists. Cornelius Osborn was born as one of the first sons of James [Jaems] Osborn, who resided in Haverstraw, about 45 miles south of where Osborn would ultimately reside when he got older (note, this is a disputable date and place, differing from those in the historical recounts of Osborn’s life, and so will be reviewed on another page at a later date).

Cornelius Osborn’s father, James Osborn, worked for the Governor of New York.  His responsibility was to survey the land and produce plans for the Governor as to how to make the best use of this land and produce its much-needed travel routes.  It is probably through one of these excursions that Cornelius Osborn was able to meet his future wife.

During at least one of these travels, James Osborn often made his way as far north as sections of the valley just east of the Catskill mountains. One of the major landowners for this region, and one of the most important political families in charge of both the west side and east side of the Hudson River, was the Parmentier Family, direct descendents of Huguenots arriving to the New Netherlands/New York setting just 60 years earlier. As Cornelius reached his teen years, and accompanied his father at times on these tours of the region, he most likely met up with his future wife Helena Parmentier, the daughter of Maghiel Parmentier–the owner of a castle-like homestead raised upon lands overlooking the Hudson, nestled between the numerous pine trees and hemlocks forming this neck of the river highway.

James Osborn already had significant links to the Parmentiers through the local Dutch families he often associated with down in Haverstraw. Jame’s wife Margaret was herself born in a Dutch Family with major political power for this region. Perhaps James married her due to the need to improve Dutch-English relationships in this region, according to his administrator Governor Colden. This may have also been done in order to reduce the intercultural disputes that could erupt in the Haverstraw region, a rapidly growing rural township setting situated right next to the border of the older New Netherlands, current New York setting and the more recently settled New Britain/(Novum Guernsey) New Jersey setting. Most likely, the initial reason Osborn married into the Parmentiers was like his father’s, it had mostly to do with the need for exchanges between the Dutch, English and now one of the richest French Huguenots families to settle in this area.

By the mid 1700s, the Hudson Valley was initiating its final cultural changes. In terms of political events, American colonists had developed their own cultural lifestyle, with Province of New York citizens forming their own distinct government entity. Although ruled by Great Britain during the earliest years of James and Cornelius Osborns’s upbringings, New York remained to some a former Dutch Colony and to others a successful British Colony. This tendency for the Former New Netherlands to pretty much remain Dutch in nature was not a secret to the Colonial governors and royal members. Most of the citizens situated well north of Haverstraw continued to speak the traditional Dutch dialect and for the most part engaged in traditional Dutch domestics practices considered improper and disrespectful by many British Loyalists. During this time, the homes that many traditional Dutch families resided in were much like those occupied by Haarlem residents of the Netherlands. Their internal layout, their kitchen-common are floor plan, their large deep fireplace, their light blue tile decorations, and even their fold-up bed-closets were also of traditional Dutch design.

One of the more interesting pieces of history related to this type of colonial lifestyle in a multicultural setting is how it impact common religious practice and belief, the teachings of science and health to the common man, and the way in which doctors were trained before receiving their license to practice. There is some evidence to suggest that during this time, the Osborns of this part of the Province of New York had several family members trained in medicine. At some point during his childhood, Cornelius or his father James decided a reasonable career option for Cornelius was to learn medicine.

Exactly how Cornelius became exposed to and initiated his training in medicine is uncertain, but according to the multicultural settings he was raised in, and a review of the contents and his choices of words entered into his vade mecum, Cornelius was trained in a variety of local medical beliefs and practices. Cornelius was not just trained the traditional way, through a former 7-year apprenticeship with a written contract, preferably done in England, during which time he was closely supervised and asked to learn to make medicines as an apothecarian, asked to read numerous European books on this topic, prepare and pass his oral exams on medicine, followed by some clinical training, and of course, throughout all of this continue to tend to his Master’s home while out taking care of medical business.

Instead, Cornelius was trained very locally, an apprenticeship contract for which has never been found. The typical apprenticeship for becoming a physician lasted 7 years. Based upon the first mention of him in Church records and the assumption that he became a physician before marrying, Cornelius initiated his training in medicine at about the age of 14 or in 1836, near Haverstraw, New York.

Cornelius Osborn could have been trained by one or more of his uncles practicing medicine nearby, but a significant amount of evidence found in Osborn’s vade mecum suggests he received the bulk of his training by one or more very local physicians who lacked the type of education seemingly traditional to these other more traditional European trained members of the Osborn family. Due to the multicultural setting Cornelius was raised in, he could have received training in the traditional English and Dutch medical and pharmacy trades, along with some of the newer medical practices emerging within this colonial setting. Osborn’s vade mecum has recipes with such varied and unique histories that we can only suppose that Cornelius was trained in multiple methods, multiple faiths. The faith in healing he came to choose once he had completed this apprenticeship was simply one in which the various pieces of these differing philosophies were merged adequately to make Dr. Osborn feel comfortable in his method of practice.

Removal to Dutchess

When Cornelius Osborn was old enough, he married Helena Parmentier, a young lady just one or two years younger than whom he had doubt met during one of the regular excursions with his father along the Hudson river as far north as the Parmentier Estate. Helena was the daughter of one of the richest and most politically important families of this part of the valley for the time. The Parmentiers were of French-descent, Huguenots raised in stone houses and castles along the Rhine river valley who were forced out of these homes and into the United Netherlands due to their religious practices and beliefs. The castle on the river where Helena resided was originally produced by one of the first Huguenots to move to the New World and to New York. Her father Maghiel made his way through the inner Long Island area (today in or near the Flushing Meadows area), into lower Hudson valley and finally northward into an area just across from the land referred to as apokeepsinck (later known as Poughkeepsie). Two generations later, one of Maghiel’s sons gave birth to Cornelius’s wife-to-be Helena.

Immediately across the river from the Parmentier castle were the Van Kleecks. Their patron, Barent Van Kleeck, was formerly a Colonel in the Dutch Army that fought the Spanish occupying the “Spanish Netherlands” just North of France. His efforts led to the elimination of the Spanish Armada in 1588, followed by a series of small battles finalizing by the Dutch recapture and repossession of this portion of the Netherlands by 1597. In part it was Van Kleeck’s military training and philosophy that made him chose his place of stay during the early 1600s along the Hudson River. However, the nature of Van Kleeck’s upbringing was quite different from that of the Parmentiers, in several ways.

One of the most interesting differences Col. Van Kleeck had pertained to his philosophy on health. Like many residents of the higher elevation protions of the United Netherlands, referred to as the “Upper region”, Van Kleeck believed in that value of fresh mountain air, crisp, clear mountain water, a good and proper diet, and the importance of exercise in the outdoors as the means to good health. This differed considerably from the beliefs of the Huguenots just across the way, who relied heavily upon their regularly trained physicians and curees (female spiritualists and faith healers) for health and guidance, and who lacked the cultural history professed by the Van Kleecks and many other Dutch Families residing in this region. Aside from the Osborns residing much further into the south, there was little traditional English influence upon this family with regard to medicine, until Cornelius became the local physician, and even then, the teachings were primarily a hybrid of the Dutch and English practices at best.

The Emergence of Combined Medical Cultures

The multiculturalism of this part of the Valley along the Hudson River had its reasons for developing. Even before the meetings and interactions between these three families during the 17th and 18th centuries, there were numerous events both locally (in North America) and distantly (in Europe) that set the New Netherlands apart from other European national claims in the New World.



Native American Culture

Prior to European settlement of this part of the New World, the Hudson and Mohawk river valleys formed natural boundaries between several of the Iroquois tribes, the Lenni and Lenape of New Jersey, the Pequots of Connecticut, the Mohegan/Mohicans of New York and Vermont, and a variety of much smaller groups poorly documented due to their small populations and loosely defined cultural settings. One of the better known of these small local tribal cultures was the Wappingi, who for the most part resided along the edges of the great local river. The Wappingi are perhaps best known for their role in the history of the local Manahata island, for it is they who signed the famous contract written up for Dutch ship Captain Peter Minuit, in which they relinquished the Island of Manahat (Manhattan) for a collection of merchandise on board the Dutch Ships totalling (using modern currency values) 22 dollars.

The earliest Native American information related to medicine is found in the earliest accounts of explorative trips to this part of the New World and inland along the river bearing the Spanish name Montagnes (mountains), known by the French as Mauritius and later by the English as the Hudson River. The first Dutch settler and medical trained explorer to enter this part of the New World was a scientist and physician hired by the East Indies Spice Company–Harmens Mynderz Vandenboerghen. Around 1642 he was on a ship travelling deep into the river valley, as far north as an area just east of the Catskill Mountains. Departing from the ship to explore the local setting, he made his way inland and came upon a Native American settlement (later identified as either Mohawk or Onondagan) where he witnessed a shamanic ritual. In a journal that he kept, uncovered by a descendent during the late 1800s, Vandenboerghen penned one of the earliest descriptions of these types of activities engaged in by the Iroquois, but made little to no mention of their use of plants as medicines.

Some of the knowledge of Native American herbal medicine, especially that required of naturalist-explorers, was already published by this time. Very little of this information however pertained directly to New Netherlands settlements. This information of Indian herbal medicine was usually included as a standard section of any and all early to mid-colonial books published on worldwide explorations. For the most part, this knowledge of medicines was the slowest of the natural resource teachings to gain ground in any of the published books or pamphlets, and often took a fairly long time to become popular.

It was not surprising for some of these products to ultimately become popular however. Sir Walter Raleigh’s account of his travels in the late 1580s and early 1590s included a description of the starch-producer Smilax pseudo-china (False China Root or Greenbrier), found to be of economic benefit to English merchants who marketed it as a substitute for their highly marketed starch-root product Smilax China or China-root. Another highly popular trade product pulled from North America by early explorers was the American Ginseng plant (Panax quinquefolius L., as a substitute for P. ginsenga), which due to ongoing trade with China remained one of the most productive natural resource plant medicine businesses in the Colonial Americas well into the late 18th century.

It was uncommon for new medicine discovered to be described in any detail in the earliest colonial documents or recounts of 17th and early 18th century expeditions. Only if a particular plant that was discovered had an earlier relative found to be of benefit, and already published, these plant medicine natural resources were not covered in any detail in the first descriptions of New World products by explorers. Those few that did reach this level of popularity, however, had a specific reason for this change in history.

Native American Panaceas

One of the most famous of these discoveries of indigenous plant medicines that later became highly popular was the use of cinchona as a cure for local endemic diseases common to South and Middle America–malaria. This plant became highly popular due to a missionary’s statement testifying to its miraculous curing powers. The herb remained popular, although not a panacea, until its specificity for certain febrile disease types came to be known, after which its use grew to such an extent in both the professional and non-professional medical world that local sources growing on whatever continent or region was about to be settled became the most common reason to search for these medicines in the new environments. For the most part, this form of researching plant medicines had its products that were generated, however few were as predictable and successful as the original Cinchona and its products. Nevertheless, this market did make other several early North American herbal remedies used by natives popular as well, including primarily any of the numerous Cornus (Dogwood) species noted throughout the eastern part of this continent. Although very popular for decades if not centuries to come, the Cornus substitutes for Cinchona were not as symptomatically effective as the other herbal medicine becoming popular as well, like the strong laxative substitutes for a British (Oriental-origins) remedy Colocynth (Citrullis colocynthis) with similar actions, the previously discovered South American emetic Ipecac, and the variety of blistering agents popular to Colonial and European medical practice (i.e. mustard plaster).

Closer to home, Sassafras also became a very popular natural resource in high demand (first described by explorer Frampton’s writer Nicolas Monardes, ca. 1564), so much that following its popularization as a successful syphilis cure by the British queen, this resulted in extensive harvesting practices of Sassafras extending from Middle America, the place where it was first discovered and documented in writing, across to Florida, and then northward through the Mid-Atlantic region, and into parts of New England as far north as the St. Lawrence Seaway-Canadian border. By 1602, this product was already so overharvested due to its popularity that it became a rare commodity in certain parts of the New World where it was once abundant.

In the Hudson Valley/New York/New Netherlands region, Sassafras was a popular product, but the most impressive and economically important Native American herbal medicine for this region was Polygala S’enega, or ‘Seneca Snakeroot’ as the colonists often referred to it. To them, this was very much an equivalent to the cinchona harvested much further to the south, a plant that appeared to serve as an effective treatment for the various local fevers. Moreover, the earlier explorations of South America had already led to sufficient documentation on the values of Snakeweed/root medicines in general, a philosophy of healing derived from Indian tradition that would have one of the longest standing reverberation traditions ever in the history of writing about the earliest American explorations. For now the following description of a snakebite remedy in general is described. By the time this discovery and printing of the snakeroot use was published for Reverend Francis] Higgeson in his New-Englands Plantation. Or, a short and true description of the commodities and discommodities of that Countrey. Written by Mr. Higgeson, a reuerend Diuine now there a resident. Whereunto is added a Letter, sene by Mr. Graues an Enginere, out of New-England, The second Edition enlarged. (London, T. & R. Cotes…1630), the requirements for defining this medicine to the reader had already been well defined.

About these Snake bite medicines, Higgeson wrote (p C3):

“…this Countrey being very full of Woods and Wildernesses doth also..abound with Snakes and Serpents of strange colours, and huge greatnesse; yea there are some Serpents called Rattle-snakes, that haue Rattles in their Tayles, that will not flye from a man as others will, but will flye vpon him and sting him so mortally, that hee will dye within a quarter of an houre after, except the partie stinged haue about him some of the root of an Hearbe called Snake weed to bite on, and then he shall receive no harme: but yet seldome fals its out that any hurt is done by theses. About three yeers since, an Indian was stung to death by one of them, but wee heard of none since that time.”

Just four years later, another book on this part of the New World would be published by William Wood–New Englands Prospect. A true, lively, and experientall description of that part of America, commonly called New England: discovering the state of the Countrie, both as it stands to our new-come English Planters; and to the old Native Inhabitants. laying downe that which may both enrich the knowledge of the mind-travelling Reader, or benefit the future Voyager. By William Wood. (London: Tho. Cotes…1634). Once again, he went through a fairly lengthy discourse on the valuable local herbal medicine referred to as the snakeweed or snakeroot.

“…that which is most injurious to the person and life of a man is a rattle snake which is generally a yard and a half long, as thicke in the middle as the small of a man’s legge, she hat a yellow body, her back being spotted blacke, russet, yellow, and green colours, placed like seales; at her tail is a rattle, with which she makes a noyse when she is molested, or when she seeth any approach neere her, her necke seems to be no thicker than a man’s thumb yet she can swallow a Squerril, having a great wide mouth, with teeth as sharp as needles, where with she biteth such as tread upon her; her poyson lyeth in her teeth, for she hath no sting. When any man is bitten by any of these creatures, the poyson spreads so suddenly through the veines & so runs to the heart, that in one houre it causeth death, unless he hath the Antidote to expell the poyson, which is a root called snakeweed, which must be champed, the spittle swallowed, and the root applyed to the sore; there is present cure against that which would be present death without it: this weed is ranck poyson, if it be taken by any man that is not bitten: whoever is bitte[n] by these snakes his flesh becomes as spotted as a Leaper untill hee be perfectly cured. It is reported that if the party live that is bitten, the snake will dye, and if the partie die the snake will live. This is a most poysonous and dangerous creature, yet nothing so bad as the report goes of him in England. For whereas he is sayd to kill a man with his breath, and that he can flye, there is no such matter, for he is naturally the most sleepie and unnimble creature that lives, never offering to leape or bite any man, if he be not trodden on first, and it is their desire in hot weather to lye in paths where the sunne may shine on them, where they will sleep so soundy that I have knowne foure men strive over one of them, and never awake her: 5 or 6 men have beene bitten by them, which by using snakeweede were all cured, never any losing his life by them. Cowes have been bitten, but being cut in divers places, and this weede thrust into their flesh were cured. I never heard of any beast that was yet lost by any of them, saving one Mare.” [p. 17].

But if any of the readers of this book requested further information on the local medicinal herbs, Wood could tell them nothing more than what he had already published: “…there is likewise growing all manner of Hearbes for meate, and medicine, without eyther the art or helpe of man, as sweet Marjoran, Purselane, Sorrell, Peniriall, Yarrow, Mirtle, Saxisarilla, bayes, &c.”

The New Garden of Eden

One of the more common ways of attracting settlers to the New World was through a pastoral “Garden of Eden” approach. This method of defining the New World paid less attention to Native American settlements, except to discuss their existence for purpose of developing missions in these settings, and paid more attention to the Garden in which Adam and Eve first met. This interpretation of the New World would be come popular time and time again over the next century, and would be the philosophical reason many took to the New World the ways in which they did, by moving to the perfect mountain climate setting, or onto land which resembled other Gardens of Eden previously colonized in African and South America. Reverend Francis Higgeson notes this in the most traditional Greco-Roman fashion by adding much of the symbolism first posed by these writers in the classics:

Letting passe our Voyage by Sea, we will now begin our discourse on the shore of New-England. And because the life and wel-fare of euerie Creature here below, and the commoditiousnesse of the Countrey whereas such Creatures liue, doth by the most wise ordering of Gods prouidence, depend next vnto, vpon the temperature and disposition of the foure Elements, Earth, Water, Aire and Fire (For as the mixture of all these, all sublunarie things are composed; so by the more or lesse inioyment of the wholesome temper and conuenient vse of these, consisteth the onely well-being both of Man and Beast in a more or lesse comfortable measure in all Countreys vnder the Heauens) Therefore I will now indeauour by Gods helpe to report nothing but the naked truth, and that both to tell you of the discommodities as well as of the commodities, though as the idle Prouerbe is, Trauellers may lye by authoritie, and so may take too much sinfull liberties that way.” [pages B-(B2)].

Of the influence of the first element Earth, he discussed the condition of the soil in relation to gardening, and the various root crops, herbage, vines, fruit, wood, resins, dyes, soaps, and beasts that farms could establish. As for the water, he details the various forms of fish and shellfish. For air, he reviews the impacts of air and climate on both man and livestock health. As for the influences of the New World’s Fire, he notes its benefits to peoples’ attitudes in general, but makes brief mention of the food for Fire–wood and pine torches.

In terms of health and medicine he notes: “diuers Physicall Herbes” (laxatives).

As for the healthiness of “Aire” (climate) he wrote: [pages C-C2]

The Temper of the Aire of New-England is one speciall thing that commends this place. Expereience doth manifest that there is hardly a more healthfull place top be found in the World that aggreeth better with our English Bodyes. Many that haue beene weake and sickly in old England, by comming hither haue beene thoroughly healed and grown healthfull and strong. For here is an extraordinarie cleer and dry Aire that is of a most healing nature to all such as are of a Cold, Melancholy, Flegmatick, Reumaticke temper of body.”

He next recounts his own recovery from an “extraordinarie weakeness” of the stomach, and “aboundance of Melancholicke humors.” With his stomach recovered and his melancholy gone, he can now “Cast away my Cap” or dispell his weaknesses. He notes that others, such as his child with King’s Evil, were cured by this migration as well. Regarding the Scurvy that strikes and kills many travellers,

[T]he healthfulnesse of the countrie . . . farre exceedeth all parts that euer I haue beene in: It is observued that few or none doe heere fall sicke, vnless of the Scuruy that they bring from aboard the Shippe with them, where of I haue cured some of my Companie onely by labour.” [D2]

In notes published on a trip up the Hudson River by Dutch Fray Adrian Vander Donck in The Representation of New Netherland, 1650, a listing of herbs was provided that served to the readers as some form of symbolism of the land they were about to settle. (Vander Donck would later claim land just north of the estuarine inlet and so named after him–currently pronounced Yonkers).

Fray Vander Donck noted three dozen plants, some of which at first sound like wild varieties which the Europeans introduced into this country during their earliest years of cohabitation with Native Americans. In fact many of these introduced species bear old histories of introduction to the New World. The Plantain, for example, is either referring to the ‘Waybrode’ of Iceland and Viking tradition (Plantago majus, our Broad-leaved plantain), a plant possibly introduced to North America as suggested Mi’kmaq Indian teachings (The call it “White Man’s Foot”), or it refers to the native plant Water Plantain (Alisma sp.), found growing in the salty estuarine and saltwater bays but usually not so far inland as Vander Donck’s writings suggest. Other plants noted by Vander Donck which have a similarity to well known European herbs included Mallows, Crane’s Bill, Hart’s Tongue, Sea-Beach Orach, Lingwort, Polypody ferns, Tower-Mustard, Venus’ hair, Water Germander, and White Mullein. Those which were familiar garden herbs to readers were Agrimony, Blessed Thistle Laurel, Marsh-mallows, Milfoil, Tarragon, Violet, Wild Leek, Wild Marjoram, “many sorts of ferns,” and “Wild Lilies of different kinds.” The following herbs that he noted may have been introduced by earlier gardens laid out in the north Atlantic Maritime region by Russian and Viking settlers, or they may be the result of their escape from the earliest gardens by then being laid by the more recent European French, Dutch and English settlers: Shepherd’s Purse, Mallows, Marsh-mallows, Blessed Thistle, and Milfoil (Yarrows). His mention of Dragon’s Blood is a reflection of the results of explorations which took place earlier by the Dutch in the Pacific Ocean, the source for the mythical dragon’s blood used since ancient times as a medicine (usually a Dracaena species of the Lily family that produced a deep red resin very much resembling dried blood spat on a leaf; dried, this resin was sold as the medicine sanguis draconis [abbreviated Sang. Drac.] or “dragon’s blood”). Vander Donck’s knowledge of New Spain natural history is suggested by his mention of Wild Indigo, “Spanish figs which grow out of leaves.” To remain truthful and popular to his readers, Vander Donck of course also mentions “Snakeroot”.

Multiculturalism is born in the Valley

The European impact of multiculturalism on the Hudson Valley very much begins with this interaction between the Captain Minuit and the Indians. Captain Minuit was Dutch, but a number of his shipmates and passengers on board were not. In this way, these first ships to land on Manahata were also the first to introduce a variety of European traditions (and disease risks) to this newly established colony. The various religious groups and cultural lifestyles previously absent from this region, were about to set the stage for the next several decades of cultural migration activities. Whereas both the English and the Dutch were very much trying to convince their social and cultural “outcasts” to go to the New World to practice their lifestyles and faiths, the Dutch had the advantage when it came to cultural diversity. There were more different cultural groups, large and small, migrating from the Old World to the New World from the United Netherlands that there were from Great Britain. According to a Yale historian in his book about this topic published in 1890, this multiculturalism of New York was due mostly to the already well-established multicultural traditions typical of many Dutch societies in the Old World.

Aside from the Dutch, the inhabitants of the United Netherlands included Germanic peoples from the Luxemburg section of this Union, the French and German Speaking Huguenots of the Rhinelands area, the Moravians of Eastern Europe where many natural theological traditional faiths were borne within mountain settings, members of the variety of Jewish cultures then well dispersed throughout European such as the Ashkenazi, the Sephardic and the newly-borne Natural Philosophy-raised Jews of Eastern Europe devoted to their wildernessman and founder Baal Shem Tov.

Countries we know of and think about today were less well-defined at the time, or they simply did not exist. Government settings at time were less important than religious and cultural settings. In this way certain geographic regions became well-known for their traditions, not their government or political powers and beliefs. The French of one area could the next year become the Rhinelanders of the another country. The Russian Sephardic Jew of one era in Soviet history might rapidly become the Spanish Sephardic of the next, and the Mediterranean Sephardic of still later. This transformation of cultures took place with the Dutch and their neighbors as well, and after they migrated to the New World, to many it seemed this cycle of lifestyle was initiated all over again in the New Netherlands.

Somewhere amongst these different cultural settings in United Netherlands and New Netherlands were the traditional Dutch families themselves. Like members of the Jewish cultures, they too had their upper or high-country, high-society members and low-landers. According to British travellers during the 1600s, the communities of the upper urban settings consisted of rich artisans, scholars, and politicians, whereas as the lowlands consisted mostly of poor countrymen and farmers. Once these people came to the New World, this new way of life really did not change. Due to governmental authority over land use methods and procedures, the Dutch style of land ownership remained the main defining way in which families, cultural areas, and religious groups were formed in the Hudson Valley.

Religion played the most important role in keeping the multiculturalism alive in both the Old and New World. Forming the paths that connected these various groups and cultures together were the socially accepted community leaders and mystics who played important roles as religious leaders. Ultimately, a number of these mystics would play some of the most important roles in enabling the settlements to the New World to finally take place during the early 1600s. Whereas just thirty years prior, as this region came under Spanish rule and its northwest edges became the Spanish Netherlands, three were few of these mystics demonstrating their sociopolitical power, with the defeat of the Spanish rule by the 1590s, came opportunities for both upper class and lower class members alike. Some sects or faiths of Christianity were led by the noble families of the United Netherlands, who would ultimately use their connections to purchase or pay the captain for taking his ships and their followers to the new world. Still other sects or faiths of this regions had very unusual origins, bred and borne by the poorest of the poor, in direct conflict with many of the Christian Church’s teachings, even the teachings of Christian religions twice removed from the Pope and Catholicism such as Protestant Reformed Calvinists and Lutherans.

The Boehmites

The most influential mystic of this time was Jakob Boehme [Bohme], a shoemaker of the Germanic part of Europe closest to the United Netherlands. Boehme became a mystic by recompiling some of the writings, meaning and interpretations of the books composed by the most famous alchemist of all times–Paracelsus. Boehme took Paracelsus’s most famous triune theory of alchemy, claiming that everything was composed of earth/metal, sulphur, and mercury, and converting Paracelsus physical-spiritual interpretation of these chemicals into a more spiritual form correlated with the body’s energy and fluid like nature. Boehme received this information on how to interpret his “discoveries” by using some simple methods of seeing then popular in this part of Europe. Bohme gazed into the pewter stein-bearing tea leaves, and read the tea, steam and leaves in to come in contact with his own interpretation of the higher powers and cosmos–from where he obtained many of his famous sayings and visions.

Now of course, not everyone believed in Boehme’s visions and revelations. But enough members of the local community were no doubt fascinated by his teachings and claims. For a short time, this anti-establishment vision about life and religious worship led Bohme to be jailed for his beliefs. And so his writings and teachings were barely re-told during their first few years in existence, much less be composed on paper once again in the form of a book. It wasn’t until Boehme’s release from “gaol”, around 1605/1610 that his philosophy developed its strongest following.

During these years immediately following his release from jail, Boehme began to become popular once gain for his writings and discoveries. It took just several more years for Bohme to develop a sizeable following. Many of these followers belonged to small sects or groups that followed some locally famous mystic. Due to the support of this mystic and the sect’s support by politically important religious leaders like William Penn, these groups would later make their way to the New World, along with their followers to the Hudson valley who helped to develop their lands in typical Dutch Colonial fashion. Many of these groups settled just north of New Amsterdam.


Jakob Boehme was not the only individual to rewrite the philosophy of alchemical thinking. the most popular scientist and early chemist of this time was Hermann Boerhaave. Boerhaave also rewrote many of the famous 16th C alchemist Paracelsus’s teachings, in order to relate these philosophical concepts to his own interpretation of the human psyche or spirit, and the body’s life energy as related to the universe. This philosophical concept of the body’s life force has a very long history; during Boehme’s life it was referred to the entia of the body. The entia of the body pretty much defined its physical, mental, and spiritual make up. Whereas believers in the entia typically related it to the human psyche and human behaviors, often basing this part of their philosophy on emotional concepts, which in turn were related to the physiognomy (form and symbolism) of the body. Boerhaave managed to have people, in particular the Dutch, convinced that there was even more meaning to this nonphysical aspect of health and well-being than previously recognized and so taught. Like Boehme, the Dutch rapidly assimilated the writings and teachings of Boerhaavian medicine into their medical philosophy as well. Not only did this enable them to incorporate otherwise unsupported medical practices related to soul and spirit such as the use of electric energy a century later (i.e. the static electricity globe and the power of the Leyden Jar and its life-force entity), this also allowed some of the traditional alchemy of Paracelsus to be recomposed in order to fit the needs for the time of the people and their doctors.

This transference of beliefs and their underlying philosophy even had the effect of enabling the Dutch to, for the first time, incorporate even the mystic teachings of the Chinese into their philosophy. They viewed the Oriental use of moxibustion, as they termed it in a 1660s writing, as a means of redirecting the fire into the body. They even went so far as to suggest that perhaps the Oriental use of needles may have some impact on the body’s fire element as well. Whatever the case, the Dutch’s strong belief in the element theory and their ability to relate the fire of the body to the magical spiritual powers of other medical philosophers, enabled some otherwise forgotten, mocked or scoffed at practices to become incorporated into the Dutch mysticism lifestyle. All of this was taking place during the classic revival period associated with the second coming of Christ–which to many was to happen in 1666, but to the Dutch in 1667.

Transitioning New World Beliefs.

When the Dutch and their fellow Europeans from other cultures came to the New World during the early 17th century, they brought with them a form of medicine rich in other cultural beliefs and practices. In the eyes of the British, this migration of new thinkers to the New World seemed the proper way to begin to make it inhabitable for other more upper class, traditional European families. But in very short time, this belief of the British changed when the Dutch laid claim to the Island of Manahata and the valleys of Hudson (then Mauritius River or Rio Montagnes (mountains), and the Mohawk.

Between 1625 and 1640, as the Dutch travels in this region continued, and their explorations and shipping of products back to Europe began to prosper, the English finally were able to settle the ownership of this part of the New World–then called the New Netherlands on the older maps. They traded parts of South America (around Suriname) with the Dutch in exchange for obtaining sole ownership of Manahata and the New Netherlands region. The subsequent cultural transitions into something British-like in nature in the city and valley were only political and symbolic, at best, for much of the time. With the exceptions of largely settled urban regions like New Amsterdam-now New York, most towns and hamlets retained their Dutch cultural bringing. It would take a generation or two of passing elders for some of these traditions to be eliminated from the local lifestyle. But in a more realistic sense, the passing of elders was not so much the determining factor of local cultural change as were other teachings and influences that continued to persist throughout some regions.

Europeans and settlers of other colonial settings were still travelling to the New World, and for the most part they settled far from the Higher British families living in the New Britain colonies and provinces. The variety of cultural groups making their way into this part of the New World during this time ranged from French-Loyalists placed there to keep the Canades (Canadians) back from New France (with its southern border close to Albania or Albany at the time), to various Religious and Sectarian leaders with an underlying understanding of loyalism and the loyalist governing traditions and philosophy for the time. These loyalists although they service important roles as communities, did little to impact the already established Dutch, Huguenot, Palatine, and French cultures established throughout the country. Britain would not truly rule the New York Provincial area until the end of the Colonial Period, and even then, British travellers complained about the persistence of languages and habits other than those of the Brits, whilst travelling on ships, all along the Hudson River

For the remaining 17th century and the first two decades of the 18th Century, much of the travel along the Hudson from Europe had the intentions of the British in mind. In spite of increasing British control, the cultural control remained Dutch-like in nature, with multiculturalism remaining the dominant feature of this part of the New World population. Even by the mid-1700s, as travellers made their way along the river by boat, they complained about the lack of English as the predominant language. It was not unusual to be on board a northbound vessel on the Hudson sitting alongside families that spoke all of the traditional and “crude” (lower income class slang) languages of their mother countries, and little to nothing of the English language used by the ruling country. By the time the British language finally became a fairly common language in the Hudson valley, British tea imports were beginning to set the stage for the political separation of New England and New Britain from Old England and Old Britain. By the end of the Colonial period in Hudson Valley history, this region remained multicultural, never completely eliminating even the traditional Native American teachings from its philosophy and some of its traditions.

Multicultural Medicine and Dr. Osborn

The multiculturalism of the Hudson Valley had everything to do with Dr. Osborn’s vade mecum. Even once I completed my research of Osborn’s recipe book, a process that took eleven years, I had only managed to make preliminary sense of his varieties of recipes and his writing style and format. One just doesn’t look at a colonial manuscript and decipher its meaning, especially that of a physician due to the various forms of language and applications of these forms one has to deal with. A physician in Europe traditionally learned, read, kept notes and even practiced and spoke medicine in Latin. This was pretty much changed during the 1600s when famous publishers and translators republished the most important books into other languages, such as English, French, Moravian and Bohemia. The most famous of such translators was Nicolas Culpeper, and herbal astrologer and Christian of the 16th and 17th century. Osborn, born several generations later, was more read and trained in the translated writings produced by John Swan and William Salmon.

By 1720, the year of Cornelius Osborn’s birth, the Hudson Valley had several other changes taking place in the local cultural settings. Most importantly to Osborn’s life and career, Jewish culture was transforming from a predominantly urban Jewish settings resided in by Sephardi, to a combination of urban Sephardic settings and country-rural and hinterland settings occupied by Ashkenazi’s, either of Dutch origin or British Origin. The differences in these origins is important to understand, because Osborn’s first interactions with a physician was with a Jewish physician Dr. Isaac Marks.

Local historians were never sure about when Isaac Marks was born. There are several very early mentions of a physician travelling through the region in which a Dutch doctor is identified, and later a French doctor. In one historians writings, the conclusion was drawn that these two were in fact the same, so leading to my suspicion that this physician was most certainly of Dutch origins, at least for the migration, and his Jewish faith either completely Ashkenazi or Ashkenazi with Baal Shem Tov influences.

Most certainly, Isaac Marks lifestyle was very country-bound and Baal Shem Tov-like. He travelled about with a cart, possibly driven by a mule, and in the first instance where he is working with Osborn, the two of them are carrying goods in the cart for New York Governor Clinton. By the late 1730s (1739), Dr. Osborn marries in the Haverstraw area and then purchases an unoccupied Dutch house standing on an old Dutch farm on the south face of what would later become known as Osborn Hill. By 1742, he is playing important roles in the local Dutch Protestant church setting. By then he is probably a physician.

Dr. Osborn’s teachings in medicine are mentioned in his books. He mentions several books that he used to learn medicine, possibly written in Latin but more likely the English translated versions. He was able to compose prescription recipes in prescription Latin. These recipes included traditional European formulas with decades if not centuries of history behind them, along with a recipe strongly linked to the 17th century philosopher chemist Hermann Boerhaave, the famous discourse on fevers by Daniel turner, the most famous fever remedy (cinchona) offered to the profession by John Huxham, and the writings of the famous 17th century British physician Thomas Sydenham, translated into English by John Shaw.

Still, Osborn was taught medicine at a time when British rule was taking place, at least on his father’s side of the family (his mother and church were still Dutch). He worked alongside the Jewish physician Dr. marks, and may have even been apprenticed by Marks, which would help to explain his fascination with both the physical and metaphysical alchemy of medicine.

Osborn’s most fascinating recipe was his ens veneris, or ‘essence of venus’, which he used to treat the “wandering uterus” felt then to be responsible for the menstrual irregularities, missed periods and uncontrollable nature of women in relation to their venus cycle. Interestingly, Osborn did not adhere to astrological law when composing his ens veneris, he did not make it from any venetian element or compound like copper, and refrained from using any plants in this recipe. Instead, Osborn applied Iron to this formula. This use of iron was proposed by Robert Boyle, a late 16th century chemist who was trained in alchemy as well, but became largely responsible for eliminating much of the metaphysical tradition of the practice of chemistry. Robert Boyle deduced that if one is to treat blood, and use alchemy to produce this metallic remedy, why try to convert copper a green metal into some red metallic compound that became red in solution and thereby resembles the blood this solution was so symbolically was contrived to treat? Robert Boyle replaced copper with Iron, had it produced into a rust, and then mixed in water to for m the red beverage that served as a medicine. There was no doubt greater success with the ingestion of iron rather than copper in the attempt to treat blood-related diseases, like anemia. Boyle’s recipe was favored by Osborn, who was again practicing a modified form of traditional medicine.

Osborn was also influenced by a neighboring family, the Coldens. The daughter of former Cadwallader Colden, living just across the river from Cornelius, was no doubt highly influential upon his training in plants and medicine. Due to this, Osborn learned to use the local plants as well as the more traditional imports contained in the pharmacopoeias. He learned to substitute local plants for the more expensive British herbal remedies, and in particular was learned in some of the local Native American herbal medicines like Dirca palustris (leatherbark), Sanguinaria canadense (bloodroot) and Xanthoxylum spicatum (prickly ash). The most important note he made of a local herbal remedy pertained to Polygala s’enega (Seneca [Indian] snakeroot)–an herb studied, pressed and identified in the (and perhaps taught to him by) America’s first documented female herbalist Jane Colden, Cadwallader’s daughter.

Like all physicians during this time, Osborn practiced bloodletting, made heavy use of opium to quiet the upset bowels (then it was used primarily to stop diarrhea), and taught each of his sons the practice of medicine. Dr. Osborn served in as a physician in the revolution, working in the Fishkill Encampment, and is possibly the physician spoken with briefly by the Marquis de Lafayette who passed through the camp during one of his early travels.

When my research on Dr. Osborn’s vade mecum was complete, I submitted an article on his life and writings which was published by the local historical society as part of its yearbook in 1993. My focus was then immediately switched from Dutch multicultural medicine to the earliest concepts of “alternative” medicine practiced during the 1800s. This included a study of the first adoptions of Native American herbs into regular (allopathic) medicine during the first years of the Post-revolution post-war depression. The first American Medical schools were opened soon after the war, beginning with the equivalent to todays’s Columbia School of Medicine just prior to the war, recommencing its program soon after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Between 1783 and 1805, several writings were produced detailing the local herbs and their potential use as medicines. Due to the war, trade with England was diminished and at times entirely lacking. The other most common source for medicines, the Dutch trade, assisted the former colonists in obtaining their valuable drugs, but local physicians were left to re-define medicine on their own for the most part. In spite of the war, some physicians did receive training in England or Scotland, and returned to the United States to help form the first medical colleges and lecture series in the US. Dr. Osborn’s sons did not have to undergo this training, but his nephew, Cornelius Remsen of Long Island, probably underwent some of this training under one of the most reputable medical school professors and physicians of his time–Dr. Valentine Seaman. He was also trained by Dr. Bartow White, a close friend of the Osborn family’s sons after Cornelius’s passing around 1782 or 1783. Dr. Bartow White was trained by Seaman, and would bring to medicine as it was practiced in the Hudson Valley area a new take on the causes for epidemics like the various forms of fever, dysentery and consumption that seemed to strike time and time again. Trained in Climatology and Medicine, Dr. White and Cornelius Osborn’s sons and nephew, came to practice America’s first unique form of medicine. This new practice made use of both European Old World and American New World herbal medicines. But for the most part, medicine was changing into a study of element, mineral and metal-based medicines as well such as arsenic and mercury salts, iron powders, sulphur balms and waters, and natural salts formed by evaporating mineral springs water.

The Hudson valley itself gave birth to a number of healing faiths and remedies in the years and decades ahead due to its unique natural features. People settled the counties of the river due to their natural springs, health weather and climate, local farms and foods, and outdoor recreation settings which included one of the healthiest sports of the time–horseback. Over the next 25 to 35 years, the transformation of medicine in the valley just north of New York city is what gave rise to “alternative” medicine as we today understanding these professions to be. It was the epidemics that followed that ultimately led to these new healing professions to become more popular than regular medicine.

The Hudson Valley and Poughkeepsie–Birthplaces for Alternative Medicine

It ends up New York City and the Hudson Valley had several features few other parts of this country had during both Colonial and post-colonial times. This part of the New World was formerly Dutch owned, and like the United Netherlands from where its immigrants came, the various faiths and beliefs in this part of the New World were, for lack of a better term, quite eclectic in both practice and philosophy due to this multicultural background. Like the United Netherlands, there were Huguenot communities nestled alongside the more traditional Reformed Protestants in possession of much of this land. Along with the Protestants, some British families ultimately came to own parts of this valley region, as well as an Irishman, and even a number of Jewish families (mostly of Sephardic descent). When the Moravians came to the New World and ultimately Philadelphia and then Dutchess County around 1720, the rural setting made it safer for them to live the way they did in Europe–as settlers of mountainous woodlands and devoted naturalists interested in the representation of God through nature as one of their most spiritual experiences.

The natural features of the Hudson valley made it one of the most philosophically mystical places on earth to many new settlers from Europe. To some, this place did not seem so rugged as it was supernatural in nature, with the largest clouds, heaviest bolts of lightning and loudest thunderheads to appear in the midday sun. Even as early as 1667, the Dutch traveller Jasper Dankaerts made mention of these features of the river edge and its mountainous landforms. A little more than a century later, some of this region was converted to the more pastoral farming settings admired by previously European settlers, quite similar to their home towns, and the metaphysical spiritual connection people had to the natural forces rampant throughout the valley gave rise to new perspectives on God and nature as they were being rewritten by still more former readers and on-lookers now moving into this region.

Whenever families moved into the past of the United States, they typically move first to the heavily populated “urban” settings, such as New York city. They then move to places where previous members of their family reside, for most this was somewhere along some river leading into new jersey, Connecticut or New York. Inevitably, most of these travellers made their way along the river through the Hudson Valley, where those groups least accepted by their former European cultural setting now quickly found peace by moving to the less settled parts of the middle upper Hudson Valley, halfway between Rensallaerwyck-Albania (Albany) and New Amsterdam (New York City). As noted previously, it was for this reason that the land upon which Dr. Osborn was settled, was previously owned by Jewish physician Isaac Marks, and was trained in medicine in the traditional Jewish, Dutch, German and English medical practices, along with some herbal medicine extracted from Wappingi, Mohegan and Iroquois Indians traditions.


As if this early colonial multiculturalism weren’t enough for the valley, now other unique, “special interest” groups and communities began to make their way to the valley. The Quaker leader of the time, William Penn, managed to allow passage of Moravians to this part of New Netherlands, resulting in the first successful Christian Indian group to form–the remaining Mohegans living in parts of Dutchess County and near the Connecticut Border. Now, Penn’s major sect of influence, the Quakers were developed their local following during the earliest post-war years.  In 1797, two Quakers brought Perkin’s “Metalic tractors” or “Points” to the lower county and then into Fishkill.  Another Quaker living between Pawling and Millbrook brought static electric generators into the region in 1799.   One of the most important Quaker physicians of this region, Dr. Shadrach Ricketson, introduced inoculation and vaccination to the local medical practice and wrote a book on health, one of the first such books to be published by an American book press in 1802. Dr. Ricketson was supportive in the electric cure, and had his philosophy as to how the “light” or energy of the body and of the surrounding environment had something to do with how people were being successfully resuscitated for the first time after their drowning in the Hudson River (known then as being pulled out of your state of “suspended animation”).

Electric Cure

Introducing the “Metalic Points” to the region revitalized the vitalist theories in medicine that were abundant in the Hudson Valley since it was first settled.  Whereas to the south you had the old fashions non-vitalists of New York and Philadelphia trying to remain atheistic and non-philosophical in their approach to interpreting disease, the people upstream along the Hudson were not so blind to nature’s forces and influences on life.   Just downstream and eastward of the Valley, across the Connecticut border, there were a couple of other physicians who were heavily promoting their electric cure.  There was the salesman near Pawling who offered electric cure devices that produced and stored a static charge on a glass cylinder or globe, which could then be released upon contact to help bring your muscles back to life and cause your decaying nerves and muscles to be revitalized (for example for treating paralysis due to a childhood febrile disease (polio), very common at the time).  Further east were the Perkins who took his own philosophical rendering of energy in the body in a new direction.  As a surgeon, Elisha learned that if he prodded to exposed muscle with a metal rod, it would contract in response.  He claimed this was due to the galvanic nature of his metal instruments, and so patented a device made of two separate pieces of metal (steel and copper) that could store electricity (an early battery-like concept).  He claimed that upon contact, these metals would transfer energy to your body and heal you of your illnesses. Were it not for his failure in using this device during a yellow fever epidemic around 1796-9, he may not have become even more popular than he and his son Benjamin, who continued in his father’s footsteps (and died from the same disease the next time it struck the region).  The Perkins’ advantage was that their device killed fewer people than the bloodletting lancets used by the regular physicians of the time.  No matter whom the patient or his/her background, the calipers were more acceptable than the lancet by many.

More Religion

As if Quakers and Reformed Protestants were not enough, there was yet another religion that came to the valley and tried to impact the locals.  Diseases were God’s revenge according to many theologians for the time.  This particular individual was not a religious leader, but he was a descendent of God’s gift to the country during the early 1600s–the Puritans who came by way of the Mayflower.  This physician had the unique name of Arkalus Hooper.  He was a descendent of the Hoopers who were religious leaders back in England, and who  were some of the most devoted Bible Thumpers of the local New York-New England setting.   Dr. Hooper had this circuit he took in Northeastern Dutchess, where he preached his beliefs to listeners residing between the lower Columbia County area where he lived, on down to Millerton and Amenia, and finally into Poughkeepsie in 1816.  His message was something like ‘God first, but when you need a cure, I have something for you.’  He had a variety of patent medicines he produced and sold. [The big “Puritan” movement today is in the over-the-counter Vitamin world incidentally, which the company by this name claims it is a part of the local tradition and cultural heritage.]

American Herbal Medicines

During the 1790s, one physician around this time in Poughkeepsie and Fishkill, Dr. Stephen Thorne, professed his expertise in “Antient” remedies (the old alchemical and European mineral-based recipes). A local pharmacist bragged about his offering for sale the newly popular native American herbal remedy Carolina Pink, the local natural substitute for the European provided South American herb Ipecac. One state over to the east, in Connecticut, a military site where Iroquois members were staying, had a colonel who professed his discovery of the identification of the Native American herb Lobelia–yet another substitute for the Ipecac remedy, one that would soon become highly popular due to a local New England farmer’s book on medicine–Samuel Thomson.

By 1802, Poughkeepsie had its regular and alternative medical sects established. The regular doctors had already formed their professional medical group, which held its monthly meetings. However, since alternative medicine was not yet a major political move taken by some physicians and healing professionals, this group had members interested in other forms and philosophies of healing then being popularized.

Epidemics and the Rise in Alternate Theories and “Cures”

Most important to the popularization of alternative healing faiths were the epidemics. The thing about alternative medicine that enabled it to advance and made it most popular was simply the failure of regular physicians to heal common diseases. The most influential of these diseases came in the form of epidemics. Each time an epidemic returned or arrived for the first time in your town, you had to decide whether or not you wished to see the regular doctor again for his metals and bloodletting, or go to one or more alternative healers of various kinds. During the first 50 years of the post-colonial experience, yellow fever was the major epidemic to take its toll on the people, including doctors.

The cause for the yellow fever epidemics at the time was unknown (it was due to a mosquito virus brought in by products or water stored on merchant vessels). In 1802, this led New York-New Jersey physician and medical school professor Valentine Seaman, to use cartography for the first time in medicine to map out a disease diffusion of migration process. Dr. Seaman used this map to prove his theory that the yellow fever came in by ships and was somehow associated with the captains and passengers formerly on board those ships. For several years in fact, Seaman continued his use of maps to serve as proof of his theories for the yellow fever existing primarily next to international shipping ports. Seaman’s final conclusion drawn from these maps was that the ships, their refuse, and the insanitary nature were the cases for yellow fever, by way of producing the miasma that then travelled from boats to shore from these ships, or were carried in by people and released into the air by them once the disease reached its peak state.

This theory for the Yellow Fever was the opinion of just one or a few professionals in Medicine. There were however many other theories as to the source for this miasma. Swamps, evaporating waters from a rain or lake, the gases released by carbonate-rich limestone, the stench of fowl seaside debris in the neighboring harbors, all were possible causes for this problem. The famous American author, statesman and publisher, Thomas Paine, even had his own theory that he published a booklet on detailing the unsanitary ship docks as the cause for the fevers in New York and just upstream from Harlem.

The popular culture interpretation of Yellow Fever was quite different at times. Popular culture taught the local communities that medicine still was a fate of the human body often left to God to make the final decisions about. To the most devoted, a fate such as an invisible epidemic disease, was completely in God’s hands. From about 1800 to 1830, this was most definitely the most popular theory for yellow fever epidemics amongst the more religiously minded communities of the valley.

On at least one occasion, the return of this epidemic for the third year in a row suggested to many that this epidemic was of a divine origin (this “trinity sign” would later be referred to as the triennial fever). Only by flocking to the churches were people able to avoid its fate, although according to at least one family hiding in the church, as the miasma of this epidemic passed through the village, this miasma had the ability to enter a church and strike out entire families whilst leaving the remaining, to bear witness to an event reminiscent of the time of Moses. Of course, following such a tragedy, these people flocked to the church first for healing from God, and only thereafter, should they survive, to the lowly physician.

This religious concept of illness and disease had its origins in New England and New Amsterdam turned New York, in particular within the multicultural setting of the Hudson Valley. This concept was so credible to some that, even as regular doctors, they came to support religion first, medicine second. The best evidence for this is in the local literature and newspaper clippings, and on occasion in the various articles published about these fascinations Hudson valley people (as well as certain other highly religious regions) had for the triennial fever and what it taught us about medicine, health and well-being.

The French Influence

An unusual historical event happening in France–the preceding events to the French Revolution–played an important role in what was about to happen in the Hudson Valley beginning about 1806. The yellow fever had several times forced recent immigrants now residing in New York City to leave this urban setting and head up the river to more healthy living places. This migration to and from the city in fact became common practice for the rich, who did this every time the yellow fever came in by ships. This migration was so frequent, it cause historian Helen Wilkinson Reynolds to makes numerous notes about this in passing during her reviews of the local newspaper, including a detailed review of local annual census counts. She was trying to determine why the people behaved this way. Reynolds was on the right track.

The use of Trines

The triennial fever, if you believed in this philosophy, which was not well-published, caused you to plan your moves in the right way, with the right symbolic gestures. Poughkeepsie is a name with three syllables and twelve letters, 9 types of letters–Fishkill and Wappingers Falls are not. Although Fishkill was the big town and village before 1800s, once the triennial fever took its toll, everyone flocked to Poughkeepsie where they could remain for the rest of the epidemic. One son of the famous landowners, Robert Livingston, even marketed his retreat areas in the Poughkeepsie area using claims related to its healthy air, water, climate, lands, and ‘blessed by the winds from the west’. The town of Poughkeepsie, if you wanted it to be, was just 3 or 6 hours upstream from the city, depending on what boat you took.

Between 1798 and 1803, this popularity of Poughkeepsie turned it into, as some would call it–the New Ballston Spa–referring of course to the much older Saratoga Springs positioned much further to the north. During this time, people migrated into the local hotel with the same name in order to recover from their consumption (tuberculosis) and treat their pleurisy. To others, this move served to prevent them from catching the yellow fever.

When the French and other European immigrants removed from New York City to Poughkeepsie, this town rapidly became a city with famous Jewish-Italian stained glass lampmakers, papers printed in multiple languages, baked goods of the highest calibre, and some of the best healers from Europe–including a French male midwife, a French trained mesmerist, and yes, another electric cure doctor providing his own forms of medical electricity.

For the more environmentally-minded health-seekers, there were numerous rivulets or small rocky streams with waters trickling down into the river, from the hill leaving the upper parts of downtown. This water was considered medicinal, as cleansing as the Ballstown (later Saratoga) Springs to the North according to Livingston. Due to this popularity, the locals even had tubs set up in their backyard to gather this cold “mountain water”, which they then rented for use at just a few pennies a day.

In just the next few years, the Livingstons maintained their control of their control of the healing waters and climate faith, with Robert Livingston often publishing journal articles in which a French chemist analyzed the health-promoting mineral content of his most precious springs. A descendent of Cornelius Osborn and of the local Germanic family devoted to mountain-living and exercise as a cure, the Van Kleecks, owned the local drug store in Poughkeepsie and made the various forms of medicine available for the locals at good cost. Several locals were attracted to the newest healing profession then becoming popular, Thomsonianism. Due to the location of Poughkeepsie and the established importance of this town as a waypoint positioned just right between the more important towns and cities, by land or water routes, this city became the place for alternative medicine to be born and develop their strongest followings. For the first time, the members of the regular medical profession knew they were at both financial and political odds with America’s first highly successful alternative healing faith.

Thomsonian Trinitarianism

Samuel Thomson, the founder of Thomsonianism, taught the readers of his book the basic triad “puke, purge, sweat”. This was in opposition with the regular physician’s practice triad: puke, purge and bleed. For much of the time the history of this practice has been reviewed by historians, the outcomes of their research have always been that Thomsonianism was its own uniquely developed faith, a product of Samuel Thomson’s mind and imagination–the products of an uneducated farmer, which became highly popular due to Thomson’s rural upbringing.

In 1845, this claim to Thomson’s or Thomson-alone discovery was contested by an alternative physician, formerly a Thomsonianism but now an Eclectic physician, a medical sect that arose from New York City medical school graduate Wooster Beach (ca. 1825/6). This physician discovered several books written by Medical physician and Theologian leader Dr. Joseph Townsend. Dr. Townsend wrote several books on healthy life and living, and toured the European Army in the late 1790s witnessing medicine being practiced in the military settings. Dr. Townsend favored this form of practice due to its religious undertones, and the fact that physicians were promoting a form of practice that assisted the body along its natural course. To Townsend, puke, purge and sweat was this natural course. Townsend therefore favored the use if Ipecac to cause the vomit, Rhubarb or some other heavy laxative herb to cause the purge, and the used a bath to cause the sweat, often with teas and a tarp placed over the body to encourage it even more.

According to the eclectic physician publishing his review of Thomson’s writings in relation to Townsend’s books, Thomson simply substituted these herbs with two local, more American alternatives, and kept the sweating process, and then built the remaining parts of his practice from there. Some of the underlying theory of Thomsonianism, as they were originally penned, were very much European-based and even hinted at Greek and Roman traditions. Thomson’s own history of his profession however tells us a different story. Thomson claimed he discovered the use of Lobelia as a result of eating this herb and then a few minutes later puking it up. he also noted the influence of a local post-colonial matron trained in both American and European herbal practice, not traditional medicine. Whatever the case, Thomson produced a practice with a philosophy that catered to the farmer as well as the learned philosopher. The simple elements of his original practice-related routines made just as much sense as some as the bloodletting practice, and made even more sense to those devoted to “natural cures” that follow in the tracks given to each of us by God. It made the most sense to those into natural theology, by now a growing philosophy in both life and medicine.

This simplicity and emotional meaning that many could attached to Thomsonian is what made it very popular. But it became even more popular for decades to come due to the next yellow fever epidemics. One such epidemic led Thomson to travel around New England and New York to demonstrate the ability of his practice to work, claiming to reduce the numbers of deaths normally brought on by bloodletting and regular medical remedies. For a while at least, this practice was more popular than regular medicine, a part of Thomsonian history made evident by a review of Poughkeepsie’s devotion to Thomsonianism en masse.

By 1820/1825, as Thomsonianism grew in popularity (it was founded in 1809, popularized locally in Vermont beginning 1812), and the use of electric calipers became less common, trinity years continued to play a role in the local medical beliefs. Now maybe the triennial fever myth was now defunct in this social scene, but the original methods and reasons for using these new remedies were not lost. Physicians were still performing bloodletting, and recommending mineral drugs instead of the more “natural” herbal remedies. But by 1815, Thomsonian followers quickly formed political pacts spreading from Connecticut eastward into Troy, along the popular travel routes, and southward towards New York City, where Poughkeepsie became a hub for this popular medical profession, and the producer of one its most important professional papers/journals. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Thomsonianism, or Trinitarian Thomsonianism, continued to practice according to its faith and maintain s sizeable following. It wasn’t until around 1850, when a son of the founder of Thomsonianism was brought to court in Albany for malpractice claims, that an admission of this faith in threes finally came to bear on the practice of medicine. (More on this confession, found in an Eclectic Medical Journal reviewing this court case, later.)

The first full listing of plants specific to the Hudson valley area, although not indicative of the plants considered medicinal, does provide us with insights into how the first settlers interpreted the local environment and its plants, medicinal or not. The plants seen by travellers typically had some sort of philosophical meaning attached to them as well, which we can often derive by the names used to refer to these plants. Adding to this overly dramatic to semi-melancholic manner of interpreting the New World as a place for Christians to settle and spread the world are the meaning attached to the findings of a location derived from writings in the Bible about plants and their meaning as “God’s symbols to us”, or their role in the settlement of this region based on the pastoral philosophy Christians often had about these settlement plans.