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 Dutch Protestant, English Trinitarian and French Huguenot 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, Mohawk, Connecticut and Susquehanna 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 exploration trips to this part of the New World and inland along the river bearing the Spanish name Montagnard (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 Vanderboerghen. 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 starchroot 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 resulting popularity 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 opne 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 Higgison 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), or it refers to the Water Plantain (Alisma sp.) found growing in the salty estuarine and saltwater bays. Those 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.” Others herbs noted by Vander Donck, like the Shepherd’s Purse, Mallows, Marsh-mallows, Blessed Thistle, and Milfoil (Yarrows) 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. 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. His 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”.

Documenting Indian Remedies

Throughout the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a number of scientists settled in the colonies documented some of the local Native American remedies. Most of this took place during the mid-colonial to late-colonial phase of North American history (ca. 1720-1775), during which time some several Euro-American and European physicians important to local history were taking interest in these new drugs.

In the Mid-Atlantic New England region, a number of plants were shipped to England for transfer to the local greenhouse and garden settings. A number of these were trees considered valuable for planting in urban settings, like the Basswood and several nut-bearers. Still others were, as expected, of possible food or medicinal value. One of the most important plant discoveries at this time was made by Dutch arborists and botanists. The transport of the Dutch grape producing vines used to make wines and foodstuffs were never able to develop a stable crop in the New World due to the spread of a disease that had nearly dissipated much of this crop in the Old World. This led a Dutch botanist to successfully graft the European vine on the North American wild grape-vine, allowing for the production of a vine resistant to this soil-borne disease, enabling this part of the Dutch farming tradition to remain productive within New World settlements. Another important Dutch discovery was the ability to perform grafting as well on their Apple, Pear, Cherry, Plum and Quince trees, enabling multiple fruit-bearers to be produced by each and every Dutch family’s personally owned farm.

Throughout the Dutch settlement period of the valley, early, mid and late-colonial years (1620-1660,1660-1720,1720-1775), these herbal medicines were introduced in different ways. As early as the late 1640s, with the city of New Amsterdam established on the waterfront of Manhattan Island, Iroquois were noted to make their way into the region to sell baskets and sassafras at the local farmer market, an event noted by a young girl in a letter to her aunt back in the Holland. Most likely this level of colonial Indian commerce continued for much of the remaining 17th century. With the turn of the 18th century, both the public mindset and opinions about the possible uses of these local medicinal plants underwent significant change.

Most likely the most likely reason for this change in attitude about local medicines had to deal with the expensive costs of medicines shipped to the colonies by England. Even when this medicine was derived from a fairly common local ingredient like pine resin or tannin-rich tree barks, the fact that these natural resources underwent the bulk of their processing back in the Old World led to steadily rising costs, in spite of increasing supplies for their manufacturing goods. One of the primary commerce problems during this period of expensive cinchona and colocynth products was the pirating and illegal shipping of alternative sources for these drug products, including counterfeits and adulterants, into the colonial shipping harbors. This was such a problem that it even led both Colonial and British ship captains to initiate plans to cease these goods before they made their way onto the coasts untaxed. No doubt, by the early 1700s, doctors were already deciding which British products that were medicinal could be replaced by native or garden-grown substitutes. In just the next few years, one local Hudson Valley resident, and governor, Cadwallader Colden, took part in this attempt to document and study the possible use of local plants as medicines.

Colden’s contribution to North American botany was considerable, and included input directly into the world’s most famous plant taxonomist and taxonomy system creator, Karl von Linne (Linneaus). On several occasions, Colden shipped plants to Linne for their identification and classification for deposit into what amounted to Linne’s museum or library of pressed and dried plant specimens. Colden’s interest ultimately led him to produce a listing of all the plants on his property, which was then published by the journal produced by the Linnean society. Colden next began trying to document some of the local plant uses, and by around 1720 had produced a monograph on the use of one or two local medicinal plants.

In spite of the amount of time Colden had following his retirement upon completing his years of service as the Governor of New York, Colden spent less time with botany and more time communicating with other scholars in the field such as Isaac Newton and a famous botanist Alexander Garden. Colden’s daughter, Jane, by now was interested in botany as well, and managed to receive some special training in this field enabling her to continue to perform research and take notes on topics which her father had started. By the mid-1700s, she was writing down her knowledge and experience as a plant collector and specimens producer and as a local historian documenting special uses for these plants whenever possible. (This collection now resides in a library in Oxford.)

During the 1960s the library holding Jane Colden’s notes and pressed herbs collection was visited by Dutchess County Garden Society members and their contents reviewed and in some cases photographed for production of a book on Jane Colden’s work. This book captured important parts of the local plant medicine history that might otherwise have been lost forever. Jane Colden produced a number of pages with Native American uses noted, along with several other local physicians’ uses for these herbs.

During the late colonial years of Hudson valley history, there were mostly likely a number of local female herbalists and many physicians trained in the uses for these local plant medicines. During the last decades of the colonial years in New York history, the documentation of these uses was fairly scarce. This was due mostly to reliance upon local bookbinders to produce your writing papers if you were to produce a manuscript on these uses, or the local publisher who was responsible primarily for producing most newspapers and pamphlets. It wouldn’t be until the post-colonial years, the first post-war depression this nation would face, the rising cost of import products, and the need for inexpensive medicinal products took place, that the local herbal medicines would become a public mainstay for American physicians. During this time, Native American herbal medicines became some of the most popular remedies available, even rising to much higher costs than some European products due to their growing popularity. Quite soon following this change in the local marketplace, Native American medicine as it was to be practiced by educated and apprenticed Euro-american physicians would develop into the earliest form of “alternative medicine” to impact the United States–a practice soon to be known as Indian Root Doctoring.