This next series of  reviews analyze the medicine of New France.  Most of this work is related to the New France writings edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites entitled: The Jesuit relations and allied documents : travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791.

This entire set is viewable or downloadable one volume at  a time at

There are two major ways I like breaking down the New France medicine topics:  European, French and Colonial American (mostly Canadian) Medicine versus Native American medicine.  Due to the nature of these writings and the underlying purpose(s) of their documentation and publication, each has to be reviewed differently.  The Native American concepts often brought out in these writings are strongly modified and redefined by the Jesuits due to underlying religious purposes and meaning and their overall preconceived judgments made about Native American philosophies as devoted Christians out on a mission to convert.

The French Canadian reviews focus on the following types of medical or health-related topics:

  • Diseases
  • Plant Medicines of potential use to European  medical practices
  • Plants (medicinal of not ) of some sort of hieroglyphic/Christian Doctrine of Signatures significance
  • European Materia medica notes or references
  • Treatments noted

The Native American information covers mostly the French Jesuit impressions of Native American medical practices.  Throughout the New France series this is reviewed and reiterated fairly repetitively, typically with interpretations on Native American shamanic and pseudo-shamanic practices as demonic worship or the work of sorcerers.   The opposite story Jesuits like to tell in their writings are stories about tribal members, leader and even on occasion shamans or medicine men being converted to Christianity.

  • Shamanisim
  • Music therapy
  • Native American tradition, culture, history or philosophy and health/medicine
  • Transcendental, dreams and other shamanic experiences(“demonic” according to Jesuits)
  • Important cultural figures playing onto the conversion process
  • Other Medical Anthropology related topics such as foodways

This review is done in order to point out some significant parts of the history of New France settlement and exploration.  In terms of “discoveries”, New France provided European and Colonial physicians with a new assortment of potential herbal medicines for them to develop an understanding of and market for followed by the incorporation of some of these into their own philosophy of health and disease.   

Typically, it is wrong to assume there is a parallel between Native American medicine and European medicine.  Although some of the most basic options seem similar, their philosophy is quite different. 

For example, although it is interesting to try to draw parallels between the four humours/four elements philosophy of European, Greco-arabic medicine, this philosophy does not cross over exactly with the Native American four directions philosophy.  Although some colors seem similar, their order was different, or this part of the philosophy changed from one region to the next.   An example of this application is the Mohecan practice of gathering tree bark by stripping it from just one particular side of the tree, and at  times even with the knife or flint moving in an upwards direction for one use of this medicine, and the other direction for another use.

Likewise, the notion of phytognomics or doctrine of signatures also had substantial differences between Old World and Native American settings.  The most prominent Doctrine of Signature in Native American tradition was the snake bite remedy, which later herbalists liked to associate with their own interpretations of plant uses.  There are numerous examples of this in the original writings by explorers and travelers later published.  The fascination with the association of the herb with the poisonous snake became very popular when Linnaeus, a physician trained at the University of Hardiwijk who became a professor at Uppsala in 1741, emphasized the indigenous snakeroot remedies as a topic often recommended to students in need of dissertation material (see my section on Cadwallader Colden for much more on this).  Linnaeus notes that this philosophy of plant use had a unique series of origins in India due to the asp and adder, almost identical to some of the practices documented for the Americas.

To the Native American, disease or illness was often considered a manifestation of a particular animal spirit, and when it was the snake, the way to treat it was to find a plant that resembles some part of the snake.  When we look at the various forms of snake remedies out there, we find them to have rhizomes with cracked bark resembling a rattle, a small part of the flower resembling the forked tongue of a poisonous snake, a tendency to grow near snakes, a scaley look to its surface resembling the scales on a snake, a deep browning red flower that resembles blood, or a petal color and patterns that resembles the skin of someone going into shock due to a snakebite.  This philosophy of snakeroot was so broad and diverse, that any place you went, there was most likely a snakeroot remedy nearby.  This notion differs from European philosophy in that snake roots are assigned uses based on the organs system and physiological activity they impact, which is then philosophically paralleled with something to do with a snakebite.  In later years, these uses are even changed and updates and so a substance once meant to stop convulsions brought on by snakes becomes a seizure drug, or a herb meant to stop muscular contraction and pain in the gut following a bite becomes a uterine relaxation.

The New France Jesuit Relations have details about numerous indigenous groups in Canada and the Northern United States, detailed in part by the maps below.




Cultural Diversity

The following maps can be used as starting points to mapping the cultural diversity of New France in relation to other neighboring New Worlds, Provinces or Colonies. 

The Northeast quadrant of Herman Moll’s map has a well defined region of “Eskimaux”, which actually consisted of several indigenous groups which were first grouped with Inuits but later earned their own category on many cultural maps, namely the Montagnais and Naskapies residing close to the coastline.

Island settings enabled cultural separation to have its greatest impact on a society and its traditions.  The islands in the NE Quadrant with these features are Newfoundland, Cape Breton, “St. John’s” just west of Cape Breton (now Prince Edward Island), and Anticosti located in the mouth of the St. Lawrence.  The indigenous culture of Newfoundland was extinguished fairly early in Canadian Indigenous culture history, primarily due to Mi’kmaq influences followed by successful attempts to take over this territory just prior to its exploration by Europeans.  In the Jesuit New France writings there is particular attention paid to the complexion of this particular set of people, whose skin was said to be as white as that of any European.  Whether this be a true impression of the indigenous physical appearances for this setting, or hints regarding the influences of earlier explorers upon these people through the establishment of new families is uncertain.  This indigenous group contrasts greatly with the appearances of other ingiena written about for Cape Breton and the older culture once native to Newfoundland.

These island cultures in turn contrast greatly with the mainland Inuit, Montagnais and Naskapi cultures.  The local Mi’kmaq grounds of this region have been affiliated somewhat with southern cultures as well such as the Souriquois and the Penobscot, cultural relationships that were either misguided, very temporary and/or a consequence of cultural groups being forced to reside together. 

As we head down the St. Lawrence River we first pass by Iroquois and non-Iroquois people, and then make our way into Huron territory.  Algonkins and their associates are south of this river, located more alongthe tributaries that empty into the Atlantic Ocean by way of New York’s harbors, and Delaware and Chesapeake Bays.

New Scotland is important to note due to its British basis for forming.  Even though this map is one of New France, the British were obtaining control of a number of regions in this colonial setting.  French culture maintained its political and cultural strength and social integrity predominately along the inland portions of the St. Lawrence in and around Quebec.  This means that French Jesuit influences would be maintained in this region the longest, and have the greatest impact on local lifestyle, land use and medical traditions. 

In terms of medical history, this demonstrates how and why l’Hopital in Quebec represents the most important place in French Jesuit history in New France, a place where practices are of the most traditional European form of medicine and are very unlike any other part of this region in Canadian or North American history.  The philosophy behind the medicines used by Jesuit nuns tell us much about their philosophy at the time regarding Sanative Healing, religion, health, and the role of disease in testing an individual purpose for being.


NE Quadrant


NW Quadrant


SE Quadrant

SW Quadrant