The materia medica at this site is reviewed with the assumption that William Dain is from the mid-Atlantic states, in particular in or around the state of  Kentucky.   Dain is familiar with Thomsonianism.  This philosophy managed to migrate from Surrey, VT, into New York along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers.  It quickly reached Ohio due to a single individual who soon became one of this profession’s most important publishers, Alva Curtis.  Curtis quickly separated from Samuel Thomson after he moved to Ohio and started a field which he called botanical medicine, and later physo-medicine or physiomedicine.  This medical group was pretty much gone in 1860 when the Physomedical Recorder, its primary publication out of Ohio, was sold to another publisher of the Cincinatti area who published what appears to be a regular medical journal.  The original copies of this sequence, bound together, is at the Naturopathic Medical School Library, Portland, OR (National College of Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM) offers an accredited program equivalent to MD in terms of pre-reqs and years/clinical hours; it has with government student loan coverage and offers an ND degree).
Another series of Thomsonian followings developed in Forsythe, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee.  The Forsythe group maintained their devotion to Thomson himself, although the name of the Journal may have spelled the founder’s name wrong in its title–“Thompsonian Recorder.”   Memphis, Tennessee also had a Thomsonian journal in the works about 1842, and several years later, around 1850, it tried to open a medical school which at first was regular, but quickly became devoted to some other version of medicine, at least according to the items being published about this school in Physiomedical Recorder in 1859. 
The location of Dain’s family’s home-setting has never been identified.  But the location of several of these plants, especially during the early to mid-1800s reveals a lot about the region from which he came.  Jimsonweed had a fairly limited distribution back around this time–the Kentucky-Carolinas-Virginia region.  He was familiar with the northern species–skunk cabbage–which could have been either the east or west coast varieties.  Along the east coast its southern distribution is limited to the Mid-Atlantic states.  For a number of these plants he mentions, eastern, midwestern and farwestern species are sometimes reviewed, such as the Orchid Lady’s Slipper.
The most important thing to note with Dain’s recipes is his mention of several plants that have standard official pharmacopoeial medicines.  For example, the buffalo gourd noted by Dain has a remarkable resemblance to the official medicine colocynth (which see).  The two have similar if not identical effects as medicines due to their shared chemicals–the reversed triterpenoid cucurbitacins. 
Finally, in terms of natural philosophy, there is a symbolism in nature, with one plant resembling another, that many people interpreted as indicators “from above” that they were engaged in the right activities as they migrated to new parts of the continent.  This was very important much earlier in exploration history, to new parts of the world, and persists to this day in William Dain’s history.  This demonstrates the continuing nature of these basic belief systems people have. 
[Note: the number that appears indicates how many times the ingredient was cited in the text reviewed for this project.]
Alcohol                                         1              

Astringent                                  2

Balm Gilead

Balm Gilead  (Populus sp.)                             1                            

Bible herb.    The real Balm of Gilead is Commiphora opobalsamum (Forst.) Engl.; C. myrrha (Nees.) Engl is Myrrh.  In the US, Populus balsamifera L. was given this common name due to its shiny, resin-coated buds.  The coating is somewhat between a resin (a coating of essential oil compounds which solidify in the sun) and balsam (the same, but remaining liquidy, and sticky, usually due to gums).  The true US Populus Balm of Gilead [above] is a northern temperate zone plant.   In the mid-atlantic States there is the Populus tremuloides Michx.   Further west, other Populus species may have been interpreted as this plant.   The most common midwest to Texas species is Populus deltoides Marsh. (Cottonwood).   Populus tremuloides Michx.  extends as far west as California. 

Beef Gall

Beef Gall, dry                            3                     Trapper’s medicine.

Bees Wax                                    1

Bitter Root

Bitter Root                     1  

In terms of Genus, there are four genera possibilities, representing seven or more species total with the possible common name of Bitter-root:

  • Apocynum cannabinum L. and A. androsaemifolium L.
  • Gentiana lutea L.  but also opens opportunities for G. crinita L. [Fringed] and G. saponaria  (G. Catesbaei Walt.) [Marsh Gentian]; USDA also defines numerous other species of Gentiana; those os special interest to the overland trail are Gentiana andrewsii Griseb. (closed bottle gentian), Gentiana calycosa Griseb. (Rainier pleated gentian), Gentiana douglasiana Bong. (NW swamp gentian), Gentiana plurisetosa C.T. Mason (bristly gentian) and Gentiana glauca Pall. (NW pale gentian).  Catesby’s gentian is specific to the lower SE states and is probably not at all trail related.  There is a Marsh or narrrow-leaved gentian (Gentiana linearis Froel.) of Northeastern to Tennessee distribution along the coastal and inland states. Closed Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii Griseb.) is the most likely candidate for use along the overland trail.  There are a number of Far Western species of possible local use.
  • Lewisia rediviva Pursh. of the Bitterroot Mountains.  Distribution by species has similar attributes as Gentiana.  Species relevant to trail and NW history are  Lewisia glandulosa (Rydb.) Dempster (Sierra lewisia), Lewisia disepala Rydberg (Yosemite lewisia), Lewisia columbiana (Howell ex A. Gray) B.L. Rob. (Columbia lewisia), Lewisia cotyledon (S. Watson) B.L. Rob. (Siskiyou lewisia), Lewisia kelloggii K. Brandegee (Kellogg lewisia), Lewisia leeana (Porter) B.L. Rob. (Quill leaf lewisia), Lewisia nevadensis (A. Gray) B.L. Rob. (Nevada lewisia), and Lewisia rediviva Pursh (bitterroot).  The latter two have distributions making them likely to be influential on overland trail medical history. 
  • Micrampelis marah (Wats.) Greene and Micrampelis lobata (Michx.) Greene [although separated in Lyon’s book as distinct species, these two may be the same?]

Apocynum spp. are well dispersed in the country.  Gentiana has some very specific local species possibly being referred to, but none of these like G. lutea are called Bitter-root according to Lyons.   Lewisia is of the Montana and Far West region.      Micrampelis species have an association with Great Plains and Oregon Trail history, in particular M. marah, aka Big-root, Man-root and yerba marraMicrampelis marah is most likely the plant Dains is referring to.  Contemporary botanists identify this as Micrampelis lobata (Michx.) Greene

Bittersweet Root  


Bittersweet Root      1                    

(Ceanothus sp., probably not the European introduced Solanum dulcamara).

Black Root

Black Root [Pterocaulon pycnostachyum (Michx.) Ell., or Leptandra virginica (L.) Nutt.]         1

Either Leptandra virginica (L.) Nutt. or Pterocaulon pychnostachum Ell. (aka C. pychnostachya Michx.) Indian Blackroot, of the SE US.   The first has a distribution from British American down to Alabama and across the Nebraska and Texas.  The second is mostly of the the SE US, but has a relative P. virgatum DC. of Texas and Mexico.   Since some of Dain’s herbs seem to be most Northeastern or Mid-Atlantic US, either is possible.

Blood Root

Blood…                                       1

Blood Root                               3      

Typically this common name is associated with the members of the Poppy family Sanguinaria officinalis LBut after reviewing a number of plants that Dain used with common names hard to assign a specific Latin name to, it becomes apparent that Dain is applying this common name to another plant seen in the Midwest and further westward.  Most commonly we expect this name-sharing of local species to be traceable to European counterparts, like Panax quinquefolium in the US for Panax ginsenga for the Oriental Ginseng.  According to Lyons, based on distributions, Dain’s Blood-root may be either of the following two genera-species group: 

  • Geum canadense Jacq. (alt. G. carolinianum Walt.); G. strictum Ait., G. rivale L..  Most likely candidates: Geum aleppicum Jacq. (Yellow Avens) and G. canadense Jacq. (White Avens) [both illustrated above].   There are a few other Geum spp. distributed from Missouri westward.  The most common species is also eastern, G. virginianum L., and presumably Dain would have been familiar with it.  The other common species Geum macrophyllum (large-leaved Avens) is too far north.
  • Potentilla tormentilla Neck., P. fruticosa L..  USDA has this genus split into new genera.  The North American tormentilla with linear compound leaves is referred to as Argentinaanserina (L.) Rydb.   The palmately divided P. recta is associated with the European P. tormentilla, suggesting conemporary Potentiall spp. to be like candidates for Dain’s version of Blood Root, assuming he was referring to a Potentilla or Argentina.  The traditional species covered in early American history is the common cinquefoil distributed from the lower mid-Atlantic region northward–Potentillasimplex Michx.   The two species under consideration for use by Dain as “Blood-root” are Potentilla recta and Argentina anserina.  For research purposes, the three most common Potentilla are illustrated in the last row above.  Interestingly, there is a Rocky Mountain Potentilla with a doctrine of signature most befitting of the use (not the name-Blood-root).  Potentilla rubricaulis Lehm. has a leaf that becomes red in the fall or when under stress due to flavonoids.



 Blue Cohosh

Blue Cohosh                         3



Blue Scullcap (Scutellaria sp.)                            1     

Scutellaria laterifolia L. is in every state in the mainland except for Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.    The USDA Plants Database has 45 species, 76 overall varieties of Scutellaria.  The trail scutellaria could have been S. laterifolia or any other scutellaria common to the region one was in.    It was commonly applied as a nerve tonic or nervine.      

See Scullcap, Blue.                          

Brown Egg Shells                 1

Burdock Root


Burdock Root         1          .

The two traditional “burdocks” are

  • Arctium lappaEuropean introduced and naturalized.
  • Arctium minus Schk.–Lesser Burdock, naturalized as well.

The other ‘Lesser burdocks’ are:

  • Xanthium strumarium L. from  Europe, naturalized.  USDA says natural to US/North America, and is identified as Xanthium strumarium L. var. canadense (Mill.) Torr. & A. Gray.
  • Xanthium spinosum L. of South America, is naturalized
  • Xanthium canadense Mill. common to seasides, is from Canada to the Carolinas, across to Mexico and Nevada.

 A third possibility is the following with a common name using as a colloquial term” burdock”

  •  Silphium terebinthinaceum Jacq.  Ohio to Gergia, west to Louisiana and Minnesota.  Aside from the common name rosin-weed, this species has been called turpentine sunflower, prairie dock and prairie burdock.  It is a fairly resinous, aromatic herb. 




Camphor/Camphor Gum                       2

Castile Soap suds                                          1

Cayenne Pepper

Cayenne Pepper/Capsicum             8

Cherry Bark

Cherry Bark               (Cerasus sp.?/Prunus serotina?)                 1

Coal oil see Oil, Coal.


Colocynth (US:  Cucurbita feotidissima; ASIAN:  Citrullis colocynthis aka Cucurbita colocynthis)                                2              

Composition Ten                    2                   [Thomsonian] 


Consumption Plant    (Polemonium reptans)               1                

Consumption Root     (Polemonium reptans)         1

This particular illness has a long and interesting history, with little known of its cause until the documentation of a fungus mycobacterium  as its cause in the late 1800s.  During the colonial years consumption was one of the most feared diseases.  Its diagnosis often meant a long and prolonged death, sometimes lasting two or three decades.  Behaviorally and anatomically it wore an individual down from the inside out, consuming the body from within the lung space or chest cavity upward and outward.  Its symptoms started as a simple cough with clear sputum, and then went away.  A while later, sometimes months or years later, it would return with that cough but this time producing sputum that is dark, sometimes containing darkish grainy material, at times appearing bloody as well. 

From about 1800 on, some had speculated that this problem seemed to go away in certain climate settings.  By the 1820s, these beliefs were supported by the adventurer, trapper or mountainman pursuing this life change, often due to a lengthy bout involving his own diagnosis of possible consumption.  By 1845, the year when Dain provided his recipes to Tetherow, it was a standard belief that migrating westward could cure someone of the consumption.  As a a part of this tradition of linking the treatment of consumption to westward travel, Dain added this plant medicine to the pioneer’s medical repertoire.  The distribution of this plant is fairly limited however.  It does not makes its way westward much past the state of Kansas. 

Dain makes reference to a number of other midwestern plants as well, suggesting he was not completely familiar with the plant distributions.  This contrasts however with adequate documentation showing that Dain did in fact reside in Oregon, possibly as early as 1839, a period when various missions were being initiated in Oregon Territory.  The fact that Dain’s wife is Indian further supports the premise that he was someone residing in Oregon.  Dain may have married her due to his close association with the missions, more than his experience there as a wilderness man and trapper.  Or, Dain could have started his career in Oregon Territory as a trappers, but quickly became attached to the missions and to Fort Vancouver.

Culver Root

Culver Root        (Veronicastrum virginicum)                 2


Dogwood           (Cornus florida, usually)                        3

Dry Beef Gall–see Beef Gall, dry


Epinar  (Xanthoxylum spicatum?; X. clava-herculis)                  1

Flour                               1

Gentian    (Gentiana sp.)                               1


Ginger       (Asarum spp., or Zingiber import?)                             1

Golden Seal

Golden Seal (Hydrastis canadensis) 1

Gum–see Camphor, Lobelia

Hartshorn                                 1

Honey                               1

Honey Bees (Honey?)                       1

Indian recipe                             1 Rx

Injection [Enema]                   1

Jimson Weed

Jimson Weed seeds  (Datura stramonium)                 1

Lady’s Slipper 


Lady’s Slipper  (Cypripedium spp., or ) 1



Cypripedium species

Lard                                      1

Licorice Root 

Licorice Root  (Glycyrrhiza sp.)                            1


Lobelia     (Lobelia spp., esp. L. inflata or L. syphilitica)                      10


Mayapple    (Podophyllum peltatum)    5

Molasses                                  2


Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)         1


Mustard, White     (Sinapsis alba L.)                       2

The traditional White Mustard purchased as seed or powder.

Oil Spike                                 1

Oil, Coal                                 —

Opium, or Poppy    

Opium     (Papaver somniferum)                            1

Two other options along overland trail: 

  • Argemone mexicana L.   Mexican poppy
  • Argemone polynathemos (Fedde) GB Ownbey (Argemone alba Lestib.)  Crested Prairie Poppy

Peach bark                          1

Pepper–see Cayenne Pepper/Capsicum

Pleurisy Root

Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa) 1 or 2


Poplar     (Populus sp.)                               1

Prairie Grub      

Prairie Grub      (Ptelea trifoliata)                        2


Prickly Ash        

Prickly Ash         (Xanthoxylum americanum or X. spinosa)                       1

Red Root


Red Root                                  4

[Larsell notes “pink root Spigelia [?], or blood root [Sanguinaria] [?]”; in fact, possibilities also include Ceanothus americanus, Geum americanum, Morinda roioc [of Wisconsin and California], Lachnanthes tinctoria, and Amaranthus retroflexus; probably the latter.  See George M. Hockings A Dictionary of Terms in Pharmacognosy and other Divisions of Economic Botany, [Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1955] p. 188.; also check……]

Resin                               1


Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)        2

Scullcap, Blue   

Scullcap, Blue   (Scutellaria lateriflora and other sp.)                         1                          

see Blue Skullcap.

Skunk Cabbage    (East Coast: Symplocarpus foetidus)                           1

Slippery Elm       

Slippery Elm       (Ulmus fulva)                       1

Soap–See Castile Soap, Syringe

Solomon’s Seal–See White Solomon’s Seal


Spignet/Spikenard  (Aralia sp.)                 1

[Larsell gives Auralia, is actually Spignet: Aralia racemosa, A. nudicaulis, A. spinosa, most likely the first possibility, also known as American Spikenard; alternatively, Spignel Aethusa meum], although unlikely.  See Dunglison, p. 970 for Spignel and Spikenard.]

Aralia racemosa has ssp. racemosa and ssp. bicrenata. 

Spirits                                   1

Spirits [spiritus?] Turpentine      1



Sumac/Shumack   (Rhus sp., esp. R. typhina)                          1

  •  Rhus glabra L.    smooth sumac
  • Rhus aromatica Aiton     fragrant
  • Rhus copallinum L.       winged
  • Rhus lanceolata (A.  Gray) Britton       prairie
  • Rhus microphylla Englem. x  A. Gray        little leaf
  • Rhus trilobata Nutt.       skunkbush
  • Rhus typhina        staghorn
  • Rhus virens         evergreen sumac


Sweet Elder  



Sweet Elder  (Sambucus racemosa L.)                       1


Syringe                                   2

      siring (verb) once a day

            with casteel sope suds child burth

      glas female siring [noun]     child burth

Tinctures–see: Cayenne Pepper/Capsicum; Lobelia

Tincture of Lobelia                       3

Turpentine–see spirits turpentine


Unicorn Root

Unicorn root (Aletris sp.)     3

The following  5 species have to be considered:

  • Aletris farinosa L. = White Colic Root. 
  • Aletrisobovata Nash = Southern White Colic Root.
  • Aletris lutea Small = Yellow Colic Root, has a similar southeastern states distribution according to the USDA database.
  • Aletrisbracteata Northrop = bracted colic root.
  • Aletrisaurea Walter = Golden Colic Root is distributed from the Southeast westward into Texas.


Vinegar                                   1

Water                               4

White Soloman’s Seal     

White Soloman’s Seal     (Polygonatum sp.)           1

Wild Ginger 

Wild Ginger                          2

The two most important species are Asarum canadensis [top row] and A. caudatum [bottom row].  Asarum hartwegii and lemoni are excluded, as is A. europeaum    

There are a number of Hexastylis or heartleafs not included in this review.  These are for the most part very isolated in distribution and found along the mid-Atlantic to Southern states, often within just one state.



Yarrow      (Achillea millefolium)                 1


Yellow Dock


Yellow Dock Bark       (Rumex spp.)             1

Rumex crispus is introduced, along with the other common dock Rumex .  Eleven species of Rumex were identified that may have been interpreted by Dain as substitutes.  Excluded from the species of Rumex that Dain might have considered are those species have “Sorrel” as part of their common name.  These species are differentiated by their acidic leaves, which impart a sour taste due to their oxalic acid content; these are sometimes eaten as raw or cooked vegetable (i.e. R. acetosa introduced, R. acetosella introduced, and R. paucifoilus, Alpine Sheep Sorrel, and were very valuable as “cancer” drugs capable of eating through the flesh of any tumor, and more).

Yellow Parilla

Yellow Parilla/Moonseed           (Menispermum canadensis)         1

Note: This plant has been noted in some poisonous plants books as toxic.  The seed does contain alkaloids, some possibly heart-stopping or myotoxic due to their Aristolochine-like benzylisioquinoline content.   Its signature alkaloid menispermine is on a list of possible cancer drugs for review.    Since the seed passes through the gut too quickly, the ingestion of this part is not that toxic (unless cracked or powdered of course).  The common name “parilla” refers to its woody, bark-covered rhizomatic root, which has a yellow tint to the wood once the bark is scraped away due to these alkaloids.