A historically accurate review of ethnobotany along the trail does not exist.  By ethnobotany I refer to the uses of plant in various way, ranging from foods and medicines, to animal fodder and human recreation (picking flowers).  There were several attempts made to try to detail this unique part of overland history for which minimal notes exist in the diaries and journals and such.  Most of these notes add a contemporary point of view to the plants noted, and typically apply modern philosophy to items and events that are not at all what we consider them to be today.  These misinterpretations are not wrong, they are just problematic, and on occasion they result in errors, some of which are amusing were they not upsetting at the time had the modern author’s claim actually been carried out.  In one case a blistering medical plant was purported to be useful as a vegetable, on another a medicinal plant was suggested to be useful in a way totally inapplicable and not common to the time.

It is best to think of trail medicine and foodways as what we read them to be in the writings, and then make inferrences based on the writings then applicable for the time.  This means we have to erase everything we know today as plants and try to get more in touch with what was known then.  We need to ask ourselves

  • How did these people behave with plants at the time?
  • Did they just run into the closest forest along the river and harvest a plant based on touch, feel or smell?
  • What about those plants that resembled horseradish along Platte River?
  • How were they when the old men tried to prepare them for use as horseradish with their next and perhaps last supper?
  • Did they even know what plants were out there?
  • What knowledge did pioneers have from the Midwest and Eastern States that they could bring along with them and apply to their trail life?
  • What were the different philosophies about healing that they carried across with them?
  • What might a Thomsonian healer do now that there were no longer any Thomsonian herbal remedies along the trail?
  • How did the water cure specialist interpret his/her natural resources along the trail and adjust her treatment plans accordingly?
  • How did Eclectic Medical physicians benefit from the overland experience?
  • What about the homeopaths along the trail?
  • Were any plants out there along the trail so deadly to the livestock that their effects could be documented by a review of trail diaries?
  • Which plants were deadly to the mostly children, babies and newborns?
  • What plants did the women and children pick as decoratives and typically carry with them as they made their way westward?

Believe it nor not, there are in fact answers to all of these questions.

From the very beginning, I realized that to understand how and why a physician was engaging in a particular task as a doctor, that you had to get into his mindset.  It’s kind of like being an actor trying to prepare for your next role.  Only, this role I am training for has to be something I can put down in writing, without make use of too many concepts that are well ahead of the time.

I learned this approach when reading one doctor’s interpretations about medicine in the Bible.  Whenever I read through the quotes frequently made, I saw some possible errors in the analysis creep through every now and then.  Sometimes he read a particular condition and imagined it to be how we view and define it to be today, even though back then there was no way the doctor of ancient times was going to know whether or not atherosclerosis could ever be happening.  Such a disease was so rare in history, especially when populations were often starving or mostly grain-fed, that an onset of chest pain whilst attending to sheep may be little more than just a case of pneumonia or pleurisy due to infection.  For this reason, I decided that  I had to be able to at time sget into the psyche of the physician I am researching and writing about.

For my first doctor–the Colonial Revolutionary War physician Dr. Osborn–I took more than 10 years learning this skill.  Then when Dr. Bristow of the Oregon Trail came along, I found that he left me not only some pictures, but also her personal prose written during his younger years, about his wife, the way he met her, her feelings of love and mortality expressed back about him, perhaps after her diagnosis, and finally her death.  Due to his obvious disease history himself, and the notes his family members made about him over the year, Dr. Bristow was someone I had no problems coming to a close understanding about.  The Indian Doctor and Scout William Dain was not as easy to learn about.  It wasn’t until I better understood where his knowledge about plants was, and where the same knowledge on behalf of society was overall during this time as well, that I came to understand just what some of the pioneers must have been thinking when they made their way westward for the first time.

That is when I came to this understanding that there is this sense of natural philosophy to all of this about the past lives of pioneers.  Oregon Trail history took place right in the middle of the transcendental period.  During these years, people had a sense for nature that today we might read and consider to be no different from that of Emerson, Whitman, or early female writer L. Maria Child.  It was somewhat flowery, somewhat inspirational, somewhat metaphysical, somewhat anti-science in the modern sense and very much anti-establishment.  Above all, it was cross-generational.

Not sure I can match any of this at all with this following review of plants along the Oregon Trail.  But its worth a try.


Aside from the primary references like journals, diaries, reminiscences, fort and government documents, there are a few secondary references that are in fact quite helpful in a review of trail ethnobotany.  For this review of ethnobotany, we are focused on trail culture itself.  There is of course that part of ethnobotany history that we could get into that is related to Native American history.   For the most part much of this is excluded from the review.

The most important secondary reference for part of this work is the Flora of the Great Plains and its Atlas version published earlier with just the distribution maps for Great Plains flora.  Quite a few years ago I did an extensive review of these maps and the natural history of the plants in realtion to diary and journal notes and came upon one or two plants that told us unusual stories about the Overland Trail, based simply of their obvious distribution behaviors in relation to trail geography.  Another dozen or two dozen plants had relationships to the trail and to trail history that were related to dairy notes.  Then there were several dozen more plants with stories that could be inferred based on a review of non-trail materials, typically the medicinal and on occasion edible plants found growing along the trail.

Another set of books applicable and valuable for this research are the two books on the ethnobotany of flora of the Great Plains.  However, these books, though quite popular a few years back, consist of a lot of summaries and comments made based upon non-overland materials, including Native American ethnobotany for the time (which is quite interesting but unlikely to be a trailblazer’s choice of foods and medicines), and the contemporary viewpoints of the medicinal values of these plants for the time, uses and reasoning which may not at all be valid for the overland trail years.

How did these people behave with plants at the time?

It is safe to say that for the first part of the trail many plant weren’t new to the pioneers.  A majority of the most common flowering plants of the east coast and midwest were either extended out onto the Great Plains or had close relatives making them easily recognizable.  Just how far some of the plants introduced during the colonial period in American history travelled onto the Great Plains is sometimes hard to tell.  We cannot base any of our current answers to such questions on any recent observations we make for much of the Oregon Trail.   A large number of common “weeds” today like the Dandelion, Large Daisy, some of the infamous tumbleweeds, all have their history of introduction to the trail by pioneers and by midwestern settlers during and after the Overland Trails historical period.  Some of the most introduced plants into the midwest today include the the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus glandulosa), a plant that made its round into the wilderness following its introduction into large urban settings like St. Louis.

Another series of plants inrtoduced as domestics and since then escaped include Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), which may have been introduced due to its early escape from east coast Colonial gardens,  Common Plantain (Plantago major), English Plantain (Plantago lanceolata), Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), Chicory (Cichorium intybus), Water Cress (Nasturtium officinale), Himilayan Raspberry (Rubus spp.), Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), Cherry (Prunus serotina), and Weeping Willow (Salix sp.).   An even older collection of plants in the Midwest and Great Plains were introduced there by early explorers, both European and Native American.  This  best recognized introductions from the European history of this part of New Spain are the Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia spp.) and Cocklebur (Xanthium sp.), but other possible stragglers include the Mexican Poppy ().  Even more recent introductions to this part of the country incldue Canadian thistle (Cirsium sp.) and the various ChenopodiumAmaranthus, Trifolium and Melilotus species introduced by farmers some time during the early to mid-1800s.

For people to interact with or change their behaviors due to plants along the Oregon trail, a personal but informal relationship had to be established with the plant.   The single species most indicative of human behavior and plants along the trail was Polygonum persicaria or Lady’s Thumb.  Unlike nearly all other trail plants, this is the only species to be able to tag the wheel ruts along the entire length of the trail across the Great Plains, from Platte River Basin into the foothills of the mountains to later be ascended.  This species in particular has a human touch to its meaning because of its appearance–the flowerhead is a small pink, and to some people thumb-shaped, cluster of florets.  This is the kind of flower you’d expect to see bouquets picked by the trailblazers as they passed by patches of thousands of these plants along the trail center and edges.    Since this plant is adapted to growing in and around barren soil, the remains of wheel ruts formed a perct place for these plants to take off.  With seeds much smaller than the tips of most hatpins, these plants could drop seed or flower and wait for quite a long period of time before the next opportunity to germinate became available.  The flowers were probably often picked b y kids for bouquets, and placed in hats and pieces of clothing to serve as a bit of decor.  Whyatever the means, after a few hours to a day, their disposal along the edge of the trail left them immediately adjancet to their next garden for the following spring.  Whereever there were wheel ruts and vacant prairies where grass once grew, until it became the next overindulgence for some oxen, so too did the Lady’s Thumb re-seed itself, thereby producing these unmistakeable trail markers leading acorss entire fields when the rain and sun fall just right on the local tapestry of the Great Plains.

 Did they just run into the closest forest along the river and harvest a plant based on touch, feel or smell?   What about those plants that resembled horseradish along Platte River?   How were they when the old men tried to prepare them for use as horseradish with their next and perhaps last supper?

In herbal medicine and the eating of wild edibles there’s this old saying of ‘don’t use a plant until you are absolutely sure what it is.’   In the very best lessons you can get on these two topics, the first rule of thumb should be to learn and know your toxic look-alikes.  Toxic look-alikes are plants that are poisonous, and resemble and sometimes taste and smell like other plants that are not so poisonous.   These other plants are the edible wild plants and herbal medicines.  The best example of such a plant is the Wild Hemlock (Cicuta sp.).  The smell of this plant’s rootstock is not overly bad, but the toxin inside will kill you.   Likewise for the Water Hemlock (Conium maculatum and other species), though it is not so readily available as the Poison Hemlock.  This root smells even better and is usually much bigger, and parsnip- or white turnip-like in appearance.  From about 1805 on, for the next few decades, these plants even had occasionally been used as medicines, though not so much by the time the overland trails were being travelled.

One example noted in a trail diary about the use of a trail plant, pretty much based on expectations and a little bit of feel, smell and touch, was the “horseradish” claimed to have been used by some to cook spoiled meat and make a bad-tasting supper a little bit different, if not better.  The true horseradish (Armoracia sp.) is not a trail or North American native.  So how could it be found on the Trail?  It is possible that someone saw a large taproot much like that of horseradish and simply made use of it.  It’s exact identification of course uncertain to all of us readers of this tall-tale.  It is also possible that a previous trailblazer from a year or two before passed by this region and disposed of some bad roots or even seeds of the plant tops in the immediate vicinity.  The mnost likely candidate for me in trying to investigate this claim is the common native plant Rumex residing in this area.   A waterside Rumex could very well have a root stock resembling horseradish enough to trick you into trying it for a new taste, only to instead wind up with a somewhat chewy dish to which some valuable fiber was added, and some starch and caloric value, but little more after that.  Those Rumex species with leaves that somewhat resemble the Armoracia leaf are . . . .

Did they even know what plants were out there? 

A review of Indian Scout William Dain’s recipes provides us withe the most important insights into the answers to this question.  When I first took a look at William Dain’s remedies, taken out of Solomon Teethero’w Diary and incorporated into the heavy and well-detailed tom Olof Larsell’s Doctor in Oregon, I first though I was dealing with some sort of traditional herbalist, with only some West Coast Indian Medicine background.  This was due to a number of common names he was using for plants that were mostly of East Coast origin.  In fact, some of these plants were even from the northeastern States and Canadian Provinces, which made me suspicious of Dr. Dain.  Then I came upon Dr. Dain’s Composition 10 and read his numerous uses for the fairly distinctive herb Lobelia.  Typically, when we see Lobelia, for those of us read in the most common medical sects for this time, we think of Thomsonianism.  The signature recipe for practitioners of this healing profession was lobelia, to make you vomit.    This led me to view Dain as a some sort of mix of practitioners between Thomsonianism and Indian Root Doctoring.   As a sign of the latter he mentioned the uses of plant roots quite a bit in his formulas, but in particular his formula for Indian Physic (an Indian recipe for a strong laxative).

Things pretty much ended with this conclusion for a while, until I took the time to anlyze all of Dain’s plants used, one at a time, to identify them by Latin name, hopefully down to species.  I reviewed all the obvious Great Plains and Midwest plants first, and then began to review plants that I knew were mostly mid-Atlantic or even northern Atlantic, but which I knew also probably had local species that served as equivalents.  As an example, the Cypripedium of the east coast is the most famous of American native orchid remedies.  But in the Midwest there were otehr Cypripedium species, that although they looked quite different in size, shape and especially colors of the flower itself, nevertheless had the potential for use in the midwest and a local version of the more famous east coast medicines.   This too worked for a while, but only got me up to about half of the plants identified down to species level.

Then, as I was looking at a picture of the wild cucumber species it occured to me–perhaps Dain was using old-fashioned names for newly discovered plants!  Dain’s work was done in 1845.  His education in these local species done the years before, meant that he possibly was learning about plants, many of which were unidentified and a number of which not yet identified at all in the local flora studies.  With this assumption, I was able to link the names he used to specific species other than the traditional plant known by that same common name today.  The most obvious of these were the local wild version of the traditional import medicine plant Colocynth and the local uses of one or more of several local species as substitutes for ‘Burdock” due to their resemblances and early nick names given that were indicative of these identification problems.

What this meant was that people like William Dain had no correct name to learn about these plants as of yet.  Those that were not yet even identified for publication in a flora book did not necessarily not exist until they were written about.  Someone else saw them and at times made use of them well before the first taxonomist made sense of them scientifically and taxonomically.  For this reason, the following plants found by Dain may have had other names that we more commonly know them by today.  These are as follows:

Like any early 17th century explorer, (which are covered quite well in my earlier periods reviewed) Dain placed these plants with unknown names in context with other plants he already knew about.  In this way, the

What knowledge did pioneers have from the Midwest and Eastern States that they could bring along with them and apply to their trail life?

Trail life was very much like domestic life and vice versa.  The difference between living along the trail and living at home was that if you were a kid, you may have had less of your regular duties to take care of.  There were not as many pigs or chickens to feed, no hay to move, no well water to collect, and few farmed goods to collect for the root cellar or in preparation for supper.  You still had to tend to the oxen and horse, watch for freshly laid eggs in the back of the wagon, make sure your horse isn’t showing signs of colic or has taken to drinking and eating some of the wrong things, and you still had to walk a ways, quite a ways at times, to get your next potable water.  There were no water closets in the nearby shrubs, only holes dug anywhere from a day ago to more than a year ago, still being used.  During these walks, you had to stay clear of razor grass, watch for snakes, and remember to stand clear of moving traffic on your way back out.


What were the different philosophies about healing that they carried across with them?

Medicine was everything but what we think of it today.  Aside from the methods being practiced such as the frequent use of lancets and moderate amounts of opium to stop diarrhea, medicine as it was practiced by regular doctors was different because the theories and philosophies they had were so non-conforming and disprespectful, even amongst themselves.  This uncertaintly about regular medicine had already erupted several times in earlier American history.  Now, being on the Oregon Trail, you had more than just yellow fever to worry about–Trail cholera and mountain fever could surely get you if you weren’t careful.   When doctors were trying to explain the yellow fever epidemics for the first time, often times it was nature and Natural Law, or God and God’s Law as expressed through nature that often won this philosophical contest.  Medicine was after all, during this time, simply a practice of attending the ill and needy by following a particular set of paradigms you had set up in you mind about what constituted health and what produced a healthy body.  When the body you were reckoning with was unhealthy, you had a totally different set of belief systems to abide by.  It was one thing to read about what could be done and what could be causing someone to become ill.  It was another thing to open you doctor bag, see what limited supplies or stocks of medicine that you have, and do your best to come up with a solution for the place and time.  That solution was almost never the best, but it was better than nothing, perhaps.  And this was just for one type of doctor.

There were of course other kinds of doctors on the trail along the Oregon Trail.  They had to be there, even though they very often did not openly admit they were they and that their teachings were different.  The possibilities for these other “irregular” doctors were numerous, raning from Thomsonian and Botanical, to Eclectic and Homeopathic.  There were also some water curers out there, and some who relied upon simple family cures like food, common domestic recipes, the most recent patent, the recommendations of one of the oldest members of the family.  Finally there were the theologians, au naturel, who believed in the holy spirit, a laying on of hands, dancing and singing with the spirits, whatever it took to make the trail experience seem less intimidating and more an activity in God’s Hands, whom you most outwardly were expressing your self to.

Sometimes we find in the diaries people speaking about going down to the waterside, not for baptism, but instead for an herbal cure.  Just what were they looking for along the river edge that could be so meaningful to someone who was sick?  Aside from Cattails and the traditional sedges and rushes we’d expect to see alongthe Platte River edge, there were some polygonums or smartweeds, waterweeds, that weren’t that hard to recognize.  Along the waters edge there were also mints and bee balms that may be of some help.   In some places there grew scullcaps and lycopus.  Just what as the most important plant down there? I often asked myself when reading this recurring theme.

One day, while riding along the Grand Island area, it occured to me that a plant of the Bible was there–the Balm of Gilead.  That could have been what everyone was attracted to.  Although the Balm of Gilead itself may have not been what they needed to help this particular family member or patient, it was a start.   What exactly was this balm for in the Bible Age?

“And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will visit you, and bring you up out of this land to the land which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph took an oath of the sons of Israel, saying, “God will visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” (Genesis 50:24-26 RSV)

So was the Balm there for Overlanders to prepare for death?  No.  Its symbolic purpose for those well read and devoted was that it was there to pay heed to in your search for the physician, since no one else was going to be there in due time.

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” Jeremiah 8:22

Today we can go down to the riverside and see numbers of plants strewn about by the past floods and spring flows.  Those plants which come back to us first and the docks and jointweeds, along with the salicornia and certain prairie plantains.

As Jeremiah suggested, you went down  to the water to have your most personal questions answered, while searching for a cure.  By the waterside, no one could see the looks of fear and concern on your face, something they’d most certainly witness were you situated a little higher of the flood plains, looking on dried alkaline soil for a place where very few herbs could survive.

  • What might a Thomsonian healer do now that there were no longer any Thomsonian herbal remedies along the trail?
  • How did the water cure specialist interpret his/her natural resources along the trail and adjust her treatment plans accordingly?
  • How did Eclectic Medical physicians benefit from the overland experience?
  • What about the homeopaths along the trail?
  • Were any plants out there along the trail so deadly to the livestock that their effects could be documented by a review of trail diaries?
  • Which plants were deadly to the mostly children, babies and newborns?
  • What plants did the women and children pick as decoratives and typically carry with them as they made their way westward?

This section provides the results of a number of very interesting reviews I engaged in back in the early 1990s after completing my Dr. Osborn work.  My PC at the time was still a 286, and as the Pentiums came to be I never switched to the new technology.  A lot of these notes were developed and recorded by hand, and if I had the time, typed into my DOS IBM PC.

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