Indian Doctors – Part III*

The midwest Indian doctors were plentiful compared with East coast irregulars.  The majority of irregulars in states close to the Atlantic were either Thomsonian, Botanic physicians or Eclectics.   The further west you went into the wilderness of such getaways as the mountains of Appalachia, the more likely you would find someone living the life of a trapper or mountainman, engaging in whatever form of  medicine he learned to engage in besides a swallow or two of whiskey, a bladeful of gunpowder, and a rubbing of bear’s gall and castor.  Along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers there were a number of towns developing where some of the locals heard about this new undomesticated form of therapeutics.    Thus many of these towns had one or two token “Indian doctors” trying to earn some money or barter for whatever products they needed for sustenance, by selling themselves as authentic examples of what were otherwise book story characters.

Dr. Newell and others were examples of these physicians practicing in the Midwest during the first half of the 19th century.

Robert Newell

Robert Newell was born in Putnam, Ohio, on March 30, 1807.  He left for the Rocky Mountains with the Smith-Jackson-Sublette Party on March 17th, 1829.  In 1869, in Oregon, he was considered the “leading physician from this section of the county.”[1]

During the first part of his career, Newell lived as a “mountain trapper” and was at times “called upon by necessity to undertake a simple surgical operation.”  The knowledge Robert Newell acquired as a trapper medic was described as “simple remedies [made] through the brewing or roots and herbs.”  Newell used his recipes for treating “dogs, horses, Indians and his fellow trappers.”  He was not an officially trained physician, only nicknamed Doctor due to his interactions with others.   Since Newell never had a formal education in medicine, [2]  his history represents a fair example of Indian Doctoring learned by an assimilation of knowledge experienced as a trapper.  Most indicative of this learning behavior is the emphasis Newell made of the use of “roots and herbs.” 

The philosophy which underlies the practice of the Indian Doctor mimics only a small part of Native American healing traditions.  The respect which is given to herbs for their healing powers by their users, and the attention paid to the more spiritual and philosophical overtones of the healing process, are usually missing from European versions of this medical practice.   The lack of understanding and acceptance of Native American healing faiths makes Anglican and Anglo-American enthusiasts and mimics stand out in their definitions of those portions of the healing faiths which they aspired to practice.  The more realistic and pragmatic French Canadians who learned these healing practices were more accepting of the native American philosophies underlying many of these healing steps which take place.  These two types of healers also contrast greatly with the published Indian Doctors, who often interjected their own belief systems into their writings on this once highly popular healing faith.[3]  These latter types are idealists and utopians in their nature of selecting healing practices.   To determine is a true and complete understanding of Indian healing practices occurred, look for the use of animal parts, which traditionally had both spiritual and physical roots of origin for use as medicines   

Indiana’s Indian Root Doctors 

Another interesting example of an Indian doctor appearing in the midwest involves Joseph S. Burr, Root Doctor, of Connersville, Indiana.  Burr put up an advertisement for his Indian Root Doctoring business which the local newspaper printer noticed and published the following story of this unique business:[4]

“nailed up to the weathering board of the hotel, [was] an enormous swamp lily root, almost as large as a man, with head, eyes, nose, ears, and mouth nicely carved, arms and legs with feet stuck on, and just above the sign on a board, marked with chalk, ‘Joseph S. Burr, Root Doctor; No Calomel.’  Hundreds came to see the doctor and the big root.”

Burr’s unique practice led him to be later sued by the regulars.  At the time, there were no schools in medicine in Indiana and those schools about to form seeming to favor both regular and alternative medicine equally. 

Another Indian Root Doctor who became popular in Indiana was Thomas T. Chinn, a pupil of Dr. Burr.  In his advertisement, he noted himself as “Dr. Chinn, Root Doctor and No Calomel” and then gives the following healing account:[5]

“I lost only nine fine patients last week, one of them an old lady that I wanted to cure very bad, but she died in spite of all I could do.  I tried every root I could find but she still grew worse, and there being nobody here to detect my practice, like the other regular doctors I concluded to try calamus, and dug up a root about nine inches long and made a tea of it.  She drank it with some difficulty, turned over in the bed and died.  Still I don’t think it was the calamus that killed her, as all the calamus doctors are giving it in heavier doses than I did.”

If this recapitulation is true, and not produced just for a brief laugh, at least Chinn was honest.

What’s often missing from Indian Doctors and their practice is that traditional philosophy the Indians bore unlike the White Man.  Because members of the Indian Root Doctor healing sect were often borne as utopians or idealists, they believed strongly in the use of ancient or traditional cures and healing philosophies, but not necessarily in accordance with native tradition.  I have yet to read a diary or journal in which the writer states that he/she selected a particular herb due to its looks and charms as a black snake, red fox or grey bear.  When it comes to rendering a description of the healing philosophy with which many of these cures are based in traditional Indian style, evidence points to practices borne out of the  Great Spirit thinking expected of Native American healing philosophy, not the idealistic British, Scotch or Gaelic way of thinking.  

A good impression of why Indian Doctors practiced as such, but only in the physical healing sense, not in the spiritual sense is as follows.  Indian Roots Doctors were obligated to avoid what many felt to be the less credible practices of an Indian Shaman, and in exchange adapted these cures to their own uses through their own interpretation of the traditional philosophy and traditions for these plants.  Although their treatments were essentially the same as that of the natives, their philosophy as to why the cure worked was not much like the Indian philosophy.   The spirit of the snake or bear was not in the Indian root medicine the recommended, the similarity of the flower to the appearance of the sun and the ability of the plant to following the sun throughout the day weren’t important. 

What was important is that these recipes and cures in “yarb and root” form were locally important and important to our understanding of how Indian Root Doctoring came to be, but these recipes that were used in the end were not at all completely of Indian origin.  There was some cross-culturalism taking place in Indian Root doctoring that attempted to merge some European traditions with the Native American traditions, but only as these were understood by the European or Euro-american practitioner engaged in such practices. 

The Geography of Indian Doctoring

The believers in this healing faith appear to have entered the United States from several directions.  In New England, they crossed the Canadian-American border, existing predominantly in the rural parts of these states.  This migratory route is how Samuel Thomson later became influenced by the inner workings of this type of healing practice.  Thomson witnessed a local female herbalist carrying out these practices successfully on some of his friends and family members in the very late 1700s.

The main migratory route through which this healing faith entered North America was through the Saint Lawrence Seaway, across the Great Lakes, and then southward through the Mississippi River valley.  When this regions was still a part of New France, French-Canadians were heavily influenced when they witnessed the healing practices carried out by the Native Americans.  With continuous marriages taking place between the French and Native Americans, some of these French Canadian families came to learn and make use fo Native healing practices.  With their spread into the Mississippi River Valley by the late 1600s, the knowledge of the uses for local plants spread as well.  The Creole settlements had doctors who carried out healing traditions much like those of the Native American herbalists, and  with time their distribution spread into the Far south into Louisiana.  In spite of the Louisiana purchase which took place in 1803, these practitioners remained on their lands and thus led to the birth of new Native American-based healing faiths when the Bible enthusuiasts began heading west.

The third migratory route to bring Native American-derived healing faiths into European culture was the Far Western trade routes coming down from Vancouver, Canada.  Earlier, the Russians had controlled much of the fur trade taking palce in this region.  By the very late 1700s, French Canadian influence began surfacing in this region as well. The westward travels of Anglican and French explorers, followed by the Hudson Bay and Northwest Trappers, led to the establishment of Far West Indian Doctors.  Most of these healers we know anything about are the English- and American-born enthusiasts who headed westward in the mid- to late-trapping years, ca. 1810-1840.   Oregon physicians Robert Newell and William Dain are two examples of these kinds of healers.



For Part I, on Indian Doctors, go to:

To research Indian Doctors further, the following writings should be reviewed (listed in chronological order, the texts are of utopian Indian Doctors): 

1.  Peter Smith.  Indian Doctor’s Dispensatory Being Father Smith’s Advice Respecting Diseases and Their Cures; Consisting of Prescriptions for Many Complaints: And a Description of Medicines, Simple and Compound, Showing their Virtues and How to Apply Them.  Designed for the Benefit of His Children, His Friends and the Public, but more especially for the Citizens of the Western Parts of the United States of America.  (Cincinnati, 1813)  [Available at the NCNM Library, as a reprint produced by John Uri Lloyd in the early 1900s.]

2.  Dr. Richard Carter.  Valuable Vegetable Medical Prescriptions for the Cure of all Nervous and Putrid Disorders.  (Frankfort, Kentucky, 1815)

3.  Dr. Richard Carter.  A Short Sketch of the Author’s Life, and Adventures from his Youth until 1818 in the First Part.  In the Second Part, A Valuable, Vegetable, Medical Prescription, with a Table of Detergent and Corroborant Medicines to Suit the Treatment of the Different Certificates.  (Versailles, Ky, 1825)

4.  Dr. S.H. Selman. The Indian Guide to Health or a Valuable Vegetable Medical Prescription for the Cure of All Disorders Incident to this Climate.  (Columbus, Indiana, 1836)  [The son-in-law of Richard Carter.]

5.  Robert L. Foster.  The North American Indian Doctor, or Nature’s Method of Curing and Preventing Disease, According to the Indians.  (Canton, Ohio, 1838).

6.  Dr. William Daily, M.D.  Indian Doctor’s Practice of Medicine or Daily’s Family Physician.  (Louisville, Ky, 1848)

Journal Articles

R.E. Banta. “The Indian Doctors.”  Wabash Bulletin vol 40, (Jan. 1942), p. 24

Secondary References

Madge E. Pickard, R. Carlyle Buley.  The Midwest Pioneer.  His Ills, Cures & Doctors. (Henry Schulman, New York, 1946)

Gives a brief rendering of these doctors’ histories, that is not totally accurate, but helpful since it gives lengthy quotes of Carter’s book.


Other places at this site worth visiting:

For Part IV of this work see:

Indian Doctor William Dain, Northwest Fur trade trapper and agent, and Overland Trail physician ca. 1845, at

There are also a few notes added to my work on the Coldens and Dr. Cornelius Osborn pertaining to Indian  doctoring.  The Coldens are the first to document  uses for several local  herbs in New York during the early 1700s.  These are brief, but worth a visit.  (see especially any notes pertaining to snake root remedies.

See also the monograph of the “Cure for the Dropsys”, an Indian-like recipe written during the transcendental period into a family bible with an obvious Indian perspective on one or more of the medicines in the recipe.  



1. “Doctor” Robert Newell: Pioneer.  Quarterly Vol. 9 (1908), pp. 103-126.

2. According to the author, the researcher should peruse Mr. Elwood Evans’s notes in the Bancroft Collection.

3. For more on the utopian version of this healing faith, see Peter Smith’s Indian Doctoring and his definition of such.  Smith, like many others, based their practices on part of the Native American healing faith, to which they added those remedies they felt most confident with.  Peter Smith avoided the mineral and allopathic remedies, but included recipes told to him by his colleagues.  Smith’s underlying blood-letting philosophy expresses the slight differences that existed in Euro-American healing faiths when compared with those of the Native American tradition, which add the practices of prayer, song, symbolic moves or gestures, to the protocol to serve as spiritual and symbolic cures of the patients. 

4.  R.E. Banta. “The Indian Doctors.”  Wabash Bulletin vol 40, (Jan. 1942), p. 24.  see p. 36.

5. ibid, p. 37.