Indian Doctors – Part III


“This work is a classic, unequalled for variety, originality, and completeness.  Dr. Carter was a system unto himself–a composite of Indian medicine, regular practice, poetry, mysticism, advice to the lovelorn, and Carter.”

[Pickard and Buley]


Sources Reviewed

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

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)

Notes: This book is hard to find.  So to study Carter, readers are referred to the book The Midwest Pioneer…, by Madge E. Pickard and R. Carlyle Buley, pp. 47-74, in which a large part of his writing appears.   


Indian Doctor Richard Carter was born 1786 in Virginia on the south branch of the Potomac.  His father was an Englishman from London where he was “bred to the practice of physic.”  In America, Richard Carter lived the life of a cobbler.  He married a woman whose mother was half-breed (metis) and she was a healer.   Later in his life, Richard Carter met up with and fell in love with a young woman who was also halfbreed or metis.   

One day, Richard Carter got ill, and was considered untreatable by the local Indian Doctor.  He received the same diagnosis and perspective of his illness by a local a regular doctor and a local person into water cures.   This led Richard Carter t0 treat himself, and cure himself, using a decoction brewed of dewberry, briar roots, burdock roots, wild cherry bark, sassafras inner bark, and white ash tops, adding to this essence of peppermint at times.  Thiss started his work toward the writing of a book on medicine. 

When we look at the remedies in Carter’s book we find that he favored a real mish mash of formulas and treatment philosophies.  The remedies he favored included mustard poultices made with “beat mustard seed,” which he then applied to the wrist, ankles and feet, presumably to heat the body.  His remedies also included the “Indian Sweat treatment”, made with steam produced using “a point of whiskey and a point of strong vinegar,” mixed, and then poured over hot stones. 

In some respects, Carter’s therapies are remarkably similar to those of Samuel Thomson.  However, Carter’s regimens differ substantially with regard to the recipes he recommends.

These recipes include several for:

His compendium of cures gave 63 Receipts

Including those for:

  •  “the Yellow Jaundice”
  • “Internal Dropsy of the Brain”
  • “the Fever and Ague”
  • “Convulsive Fits, Palsys, Appoplexys (sic), &c.”
  • “the Hysterics”
  • “On the Hypocondriacs (sic)”
  • “Old Running Sore Legs”
  • “the Consumption”
  • “the Stomache Ache, &c, &c.”

 His fever and ague remedy had a mixture of calomel [unusual], saltpeter, Jesuit Bark, pulverized colombo, elixir of vitriol, spirits of nitre, and a pill of steel dust.

 Carter book also differs from Thomson’s in that is was more than a simple recipe book.  His book also included writings on

  • “Directions for Gardening”
  • “Of Signs from the Pulse”
  • “Of the Bad Effects of Mercurials”
  • “The Morbid Effects of Poisons on Air”
  • “Of Signs from the Urine and other Excretions”
  • “Of the Crisis”
  • “Remedy for Weak Nerves, Rheumatism, &c.”
  • “A Caution to those who drink Mineral Water”
  • “Of the Urine”
  • “Indian Lexicon”
  • “The Best of Wives” [a Poem]
  • “Gutta Serena”, and  
  • moralizing with displays of “nefarious characters.”

 A detailed analysis of Carter’s work revealed that he was very much attached to the root medicine concept so closely linked to Indian Doctoring beliefs.  This belief in the strength of the root, over the other parts of medicinal plants, is a philosophical claim that probably has a fairly lengthy history, not fully implemented in Carter’s version of Indian Doctoring.  The following materia medica listings detail the types of medicines contained in Carter’s recipes and book:

American Root Drugs [18 TOTAL]

  • dried pulverised Indian turnip  [Arisaema triphyllum]
  • elecampane root [Inula elecampane]
  • green comphrey? [Symphytum officinale]
  • angelica root [European?]
  • spikenard root  [Aralia sp. ,perhaps A. spinosa due to more southern location]
  • roots and tops of ground ivy [Glecoma hederacea]
  • bark of the roots of yellow poplar  [Liriodendron tulipifera]
  • burdock roots [American?]
  • briar roots [Smilax sp.?]
  • dogwood root [Cornus florida]
  • black snake root  [Caulophyllum sp., or Cimicifuga racemosa, or Sanicula marylandica]
  • woodbine root [Lonicera caprifolium L., “Oodbine” is Scottish; Woodbine is a Shakspearean name]
  • pokeroot [European?] [Phytolacca americana]
  • elder roots [Sambucus sp.]
  • Carolina pinkroot  [Spigelia marylandica L.]
  • foot and leg-baths in a strong ooze of iron weed roots [Vernonia nova-boracensis (L.) Willd.]
  • jentian roots [probably Gentiana sp.]
  • pine roots [Pinus spp.]
  • pechoon [puccoon] roots  [Sanguinaria canadense]

American Bark Drugs  [6 TOTAL]

  • bark of the roots of yellow poplar [Liriodendron tulipifera]
  • wild cherry
  • sassafras inner bark [Sassafras albidum]
  • white ash [Fraxinus americana L. or F. nigra Marsh]
  • slippery elm [Ulmus fulva]
  • powdered birch bark [Betula lenta]

American Herb Drugs  [17 TOTAL

  • ground ivy [Glecoma hederacea]
  • peck of pollepody? [Fern: Polypodium spp.?] 
  • green comphrey?  [Symphytum sp.]
  • life-everlasting [Anaphallis sp.]
  • heart leaves [Asarum canadense]
  • dewberry [Rubus sp.]
  • sage tea [Salvia or Artemisia]
  • goldenrod [Solidago sp.]
  • flowers of pinks [Caryophyllum sp.?]
  • Jamestown Weed leaves [Datura stramonium]
  • pine tops [Pinus?, not Ground Pine?]
  • red pepper [Capsicum sp.]
  • alicumpane/elecampane
  • nettles [Urtica sp.]
  • tobacco
  • bear’s foot [Polemonium reptans L.]
  • scurvy grass

Other American  [3 TOTAL]

  • spicewood
  • wormseed [Artemisia sp.]
  • pine beans

Central American Drugs  [3 TOTAL]

  •  red pepper
  • sasapharilla (sic) [Aralia sp.]
  • jalap [either traditional Convolvulus/Ipomoea jalapa or local equivalent]

 Colonial Plant Drugs  [26 TOTAL]

  • peck of pollepody
  • peck of cinquefril (cinquefoil) [Potentilla sp.]
  • peck of white plantain  [Goodyera pubescens has white-veined leaves; florets are white for Plantago minor]
  • pulverised Columbo [Jatropha calumba?]
  • sage tea
  • camomile flowers [Matricaria sp. or local look-alike]
  • best mustard seed
  • Tanzy leaves [Tanacetum sp.]
  • parsley roots [Petroselenium]
  • ointment of camomile flowers
  • slippery elm [Ulmus fulva]
  • Alloes [Aloa sp.]
  • dosage of horseradish roots
  • tar [pine or petrolatum?]
  • jalap [Convolvulus jalapa?]
  • jentian roots [prob. Indian Root Drug] [Gentiana sp.]
  • manna [gum] [Fraxinus sp.]
  • garlic [Allium]
  • wormwood [Artemisia]
  • castor oil [Ricinus]
  • orange peelings
  • hoarhound [Marrubian vulgare]
  • fennel seed
  • asafoetida [pills]  [Ferula asafoetida]
  • wormwood beer [absinthe]
  • gall
  • opium [Papaver somniferum]

Colonial Mineral Drugs  [8 TOTAL]

  • rusty iron
  • saltpeter
  • glauber salts
  • stone-coal dust
  • refined niter
  • cream of tartar
  • brimstone
  • Calomel

Colonial Animal Drugs  [3 TOTAL]

  • new milk
  • beaver castor/”rusian caster”
  • bear’s gall

Domestic  [15 TOTAL]

  • honey
  • a dozen hen eggs
  • burnt egg shells
  • burnt mussle shells
  • oyster shell lime
  • turpentine [Colonial]
  •  table salt
  • unsalted butter
  • fresh butter
  • red onions beat fine
  • gun powder
  • wheat flour
  • rye meal
  • clarified whey
  • chicken soup

 Domestic Animal [3 TOTAL]

  • dog’s belly
  • red fishing worms [Native American?]
  • young ducks [symbolic of eggs]

Beverages [7 TOTAL]

  •  spirits
  • Madeira Wine
  • hard cider
  • apple cider
  • rye whiskey
  • rum
  • rye

Oils [4 TOTAL]

  • neats foot oil
  • linseed oil
  • dog oil
  • sweet oil

 European Plants/Imports  [8 TOTAL]

  • mullen roots
  • pulverised Columbo
  • burdock roots
  • rue
  • essence of peppermint
  • goldenrod
  • double tansy
  • rhubarb 

Allopathic  [3 TOTAL]

  • laudanum (unusual)
  • opium
  • Calomel

 Other [2 TOTAL]

  • vitriolic ether
  • middling of a strong lie [lye] made from the ashes of  dry cow dung

Most important to note is that Carter’s lists are not exclusive of any sect then practiced in medicine.  Aside from Indian Doctoring native plants, his list includes opium, calomel and  laudanum, three very allopathic forms of medicine which most irregular physicians were against using.  Carter also notes several mineral drugs in his materia medica, another series of allopathic medicines excluded by most irregular materia medicas.   Carter also includes a lot of domestic medicine related ingredients in his listing, ranging from egg shells and dog belly to cow dung.   He uses the much stronger imported plants such as jalap, columbo and rhubarb (all strong laxatives).  He was also unsparing of certain wild animals or their parts such as red worms, castorum and bear’s gall.

Eight medical methods were noted by Carter’s work.  These include the following:  

  • wrist, ankle, foot plasters of mustard
  • steam from whiskey and vinegar
  • blood-letting
  • injections
  • foot baths
  • stomach blisters
  • frictions of the skin
  • riding on horseback

Except for the blood-letting, Carter’s methods could have become very popular as all-around medical treatments.  It is possible that Carter considered himself an Indian Doctor, in spite of his inclusion of blood-letting in his practice.  There were midwestern and even possibly Great Lakes area Canadian Indians who made use of the thorn as a lancet.  If Carter was familiar with this, his reason for retaining blood-letting makes more sense.  This penetration of the body by the thorn might have easily been interpreted cross-culturally by European and Euro-Americans as confirmation of the practice of bleeding.  This use of the thorn is very different though philosophically and in terms of metaphysical theory.  The opening of the flesh, especially involving some part of the body bitten by a snake is an attempt to release the animal spirit the snake’s bit has introduced into the body.  Philosophically, this is different than trying to extract venom. 

Throughout  my reviews of trapper and explorer medicine, this notion of extracting the snake spirit appears again and again in Native America medical philosophy.  Evidence for the need to do this may take the form of someone’s skin mottling into a pattern that looks like snake skin, or one’s tendency to lie on the ground and even convulse or move about due to the pain, appearing as if he were infested by a snake spirit.  Just how much Carter was into this metaphysical interpretation of illness and symptomatology is uncertain.  But there is evidence that Carter was being an Indian Doctor with this writing.  A short while later his son in law would follow in his footsteps and publish his own book on the same (see below).


The bulk of Carter’s different types of medicines are of American origin, for which he had American Root   [18], Bark [ 6] and Herb Drugs [17], for a total of 41 medicines.  He had 3 other American types of medicines and three Central or South American plants.  The total of Native medicines therefore was 47.    This compares with just 37 Colonial drugs (26 plant, 8 mineral and 3 animal), 29 domestic items (15 general, 3 animal), 7 beverages, 4 oils), 8 European imports, and 3 non-specific allopathic drugs (approximately 135 medicines total, when accounting for repeats).   This makes for a total of  

  • 35% Native American Medicines
  • 28% Colonial Medicines 
  • 34% Imports/Non-Native American (Colonial + European]
  • 21% Domestic Medicines/Non-Native American

Dr. Richard Carter produced the following two books:

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

 The authors Pickard and Buley give a long biography of Carter in their book.   His work was succeeded by an Indian doctoring book written by his son-in-law Dr. S.H. Selman, entitled The Indian Guide to Health or a Valuable Vegetable Medical Prescription for the Cure of All Disorders Incident to this Climate.  (Columbus, Indiana, 1836).  This included one of his father’s recipes consisting of yellow poplar, yellow sarsaparilla root, wild cherry, and running briar, all prepared in a copper kettle.

The Geography of Popular Culture Indian Medicine

Reviewing Indian Doctoring in respect to Thomsoniasm and other types of  healing practices, it is possible that Carter’s and Peter Smith’s Indian Doctoring spread between Ohio (Peter Smith, beginning ca. 1809/1812) and Kentucky (Carter, 1815).    This faith preceded the rapid spread of Thomsonianism, which took a westward and southward route along the transportation routes along the coastline (evidence for schools by the name Thomsonian suggest travel from New England to Virginia/Carolinas area, and then over to Georgia and Alabama, and then up towards Memphis, Tennessee.)  Along land routes, Thomsonianism followed the trains and carriages essentially westeward from New Hampshire into New York near Troy and Albany, and then westward and southward towards New York city, stopping perhaps in what is now Putnam County due to lack of major towns.  There is evidence for Thomsonian promotion in New York City as well, but politics makes it seem unlikely that the person responsible for circulating the news about Thomsonianism made much progress there.  These Thomsonian routes were probably taken by Indian Doctor promoters as well, but it appears that since Indian doctoring is more a type of medicine befitting of rual life and culture, that the midwestern route was probably more lucrative.  We see evidence for this in the small businesses of Indian Doctors set up in Indiana and Illinois, and the much larger Thomsonians and Botanic Physician movements. (Botanic medicine was an offshoot of Thomsonianism initated ca 1837, Ohio, by Alva Curtis, MD, Publisher, promoter, and former Thomsonian, with a variety of new philosophies to preach as well, like Dr. Carter.  Between 1824 and 1850, Eclectics was important as well, but I’ll save that part of this discussion for later.)

Dr. Carter’s practice began in Kentucky, but was perpetuated elsewhere in this country.  In Columbus, Indiana, his son-in-law Dr. S.H. Selman, wrote a sequel to Carter’s healing philosophy around 1836.  This was about twenty to twenty five years after Father Peter Smith, of Ohio, also of Native American influence, first created and then later published his writing on the value of certain Indian remedies.  A number of other Indian Doctors began practicing in Ohio and parts of Illinois about the same time, and some were more authentic in appearance.   Others blended whatever healing faiths they felt would develop an avid following.   One doctor blended microscopic evaluation of blood and urine with Indian root doctoring.  Another seems to have emphasized the concept of the healing root and rhizome, selecting herbs with little reason except with the hope of mysteriously coming upon the right cure for each of his patients.  This doctor, who practiced in Indiana about the turn of the century, represents an early version of this healing sect.   

It helps to also note that much later Indian Doctors who surfaced like to incorporate some of Thomson’s thinking into their healing philosophy.  Dr. William Daily, who published his Indian Doctor’s Practice in 1848, incorporated several of the concepts copied by Samuel Thomson.  James Cooper, author of Indian Doctor’s Receipt Book (1855), made use of some even more contemporary discoveries in the make-up of his healing faith; he also accepted the use of Digitalis, a European drug plant, for treating certain heart ailments.