Why separate out the materia medica for trappers and explorers?

Trappers and explorers cover a very distinct place and/or period in American medical history.  The place and time of the trapper-explorer setting represents a period in American history when transitions took place between pure wilderness and pure pioneer medicine.  These in turn led to the popular press equivalent of these ways of living later published as a part of a newly formed American philosophy and tradition–Indian Root doctoring. 

The culture of the trapper-explorer world was as its name applies twofold.  There were still traditionalists working this part of the world, people from civilized places residing in forts and fur trade locations, maintaining a trade relationship as much as possible.  These were the conformists when it came to believing in European philosophy, practice and tradition in medicine.  Their counterpart were the trappers, the true trappers, whose philosophies,  thoughts and patterns of behavior began to mimic those of the  Natives residing in these same settings.  I underline “true” in the previous sentence because there are those who were published who try to present themselves as trappers and explorers to us, but who are more like the hunter of today taking a month for a jaunt through the Sahara hoping to be awarded with his next “rack.”  There were no doubt some “trapper-explorers” out there just for the recreation, and the chance to use their shooting skills learned during the War of 1812 or one of those many small skirmishes we had with  Mexico.

Somewhere between these two individuals we often hear about idealists, people who claim to have lived a trapper’s lifestyle, making their way about the wilderness, not knowing a thing about Indian philosophy and medicine.  People who try to demonstrate in their dairy or journal writings how they out-shined the local Natives, won with their encounter with a grizzley, made their important discovery of the local plant or medicine being used by a medicine man.  A good example of this kind of utopian trapper is somehone who exaggerates about being a trapper.  Osborne Russell is one such example, who was a trapper fairly late during the trapping period of 1790-1845, someone who was always a politican first, another Davy Crocket in the midst of our presence as readers of the local magazines and newspapers. 

Finally, there are those “trappers” who formed as end results of the various trapper-mountain man images developed during the early 1800s.  There are some who are French Canadian or Metis, some who are very much Anglican in personality and nature, and even some who are perhaps European French or traditional British, in need of a good glas of wine or cup of tea every day.  A number of “irregular” medical practices also came about due to this form of traditional knowledge sharing.  Just before the end of the 18th century, being a traditional trapper was the real thing–being someone who is completely different from the information gatherer and interpreter hired by Hudson’s Bay, or the governmental official overseeing local trading post operations.  The traditional trapper at this time (1790), from whom we can learn something due to the journal that he kept and was later published is James Isham (ref: Observation on Hudson’s Bay, 1743, and notes and observations on a book entitled A Voyage to Hudson’s Bay in the Dobbs Galley, 1749. [Hudson’s Bay Records Series, Volume 12. 1949).   

At the dawn of the 19th century, as part of the Lewis and Clark expedition, unfortunately there were some very important early trappers, like Peter, for whom none of this documentation exists.

If I were to break early American medicine down into specific times frames, producing a different materia medica for each due to the major differences in philosophy each of these periods had, I would probably break American medical history down into the pre-colonial period, colonial period, transitional stage, trapper-explorer explorer, and pre-“modern” culture medicine phase.  

The pre-colonial (Native American) period and colonial period are just what their names define them to be.  These are periods when the medicine being practiced is either Native, before the impact of immigration on the local tribes, and/or it is colonial, in that there is little non-Indian medicine being practiced that is uniquely Euro-American, and not just a simple derivative of the already politically omnipresent nature of western European philosophy and tradition in colonial New World medicine.  It would be rare for example to find much documentation of Russian or Oriental philosophy in New World cultures prior to 1800, although this probably may have existed in some very small areas (i.e. Pacific Northwest Sitka area resembles Russian medical practices due to Russian explorers in this area, thus the popularization of western “ginseng” equivalents and the discovery of Russian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and a Pacific Northwest white-flowering Russian equivalent for valerian.)

The transitional period in medicine is that period of continuous change in medical thinking as the colonies becomes states, the pharmacy and medicine practiced in these states become American born discoveries, and the entire field of medicine is forced to undergo one change after another until some professional and legal stabilization happens.  Throughout this period in American medical history, both political sides of medicine (regular and irregular) are being tested.  The success of their clinical performance, the ability to cure or not, is proven or disproven by epidemics and the social reactions to these failures, not by science and its discoveries since very few of these save a life during such periods of social and political turmoil.

The trapper explorer period is when discoveries are made and unique uses and philosophies are being recorded, with a little bit editorializing occurring on behalf of observers and notetakers.  Cultural biasness is often the problem with going through these types of documents.  This would be like reading the 1666 Dutch interpretation of acupuncture and moxibustion published, in which the method is said to work due to the powers of fire. 

The “pre-modern” phase is a period when practitioners and preachers of the new philosophies felt they had a pretty good understanding as to what was causing disease, even though they didn’t, of which the regular physicians were just as responsible as the irregulars. 

Trapper-Explorer Discoveries

There are several types of contributions trappers have made to American medical history. 

First, they are often the only reason we learn about specific plant remedies.  They interact with and at times reside with the Native Americans, they witness the Native American uses for these  items, and they themselves often become a part of that experience, making any claims they make to be more trustworthy and evidentiary, something we can trust rather than question like we might do with a utopian idealist “trapper” travelling non-chalantly across the woodlands making all sorts of “miraculous discoveries.”  I’d trust a trapper’s words over that of a touring adventurer’s words, as well as over that of any merchant or government worker’s words about trapper-Native American medical claims. 

Secondly, trappers provide us with insight into a lifestyle that cannot be obtained any other way.  This includes the metaphysical or natural theology related to such a life, such as learning more about just what the signs of “Creation” are or what the evidence for the existence of a Great Spirit might be.  This philosophy can very much be addicting to read and learn about though, which makes some trapper-related writings published in the mid-19th century or later questionable and not that reliable as sources for traditional values and traditional mindset or reasoning.  Historical writings about trapping that look back tend to include contemporary philosophy and knowledge into such reviews (including my own here as well), making it hard for the reader to know what exactly was said during the time he/she is reading about, and what exactly are the words that best capture the beliefs being discussed.  Trappers knew about sanitation and germs, but may have only known the word germ in a superficial sense, and knew about sanitation only in the domestic sense, something that often they just didn’t practice.  Trappers probably knew little to nothing about “animalcules”, and nothing about microbes or bacteria, or sepsis, yet at times we read about bacterial disease and trappers–a misfit of knowledge and ideas by the writer, often compiling notes for his/her own recollection of the past.

For the time being I cannot thing of a single plant that stands out as a trapper’s discovery.  Those coming close to this place in a trapper’s hall of fame for plant medicines are the Ratibada and the Cleome.  The Ratibada is the plant that preceded the famous Echinacaea now popular in mdeorn herbal medicine.  The Cleome is a plant that is not that popular in modern herbal medicine, but one which depicts the obvious route back from the Far West to the Midwest when you view its distribution across the Great Plains.  This plant was found in the Rocky Mountain area and carried back to civilization by trappers, where doctors then learned about it and some had articles published about it as a new discovery in the Farwest.  For now, these two plants best depict the meaning of trappers to “modern medicine” for the time.

Trapper-Explorer Tradition and Philosophy

Of course we cannot define a single philosophy for any set of people due to their diverse cultural and personal backgrounds.  We can however define some common themes that helps to define the major elements of a trapper’s philosophy. 

As a part of my review, I am going to cover several diaries, journals or books on their own.  These books provide some of the essential details needed to understand a trapper’s writings with the goal of defining its level of authenticity.  There are diaries included here that are very much illustrative of trapper’s life, and others not at all credible.  Some diaries completely lack much faith in trapper culture, and were composed solely for the income such a writing could generate, others were composed for no reason other than to serve as some memorial of a real lifestyle that once existed.

These diaries include those of the following:

  • Townsend
  • Osborn



 There are always controversies related to such a field of medical practice.  The  following themes express these controversies and are also a part of my review