Trapper Medicine, ca., 1800 – 1810


This is the first documentation of specific cross-cultural behaviors at the level of medical practices that took place between trappers and Native Americans.

Relatively speaking, this is early in trapper history for the United States.  Trappers during the colonial years lived a lifestyle that was distinctly different from the United States trappers.  This was in large part due to the nature of the profession, the means by which trade was established between trappers and investors, and the heavy influence British government had on this profession and its legalities up until the Revolutionary War.  During the Revolutionary War, trapper life was still in its traditional state in the Great Northwest territory in and around the Great Lakes, but the pressures of the colonial wars would soon influence interactions between trappers south of the Great Lakes and people in Canada.  Some of the best late 18th century trapper insights come from these Canadian trappers, most of them residing in the French Canadian region around Quebec.  Still, these trappers are very different from the United States persona that defines this country’s first trappers.  The French trappers demonstrated their cultural influences far south of what later became to Canadian border.  French trappers and other French vocations related to the trappers like the voyageurs and cours de bois had an influence in this part of lower North America as well.  During these times, British Fur Trade companies were still dominating the wilderness-Fort scene, with some United State entrepreneurs beginning to invest in this part of North American between 1805 and 1815, the period which this review of trapper medicine covers.

The earliest years of trapping consisted of less Native American influence and residuals of the Hudson Bay Company and American military medicine influence.  The strongest evidence for this is the inclusion of laudanum, opium, mercurials, and other mineral remedies in the trappers medical and pharmacal way of thinking.  Natural remedies are seen in many of the plants noted here, but some of these plants really do little to change much of the medical routine.  The imported Ipecac was replaced by American emetics.  The European laxatives and purgatives (strong laxatives) by a few local plants with these activities.  In the beginning of this period in trapping history, if we begin with the Lewis and Clark expedition as the first such journey by a trapper in the Lewis & Clark team, then from this point on we expect to see a slow transition from post-colonial regular medicine, often military-like in its types of provisions, to the incorporation of new native herbal remedies that are not at all mineral in nature.  Whereas during the war, the point of emphasizing mineral remedies related to their shelflife, the early US trappers realized that shelflife was the least of their worries.   They had to be more concerned with knowing what remedies were abundant and all around them, in order to avoid having to pay for several months supply of military provisions of laudanum, ipecac, hartshorn (ammonia powder), various mineral powders and the like.   Trapper’s medicine often made use of some fairly easy to find items, like whiskey, scotch, rum, gunpowder, deer fat, or bear gall, and on occasion the local emetic or purgative, if they knew the identity of these plants due to their interactions with Natives. 

The influence of Native American remedies upon trappers would take about 15 to 20 years to become a standard part of their tradition practiced by nearly all members of this profession.  Even then, the forts and government sponsored employees of these settings pushed their products and influences upon trappers.  For this reason trappers still made some use of the opium drugs like laudanum on occasion for their pains.  It is unusual for a trapper to have quinine with him unless he just obtained some, or was actually a government supported or even sponsored entrepreneur travelling through the wilderness (i.e. an informant to interact with Natives).  The best kinds of people to read about in these settings are the metis or half-breed as they are often impolitely called.  There are a few diaries, journals and official papers that discuss these social settings.  But this evidence again does not surface until 10 or 15 years later in trapper history.

What we learn about the most with these few items is the amount of learning that is taking place about edible berries in the wilderness, and the more details that are being written out about Native American social and religious rituals.   These trappers are really explorers for the most part.  Their notes provide some of the more important insights into the medical traditions of Indians (for example, see Jongleurs, Medicine Bag, Medicine Man, Object or Spirit Intrusion).

Materia Medica

Alcoholic Beverages

Liquor…which they reckon the most efficacious medicine of all to cure every disease, and in facts sends a great many to their grave.”  [August 28, 1804] The Frenchmen’s drinking problem is also noted.  [Sep. 3, 1804]

[D. Cameron, 1804-5, II, 275, 282]

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi


Graine d’ours (Bearberry), also known as sac a commis.   This is most likely Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.   Keith described this as a creeping plant which is smoked, and which is put into sacs by the clerks “who alone had those bags.”

[G. Keith, 1807-17, II, 101-102]

Berries–see Foods, Trees and Plants

Beverages–see Alcoholic Beverages

Bleeding/Blood-Letting–see “Object or Spirit Intrusion/ Extrusion”

Borax–see Water–Mineral Springs

Botanicals–see Trees and Plants

Child-Bed/Child-birth–see Midwifery

Conjuring–see Jongleur, Medicine Bag, and “Object or Spirit Intrusion/Extrusion”

Doctors–see Jongleurs


Of the French-Canadians residing with “Hakamaugh Indians”: “several dogs…always a favorite dish among Canadian voyageurs” [16th, Friday, June 1808]

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 179]

“Salmon, berries, oil and roots in abundance, and our men had six dogs.” [19th, Monday, June 1808] 

Accompanying footnote: “Dogs were the most useful animals of these regions; the voyageurs considered them a great relish; the small kinds only were eaten, the large dogs were of another race, and had a rank taste.”

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 182]

Starving “Hackamaughts…regaled us with dog flesh”  [July 14, 1808]

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 213-214]


Small fish about the size of a herring are noted, “it is an oily substance and becomes rather disgusting.”

[G. Keith, 1807-17, II, 105-6]


“different kind of roots” were eaten by the “Askettihs.”  For other food sources: Wild Onion was formed into an edible syrup, salmon was dried, and berries.  See page 176, 14 June 1808 for similar food note.

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 173, 176]

“Salmon, berries, oil and roots in abundance, and our men had six dogs.” [Monday, June 19, 1808]

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 182]

On the 20th, a Tuesday, the “Swhanemugh” presented the traders with berries, roots and oil in abundance.

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 182-3]

Along the Chilkoetin River, with the “Chilkotins”, they had “a feast made up of venison, onions, roots, &c.”  [Tuesday, 25th, June 1808]

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 221]

Fish and berries noted on Quesel’s River. [Aug 1, 1808]

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 221]

Four children were taken ill after berries, roots, and salmon were exchanged.  (“Swhanemugh”)  [14th, July 1808]  

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 213]

At the preparation for departure which took place from Lac au Flambeau, Wisconsin, Malhiot notes they were to bring along “farines,” sugar, lard, lamb, butter, tea, bread, etc.  [Monday, July 16, 1804]

[F.-V. Malhiot, 1804-5, I, 227-8]

Sunflower and roots noted.

[C. Mackenzie, 1804-6, I, 338-9]

Foods included pine bark inner fibers, “a kind of weed which grows on rocks” (either moss or lichen), and “dung of reindeer.”  Of the latter, Peter Grant wrote “I have tasted it, out of curiosity, but thought it not deserving the encomium which they bestow upon it.”  Grant even went to great lengths to describe this dung as being dull-green, and “a peculiar sweatish taste but of nutrition quality when mixed with other food.”  NOTE: The use us bear’s feet, beef, buffalo or beer gall, and deer parts for medicine may have links to the use of animal parts for survival, and for carrying about as ceremonial healing agents. [see related notes on Medicine Bag, Medicine Man and Jongleur.]

[P. Grant, 1804, II, 330]

See Dogs, Moss, Roots, Seed Oils, Wild Onion.

See separate entries for Turlington Balsam and Laudanum, used by Fraser and the traders to treat the ailing children they met on July 14, 1808.

Fruit–see Foods


“The men found a large fungus which had grown upon a hemlock tree; it has the same virtue as rhubarb, and the Natives use it to dress and whiten their leather.”  [August 5th, 1808]

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 221]

There are several possibilities for this hemlock tree fungus with Native American use.  The most likely candidates are the very woody basidiomycetes like the above.  Yellow sulphur mushrooms are very unlikely to be have been used in the fashion.

Great Spirit

For pertinent notes, see Jongleurs, Medicine Bag, Medicine Man, Object or Spirit Intrusion, and the notes on James McKenzie at the end.


definition of “Jonglerie”

[J. McDowell, 1797, I, 276-7]

“a juggler or doctor of physic,–their medicines being simples they collect themselves–and when one teaches to another the vitue (sic) of an herb he knew not, there is scarce any bound to his liberality in repaying his instructor; but since trades frequent these posts several Indians make use of European medecines. (sic)”

[J. McDowell, 1797, I, 276]

Mention is made of Jongleurs and confessors, both used for treating those with a fear of dying.  Practices include singing and sucking rituals, mystical gestures, and incantations.  In Keith’s letter to Mackenzie, Esq., written at Forks MacKenzie’s River Department, on 15th Jan’y, 1814 (pp. 125-7).]

[G. Keith, 1807-17, II, 127]

Gives description of Conjurers and Jongleurs; also notes the Canadians as being “almost as superstitious as the Indians themselves.”

[D. Cameron, 1804, II, 264]

See Object Intrusion/Extrusion.

Jugglers–see Jongleurs


Allopathic (regular doctor) healing.  A specially prepared opium extract. 

Four children were afflicted with a disorder of living condition that left them “reduced to their skeletons.” (lack of food? scurvy?):

“Three or four children who were unwell were brought to me by their parents for medical assistance, and as I did not think fit to disappoint them, I sent one of the gentlemen for a vial of Turlington, but he brought Laudanum; considering however one of equal virtue with the other towards a cure, I mixed a few drops of what he brought with water, in this mixture I dipped my finger which I gently applied to the forehead of the sick.” (“Swhanemugh”)  [14th, July 1808]

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 213]

See Opium.


Gillenia trifoliata.  Alternatives: Euphoriba ipecacuanha and Apocynum androsaemifolioum?

      Colic remedy. [26-27 July 1804]

[F.-V. Malhiot, 1804-5, I, 231]

My initial suspicion was Apocynum.  Having reviewed the 18th century botanicals extensively, I believe this common name may also suggests one of the American Ipecacs.  Cadwallader Colden’s American Ipecac  or the Euphorbia ipecacuanhaGillenia trifoliata is the American Ipecac of the midwest to farwest, but could have a later discovery that Malhiot’s years of travel.

If we apply this to the trapper history of the Farwest alone, neither of these species really work due to their eastern distribution.  Apocynum may suffice as a western American Ipecac.

Liquor–see Alcoholic Beverages


“Lozenges, &c, turlington, to stop the spitting of blood…” [August 28, 1804]

[D. Cameron, 1804-5, II, 275]

Medicine Bag

A description of a Conjuring or Medicine Bag is given, which included roots, barks, weeds, grasses, dyed quills, Swan’s down, and small bits of wood made into knick knacks of different shapes made according to what the Medicine Man dreamt.   Roots and other medicines may have been bought from other Medicine Men.

[D. Cameron, 1804, II, 261]

Medicine Man/Medicine Men

The ritual for becoming a Medicine Man is briefly mentioned by Cameron.  A period of abstinence from food and putting on “make-up” is required.  “The young fellow is now admitted to all their conjuring feasts and ceremonies, and he, by degrees, acquires impudence enough to pretend that he knows more than those who instructed him; he is now a complete quack and an accomplished conjuror, who, by his knowledge, can cure all imaginable wounds or diseases, and become as secrete and mysterious in his performance as ever a free mason was with his sublime mysteries.” The onset of an illness or disease was often blamed on the conjurer.

[D. Cameron, 1804, II, 261]

See Jongleurs

Medicine Piece

“Every Indian has what they call his “medicine piece” of all the game he kills, such as the snout of the moose, the tongue and heart of the deer, the paws of the bear, and so on; this piece is always cooked by itself and ne female, young or old, ever dare taste it…They sometimes pay us with the great complement of bringing us such a piece, but they will then inform us of its sacred quality…”

[D. Cameron, 1804, II, 263]


Description of Women in Child-bed, makes note of “no professional midwives,” but rather previous matrons who assist in the birthing process.  Every matron who had a child is provided “proper medecines for the circumstances.”

[P. Grant, 1804, II, 309]


“Indians gather a kind of moss which they work into paste, bake in ovens, and which, though black, we found palatable.” [Sunday, June 18, 1808]

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 181]

Identity uncertain.  Lungwort lichen is a possibility, or a dark colored moss. 

Object or Spirit Intrusion/Extrusion

“They have considerable confidence in their abilities in curing by performing the absurd gestures common, in a less or greater degree, to all tribes of Indians, by means of which they pretend to extract hairs, toads and small pike fish from the parts of the body affected.”  [MacKenzie’s River Department, 28th Feby 1810]

Keith attributed these healing traditions to the Natives having no idea of the existence of a God (as Keith defined it) or a Supernatural being.  This he based on their definition for the causes for death–their enemies.  This description includes accounts of healing by song and by sucking.

[G. Keith, 1807-17, II, 89]

“Letting blood, even in the proper vein, with an awl, a painful knife, pointed white iron, &c, is common to many of them.  They are entirely ignorant of any kind of medical herbs or roots, and I believe the country produces very few of either.”

[G. Keith, 1807-17, II, 89]

Keith writes “Dyewood or roots are of no variety…I have discovered no medical plants, and the natives make use of none being the growth of the country.”

[G. Keith, 1807-17, II, 102]

“The Natives are remarkably filthy in dressing the food and indeed in every other respect, hence it is no wonder they are subject to colics, and pains in the stomach and diarrhea.  They know nothing of medical roots and herbs, so that, except singing or rather humming their sick, biting and pulling their teeth, and sucking the parts affected, they allow nature to take her course undisturbed by an initial prescription.  When nigh the white people’s establishments, they always apply for some medicine, which is always given gratis.”

[G. Keith, 1807-17, II, 105-6]

“Their knowledge in medecine does not extend beyond that of the other Indians around this post, and their mode of treating the sick much the same: pulling, sucking, biting the parts of the body affected, pretending to do miracles, such as extracting small fish, frogs, hair, &c…”  (A note by Hon. R. Mackenzie describes similar practices utilized by the Abenakis, of St. Francis, Canada.)

[G. Keith, 1807-17, II, 118]

“When they have a sore throat they fancy a fish in the course of it, and, to get rid of it, they fasten a strip of net round their necks…”  Invasion of Animal Spirit healing concept, from Mr. James McKenzie’s The King’s Posts and Journal of a Canoe Jaunt through the King’s Domains, 1808, The Saguenay and the Labrador Coast.  [II, 401-454], p. 427.

[J. McKenzie, 1808, II, 427]

See Jongleur.

Oils/Seed Oils

“Salmon, berries, oil and roots in abundance, and our men had six dogs.” [19th, Monday, June 1808] 

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 182]

On the 20th, a Tuesday, the “Swhanemugh” presented the traders with berries, roots and oil in abundance.

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 182-3]


At Roche debout encampment, 5 drops of opium were taken to resolve a malingering toothache; this treatment was ineffective, leading the person to try “rhum.”

[F.-V. Malhiot, 1804-5, I, 229]

See Laudanum.

Pine Roots

Mentions little.  See Thursday, 15th June, 1808 entry.

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 176]

Plants–see Trees and Plants


Toothache, headache and Colic remedy. [July, 16, 25 and 26, 1804]  Can find numerous other entries of “Rhum” as well.

[F.-V. Malhiot, 1804-5, I, 229,231]

Identification:  Rum?  Latina/o term for this beverage is rhum.  The latin term Rheum refers to Rhubarb, which is not at all native.  Rhum may also refer to Rheuma as in Rheumatism.  Also not likely. 


“different kind of roots” were eaten by the “Askettihs.”   [Monday, 12th June, 1808]

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 173]

See Foods, Pine Roots.

Rhubarb–see Fungus

Scurvy–see Turlington Balsam and Laudanum entries.

Spirit Intrusion/Extrusion–see Object or Spirit Intrusion/Extrusion

Survival Food–see Moss.

Sunflower (Helianthus species)

Sunflower and roots noted.  The roots of H. tuberosa are “Jerusalem artichokes.”  Could be this plant.

[C. Mackenzie, 1804-6, I, 338-9]


Tobacco growths are described.

[C. Mackenzie, 1804-6, I, 338-9]

Toothache Remedy–see Opium and Rhum

Trees and Plants [P. Grant, 1804]

The following were noted to be near the Sauteux Indian sites by Peter Grant:

  • Cranberries
  • Hazelnuts
  • Gooseberry
  • Wild Grapes
  • Bramble
  • Blackberry
  • Raspberry
  • Chokeberry
  • Strawberry
  • Sand Cherries (Prunus pumila and other species)
  • Wild Rice, “of infinite use to the natives,”

                                          [P. Grant, 1804, p. 309]

Atoca (Native American)



Trees and Plants [G. Keith, 1807-17]

The following were noted by G. Keith at McKenzie’s River:

  • Birch (Betula sp.)
  • Shrub-Wood (Willow, Salix sp.)
  • “another shrub distinguished by the seven barks it possesses.”  (according to Lyons Plant Names, Hydrangea arborescens of New York and the East Coast has the common name Seven-bark.  Dirca palustris is ninebark)
  • Crowberries (Empetrum nigrum)
  • Whortleberries (a Vaccinium sp., Bilberry, Blueberry or Huckleberry)
  • Pashaco (unidentified)
  • Atoca  (Cranberry.  Vaccinium oxycoccus and others)
  • Juniper Berry (Juniperus sp.)
  • Graine d’ours (Bearberry), also known as sac a commis (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

He writes “Dyewood or roots are of no variety…I have discovered no medical plants, and the natives make use of none being the growth of the country.”  (See related writings by Keith in the descriptions for “Object or Spirit Intrusion/Extrusion.”

[G. Keith, 1807-17, II, 101-102]

Trees and Plants [Wentzel, 1807]

Wentzel gives no ethnohistory for most of these plants; he notes some as edible fruit, and dye sources.  Other uses may be inferred by the common plant name such as with “mountain tea.”   [Wentzel, 1807, I, 80]

  • Large Woods
  • red and white pine
  • cypress
  • birch
  • poplar
  • liard
  • underwood
  • elder
  • willow
  • redwood (bearsfoot)–related to 19th C. Bear’s Foot?
  • swamp tea (probably Labrador Tea-Ledum groenlandicum)
  • plants
  • plantin (sic) (Plantago majus)
  • liquorice roots (Glycyrrhiza sp.)
  • wild mint  (Mentha arvensis is only native species)
  • sarsaparilla  (Aralia nudicaulis or other Aralia sp. if eastern)
  • mountain tea (fruit)  (Gaultheria procumbens)
  • wild sives (wild chives? Allium sp.)
  • queue de rats (ratstail, possibly horsetail (Equisetum), but other green spike micropetal or non-petal flowers are possible.)
  • fruit
  • poire (“apple”)  any variety of spherical fruits of various colors may be called a poire, but usually those moderate in size to large)
  • gooseberry (Ribes or Grossularia)
  • raspberry
  • strawberry
  • mooseberry (Highbush Cranberry. Viburnum edule)
  • deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum)
  • rose buttons
  • currants
  • thimbleberry
  • hutleberry (probably huckleberry)
  • pithagomine or queue depouillee  (of Lac de Queue Depouille?)
  • choakberry
  • cramberry
  • crowberry
  • juniper berry
  • bear berry
  • Dye plants
  • Savoyan  (red)
  • “Cramberry” (light red)
  • small root in marshy plains (yellow)

Turlington’s Balsam

Allopathic healing.

Four children were afflicted with a disorder of living condition that left them “reduced to their skeletons.” (lack of food? scurvy?); Fraser requested Turlington’s Balsam of one of his partners, instead he was brought Laudanum. 

See Laudanum entry.

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 213]

“Lozenges, &c, turlington, to stop the spitting of blood…” [August 28, 1804]

[D. Cameron, 1804-5, II, 275]

Watap–see Pine Roots

Water–Mineral Springs

“a substance something like borax, which had a saline and sulphurous taste; a hole being dug it was slowly filled up with a nauseous liquid of which, however, we drank.”

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 173]

On the other side of the river, on Jackass Mountain, the team observed a mineral spring, “the water of which was clear and of a strong taste, and the scum of a greenish colour.”  (“Hackamaughs”)  [20th, Tuesday, June 1808]

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 182-3]

“there is a kind of sulphurous springs which emit a continual smoke both in summer and in winter.”  Keith noted the presence of Coal beds below ground with their sulphur smell.  He also briefly commented on “a few salt springs which produce very fine salt, but, by no comparisons, in such immense quantities as in other parts of the interior.” [p. 101]

NOTE:  This letter was addressed to “Rod. McKenzie, Esq.,” and written at “McKenzies’s River Department, Bear Lake,” on 19th November, 1812, on pages 100-110.

[G. Keith, 1807-17, II, 101, 103]


Wild Onion

Wild Onion was formed into an edible syrup, to be eaten with dried salmon and berries.   [Monday, 12th June, 1808]

[S. Fraser, 1808, I, 173]

This may be a true wild onion (Allium sp.,) but might also be a look-alike such as edible camas (Camassia sp.).

Wild Rice 

Sauteux Indians.  [P. Grant, 1804]