The following is a review of  J.K. Townsend.  Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River.  Originally published ca. 1839.  Reprinted by University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln/London, Neb., 1970.  Also re-published as Volume 8, of Thwaite’s Early Western Travels series.

The initial tendency of researchers is to treat Townsend’s work as one of a number of important examples of work documenting the interactions between Native Americans and people making their way through the wilderness as explorers during the first half of the nineteenth century.   Researchers tend to offer these writers the same sort of respect they might offer to others providing us with important insights into the history of trapping and the mountainman experience.  However, there is this unfortunately tendency for some writers to be too trusting when it comes to determining how non-biased the older writings can be. 

It was typical for some 19th century writers to be very critical and conclusive at times about the statements they made in their published materials.  As an example, one of the Canadian missions that took place around this time led the government representative to publish a short tale on his “jolly jaunts” through the region, all the time demonstrating just a little too much ethnocentricity with these writings.   This is because the purpose for publishing such items was more often centered on furthering the accomplishments made by members of a specific cultural background, obtaining the support of additional investors if at all possible, at the expense of not providing a two-sided point of view of the task at hand. 

Townsend’s work is a great example of this unfortunately.  Townsend’s work has to be viewed with caution when the search for authentic materials is the goal in studying this piece of American history with the truths about both cultures in mind.   Townsend was neither a life long trapper nor mountain man.  He was an agent out in the West because he was performing governmental duties.  For this reason his findings are fairly slanted, and it comes as no surprise to find that Townsend’s stories are exaggerative, if not simply lies that he told and retold as a government worker.  Of the two writers most deserving of this sort of criticism–Russeell or Townsend–Townsend is the most critical writer I have found during the course of this research when it came to demonstrating some respect for Indian lifestyles and traditions.  Townsend’s work was produced in order to improve any public’ opinions about his success or lack of success, at the expense of teaching his readers anything about Native American culture. 



J.K. Townsend (1809-1851) was a Quaker from Philadelphia.  He writings illustrate the strict English behaviors which took place during his lifetime.   These behaviors were typical of early colonial times in the New England territories, and parts of the Mid-Atlantic regions and Canadian Atlantic shorelines. 

During the second period of Native American-Euro-American political conflicts, initiated by missionaries during the early 1800s, religious beliefs and healing philosophies were drastically changed as political change progressed.  For example, many of the attempts made to convert Native American and French-Canadian religious and medical practices to something akin to the Anglican belief system were a constant failure.  The interactions between Native Americans and Explroation-trapping groups, in some cases unique influences to ensue, a prime example of which was noted by members of the Hudson Bay Company who witnessed the opening of two medicines bags–one filled with pieces of paper typically used as pretty stationary to be mailed from England, and the Dutch and English Spice Islands spices.  

Based on Townsend’s writing style, it appears he is trying to present his readers with some thinking that is very much ethnocentric, and might I add, very British in nature.  This kind of ethnocentricity we find as well in other British writings, such as  the works of Mr. James McKenzie’s, 1799-1808. [Published in Recits de Voyages Lettres et Rapports Ineditis relatifs au Nord-Ouest Canadien. Volume II, in possession of Reed College.]  

Townsend’s work consists of a series of exaggerations and confabulations and represents an unfortunate period in early nineteenth century Native American-Euro-American medical history.  Townsend’s entries show obvious favoritism toward allopathy.  

Townsend travelled with Thomas Nuttalli and Osborn Russell of Maine.  Osborn Russell’s writings also bear a pro-allopathic healing philosophy.  (See separate section covering his training and materia medica).  Nuttall, being supported by the US Government as a Botanist and Naturalist, was by the rule a member of the allopathic healing faith. 

Townsend’s writings are obviously prejudicesd and are therefore are only partially covered and kept separate from the Trapper’s medical notes. 

Medicines noted:

The June 6, 1835 narrative (pages 211-212) about “making medicine,” with mention of superstition as an aside, show a high level of biasedness was felt by Townsend against these alternative healing methods. 

Sweat Baths–Townsend gives a description of this healing process. [p. 211-2]

Townsend labels the “Medicine Man”: “a vile imposter…a fool and a liar…”, following the Medicine Man’s attempt to treat a young girl.  Townsend infers in his recount of this episode that the patient and the others who stood by and watched, had assumed or accepted the patient’s and Townsend’s conclusion that the spiritual cure was a failed attempt.  They thereby allowed Townsend to then treat her for “intermittent fever.”  Townsend searched for Sulphate of Quinine, but could not find any.  He thus wrote:

“My stock of quinine being exhausted, I determined to substitute an extract of the bark of the dogwood, (Cornus Nuttali) and taking one of the parents into the wood with his blanket, I soon chipped off a plentiful supply, returned, boiled it in his own kettle, and completed the preparation in his lodge, with most of the Indians standing by and staring at me, to comprehend the process…”  [May 13, 1836, p. 232-233]

A quick review revealed the following foods and medicines noted by Townsend:

  • “kanikanik” [kinnikinick]
  • gives recipe of “a mixture of tobacco and the dried leaves of a poke plant (Phytolacca decandra)” p. 36.
  • Metheglin, p. 93
  • Buffalo meat, “the best food in the world”, p. 106.
  • “Kamas Prairie”, p. 137
  • White of Biscuit Root, [Racine Blanc of the Canadians] p. 138
  • Balsam Poplar (P. balsaminifera), p. 143
  • Ophthalmia case, p. 174
  • trade for roots and fish, p. 175.
  • Ophthalmia case, p. 174
  • “Making Medicine,” p. 212-21



A common theme that comes up with writings about travels, explorations, or encounters with Native American settings is the tendency for authors to introduce some form of ethnocentricity into the writings.   The writers least guilty of this practice are John Hunter (not yet covered at this blog) and James Isham, a trapper explorer working for Hudson’s Bay in 1749.  A number of trappers are guilty only in that their writings end up defining and displaying their unique characters, their lack of knowledge of the profession.  Some so-called trappers or explorers like Osborne Russell, who was unable to make much use of any of the local herbs and barely had a name for that which he did mention,  don’t deserve the respect they’ve received over the years.  Like the government worker reviewed for this page, Townsend, Osborne Russell and others are very much against Indian traditions and lack much if any knowledge of this way of living.   In the purest sense, ignorance is portrayed by the inability of the writer to come up with fairly distinct culturally-derived plant names.   John Hunter was very familiar with the pronunciation and spelling of the Indian names for the plants he discussed, as were some of the Canadian explorers.  The desire to use just the basic European medicines in the field also suggests the expedition involved to be very detached from the cultural scene it was meant to explore.  We can understand this for an exploration like that of Lewis and Clark, in which the explorers are heading into cfairly new territory, where the uses for any of the new plants to be discovered were uncertain in the beginning.  By the time Lewis and Clark made their way into undiscovered lands, it was no longer the tradition to rely upon your interpretration of the physiognomy of plants to determine their uses, a practice common to early colonial travellers and practice by Jean Bernard Bossu during his explorations of New France, where it then existed along the Mississippi River.   Many of these writers were engaged in their exploration mostly for personal and ultimately political fame.  Townsend was no different.  Many of the explorers and “trappers” whom we read about were very good at updating the reader on the findings for the time.  Italian explorer Viaggio’s writings from the 1780s demonstrates this quite well.  Viaggio is able to summarize the uses for quite a number of plants.  He had to have known and expected to see these plants well before he began his venture to the Northwest.  With Townsend’s work, compared with Viaggio’s, we have an opportunity to read about how unlearned this government worker and novice in the field of plant medicine exploration really is. 

Another explorer who is very much guilty of displaying the sort of prejudice Townsend displays is Jean Bernard-Bossu of New France (exploring along the Mississippi down to Louisiana).  His mockery of the shamanic experience, which he reproduced in his own way using his own tricks of the trade, is an example of writing for your readership, not for portraying any truth in the matter.  Likewise, when we review Father Louis Hennepin’s details on the same region published in the late 1600s, we find a eloquent series of stories interwoven to form a nice read, but one that is almost completely plagiarized according to most historians.  A pseudo-plagiarist practice by these writers is exemplified by Jonathan Carver’s work.  Carver’s details about the plants he stumbles upon at first seem fairly honest, until you begin to try and identify these plants, and realize the descriptions do not at all match the identification provided, and that too many of these are not native to the area he was exploring.  These plants are more typical to Pennsylvania and further south, meaning Carver’s writings were very much a product of other botanical writings.   Unfortunately, the same can be said for the writings on ethnobotany produced by Georg Loskiel in his 1790s retelling of the Moravian-Mahican settlement history.

One of the most commonly portrayed “fibs” by a writer consists of the writer presenting the concept that that some forms of the use of plant medicines are common knowledge and may be better than others.   Townsend is guilty of this in his retelling of the quinine incident and his choice of a locally native Wild Dogwood species (Cornus nuttalli) bark as a substitute.   This in part reflects upon some very old knowledge out there about the potential use of the bitter Cornus bark as a substitute for bitter cinchona, a philosophy of treatment commonly practiced during the Revolutionary War, and possibly earlier.  These Cornus species are very different from each other as one travels across the North American continent, so this is more an example of inter-species substitution taking place with regard to plant use, a practice that does require a certain amount of plant taxonomy knowledge. 

But Townsend’s statements infer this bit of his knowledge was his own, instead of that of the Native American.  He is perhaps stretching the truth a little too far with this story–maybe the Native American shaman did not practice this use for the plant because the Indian knew Townsend was making a mistake by making such an assumptions, or better yet, perhaps he did not do this because this was not a part of the Native American philosophy underlying such plant uses.  Townsend’s naivite concerning his lack of understanding Indian philosophy comes through once we take a moment of better understand what limited and unrelated knowledge Townsend had that he was basing his synopsis upon.  Not only was Townsend ethnocentric, he was also egocentric.  He is the kind of individual who might, had he been engaged in some Oriental expedition, recommend that forks and spoons be promoted as substitutions for the primitive chopsticks native to the Orient.

If we accept for the moment Townsend’s statement about the use of Poke leaves as an additive for tobacco leaves, we can only go so far in believing Townsend made a correct statement.  Knowing the nature and characteristics of Poke leaves, this use for Poke is hard to believe and perhaps even a terrible mistake in identification made by Townsend.  Were such a practice to have actually been engaged in, the results could be problematic.  Poke leaves are delicate, thin, dependent on water, and unable to hold up for long once dried. They will crumble, but may be added to tobacco mixes in crumbled form.  But if smoked, there is till the problem of these leaves being very toxic and perhaps effective emetics.  In a modern public health sense, smoking tobacco leaves may have been somewhat carcinogenic, but smoking poke leaves and otherwise consuming through oral contact the contents of partially burned leaves of this plant would have certainly promoted diarrhea and vomiting and perhaps lead to tumor growth and development in the lungs and throat due to their lectins.  Native Americans traditionally added Salix to their smokes, as well as the leaves of certain other shrubs, so Townsend probably witnessed this use of a shrub and mistakenly identified the plant as an herb that grows large enough to appear as though it was a shrub.  This shrub could have been some broad leaved Salix or a member of the local health (Ericaceae) family, perhaps even the kinnikinnick–Arctostaphylos uva-ursi–which Townsend has already made mention of.   Townsend unfortunately does not know his plants that well, so each of his details about their uses has to be questioned.

Balsam Poplar (Populus balsaminifera) is also mentioned by Townsend, not at all a unique species or genus that he has “discovered.”  The Prairie Camas (Camassia spp.?) and Racine Blanc (White biscuit root) (Psoralea esculenta Pursh.?) are uniquely regional findings, representative of this area.

All in all, Townsends work is devoid of much unique ethnomedicine or ethnobotany knowledge.  This is not a surprise for the work of a governmentally sponsored explorer trying to cash in on his experience.