In the Yearbook for the Dutchess County Historical Society (YDCHS) published in 1937/8, there appeared a very brief  recipe that caught my attention.  It was about an entry in a family Bible belonging to John Lawson and family.  What immediately caught my eye as I read through this recipe is just how unique it was.

Back then, I had no idea as to why some of the ingredients for this concoction were described the way they were.  What stood out in particular was the part of the recipe pertaining to ‘sweet apple tree bark’.    ‘Why the north side of the tree?’ I wondered.   I kept this recipe in my notebook and every now and then reread it while reviewing much older past notes pertaining to my work. 

Finally about 12 years later, the reason this particular bark was required became clear to me–it was due to its color–the first four ingredients in the recipe gave me an image of four colors, the colours associated with the four humours of Colonial, and to some, early 19th century herbal medicine recipes.  From that point on, the meaning of this recipe became clear, and its cultural origins more precisely defined.  I decided this had to represent a blending of local Dutch, English and Native American traditions.
Wild cherry tree bark, prickle ash bark, white wood
bark, sweet appletree bark of the north side of the
tree as nigh the root as possible.  Pasley root,
angelerca root an equal quanty of the roots
better than half a gill of mustard seed
half a gill of peppergrass seed
a large handful of each kind of bark
put the whole in a gallon and half of good
cider in an earthen or stone vessel civered tite
after drinking out a quart add another
half a gallon of cider  take a small glass
      as often as drink is nessary
a small handful of angeleca root and a
large handful of pasly root
      From the family Bible of John Lawson (1759-1831)

YDCHS. 1937/8.  “Cure for the Dropsys.” pp. 53.  John Lawson, Family Bible, (1759-1831)


The plants referred to in the above recipe are as follows:

Wild cherry tree bark (Either:  Prunus serotina Erhr., aka Cerasus serotina Lois. and Prunus virginiana Mill., not L..  Common names: choke cherry, black choke, wild black cherry, Amerikanischer Zierstrauch, Ceresier de Virginie (Fr.); or, Prunus virginiana L. aka Cerasus virginiana Lois.  Common names: wild cherry and choke cherry.)

prickle ash bark (Xanthoxylum  americanum Mill. aka X. fraxineum Willd., X. fraxinifolium Marsh., X. ramiflorum Michx., X. tricarpum Hook.  Common names: Prickly Ash, Northern Pirckly Ash, Angelica-tree, Pellitory Bark, Suter-berry, Toothache tree, Toothache bush, Yellow wood.) 

white wood bark (Liriodendron tulipifera L.  Common names: Tulip tree, White wood, White Poplar Canoe-wood, Tulipier (Fr.))

sweet appletree bark of the north side of the tree  (Malus coronaria (L.) Mill.  Common names:  Crab-apple, Fragrant Crab-apple, American Crabapple, Sweet-scented Crab Tree.)

Pasley root (Petroselinum sativum Hoffm.  European cultivated garden plant Parsley; probably not any of several North American semi-look-alikes)

angelerca root (Native species: Angelica atropurpurea L.   Common names: American, High or Purple Angelica.  European: Angelica archangelica L. Common names: Garden Angelica, Masterwort)

mustard seed (Sinapis alba L.  Common name: White Mustard)

peppergrass seed (Lepidium spp.,  esp. European introduced species L. sativum L., or L. campestre (L) R. Br., but also possibly L. apetalum Willd. (Wild Peppergrass))

base: cider, in an earthen or stone vessel


There are wild varieties possible for all but 2 of the 8 ingredients. 

There is an emphasis on root medicines, a feature common to early post-Revolutionary War medical history.  Root doctoring was traditionally associated the notion of Indian Root medicine, a form of herbalism that existed a little before Thomsonianism erupted, ca. 1812, and began to prosper around 1820-1825.  The practice of both Indian Root Doctoring and Thomsonian tradition continued well into the mid-1800s. 

Like Thomsonian to some extent, Indian root doctoring there were particular parts of the country where this form of medicine tended to fit in best with the local sociocultural setting and family traditions.  In a setting where the life of a mountain man was either real, or it had developed a popular cultural following, we expect to find at least one of these professionals practicing and preaching the philosophy for the time.  In the Midwestern states, for example, there was a sizeable following in parts of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, perhaps as early as the mid to late 183os but definitely during the 1840s.  Once the first newspapers were being published and distributed locally, we begin to find advertisements of these kinds of doctors appearing in the ads, some with humorous claims and stories. 

In spite of time and the expected impacts of time-tested traditions on popular culture medical crazes like Indian Root Doctoring, we see periods of revival in this philospohy every now and then.  This enabled this practice to survive the antebellum years, by pass the Civil War period for the most part, and then undergo small revivals during the post-Civil War era.  For example Dr. William Dain in the Eugene, Oregon area about 1865-70 was first employed with the Fort Vancouver settings during the late 1830sw and very early 1840s.  He then became an Indian Scout for people trying to make their way from Missouri to Fort Sumter in California, 1845; for this adventure he also had medical knowledge and skills to share with the members of this mostly horse-bound team of 150 to 200 older boys and men.  Unlike Thomsonianism which died off for the most part between 1850 and 1860 (Indian Doctoring was later revived with the new eclectic medical and naturopathic traditions),  enabling Dain to begin advertising his skills as an Indian Doctor in the local newspaper in Oregon once the Civil War ended.  Indian Root doctoring by now had a certain style and attractivity, and tended to undergo revivals in the rural settings, where the local lifestyle matched the traditional forms of medicine being practiced.  This continued into the “Wild Bill Hickock” period in American Adventure history, with some trappers even taking on some fairly amusing medical practices to imagine them becoming engaged in.  One “Wild Bill” character in Portland, Oregon, for example, became quite popular as a chiropod–the precursor to the modern podiatrist.  He set up his business on the sidewalks of the street, wearing the typical late 19th century trapper-style garments and boots for the time, taking the  character that other locals like Dain had initiated to some new extreme.  

In the more traditional sense, Indian Doctors were not the only healers to use root drugs.  Root and bark drugs were also very common to regular physicians, especially during the earliest years when local MDs began to accept and document these medicines in the professional journals or as individual publications in booklet or book form.  The term “the bark’ is a fairly popular term applied during the early 19th century (esp. around 1820s) and was usually used in reference to Cinchona bark for treating the fevers (malaria).  This very popular and effective bark drug is probably what led to the popularization of barks as medicines that took place  between 1800 and 1825, which fits into the timeline for this recipe.

In the above recipe, tost important to note are the first four ingredients.  These four barks represent four different colors.  One possible color pattern inferred her comes mostly from the color of the woods: cherry = red (blood), prickly ash = yellow (yellow bile), white wood = white (phlegm), leaving us with cherry bark on the northside of the tree (black bile?). 

Also important to note and ponder is why the north side?   It is possible because this has something to do with the Indian philosophy related to four directions.  Since the bark is very black on the north side (wood color however it is not black), there was possibly a metaphysical philosophy attached to this particular part of the tree.   Or possibly it is due to the strong belief at this time in natural electricity and the power of nature and the earth in providing the life force; this part of the tree might have been where the products of above ground growth–the result of air and light or fire–meet with the products of earth–earth and water–in order to form the perfect recipe of life, an arbor vitae or tree of life concept.

We rarely see direction playing a role in any plant product selection.  However, some plants are very well known for their compass- and sun-related growth behaviors.  The Sunflower fascinated early explorers and settlers due to its ability to follow the sun across the sky throughout the day.  The compass plant (Silphium laciniatum, distributed west and southwest of New York, from Ohio to Texas) performs much the same way.  Some plants are known to be heliotropic, meaning their leaves and flowers tend towards to sun or follows the sun as it changes direction, such as the wild Morning Glories.  The lack of exposure to the sun, a tendency for lichen to grow on this side of the tree, and its darker color may have presented early settlers with some sort of transcendental line of reasoning very much matching the philosophy for the time.  In context with the philosophy for this period in history, L. Maria Child wrote in her Letters from New York, (Letter XXVI, Sept. 1, 1842, p. 169)

“so is there a plant in the prairies, called by travellers the Polar Plant, or Indian Compass, because the plane of its leaf points due north and south, without other variation than the temporary ruffling of the breeze.”

This philosophy of direction and the medicinal virtues for plants has as its roots the teachings of natural philosophy, a method by which atheists tried to becalm those detesting their apathy for God, and religiophiles their combined scientific and Christian lines of reasoning about God and God’s use of nature to assign further meaning to old time traditions.  According to Childs

“If these secrets were clearly read, they might throw much light on the science of healing, and perhaps reconcile the clashing claims of mineral and vegetable medicines.  Doubtless every substance in Nature is an Antidote to some physical evil; owing to some spiritual cause, as fixed as the laws of mathematics, but not as easily perceived.” (ibid)

Such defined the role of plants during the Transcendental Movement: to help us assign meaning and purpose for our natural wonders.  This probably is when and why this type of remedy was written down in the Lawson’s Bible.  It had some sort of personal meaning, be this in terms of family, traditional, transcendentalism or all three.