Traveling Doctors. Prior to the establishment of licensing laws and other legal regulations of medical practice, Americans tried in various ways to fill the gaps created by the absence of college-trained physicians. Especially in the West, self-styled “doctors” wandered from place to place offering cures or peddling remedies for various ailments. Some were honest people who thought themselves to be human benefactors, but many others were quacks and charlatans who worked the circuits in search of profit. White pioneers’ deep fascination with Native American lore led many of them to consult so-called Indian doctors for treatment. Most white men who toted saddlebags of herb and root medicines to frontier communities claimed to have learned their knowledge from Indian healers, but most of their prescriptions included ingredients unused by most tribes: cayenne pepper, snake root, sage, skunk cabbage, and other combinations that supposedly cured croup, loosened bowels, and prevented smallpox and cholera. Though they became more popular after the Civil War, traveling medicine shows
toured the country during westward expansion, offering entertainment as well as patent remedies to isolated frontier people. Indians occasionally accompanied such troupes, performing war dances and other spectacles to ward off sinister forces known to cause bad health. Difficult to comprehend from a modern perspective, some nineteenth-century Americans adhered to ancient beliefs that disease emanated from otherworldly forces and therefore could be combated more by magic and ritual than by reason and experimentation.
Folk Medicine. Settlers who pushed west of the Appalachian Mountains came to rely on home remedies acceptable on the frontier long before marketed pharmaceuticals. One such remedy for dysentery involved concocting a sweetened tea from red pepper and sumac leaves, which was to be digested while breathing heavy steam. This treatment apparently helped to control diarrheal ailments in the West, usually caused by poor food preservation. Other folk cures had less success: red onions as a poultice for cancer and baldness, or mixed with oil of roasted almonds to cure deafness, or fried and mixed with olive oil to ensure easy childbirth. Pioneers had little choice but to attempt remedies with ingredients immediately available, making home experimentation common. By the late 1800s the use of botanical remedies gradually declined, although historians note that many twentieth-century pharmaceutical companies rely on the same indigenous plants for ingredients that pioneers employed a century earlier.
Indian Cosmology. Though whites learned many such cures from interaction with Native Americans, they rarely made sincere efforts to understand the role of traditional Indian beliefs concerning health and spirituality. Most Indian groups in the West perceived the individual’s state in holistic terms, believing that physical well-being depended on harmony between the body, mind, spirit, and universe. Healing ceremonies—regarded as superstitious by Anglo science—focused less on curing than on restoring balance within the community. Called medicine men or shamans by whites, aboriginal healers thus served as religious and social leaders as well. In contrast to the Anglo view of linear progressive time, natives perceived life as a circle, a series of cycles that people experience on their journey back to nature. Since natives tended to view certain illnesses as natural, most cures involved treatment with herbs or rituals, but as outside contact grew, Indians encountered foreign diseases such as smallpox and cholera that remained outside the power of native healers.
Indian Treatment of Snakebite
Whites learned from Native Americans a variety of remedies for treating poisonous wounds. Indians of Lower California used tight bindings between the bite and the heart while the San Carlos Apaches practiced sucking the poison out of snakebites and scorpion stings. The Flathead Indians employed this same technique in dealing with wounds from poisoned arrows, as described by Nathaniel Wyeth in 1832:
I had an opportunity of seeing a specimen of Indian surgery in treating a wound. An Indian squaw first sucked the wound perfectly dry, so that it appeared white as chalk; … [which] taught the savage Indian that a person may take poison into his mouth without any risk, as the poison of a rattlesnake without harm, provided there be no scratch or wound in the mouth, so as to admit it into the blood?
Many Americans of European descent grudgingly came to respect Indians’ remedies and their familiarity with indigenous mendicants. Often, roots from certain plants, which could be ingested or applied externally, proved effective in treating snakebites. Some tribes learned these treatments through their experience with handling snakes in religious rituals. For instance, the Hopis held live rattlesnakes in their mouths during certain dances. A white doctor remarked that there had never been “a case of fatal snake bite among those tribes to whom the snake is sacred, . . .” possibly because the snakes had been rendered docile or that their poison glands had been emptied prior to their use in rituals.
Source: Virgil J. Vogel, American Indian Medicine (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), pp. 221-224.
Native Treatments. Indian medicine varied considerably depending on tribal culture and the illness itself. Healing rituals could be conducted in the intimate surroundings of the patient’s home, or they could be public affairs that lasted for months. Southern Plains tribes met every one or two years for the Sun Dance, a ceremony that required participation of musicians, dancers, political elders, and many other specialists. Indian healers sought not to cure a person’s ailment but to provide the proper environment for the natural healing process. This included wearing special garments or masks and body paint with symbolic images that aided deities in their work. Natives constructed sweat lodges to purify the individual for the arrival of healing spirits. Not all such remedies worked when dealing with imported diseases; “doing a sweat,” followed by a plunge in cold water, often induced hypothermia, which worsened the resistance of cholera and smallpox victims. However, nineteenth-century Indian medicine rested on many assumptions that twentieth-century practitioners are beginning to discover, especially the link between a person’s physical state and his or her mental and spiritual condition. Modern psychiatry’s use of group therapy, for example, bears a strong resemblance to the “talking circles” long practiced by North American tribal groups.
Indigenous Drugs. Modern medicine’s use of substances has many interesting parallels to pioneer and indigenous therapeutic remedies. The use of the cactus peyote (Lophophora williamsii) originated among natives in the American Southwest and spread across the United States through the nineteenth century. Employed mostly in rituals, peyote also could be applied as a poultice for wounds or as a muscular lotion and could be used in a drink for fevers. U.S. Army surgeons noted its effectiveness and frequently employed peyote as a pain killer. Many Western tribes used smoke treatment to fight respiratory or rheumatic illnesses. Accompanied by song and ritual, natives burned fumigant substances such as cedar branches, sage, or prickly pear cactus over live coals for ingestion by patients.
Hygiene and Sanitation. White settlers gradually learned from Indians an appreciation for frequent bathing, both as a sanitary precaution and as a treatment for ailments. When a member of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition developed rheumatic stiffness, Lewis tried a sweat-bath by pouring water over hot stones to produce steam. Combined with a strong tea of horsemint, the procedure led the patient to a full recovery. Sulfurous warm springs alleviated skin and breathing disorders. In other ways, however, Westerners proved painfully slow in developing proper hygiene, especially with regard to food supplies. Given the scarcity of fruits and vegetables, nutritional deficiencies became a common problem. Meat, the basic staple, spoiled quickly and attracted insects and parasites. After a successful buffalo hunt, Comanche and Cheyenne hunters pitched their lodges in the vicinity of the slaughtering area. U.S. military forts often gave little attention to proper disposal of animal remains and human waste, leading to localized epidemics. In all, Westerners of the early nineteenth century struggled to compensate for the absence of institutionalized medicine in a variety of improvisational ways. However, as with so many other matters, preventive health care received little priority in the rush to open new lands or in the fight to maintain old ones.
Jennie R. Joe, “Health and Healers,” in Encyclopedia of North American Indians, edited by Frederick Hoxie (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), pp. 237-240;
Virgil J. Vogel, American Indian Medicine (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970).