Cherokee medicine in North Carolina

Cherokee medicine in North Carolina

Mahoney, James William (1816 – 1858) and Richard “Bark” Foreman (1790? – 1879?) The Cherokee Physician, or Indian Guide to Health, as Given by Richard Foreman, a Cherokee Doctor; Comprising a Brief View of Anatomy, With General Rules for Preserving Health without the Use of Medicines. The Diseases of the U. States, with Their Symptoms, Causes, and Means of Prevention, are Treated on in a Satisfactory Manner. It Also Contains a Description of a Variety of Herbs and Roots, Many of which are not Explained in Any Other Book, and their Medical Virtues have Hitherto been Unknown to the Whites; To which is Added a Short Dispensatory. Asheville, N.C.: Edney & Dedman, 1849. First North Carolina edition. 308, 5 pp. Ownership inscription dated 1915. Heavy foxing but the text is complete and tightly bound. The original leather binding has been inexpertly repaired with tape that covers most of the binding and folds over the pastedowns. Additional tape repairs to final leaves. The volume will require the attention of a conservator. Not in Siebert collection or any of the standard bibliographies. Sabin records only the third edition, printed in New York in 1857.

A very appealing copy of the impossibly rare North Carolina edition of this intriguing medical text, a collaborative work by a Cherokee healer and a White doctor which is part herbal and part ethnography. Published first in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1846, The Cherokee Physician was reprinted in Asheville, North Carolina in 1849, and New York, New York in 1857. Of these three early editions, the North Carolina imprint is by far the scarcest. This is only the second recorded copy.

The Cherokee Physician is one of several early collections of remedies that drew on Indian medicinal practice, and one of the first medical texts to be published in the state of North Carolina. In the introduction, the authors explain the importance of native traditions of healing:

The Aborigines of our country found the means of mitigating and curing their diseases, in the uncultivated wilds which gave them birth, -- they knew nothing of foreign drugs, but with roots, herbs, and plants found in their own country, they mitigated and cured the diseases most common to that country. That their knowledge of the medical properties of the roots and herbs common in the American forest, is superior to that possessed by the whites will hardly be denied. Neither will it be denied by those acquainted with their success, in treating disease, that they have, in many instances, performed cures, by means of roots, herbs and plants, after the usual remedies prescribed by white physicians had failed. The articles employed by them in the cure of diseases, are simple, and principally such as can be procured in this country.

Diseases are described by both their English and Cherokee names. Thus Catarrh is listed also as Oo-hur-tlah, and pleurisy as Oh-ne-squah-ga-ni-tsu-na-his-na. There is some approving discussion of western medicine – Foreman and Mahoney recommend vaccination as a preventative against Cowpox. But more often the two doctors explicitly disparage western practice in favor of Indian approaches, which are described in great detail. They are particularly critical of the practice of bleeding (“a most pernicious practice and the sooner it is abandoned the better”). So for example, their prescription for influenza (Oh-ch-tlah-tsu-ni-sik-wah-his-lee):

This disease generally makes its appearance at the close of sultry seasons, when the system is much weakened by protracted exposure to intense heat and when people have been for some time exposed to breathing the putrid atmosphere arising from stagnant waters and decaying vegetables. This fact will at once show the impropriety of administering sever purges or drawing blood. The stomach must be cleansed by an emetic of gulver and Indian physic, and the bowels relieved of their putrid contents by injections, of thin gruel or soap-suds, to which may be added hogs lard and a little gulver syrup; no cathartic stronger than castor oil or rheubarb should be taken into the stomach. Well prepared charcoal, taken twice or three times a day, will be of great benefit. The mouth and throat must be washed and gargled with a preparation made as follows: Take of cayenne pepper in powder, two table spoonfuls, a small quantity of catnip and half a spoonful of common salt: pour on them one pint of boiling water, let them stand a half hour and strain off the liquor and add to it a half a pint of good vinegar -- the patient should also swallow a table spoonful of this preparation every fifteen minutes. If the patient should become very weak, bathe him well in a strong decoction of red-oak bark, in which may be put one-fourth whiskey. If the weakness be very considerable, give wine or toddy made with spirits and sweetened with sugar to strengthen and support the system. For an external application to the throat, use a poultice made by thickening rye-meal or wheat-brand in red pepper tea.-- After the stomach is cleansed, give Virginia snake root tea, (commonly called black snake-root,) or seneka snake-root tea freely. The bowels must be kept regular through the whole course by the use of injections. If the first emetic should fail to subdue the disease it should be repeated in moderation on the day following. By properly attending to the emetic, the acid matter may be thrown off, which would otherwise produce injury by descending into the bowels. The strength of the patient must be supported by a generous, nourishing and easily digested diet, comprising but little if any animal food.

There is a lengthy section on gynaecology, particularly menstrual disorders, and on pediatrics. In addition to physical disease, the text also touches on mental health, discussing the need to avoid imbalances in equanimity triggered by such emotions as anger (“a disease of the mind, a short-lived insanity, producing the rashest, maddest deeds of folly”) and fear (which “impedes the circulation, disorders the stomach and bowels, enfeebles vital action, and … has produced immediate death”). A detailed section on Indian materia medica describes the plants and their usage, with particular attention to the botany of the region. Thus their discussion of ginseng (in Cherokee: Oh-tah-le-gah-le) observes that “it is found in great plenty among the hills and mountains of Tennessee, mostly on the north side of rich shady hills and ridges” and has been exported for sale to China, “where it was sold for four times its weight in pure silver.” A glossary explains medical terms in layman’s language, and an index facilitates home use. In contrast to some other popular compendia of Indian herbal lore such as Dr. John Williams’s Last Legacy, this is a serious medical text, and was referenced by medical professionals. An 1879 report on the book’s discussion of “gravel weed” (Actinomeris helianthoides) was reprinted in the Edinburgh Medical Journal in 1882.

            Richard "Bark" Foreman was born around 1790 in Cherokee territory, the son of John Foreman and Susie Teetarskeeskee, a Cherokee of the Paint Clan. He took a reservation of land "on the road from McNairsville to Knoxville" under the treaty of 1817, and lived with his family on Candy's Creek (now Tennessee) on the 1835 Cherokee census. His wife’s illness prevented him from emigrating at Removal, by 1851 they were living in the Flint District of Indian Territory. He does not appear on the 1880 Cherokee census, and is presumed to have died before then. Like Foreman, James W. Mahoney was also a native of Tennessee, and served as a physician and surgeon in Jefferson County before moving first to Crittenden County, Kentucky, in 1847, before settling in an area west of Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 1851. Their book was largely forgotten by the twentieth century until it was reprinted by the University of North Carolina Press in 2018 in their documentary on the American South.

            A key North Carolinan medical imprint, and an important source for early Cherokee medical tradition.

Selected References

  • Brodie, Janet Farrell. “Menstrual interventions in the nineteenth-century United States,” in Elisha P. Renne and Etienne van de Walle, eds., Regulating Menstruation: Beliefs, Practices, Interpretations (University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 39-63
  • Ellertson, Carolyn “Carolyn Ellertson, CCGS’ Native American focus group leader.” Trail Breakers (Clark County Genealogical Society, Vancouver, Washington), 38 (2011 / 2012)  16-17
  • Goss, I. J. M. “A new and valuable remedy,” The Medical Brief, 7 (1879), 219-20
  • ----- “Gravel Weed (Actinomeris Helianthoides)” Edinburgh Medical Journal XXVII (1882) 751
  • Mihesuah, Devon A. Diabetes in Indian Territory: Revisiting Kelly M. West's Theory of 1940. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 40 (2016): 1–21.
  • Moorman, Lewis J. “Pioneer Medicine in the Southwest.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 21 (1947), pp. 795–810
  • “Oscar L. Mahoney, M.D.,” Portrait and Biographical Record of Arizona: Commemorating the Achievements of Citizens Who Have Contributed to the Progress of Arizona and the Development of Its Resources (Chicago: Chapman Pub. Co., 1901), pp. 402-3
  •  “Richard Foreman (1790 - 1879)” Wikitree Family Tree,
  • Vick, R. Alfred. “Cherokee Adaptation to the Landscape of the West and Overcoming the Loss of Culturally Significant Plants.” American Indian Quarterly, 35 (2011): 394–417.

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    Cherokee medicine in North Carolina