Recreating the setting of the Colonial Georgia Piedmont (essentially Middle Georgia) during the late 1700s means one must imagine a wilderness little spoiled by settlement. Many pioneers of this region were Scots-Irish generally unwelcome in the staid British communities of New England who had followed the Great Wagon Road south as lands increasingly opened up. Government officials were happy for these tough and fiery immigrants to provide a barrier to the Indian nations. By 1765, the land west of Augusta, Georgia began to look attractive. In 1773, naturalist William Bartram described Augusta as being located on a rich and fertile plain on the Savannah River, with buildings near the banks extending nearly two miles. In this location Georgia Governor Wright and Indian Superintendent John Stuart conducted a treaty with Creek and Cherokee Indians that opened 1.5 million acres east of the Oconee River to British Settlement due to Indian debt to white traders. The Upper Creek Trading Path ran due west of Augusta to Greensboro (est. 1786). From Augusta’s southwest corner, the Lower Creek Path traced the fall line west across the lower Oconee River to a trading post which would later become Milledgeville, then to Macon.
Bartram himself describes taking the old Cherokee Trading Path through forests and cane swamps to the Quaker settlement at Wrightsborough. Here residents raised wheat, barley, flax, oats, corn, indigo, cattle, sheep, apples, pears, peaches, plums, nectarines, cherries and raspberries. Proceeding in the direction of present-day Oglethorpe County outside Athens (where my next series will be set), he noted many flora and fauna off of which Native Americans lived. The leaves of the plantain plant could be boiled and its seed pods eaten like spinach. Some natives called it “white man’s foot” for its profusion. It was also good for bee strings or brown recluse bites, if the patient would both chew its leaves and place them on the sting. Walnut, chestnut and hickory trees were in abundance, often planted in groves surrounding abandoned settlements. Grape and pea vines grew waist high. Creek hunters would carry the ripe yellow fruit of the “Physic-nut” or Indian Olive with them to supposedly lure deer. Bartram also wrote that the Creeks, who called themselves Muscoges, created an infusion of leaves and the tops of the cassine (“the beloved tree”) to make their black drink, a diuretic. They prevented worms by including a lixivium prepared from the ashes of bean stalks and vegetables in all their corn foods. Ginseng and white or “belly ache” root was used for the stomach and intestines by either chewing the root and swallowing the juice or smoking it in tobacco form. Grape roots dug while fresh, chopped and mashed, then drained and the thick part mixed with water, honey and sugar made a fine jelly.
Settlers learned from the Indians and discovered the practical purposes of other native herbs and plants. Cleavers, or “bedstraw,” could be used to stuff mattresses until the hay came in. Made into a tea it was helpful to the kidney, bladder, gout and with water retention problems. Mullein could grow taller than a person and had multiple purposes: the Cherokee used its fluffy leaf for toilet paper, its bottom leaves made good cigars for respiratory problems, and its yellow flowers on top when mixed with olive oil and placed in the ear could cure infection. Kidney stones were often treated by hydrangea root tea or Queen of the Meadow/Joe Pye Weed/”gravel root.” Elderberries, often made into a pleasing jam or jelly, offered protection against viruses, while goldenseal root powdered then boiled with water and cooled could be taken for a couple weeks at a time as an antibiotic.
Another natural phenomenon was the Buffalo Lick located in what it now Southeastern Oglethorpe County, near what would become the antebellum town of Philomath. At the head of White’s Creek was a 1.5-acre section where the earth was white, red, yellow, or “fattish” clay. In the late 1700s, some holes where cattle and previous buffalo had licked up the sodium sulphate were 5-6’ deep. Years later as excavations for railroads occurred in rural Georgia, poor residents were known to stop to eat and take home in sacks chunks of exposed white minerals. The grit particles were said to be the main downside of the almost-pure calcium carbonate.
In 1783, Virginia families settled on the Broad River in current Eastern Oglethorpe County. Ever wonder how they drove their wagons to their new communities without established roads? These settlers described no underbrush beneath the trees! Primeval forests with massive canopies and wagon-wide spacing! They picked land with springs with no overlooking high ground Indians could make use of for attacks and proceeded to establish farms where they grew corn (a portion was always used for distilling), beans, squash, and sweet potatoes. Cattle, hogs and sheep had to be penned nightly against wolves and thieving Indian “pony clubs.” River cane and native bamboo provided year-round cattle forage.
With miles of wilderness between farms and settlements, frequent attacks by Creek Indians, and smallpox epidemics, one can imagine the high premium placed on doctors. While most were trained in the allopathic school of medicine featuring blood letting and the use of mercury and minerals, wise physicians also became students of Indian cures and herbal remedies. One such gentleman was Lindsey Durham, who moved to the mill community of Scull Shoals in 1817. He had received formal training at the University of Pennsylvania and studied botanicals in Bartram Garden but also gave credence to Indian and African healing methods. In the 1820s, he joined the liberal-minded “American Eclectics” of the new Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia who believed a remedy could be found in nature for every human ailment. Durham grew thousands of medicinal herbs and plants on his estate, and his sanatorium was visited by people from all over the state of Georgia.