Mary placed his hand back on his chest and remembered how those wounds from the thorny bushes had prompted her to bring the slippery elm to soothe his abrasions.
She made a paste out of the crushed bark and water and then spread it over his hands. He smiled.
“You have a soft touch, miss.”
“’Tis the slippery elm that is soft, sir. ‘Tis an old Indian medicinal.”
Excerpt from Road to Deer Run
When our ancestors came over on the Mayflower in 1620, it wasn’t just the founding of the first successful white colony in the United States. The date also signified the beginning of Colonial American medicine.
Onboard the Mayflower was a surgeon named Giles Heale who returned to England after accompanying the passengers to the new world. But William Bradford wrote that Dr. Samuel Fuller was surgeon and physician to the Pilgrims. While the group brought many of their traditional cures from Europe, the Native Americans taught the Colonials many new cures such as mashed cranberries to use as a poultice for wounds.
One of the well-documented uses of Colonial medicine took place when Edward Winslow brought medicinals to the dying Indian sachem, Massasoit. Winslow’s detailed journal describes arriving at the bedside of the Indian chief who had not swallowed anything for days. Seeing that Massasoit’s tongue was swollen and “furred,” Winslow scraped off the “corruption” and managed to get the chief to swallow a “confection of many comfortable conserves.” The tribe noticed an immediate improvement in his condition. Encouraged by this turn of events, Winslow searched for medicinal herbs and managed to find only strawberry leaves and sassafras root, which he boiled and strained. Massasoit swallowed the herbal drink and continued to recover.
Winslow wrote, “we, with admiration, blessed God for giving His blessings to such raw and ignorant means, making no doubt of his recovery, himself and all of them acknowledging us the instruments of His preservation.”
Indeed, it was often God that the colonists turned to for healing of their maladies but gleaning the herbs of the land became a supplement to their prayers.
Most women learned the uses of numerous medicinals to help their families recover from illness. Hyssop for respiratory ailments, yarrow to stop bleeding, slippery elm for wounds and stomach distress, mint for headaches—the list is long and each herb often had multiple uses.
While these plants were often beneficial, excessive use could prove dangerous, even deadly.
Multiple herbs and treatment, including bleeding, were described in a small book called “Every Man his own Doctor” or “The Poor Planter’s Physician.” It was written anonymously by a practitioner in Virginia in order to help the poor survive their illnesses. It was quite popular in the colonies, especially for those without access to a physician.
Medicinals in Colonial America are fascinating to study, especially since many are still used in homeopathic teas and other preparations. Colonial medicine lives on.
Elaine Marie Cooper is the author of Road to Deer Run, which releases December 10th. Her previous releases include the award winning Fields of the Fatherless and Bethany's Calendar. She will have three more Colonial era releases in 2016.