Ask Rufus: Ancient Medicine


De Bry's 1591 engraving of Indians drinking the Black Drink during

De Bry's 1591 engraving of Indians drinking the Black Drink during "Proceedings of the Floridians in Deliberating on Important Affairs." The engraving was based on a 1564 watercolor painted in Florida by Le Moyne. The Black Drink was a ritual beverage made from yaupon holly. Photo by: Courtesy image


Rufus Ward



The winter edition of American Archaeology has a fascinating article titled "Physical and Spiritual Health." It is about general health care and medical care among Indians in prehistoric and historic period America. The article brings to mind the use of plants by the Choctaw and Chickasaw and prehistoric Indians in our area.


What first got my attention about the Indians' use of native plants as medicine was the autobiography of Gideon Lincecum. Lincecum moved to Columbus in 1818 and his letters and autobiographical accounts were published as "Adventures of a Frontier Naturalist" by Jerry Lincecum, a descendant. In the mid-1820s, Gideon spent six weeks studying herbal medicine with a Choctaw doctor. He found the herbal medicine practiced by the Indians to be far more effective than the treatment provided by Anglo-American doctors in Columbus.


A couple of years ago I was talking with archaeologist Brad Lieb at an early Chickasaw village site. The subject of traditional herbal medicine came up when Brad showed me a plant I had never seen. It was a coralbean shrub. A couple of these plants with bright red blossoms were at the edge of the woods adjacent to the old village site. Brad showed me the plant which he described as an "ancient Saquechuma-Chickasha medicine plant." The plant is not native to northeast Mississippi, and those at the site appear to be relic descendants of plants from when a large indigenous American Indian community resided there hundreds of years ago.



Though the plant's red seeds are highly toxic to humans, the Indians had processed the plant in a such way as to make it a safe and effective medicine. The red beans found in the plants seed pods were also used in making necklaces.


Another plant that is not native to this area but is sometimes found at old village sites is the yaupon holly. That is the same ornamental shrub often used in our region for landscaping, but it is much more than just another ornamental.


The yaupon holly's technical name is Ilex vomitoria. While most people are familiar with yaupon, they don't realize that since prehistoric times it has provided an important beverage, the "black drink," for Native American ceremonies.


Yaupon is one of the few plants native to North America that contains a significant amount of caffeine. The Indians of the Southeast were very concerned with the state of their bodies, both physically and mentally, before and during important ceremonies. The black drink was considered a ritual beverage to be consumed both before and during councils. Its consumption was restricted to only mature men.


The drink was a concentrated caffeine beverage, which boiled into a thick black liquid had the effects of a stimulant, diuretic and emetic. Those effects, ranging from a caffeine high to the purging of the stomach's contents, were considered a ritual purification of the body and spirit. In a far less concentrated form, it makes a fairly good tea.


Two books published by the University of Oklahoma Press provide detailed information on Indian herbal Medicine. They are "Oklahoma Seminoles: Medicine, Magic and Religion" by James Howard in collaboration with Willie Lena, and "American Indian Medicine" by Virgil Vogel. Both books contain descriptions of native plants and their traditional medical properties. They include the following familiar plants but as some of these plants are highly toxic and their exact preparation and application is not known they should not be consumed, taken or applied in any way.



■ Southern Dogwood - root bark could treat worms and trunk bark for malaria


■ White Shumate (sumac) - swimming in head (or) dizziness


■ Dandelion - tea was good for heartburn


■ Chinkapin - chills and headache


■ Red Shumate (sumac) - blood purifier (and) strength


■ Red Oak - blood


■ Hydrangea - root as diuretic and to treat strange dreams


ยท Black Hawk - good for a lot of things (including) liver, heart


■ Black Jack - kidneys


■ Slick Elm - bleeding bowels


■ Sassafras - a tea for chest pains


■ Single John - prostate


■ Cottonwood - wrap sprained ankle with inner bark


■ Burnt egg shells - prostate, kidney


■ Primrose - asthma


■ Black Jack Oak - specially treated leaves could be used for "love magic"


■ Milkweed - expectorant


■ Verbena - boil and soak foot in to cure "spring itch" or athlete's foot



Some of these natural remedies had a very real basis. We only need think of aspirin. Aspirin has its origin in willow bark whose use as a treatment for pain or fever in Indian communities can be traced back more than 1,400 years. The Indians of America were far more sophisticated in their use of herbal medicine than most people realize. As Gideon Lincecum found out, their medical practices were often superior in the early 1800s to those of "college-trained" Anglo-American doctors.


The Archaeological Conservancy works to preserve and protect America's irreplaceable archaeological sites. Its Southeastern Regional Director Jessica Crawford has been active across Mississippi and has often helped me. Their quarterly magazine American Archaeology by itself is worth the $30 membership fee. Their address is 1717 Girard Blvd NE Albuquerque, 87106.


And a correction on a former column. Thanks to Paul Neyman who noticed that my column on Columbus' 1927 radio station, WCOC, placed the station on Fifth Street North when it should have been Fifth Street South.



Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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