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January 2000

In Search Of The Indian Doctress

by Marge Bruchac © 1998

This version is the original text November 1998.
An edited version was printed in "Old Sturbridge Visitor" magazine,
for Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts, Spring 1999.
Please do not quote or distribute without credit.

In November of 1836, printer Homer Merriam of Brookfield was cured of his chronic dyspepsia by an unorthodox physician in Norwich, now Huntington, Massachusetts. "In a sort of desperation I decided to try the skills of an Indian doctress. . . She was I believe pure Indian, had a good knowledge of roots and herbs and their medical properties, and a good degree of skill in the use of them. . . I improved very decidedly in health." Merriam described her house, "one room was used as a storeroom only, and the other was the kitchin, parlor and the old ladies' bedroom; the visitors, of which there were sometimes several, sleeping in the attic," her son, "who was her factotum, gathered roots and herbs for her and prepared them," and her reputation "in the country round and the name of having cured or helped a good many sick people," yet never revealed her name or the ingredients of her medicines. Who was Merriam's doctress?

After Merriam's account was excerpted in the fall 1997 "Visitor" magazine ("The Enduring American") Old Sturbridge Village member Janet Grzybowski wrote, in excitement, that she had discovered a stone at the Norwich Bridge Cemetery reading "Rhoda Rhoades, Indian Doctress died Sept. 25, 1841, AE 90 yrs., also her son Simon, died June 1842 AE 60 yrs." Janet wrote: "Could this be the Huntington Indian healer in your story?" Her find was our entry into what Huntington Town Historian Pam Donovan Hall calls the "Forgotten Valley" of "Indian Hollow," in western Massachusetts. Ms. Hall has spent twelve years researching the lives of the "dirt farmers" and "honest folk" who lived alongside the Indians, with a particular focus on the woman she knows as "Aunt Rhoda." "They had a neighborly relationship, distant but close - everybody looked after each other in the hollow."

There is, as yet, no published history of Indian Hollow, a community that was permanently displaced by the Knightville Dam in the 1930s. When the burials and stones were moved to Norwich Bridge, including Rhoda's marker, Pam Donovan Hall saw to it that a memorial stone was placed remembering even the unmarked graves. Some claim that there were no Indian habitations in the region outside of the mission village of Stockbridge Mohicans. Many Native American communities in New England survived in part through social or physical isolation, or mixing with marginal white or African families. When white settler Zebulon Fuller of Rhode Island came to Township No. 9 in the late 1750s, he married a local Mahican Indian woman, and settled on the terrace above the Agawam river. Fuller's initial possession and later purchase of land along the river secured over a hundred acres, including flint deposits, ancient Indian burial places and more recent plots where Fuller family members were interred.

"Old Rhoda could cure anyone outside of the grave, and - almost - those who had lain in it only a little while." - Deacon Ellis, 1880s. When Myron Munson interviewed local residents in the late 19th century, many of them remembered Rhoda Rhoades, and her older brother, Zebulon Fuller, as successful physicians ministering to a large region that included Westfield, Springfield, Hartford, and Northampton, as well as Indian Hollow. Mrs. N. S. Allen recalled Dr. Fuller coming down to Westfield riding a "little black horse," "he had a great deal of practice." With his earnings Dr. Fuller added to the family land holdings, including "120 acres in Norwich being the westerly part of Lot No. 63 second division." Zebulon may be the Indian doctor who was challenged by Dr. Chauncy Brewster of Springfield, who "had a sharp lookout for quacks. A certain Indian doctor had charge of a patient who did not improve to the satisfaction of friends, and so they called Dr. Brewer as counsel with others. . .and decided that the treatment was not appropriate. The diagnosis of the case and directions for treatment were written out in the Latin language, and the friends were directed to lay the papers before the Indian and ask his opinion. When the Indian came to see his patient the papers were presented to him. . . The Indian turned the guns upon his enemies, wrote out in the Indian language directions for the white doctors to follow, and quietly bade them good-by. With the shrewdness of the joke all were pleased. The patient recovered."

When Zebulon died, Rhoda took over his practice of house-calls and residential treatment. Mrs. Ellis wrote "She sometimes went to the homes of patients and remained with them," and "she used to be summoned from Northampton, Windsor and Hartford, and all over the country." Mrs. Allen noted that "Old Rhoda used to have a great many genteel folks come to stay with her in her old house." One of her most frequent visitors was Reverend Warriner of Springfield, who first came to Rhoda while he was a theological student. Like Homer Merriam, he "had been round the world in a vain search for health," "came up and spent a week, and was helped by Rhoda." The following season he "stayed all winter. He lodged there, and had provisions sent up from Springfield." Dr. Rhoda was also known for her kindness to children. She used to give them maple sugar out of her saddle-bags, much like "Aunt Sarah" Green of Brimfield, who "was jolly and fond of children, giving us snake root and sweet cicely out of her medicine basket. She claimed to be a doctor, and was a famous cook."

Dr. Rhoda Rhoades was particularly famous for a product she called "The Extract." Huntington Town Historian Myron Munson described her materia medica: "As an apothecary, she gave prominence, let us say, pre-eminence, to plants, flowers and roots, as remedies. She searched the meadows, swamps and woodlands for medicinal vegetation that was growing wild. . . But her pharmacopia was by no means limited to such. It is remembered that she cultivated a great variety and abundance of medical herbage on the Fuller place. Moreover, she raised pharmical crops on her Rivulet estate. Mr. Miller relates 'every kind of flower that I ever saw grew in her garden, on numerous small terraces still visible.'(1881) And they grew most luxuriantly. There was a complete mass of bloom from the old road to where the new one now is, and to the stream. These flowers were for use in making The Extract." She and her son Simon boiled this mass of herbage, in a big potash kettle, down to a tar-like substance that was measured out in clamshell-sized doses to be diluted for use. "The price of the medicine was two dollars; she made no charge for diagnosis and advice." The Massachusetts Spy of 1837 featured an illustrated advertisement for a patent medicine titled "The Indian Doctress," containing over fifty different herbs, that may have drawn on the popularity of this celebrated "Extract."

More discussion is needed of the interactions between Anglo and Indian medicine, including religion and superstition, and the social, political, and economic reasons for revealing or hiding sources in the era leading up to the patenting of medicinal preparations for both beneficial and scurrilous purposes. Non-Indian doctors, like Samuel Thompson, who first learned of Indian Tobacco and steaming from an Indian Doctress in Jericho, Vermont, were quick to bank on the success of Indian medicine, and slow to give credit for fear of being labelled quacks.

Dr. John Williams, in his "Last Legacy and Family Guide," 1826, was willing to credit "a native Indian who had been instructed in all the arts of civilized life" who taught him "the Indian method of treating disorders and the medical virtues of the vegetable kingdom." But Dr. Stephen West Williams of Deerfield rarely credited his sources, unless they were other learned physicians or classical writers. His "Herbarium," in the collections of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Society, does, however, contain specimens collected with the aid of Abenaki Louis Watso. Dr. Watso's free advice was not always welcome: "When the tribe of Indians from Canada were here in 1837, Louis Watso, their doctor, gave me an acccount of the principal medicine plants which they used in their practice. . . 70. Asarum Canadense. Wild ginger, Snakeroot. . . It is useful in the low stages of fevers, in nervous affections, palpitations, and similar complaints. When a company of Indians from Canada were in Deerfield, in the year 1837, I was much affected with palpitation of the heart, and they were much offended with me because I would not take one of their preparations which contained a large proportion of this snakeroot. They use it extensively in many complaints."

One of Dr. Rhoades' favored remedies was a plant she called "go-poppoose." Theodore Weeks noted "it grows in damp places, comes up very early in the spring. . . its blossom, very deep red, comprises three petals. . . with three little leaves; the odor is like that of fresh blood." The "wake-robin" or trillium erectum is a perfect example of the "doctrine of signatures" commonly followed in folk medicine - the color and smell of the plant, in this case, indicating its application. Rhoda used it in a case of severe nasal hemmorhage, after Squire Edward Taylor had summoned physicians from Montgomery, Russell, and Westfield who were unsuccessful in stopping his daughter's bleeding. "Entering the sick-room, she looked at the imperilled child; then issued the order - 'Give me a hoe!' and off she ran to a wet spot, dug some sort of root, and returning gave it to the little patient, with the bidding to chew it as fast as she could. The flux slackened and soon ceased." Ethnologist C. S. Rafinesque described its use in his 1830 "Medical Flora or Manual of Medical Botany of the United States": "being chewed, they produce salivation and tears, with heat in the throat, and next a sensation of coolness over whole system.. . . they are employed internally in hematuria or bloody urine, uterine hemorrhage, immoderate menstrual discharge, bloody spitting, hectic fever, asthma, catarrhal cough. . . they act as good restringents." Trillium root was also used in easing menstrual cramps and childbirth, hence the common name "go-poppoose," after "poppoose," "baby." Other common American Indian names for the plant are "squaw flower," "birth root," and "nose-bleed."

Old Sturbridge Village has honored the doctress who is one of our sources of information for Indian medicine and Molly Geet, with a section of the current exhibit on Medicine. A reconstructed corner of Rhoda Rhoades' house, stocked with herbs, baskets, table, bed, and a big potash kettle, will offer visitors a glimpse into the doctress' home site, complete with cots for upstairs patients.

As the nineteenth century progressed, New Englanders moved increasingly towards "modern" medicine and away from Indian remedies. Indian doctors were seen as primitive and superstitious, or, conversely, supernaturally gifted and intuitive healers, while patent medicines painted their names and faces on labels and advertisements. As real images were replaced by fictional portrayals, people like Rhoda Rhoades were almost lost to history. But not lost to the memory of local residents of Huntington, who still know the housesites, the rock piles, and the gravesites, and farmers who still turn over arrowheads in their fields. Not lost to the Native people who still practice the old remedies, and carefully guard the locations of valuable medicinal plants like ginseng and goldthread, ladyslipper and cohosh. Not lost to the new age of herbal medicine, when burdock, turkey rhubarb, sheep sorrel, and slippery elm have been re-introduced as an old Indian cancer remedy, and even chain drugstores stock herbal teas. And each year, in late summer, as if in memory, the valley of Indian Hollow blooms luxuriantly, with jerusalem artichoke, goldenrod, boneset, and Joe-pye weed - some of the staple plants of Doctor Rhoda Rhoades "Extract."

Sources Cited:

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