Day 214: Rappahannock Folk Medicine

I recently got a copy of Frank G. Speck’s article Rappahannock herbals, folklore and science of cures from the library and it’s interesting to see how many commonalities there are between the Rappahannock beliefs and that of the Appalachian peoples and later the Ozark peoples. Most of the cures and folklore collected by Speck and his team of folklorists were likely representative of influence by the white folklore and traditions of the area at that time, but for me it’s particularly interesting to look at those beliefs or plant uses that would otherwise not have any European counterpart. It’s in these places that we will perhaps find traces of much earlier native traditions.

I thought I would take some time to look at some of these folk beliefs and plant uses listed by Speck and their Appalachian/Ozark counterparts. Let’s first look at some of Speck’s causes for sickness and illness omens:

“A toad (frog) jumping on the bare toe will cause a wart on it.”

I’m sure many people will recognize this folk belief which has European variants as well. Toad or frog secretions are a common cause of warts in Appalachian and Ozark folk medicine.

“Hair cuttings from the head thrown into running water may cause dementia.”
“Hair cuttings taken by birds to build into a nest will cause bad luck.”

Also common folk beliefs throughout America, in particular the South, with European variants as well.

“To burn sassafras wood in the fireplace will cause pain to come in the back.”

This is an interesting belief that is shared by other Native communities including the Cherokee and Creek. Burning sassafras wood is related to bad luck or illness in Appalachian and Ozark folklore as well. In the Ozarks it’s one of only a few woods that are taboo to burn. While there are similar beliefs in Europe, the sassafras is a New World tree, so it’s likely that this belief came from Native, and not white, folk tradition. Much the same with other New World native trees like the pawpaw and redbud, both of which have non-European folklore associated with them that were transferred from Native to white communities.

“To sweep out a room or to throw ashes out of the door after sundown is to throw away your luck; well-being.”

There’s almost exactly the same belief in the Ozarks often with the added folk belief that you would be throwing dust in the faces of your departed loved ones come back home to visit, or throwing dust in the faces of the “haints” in general.

There are also several items listed in the materia medica section that are interesting to look at:

“Blood from cat’s tail – Blood taken from the tip of a black cat’s tail will make a mark above and below the area of skin affected by ‘shingles,’ will stop its spreading.”

Very common remedy for shingles that I’ve been able to find in Appalachian, Ozark, and Creole folk traditions. I’m sure it has other American and likely European variants as well. I’d say this isn’t an inherently native remedy.

“Metacarpal bone of deer – To carry the metacarpal of a deer is to avert sickness and misfortune in general.”
“Turkey wish-bone – A turkey wish-bone kept in the house is a preventative of bad luck and sickness.”

Also very common in Appalachian and Ozark folk belief. Likely has European influence but with a distinctly native touch with the use of the turkey bone. This is common in many American folk beliefs, the reapplication of Old World beliefs to New World plants and animals. One example is the so called “Judas Tree” which in Europe is Cercis siliquastrum and in the New World the redbud, Cercis canadensis was given the same name despite being a different species.

“Knots in yarn string (and persimmon tree) – To cure chills permanently: ‘Go to a persimmon tree, stand with your back to the south, face north, put a yarn string around your waist, tie as many knots in it (on the north side of the tree) as you have had chills. You will never have another chill. The tree will die.”

Tying off chills in this way is very common in Ozark folk belief, right down to the persimmon tree. Although in Ozark folk medicine you don’t actually tie yourself to the tree as is suggested in the above quote. As you face north the string is knotted around the tree itself then you are left to walk away, thereby leaving your chills behind you. The use of knotting in folk healing is common to many American traditions, and likely has European variants, although the use of the persimmon tree may in fact be a native tradition.

I always get so excited when I learn about new folk healing traditions, especially American traditions. Looking at the many similarities between these folk beliefs of the East Coast and those of my own part of the country only reaffirms for me the fact that there is this underlying network of folklore and remedies that go back hundreds of years in this country (and even longer if you consider the European and Native variants) that has for the most part died out in many communities but has also been preserved in those isolated, mostly rural areas that you find in the Appalachians and Ozarks.

I will say that in reading through Speck’s article I’ve learned very little about the Rappahannock medical system, other than that it was, at the time Speck was collecting the material for this work, heavily influenced by other American and European folk traditions. This is evident in the extensive similarities in folk beliefs and plant uses listed in the work. That’s not to say that there aren’t glimpses of Native tradition here, I’ve said this other places that where we likely see these far older influences is in the medicinal uses of the New World plants that Europeans wouldn’t have likely known.

In conclusion I’d like to include scanned images of Speck’s listed materia medica for reference. Herbalists out there will likely find it very interesting.

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