Indian uses for Sassafras

Young sassafras leaves Indian medicinal uses for sassafras

Indians have various and sundry medicinal uses for sassafras (Sassafras albidum).


Highlights

  • Sassafras has medicinal uses
  • Grows in eastern North America from Florida to Canada
  • Known by multiple names
  • 82 medicinal uses for sassafras from 11 Indian tribes listed in table below

What is Sassafras?

Today, sassafras is mostly known for being the taste of root beer despite it’s history as an important plant in both Indian and European medicine. Sassafras is a small deciduous tree native to eastern North America from Canada to Florida. It has green apetalous flowers and dimorphous leaves and it grows to roughly 20 feet tall, however some trees have grown to 100 feet tall with a diameter of six feet.  

Indian medicinal uses for sassafras
Mark Catesby The Tyrant Bird on a Sprig of Sassafras, Natural History of Carolina vol. 1 (London, 1731), plate 55.

The leaf is typically trilobed and mitten shaped, however, it can sometimes form with one or two lobes. Smaller trees the size of large shrubs are desired for their roots and leaves, while bigger trees are desired for their timber. The wood and bark possess a characteristically sweet smell.

Sassafras wood is resistant to decay so some Indians used it for dugout canoes, and after contact, the Cherokees used it for furniture and fence posts.

Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians ground sassafras leaves to thicken and spice their food. They introduced the practice to Europeans and Africans and this food is now called filé, a staple in Cajun and Creole gumbos.

Europeans used sassafras as treatment for the French Pox or syphilis. It was also a consumer drink served in coffee houses as “bochet” when it was mixed with tea.1

In backcountry Appalachia, sassafras roots were worn by Scotch-Irish immigrants to ward off witches, and they believed the devil would roost on their rooftops if sassafras wood was ever burned.2

Names for Sassafras

Sassafras has many names. Common names include saxifrax, saloop, ague tree, and cinnamon wood.3 In the late sixteenth century, Englishman Thomas Harriot reported the Algonquian speaking Indians of coastal North Carolina called sassafras winauk, and Scotsman Robert Gordon also claimed the Indians of Nova Scotia called it by the same name.4 Spanish botanist Nicolas Monardes said the Timucua speaking Indians of southern Georgia and northern Florida called it pauame or pavame.5

Thomas Harriot sassafras a brief and true report Indian uses for sassafras
Thomas Harriot, “Sassafras,” A briefe and true report (Frankfurt: Theodore de Bry, 1590), 9.

For more information on sassafras in the Anglo-American Atlantic world, check out How were the English introduced to Sassafras, Monardes and Gerard on Sassafras, Sassafras and Natural Philosophy, and Nicholas Culpeper on Sassafras.

Indian Medicinal Uses for Sassafras

Below is a chart and accompanying definitions listing various Indian medicinal uses for sassafras.6 Expand the number of entries on the chart to see the complete table.

Indian Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

TribeDescriptionMethodPart of treeOther to addTreatment forAdditional symptomsAdditional Details
Cherokeeoral aidchewrootsbad breath
Cherokeeanthelminticinfusionbarkworms
Cherokeeantidiarrhealinfusionroot barkdiarrhea
Cherokeeantirheumaticinfusionrheumatism
Cherokeedietiary aidinfusionbarkobesity
Cherokeedermatology aidpoulticewounds and sores
Cherokeeeye medicinewashsore eyes
Cherokeeblood medicineblood purifier
Cherokeemisc. disease remedyfever
Cherokeevenereal aidvenereal disease
Chippewablood medicineinfusionroot barkblood thinner
Choctawblood medicinedecoctionrootsblood thinner
Choctawmisc. disease remedydecoctionrootsmeasles
Delawareblood medicineroot barkblood purifier
Delawaretonicbarktonic
Houmamisc. disease remedyrootsmeaslesfresh or dried roots
Houmamisc. disease remedyrootsscarlett feverfresh or dried roots
Iroquoishemostatdecoctionsproutsnosebleedpith from new sprouts
Iroquoishypotensivedecoctionroots, sproutshigh blood pressurepith from new sprouts
Iroquoisorthopedic aiddecoctionrootsedemaswelling in calves and shins
Iroquoisblood medicinedecoction and infusionrootswatery blood
Iroquoisanthelminticinfusionrootswhiskeytapewormscompound infusion
Iroquoisantirheumaticinfusionrootswhiskeyrheumatismcompound infusion
Iroquoiscold remedyinfusionrootscoldswomen
Iroquoisfebrifuge and gynecological aidinfusionrootsfever after childbirthwomen
Iroquoiseye medicineinfusion or decoction as a washsore eyes
Iroquoiseye medicineinfusion or decoction as a washcataracts
Iroquoisdermatological aidpoulticewounds, cuts, and bruises
Iroquoistonictonic
Iroquoisblood medicinesproutsblood medicinepith from new sprouts
Koasatiheart medicinedecoctionrootsheart troubles
Koasatidermatological aidpoulticeleavesbee stings
Moheganeye medicinedecocotion for washshootssore eyes
Mohegantonictonicroot, leaves, barkother herbs
Nanticokefebrifugeinfusionrootsfever
Nanticokemisc. disease remedyinfusionprevent fever
Rappahannockburn dressingdecocotion for washbranchburns
Rappahannockeye medicinedecocotion for washbranchessore eyesbranch pith
Rappahannockdermatological aidinfusionrootsmeaslesrash
Rappahannockfebrifugeinfusionrootsmeaslesfever
Rappahannockmisc. disease remedyinfusionrootsmeaslesrash, fever
Rappahannocksedativeinfusionrootsnerves
Rappahannocktonicinfusionrootsspring tonic
Rappahannockstimulantbudslethargyincrease vigor in males
Seminolelaxativedecocotionbarkhorse sicknessnausea, constipation, blocked urination
Seminoleantidiarrhealdecoctionwolf ghost sicknessdiarrhea, painful defecation
Seminoleantiemeticdecoctionbarkhorse sicknessnausea, constipation, blocked urination
Seminoleantiemeticdecoctionrootsvomitingcontinuous vomiting
Seminolecatharticdecoctionwolf ghost sicknessdiarrhea, painful defecation
Seminoleurinary aiddecoctionbarkhorse sicknessnausea, constipation, blocked urination
Seminoleanalgesicinfusionwolf sicknessvomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, frequent urination
Seminoleantidiarrhealinfusionracoon sicknessdiarrheachildren
Seminoleantidiarrhealinfusionbarkotter sicknessdiarrhea, vomiting
Seminoleantidiarrhealinfusionwolf sicknessvomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, frequent urination
Seminoleantiemeticinfusionbarkotter sicknessdiarrhea, vomiting
Seminoleantiemeticinfusionbarkcat sicknessnausearubbed on body
Seminoleantiemeticinfusionwolf sicknessvomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, frequent urination
Seminolecold remedyinfusioncoldsmouthwash, gargle
Seminoledermatological aidinfusionbarkmonkey sicknessfever, itch, enlarged eyesbabies
Seminoledietiary aidinfusionbarkopossum sicknessappetite loss, droolingbabies
Seminoledietiary aidinfusionbarkdog sicknessappetite loss, droolingchildren, adults
Seminoleemeticinfusionbarkcat sicknessnausearubbed on body
Seminolegastrointestinal aidinfusionwolf sicknessvomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, frequent urination
Seminoleoral aidinfusionbarkopossum sicknessappetite loss, droolingbabies
Seminoleoral aidinfusionbarkdog sicknessappetite loss, drooling
Seminoleotherinfusionmythical wolf sicknessrubbed on body
Seminolepediatric aidinfusionracoon sicknessdiarrheasmall children
Seminolepediatric aidinfusionbarkotter sicknessdiarrhea, vomiting
Seminolepediatric aidinfusionbarkdog sicknessappetite loss, droolingchildren, adult
Seminolethroat aidinfusionsore throat
Seminoleurinary aidinfusionwolf sicknessvomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, frequent urination
Seminolefebrifugeinfusion for bathbarkmonkey sicknessfever, itch, enlarged eyesbath
Seminolepediatric aidinfusion for bathbarkopossum sicknessappetite loss, droolingbabies
Seminoleeye medicineinfusion for washbarkmonkey sicknessfever, itch, enlarged eyesbabies
Seminoleanalgesicbarkcow sicknesslower chest pain, digestive disturbances, diarrhea
Seminoleanalgesicgallstones, bladder pain
Seminoleantidiarrhealcow sicknesslower chest pain, digestive disturbances, diarrhea
Seminoleceremonial medicinebarkvomitinginduce vomiting for purification after funerals
Seminolecough medicinecough
Seminoleemeticbarkinduce vomiting"clean the insides"
Seminolegastrointestinal aidbarkcow sicknesslower chest pain, digestive disturbances, diarrhea
Seminoleurinary aidgallstones, bladder pain

Definitions

The following are definitions of terms in the above chart.

  • Decoction – the liquor resulting from concentrating the essence of a substance by heating or boiling
  • Infusion – a drink, remedy, or extract prepared by soaking the leaves of a plant or herb in liquid
  • Poultice – a soft, moist mass of material, typically of plant material or flour, applied to the body to relieve soreness and inflammation and kept in place with a cloth
  • Tonic – medicinal drink taken to give a feeling of vigor or well-being

  • Analgesic – drug that relieves pain
  • Anthelmintic – drug used for the treatment of intestinal parasites
  • Antidiarrheal – drug used to stop diarrhea
  • Antiemetic – drug that inhibits vomiting
  • Antirheumatic – drug used for rheumatism or arthritis
  • Blood medicine – medicine designed to purify or influence the blood
  • Burn dressing – all type of dressing applied externally to burns
  • Cathartic – drug that causes evacuation of the bowels, a strong laxative; physic and purgative are synonyms of cathartic
  • Ceremonial medicine – medicine used as part of ceremonies
  • Cold remedy – medicine used for the relief or cure of colds
  • Cough medicine – medicine used for the relief or cure of coughs
  • Dermatological aid – drug used to treat any condition of the skin or hair
  • Dietary aid – drug that affects the diet or hunger in a situation involving illness, usually used to increase the appetite of a sick person with no appetite or to decrease it (“diet pills”)
  • Emetic – drug that causes vomiting
  • Eye medicine – drug used for any afflictions of the eye
  • Febrifuge – drug used to reduce fevers
  • Gastrointestinal aid – drug used to treat distress of the digestive tract
  • Gynecological aid – drug used to treat problems surrounding pregnancy and childbirth and other problems specific to women
  • Heart medicine – drug used for the treatment of heart problems
  • Hemostat – drug used to stop external bleeding
  • Hyptotensive – drug used to reduce blood pressure
  • Laxative – a mild treatment for constipation
  • Miscellaneous disease remedy – drug used for a particular disease not categorized elsewhere
  • Oral aid – drug used for the treatment of various mouth disorders
  • Orthopedic aid – drug used for afflictions of the muscles or bones
  • Other – drug used for various conditions and ailments that are not diseases and not categorized elsewhere
  • Pediatric aid – drug specifically mentioned as a treatment for children
  • Sedative – drug that reduces excitement or upset, a “downer”
  • Stimulant – drug that reduces excitement or upset, an “upper”
  • Throat aid – drug used for afflictions of the throat
  • Tonic – drug used as a tonic for various ailments
  • Urinary aid – drug used for problems of the urinary tract and by men for sexual organ problems
  • Venereal aid – drug used for any venereal disease

The following are the tribes mentioned in the chart above and their general geographic location.

  • Cherokee – western North Carolina, northwestern Georgia, Oklahoma
  • Chippewa – also known as the Ojibwa, located in the upper Midwest and southern Ontario
  • Choctaw – Louisiana, Mississippi
  • Delaware – east coast, Ontario, Oklahoma
  • Houma – Louisiana
  • Iroquois – upstate New York, southern Quebec
  • Koasati – southeastern United States
  • Mohegan – Connecticut
  • Nanticoke – Delaware
  • Rappahannock – Virginia
  • Seminole – southern Florida

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Endnotes

  1. Joseph Ewan, “Plant Resources in Colonial America,” Environmental Review 1, no. 2 (1976): 48.
  2. Marie B. Mellinger, “The Spirit is Strong in the Root,” Appalachian Journal 4, no. 3/4 (Spring & Summer 1977): 246.
  3. Alma R. Hutchens, Indian Herbalogy of North America (Boston: Shambhala, 1973), 242-243.
  4. Thomas Harriot, A briefe and true report of the new founde land of Virginia (Frankfurt, Theodore de Bry, 1590), 9; and Robert Gordon, Encouragements for such as shall have intention to bee under-takers in the new plantation of Cape Briton (Edinburgh, 1625), fol. C4.
  5. Nicolas Monardes, Joyfull Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde trans. John Frampton vol. 1, 1925 reprint (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1925). The book was sometimes referred to The ioyfull newes from the West Indies
  6. The information in the chart and definitions comes directly from Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany (Portland: Timber Press, 1998).

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