Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Female Yarb & Mother of Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809)

Artist John Toole (American artist, 1815-1860) Lucy Meriwether Marks (1752-1837).

Meriwether Lewis had grown up with an expert on local plants. His mother, Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks, was a respected herb doctor in Albemarle County, Virginia, who treated patients with herbal remedies & “simples.” From his mother, Lewis learned to identify plants of medicinal value & how to use them for therapeutic purposes. "Lucy was born into Albemarle County gentry on February 4, 1752. She was the daughter of Col. Thomas & Elizabeth Thornton Meriwether...She was locally famous as a “yarb” or herb doctor, presumably her books included herbals & medical handbooks...Lucy’s type of doctoring was called “Empiric” & based on practical experience. She was folk practitioner – a job often filled by women. She traveled throughout Albemarle County by horseback caring for the sick well into her early eighties. Perhaps she learned medicine from her father, also known as a healer, & her brother Francis, who was a “Regular” or formally-trained doctor. No doubt Lucy grew medicinal plants in her garden at “Locust Hill” & collected them in the wild as well. Her son, Meriwether Lewis, relied on the skills he had learned from his mother when he treated himself & others on the Lewis & Clark expedition. Her son John attended medical school. Some accounts also refer to her son Reuben as a doctor, though it is likely that he was “yarb” doctor like Lucy rather than a “regular” doctor like his brother John."  (Patricia L. Zontine, April 2009) 

In early America, folk medicine, especially knowledge of healing herbs, was often a feminine art. Typical remedies used staple household ingredients, & their descriptions read like recipes for food preparation. Recipes for remedies were handed down from generation to generation. Women learned to doctor the same way they learned to cook. The preparation might begin with hog lard or honey. Plants were then added, gathered from hillsides or grown in the garden. Most mothers had some knowledge of natural pharmaceuticals, but some were more accomplished herbalists than others.  Many years of growing herbs & dispensing remedies made these women indispensable assets to their communities, which they served not only as pharmacists, but as often as obstetricians & nurses as well.

 She was the possessor of a store of information about local pharmacology.  If she were literate, she may have consulted home medicine guides & herbal handbooks. She usually learned about native plants from her own mother & other relatives. Her female line may have been first taught by neighboring Native Americans. She knew how much of each ingredient to use (often measured by the pinch or the handful), how long to boil (till soft, or till all water save a pint had boiled away), & how much to administer. She knew whether the herb should be decocted (boiled), infused (steeped but not boiled), or demulcified (used in an ointment). She knew to use the leaves of some  plants for one ailment, its roots for another, & its berries for still another. She also knew that the seeds of some plants could be medicinal though their flowers were poisonous. She knew how to treat each herb so as not to destroy its healing power, & precisely when to harvest the plant. Most roots had to be gathered in February or March, before the sap began to rise. Roots lost their value after the sap rose. Some plants--sassafras & poke, for example--became poisonous at certain points in their growth cycle. Seldom did the woman's remedies cure the patient; instead, they alleviated the symptoms. But since it seemed to be the symptoms which were fatal, this was a highly effective type of medicine.

The pharmaceuticals administered by these women consisted of a variety of organic & inorganic compounds. Among the most commonly used medicinal plants were those with astringent qualities, such as sweet gum, myrtle, & yellow dock.  Taken in a tea, such plants could shrink the swelling of a sore throat. Used for tonsillitis or diphtheria, they would leave the patient considerably more comfortable & also lessen the danger of asphyxiation. Packed into a poultice & applied to the skin, the astringent properties of these plants helped to close open wounds & stem bleeding. The selection of herbs for use in medicines was hardly random; many food plants were never used to treat the sick, because they had no medicinal value. Only remedies which brought relief were retained.  See  Ozarks Watch  Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1995  In Defense of Granny Women  by Janet Allured.

Why Thomas Jefferson decided to collect plants during the Lewis & Clark Expedition

From an article written by Peter Hatch, Originally published as "Bernard McMahon, Pioneer American Gardener," Twinleaf, January 1993.
John Trumbull (American painter, 1756-1843) Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in 1788

"Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon (1775-1816) has often been described as Thomas Jefferson's   (1743-1826) gardening mentor; and his classic work, The American Gardener's Calendar (1806), as Jefferson's horticultural "Bible." McMahon forwarded the newest vegetable and flower varieties to Jefferson, who would often follow the directions in the Calendar step-by-step when planting tulips in his flower beds or sea kale in his vegetable garden. McMahon also served as curator for the plants collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition, published the first seed catalogue in the United States, and was honored by botanist Thomas Nuttall, who in 1818 bestowed the genus name Mahonia on a group of west-coast evergreen shrubs still popular in American gardens.
"McMahon's chief legacy was his American Gardener's Calendar, the most comprehensive gardening book published in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century; popularity and influence can be gauged by the eleven editions that were printed up to 1857. The 648-page Calendar was modeled on a traditional English formula, providing month-by-month instructions on planting, pruning, and soil preparation for the various horticultural divisions -- the Kitchen Garden, Fruit Garden, Orchard, Nursery, etc.
"McMahon borrowed extensively from English works, especially those of Philip Miller and particularly from John Abercrombie, author of Every Man his own Gardener, first published in York in 1767 under the name of Thomas Mawe, at the time a more recognizable figure. McMahon's 63 page General Catalogue of Recommended Garden Plants (3,700 species) was unrealistically biased in favor of traditional Old World species. It is doubtful whether a majority of them were then found in the United States; one also wonders how many American gardeners actually possessed an English-style Fruit Garden, much less a Greenhouse or Hothouse, in 1806. A renowned English contemporary, J. C. Loudon, suggested the derivative character of the Calendar in 1826: "We cannot gather from the work any thing as to the extent of American practice in these particulars."
"Nevertheless, McMahon's Calendar appealed to Jefferson because it attempted to deal with some of the unique problems of American gardening. McMahon made a concerted effort to break away from English traditions in the way he celebrated the use of native American ornamentals, championed large-scale cider and seedling peach orchards that could be grazed with livestock, and admitted the harsh realities of eastern North America's continental climate.
"McMahon reinforced Jefferson's custodial pride in the culture of American plants. It was in the Calendar that American gardeners were first urged to comb the local woodlands and fields for "the various beautiful ornaments with which nature has so profusely decorated them." Wildflowers, according to McMahon, were particularly suited for the hot, humid summer when American gardens "are almost destitute of bloom." McMahon continued, "Is it because they are indigenous that we should reject them? What can be more beautiful than our Lobelias, Asclepias, Orchis, and Asters? In Europe plants are not rejected because they are indigenous; and yet here, we cultivate many foreign trifles, and neglect the profusion of beauties so bountifully bestowed upon us by the hand of nature."

"McMahon's Calendar also included the first American essay on landscape design. Titled, "Ornamental Designs and Plantings," this eighteen-page treatise may have inspired Jefferson's design schemes for the Roundabout flower border and oval beds on the West Lawn at Monticello. Following the dictates of English landscape designer Humphrey Repton, McMahon promoted the new, informal style of naturalistic gardening. He urged his readers to "consult the rural disposition in imitation of nature" that would include "winding walks, all bounded with plantations of trees, shrubs, and flowers in various clumps." The use of broad lawns, thickets, and irregularly-shaped flower beds were further ways of banishing traditional, formal landscape and garden geometry. Few American gardening books have so thoroughly combined landscape gardening and horticulture like Bernard McMahon's The American Gardener's Calendar. McMahon's writings provided a foundation for the popularity of Andrew Jackson Downing, generally considered the father of landscape design in this country.
"Who was Bernard McMahon? Information on this gardening pioneer is scanty. Born in Ireland "of good birth and fortune," he moved to Philadelphia in 1796 to avoid political persecution and soon established a seedhouse and nursery business by 1802. In that year (or perhaps in 1803) he published a broadsheet "CATALOGUE OF GARDEN GRASS, HERB, FLOWER, TREE & SHRUB-SEEDS, FLOWER ROOTS, ETC. " that included 720 species and varieties of seed. Considered the "first seed catalogue" published in this country, it is a landmark index to the plants introduced and cultivated in the United States at that time. For instance, this list supplements the documented plantings of Jefferson in the yearly plantings of the flower gardens at Monticello. In 1804 another catalogue of thirty pages, mostly devoted to native American seeds, was published."

Editor's notes (In 1778, 1785, & 1792, the early American botanist Humphrey Marshall (1722-1801) proposed to the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia that they sponsor a botanical expedition westward to the Pacific ocean. Marshall was a part-time botanist & plant dealer born in the village of Marshallton, Pennsylvania, and was a cousin of William & John Bartram.  In 1773, Marshall created a botanical garden at Marshallton including both native & exotic plants.   In 1785, Marshall published "Arboretum Americanum: the American Grove, an Alphabetical Catalogue of Forest Trees and Shrubs, Natives of the American United States" (Philadelphia).

Thomas Jefferson, who joined the American Philosophical Society in 1790, supported Marshall's proposal in 1793; however,  the idea languished.  But politics & power intervened.  On June 20, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent a formal letter to his private secretary and aide Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), a captain in the 1st U. S. Infantry. It requested that he head an expedition up the Missouri River to find a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean. No mention in this letter was made of botany, but Jefferson had it in mind.
Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) - William Clark (1770-1838)

Meriwether Lewis had grown up with an expert on local plants. His mother, Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks, was a respected herb doctor in Albemarle County, Virginia, who treated patients with herbal remedies & “simples.” From his mother, Lewis learned to identify plants of medicinal value & how to use them for therapeutic purposes.  An enthusiastic naturalist, Lewis developed, according to Thomas Jefferson, “a talent for observation which had led him to an accurate knowledge of the plants & animals of his own country.” This would turn out to be important, as Lewis needed to be able to tell what plants he found along the trail were “not of the U.S.”  Lewis’s botanical training was rounded out by a visit with Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton  (1766-1815) during his crash course with the country’s leading scientific minds in Philadelphia during the spring of 1803. Dr. Barton was a professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, a friend of Jefferson’s, & the author of Elements of Botany: or Outlines of the Natural History of Vegetables, the first botany textbook produced in the United States. Lewis evidently got some training on how to preserve plant specimens from Barton & purchased Barton's textbook as a reference to take with him on his trip.
Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815)

Lewis was authorized to choose a co-commander, and he chose William Clark (1770-1838), who had earlier been Lewis' commanding officer. On May 14, 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition set out from St. Louis. They reached the Pacific at the mouth of the Columbia River on Nov. 7, 1805.) End of Editor's notes.

"Beginning in 1806 McMahon was trusted with seeds and plants collected from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Jefferson insisted that these new discoveries were the property of the expedition and of the federal government, so McMahon was forced, perhaps rightfully so, to grow these novelties under restriction in a quarantine-like situation. As well, sticky complications and fierce personal rivalries arose over the description, illustration, and release of the plants, which included golden currant (Ribes aureum, Snowberry  (Symphoricarpus albus), and Osage orange (Maclura pomifera): as many as 25 undescribed species. Botanical historian and scholar, Joseph Ewan, observed, "It must have tried his soul on occasion to have to weed and water these plantings through the years without realizing thereby either the aura of publicity for his nursery or the personal satisfaction of guardianship for what were precious discoveries of new genera and species eventually announced, not in America, but in England!"
"In 1808 McMahon purchased twenty acres for his nursery and botanic garden that would enable him to expand his business. A steady stream of correspondence, 37 letters, passed between him and President Jefferson until 1816, when McMahon died at his "Botanical Garden, called Upsal." The nursery business was left to his wife, who, according to Ewan, "conducted it under difficulties that would have appalled most women." Their son, Thomas P., was also involved in the business, as well as further publications of the Calendar.

"The most vivid written document to survive regarding McMahon and his Philadelphia seedhouse was written by John Jay Smith, editor of The Horticulturist, for the 11th edition of the Calendar in 1857. Smith's memoir suggests the ferment of botanical and horticultural activity at the time:"

"Bernard M'Mahon found American gardening in its infancy, and immediately set himself vigorously to work to introduce a love of flowers and fruit. The writer well remembers his store, his garden and greenhouses. "The latter were situated near the Germantown turnpike, between Philadelphia and Nicetown, whence emanated the rarer flowers and novelties, such as could be collected in the early part of the present century, and where were performed, to the astonishment of the amateurs of that day, successful feats of horticulture that were but too rarely imitated.

"His store was on Second Street, below Market, on the east side. Many must still be alive who recollect its bulk window, ornamented with tulip glasses, a large pumpkin, and a basket or two of bulbous roots; behind the counter officiated Mrs. M'Mahon, with some considerable Irish accent, but a most amiable and excellent disposition, and withal, an able saleswoman.

"Mr. M'Mahon was also much in the store, putting up seeds for transmission to all parts of this country and Europe, writing his book, or attending to his correspondence, and in one corner was a shelf containing a few botanical or gardening books, for which there was then a very small demand; another contained the few garden implements, such as knives and trimming scissors, a barrel of peas and a bag of seedling potatoes, an onion receptacle, a few chairs, and the room partly lined with drawers containing seeds, constituted the apparent stock in trade of what was one of the greatest seed-stores then known in the Union, and where was transacted a considerable business for that day.

"Such a store would naturally attract the botanist as well as the gardener, and it was the frequent lounge of both classes, who ever found in the proprietors ready listeners, as well as conversers; in the latter particular they were rather remarkable, and here you would see Nuttall, Baldwin, Darlington, and other scientific men, who sought information or were ready to impart it."