Indigenous Identity in Patent Medicines and Home Remedies

In a practice still seen in herbalist and natural medicine circles today, some patent medicines used iconography of Native Americans to promote and lend credibility to their product. It was common practice to ascribe the origin of patent medicines to a Native practice. The trend at the time was to use natural vegetable and herbal ingredients, and these advertisements relied upon the public's racially charged perception of Native Americans as experts on the natural world as an uncivilized people. 

An almanac by the Comstock company advertising Indian Root Pills, featuring the fantastical origin story of the medicine

Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills

Perhaps the most famous perpetrator of this practice was the W.H. Comstock Company, the manufacterers of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills. The Comstock Company acquired the patent medicine in 1855 after signing a contract with a partner of the original manufacterer.

The namesake Dr. Morse did not actually exist, though the Comstock Company fabricated a lengthy history of the doctor and his product that was printed in their almanacs and on the container of every box of pills. The story states that Dr. Morse, after completing his medical education, travelled extensively across the world and spent three years "among the Indians of our western country" who taught him the secret behind the Indian Root Pills. After returning from his travels, Dr. Morse discovered that his father was sick, and to quote directly from the advertised story:

"The Doctor, surprised to see his father so nearly gone, immediately went to his coach, taking therefrom various plants and roots, which he had learned from the Red Men of the forest as being good for all diseases, and gave them to his father, and in about two hours afterwards he was much relieved.... Two days afterwards he was much better, and the third day he could walk about the room ...and now we behold him a strong, active man, and in the bloom of health, and at the age of ninety-five able to ride in one day thirty-five miles, in order to spend his birthday with this celebrated Doctor, his son."

In yet another account of the travels and learnings of the fictitious Dr. Morse, the story states that "for two or three years [he] practically abandoned civilization and made his home among the Indians. He learned their language. entered heartily into their sports and daily occupations, [and] made himself familiar with their legends and their history." After gaining their trust, Dr. Morse received "the real object of his visit": "an insight into the manner in which their natural remedies were compounded." This account also features the tale of Dr. Morse saving his sick father, but the language is changed to include the detail of the pills themselves: "Having brought home with him a quantity of vegetable ingredients, the young doctor made them into pills and ... had the patient ... in better health than for many years." This edition of the story ends with Dr. Morse dedicating himself to manufacturing "what is now known throughout the civilized world as Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills."

Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills

A trade card for Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills, the Great Blood Purifier

In each of these stories, great emphasis is placed on the "uncivilized" nature of the Native peoples and the intelligence of the young doctor in bringing the remedy to "civilization."

The pills were recommended for a vast list of symptoms: biliousness, dispepsia, constipation, sick headache, scrofula, kidney disease, liver complaint, jaundice, piles, dysentery, colds, boils, malarial fever, flatulency, foul breath, eczema, gravel, worms, female complaints, rheumatism, neuralgia, la grippe, palpitation, and nervousness.

The views expressed by this entry are based in historical racial bias against Indigenous peoples and in no way reflect the beliefs of the author or of Special Collections and University Archives of Virginia Tech. (See the University Libraries' Sensitive Content Statement.)

Indigenous Identity in Patent Medicines and Home Remedies