In sickness and in health: A study of ethnomedical ideology and practice in colonial New England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Date of Completion

January 2010


Anthropology, Cultural|History, United States|Health Sciences, Medicine and Surgery|Native American Studies




This dissertation explores the intracultural and intercultural dynamics in ethnomedical systems in colonial New England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the mid seventeenth century, European settlement was well underway in New England, with little resistance from the indigenous Algonquian, whose numbers had been greatly reduced by epidemics. While the official stance was that indigenous peoples were “living impediments to agricultural ‘civilization’” (Axtell 2001:145), colonists did not entirely resist indigenous ethnobotanical treatments, ceremonial healing and animistic practices. Despite official dismissal of the efficacy of indigenous medicine well into the twentieth century, the Algonquian contributions to American medicine are well documented in primary accounts and European and U.S. materia medica. ^ The ethnohistorical record reveals intracultural inconsistencies in health-seeking behaviors among colonists, indicating underlying ideologies in opposition to the orthodox Christian worldview. Lines were blurred between European and Native American supernaturalism, manifested in medical material culture and the persistence of non-orthodox healing methods, despite official sanctions. Rooted in Old World animistic supernaturalism, the socially constructed realities of the traders, explorers, and illiterate and poor settlers were compatible with indigenous worldviews and medical practices, enabling intercultural ethnomedical diffusion, mediation, and production in a middle ground. ^