Heritage, Volume 4, Number 3, Winter 1986 Page: 41
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Medicine on Texas Plantations
Cold remedies included eating boiled
or raw onions, drinking concoctions of
whiskey, honey, and butter, and applying
mustard plasters. Children with colds
were frequently given a few drops of coal
oil (kerosene) in a teaspoon of sugar. One
recipe for a homemade cough syrup called
for two tablespoons each of honey, whiskey,
and lemon juice. The mixture was
bottled and sipped as needed.
In East Texas where turpentine (from
pine trees) was readily available, it was
mixed with kerosene alone or with additional
ingredients to cure indigestion, to
prevent pregnancy, and to ease toothache
and rheumatism. Turpentine was mixed
with honey and onions to make a cough
and cold syrup. Pepper grass or pokeberries
were stewed to make a laxative, as
were senna leaves and the inner bark of
the ash tree. Clay was used as a poultice
to draw out aches and pains.
Moist chewed tobacco was instantly
obtainable on plantations and was used in
a variety of "cures." It was plastered on
insect stings or bites, and applied as a
poultice to snake bites. Tobacco was also
used as an earache or toothache remedy.
Powdered cloves or oil of cloves also relieved
Cookbooks, whether bought or, more
commonly, homemade, contained sections
on treatment of common ailments.
And many households had commonplace
books with such information. In the J. S.
Devereux plantation commonplace books
are medical memoranda that include applying
scraped turnips to a sore leg, treating
scalds and bums with clarified honey
in a linen rag, and taking the juice of
cockleburs internally with sweet milk and
binding mashed cocklebur leaves on the
bite of a rattlesnake.
Since rattlesnake bites were fairly common
among outdoor workers on plantations,
numerous "cures" were known.
The copious use of whiskey, internally
and externally, was popular. In addition
to tobacco, mixtures of clay, soot, and vinegar
and poultices from common plants
such as milkweed were used. When he was
bitten by a rattlesnake, Dr. Ashbel Smith
treated himself entirely with iodine,
drinking it diluted over a period of hours
and applying it liberally to the wound. He
survived to publish an article about his
method of treatment. A more common
treatment was to kill a chicken, other
Randy G. Rankin Studio
fowl, or rabbit and then to tear it open
and place it while still warm over the
wound. When the flesh of the animal
turned green, it was discarded and a fresh
piece of the meat applied.
Kerosene was used for cuts. Often
when an accident with a cotton gin
severed a finger or toe, saturating the
wound with kerosene and wrapping it in
rags was the only treatment given. A
common method to stop bleeding was to
apply spider webs and soot.
Both black and white children went to
their mammy to be rubbed with a salve
made from elderberry flowers stewed in
hog lard for relief from the red bugs and
ticks they frequently picked up. And in
the spring both groups held their noses as
white mistresses poured spring tonics
consisting of sulphur and molasses down
For the adults most plantation medicine
chests contained a mixture called
bitters, which was an all-purpose cure for
various miseries. This well-named brew
was made according to the mixer's taste
and the ingredients at hand. A popular
and particularly nasty version was a mix
4302 Aspen Brook Lane
Spring, Texas 77388
of tree bark, rust from iron nails, and
whiskey. The treatment of a dose of bitters
was frequently enough to cause an
ailing slave to suddenly recover his good
The beginning of the Civil War signaled
the end of the plantation system.
Whatever the various and complicated
causes of the war between the states, for
most Texas plantation owners it became a
fight to preserve their traditions and their
livelihood. Frequently plantations mistresses
were left to manage with only the
help of very old men, very young boys,
and trusted slaves. Nursing skills and
home remedies became increasingly important
as cash supplies dwindled and
Texas ports were blockaded. Patent medicines
and professional medical advice became
difficult, if not impossible, to come
by, and the native weeds, roots, barks,
and leaves became the standbys in treating
illnesses and injuries. When the war
ended, some planters struggled to maintain
their operations with the help of the
freedmen as sharecroppers or with imported
laborers. Some turned their plantations
into ranches or chopped them up
into small farms. In the end, though, the
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 4, Number 3, Winter 1986, periodical, 1986; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45440/m1/41/?rotate=270: accessed May 23, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.