A Medicine Man Administering to a Patient - Plate 46

Dacotas of the Mississippi

The subjoined paper is from the pen of Dr. Thomas S. Williamson, of Ohio, who has spent several years among the Dacotas of the Mississippi. In addition to the historical information it conveys of a people who constitute the type of an immense group of prairie tribes, it possesses a particular value for the examination that is given of the medical and surgical knowledge of the Indians. Little has heretofore been done by physicians on this subject, and it is hoped it will attract further notice from the profession. The numbers refer to the printed inquiries, on the various heads of information which were issued in 1847. 1

Dr. Williamson settles, definitely, the ancient locality of a portion of the river tribes of the Dacota stock at Milles Lacs, on Hum River, which is, apparently, the ancient location of the “Issati” of Hennepin, and thus restores full credence to this part of the intrepid missionary s narrative.

It is known that the Dacotas have, for more than two centuries, been receding before the fierce and warlike forest clans of the Algonquins, whom the French were the first to supply with firearms. The bow and arrow, on which the former long relied, however efficacious in the prairies, is a feeble instrument for men to contend with in thick forests. But, from whatever cause this tribe receded from the north and east at first, it is certain that they are still in the process of being pushed south, from their ancient seats, and annually find their hunting-grounds more pertinaciously intruded on.

The population and statistics of the home band at St. Peters, which is given, may be deemed an earnest of what perseverance in the plan will accomplish.

History of the Dacotas

The Dacotas have resided near the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Peters for at least two hundred years. An intelligent man, who has been several years dead, told me they could not tell how long since their ancestors first came to this neighborhood, but suppose it to be equal to the lifetime of four old men, and perhaps more; counting these lifetimes as 75 years each, would give three hundred years. They say they were residing in this neighborhood before the Assinniboins separated from them. In Vol. VI., page 30, of Lettres Edifantes, Paris, 1781, is a letter in which it is said, ” It is affirmed that the Assinniboins are a nation of the Sioux, which separated from them a long time ago.” This letter appears to have been written at Fort Bourbon, on Hudson Bay, about 1695, and the expression a long time ago, in this connection, would imply that the separation had taken place at least 50 years previous to that time. The exact period at which they arrived in this neighborhood it is impossible to ascertain, but it seems highly probable it was between the time of the discovery of America by Columbus, and the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, and nearer to the latter than the former event. They say that when their ancestors came to this country it was inhabited by Indians of other tribes, who left the country when they came into it. Most do not pretend to know who were the Indians that occupied the country before their ancestors, but some say they were Iowas. They say that their ancestors, before they came on to the Mississippi, lived at Mille Lac, which they call Isantamde. (Knife Lake.) From their having resided at that place probably comes the name Isanyati, (dwelling at the knife,) by which the Dacotas of the Missouri call those who live on the Mississippi and St. Peters. Most of those with whom I have conversed can trace their origin no farther than Mille Lac, but some tell of wars which their ancestors had with the Chippewas before they came thither; and I have been told that there are those who can trace their origin to the Lake of the Woods. Their traditions all show 1 that they came from the Northeast, and are moving to the South-west. Their proper name, Dacota, signifies allied, or leagued together, and is equivalent to our name United, as applied to the States, and all who are not Dacotas, or allies, are considered enemies, and it is deemed glorious to kill one of them, though descended from the Dacota family; as the similarity of language shows to be the case with not only Assinniboins, but the Winnebagoes, Iowas, Omahaws, Osages, and Quapaw.

There are three grand divisions of the Dacotas:

  1. The Isanyati, who reside on or near the waters of the Mississippi and St. Peters, and most of whom plant some corn. These are subdivided into the Mde-wahantonwan, Warpetonwan, Sisitonwan, and Warpekute, and altogether are between 5000 and 6000 souls. Within the memory of persons still living, these all lived near the Mississippi and St. Peters, within narrower space than they now occupy, their eastern limit being about the Falls of St. Croix, north, not far beyond the Falls of St. Anthony, and west, not far from the mouth of Blue Earth River.
  2. The Ihanktonwan, of which the Hunkpatidan and Ihantonwanna are subdivisions. Tonwan signifies to dwell, or dwelling. Ihanktonwan signifies inhabiting the end or extremity, and probably was given them from their having formerly dwelt at the headwaters or extremities of the Mississippi or St. Peters, in which country they dwelt at the commencement of this century. They at present range over the immense prairies between St. Peters and Red River of Lake Winnepec on the northeast, and the Missouri on the southwest, often crossing the latter stream. A few of them plant on an island in Lac Travers, and a few on the Missouri, but most of them depend for a subsistence entirely on the buffalo. Their numbers are variously estimated at from 4000 to 8000, or even more. Their dialect differs considerably from that of the other divisions, and, like their location, seems to be intermediate between them. Where the Warpetonwan sound h-d, the Ihanktonwan sound k-n, and the Titonwan g-1. Thus the Oglala, a band of the Titonwan, are called by the Ihanktonwan, Oknaka, and by the Isanyati, Onkdaka, from a verb signifying to move as a family. In the Isanyati dialect, dan, at the end of words, signifies small, one, or only. The Ihanktonwan speak it na, and the Titonwan la. There are other dialectic differences, but they are such that a person who speaks one dialect well may make himself understood in the others. It is said the Assinniboins were formerly Ihanktonwan, who broke off in consequence of a quarrel caused by one man stealing another s wife.
  3. Titonwan constitute the last grand division of the Dacotas, and are said to be more numerous than both the others. They are divided into many bands, of which I cannot speak particularly. It is said that none of them plant, and but few of them are found to the north-east of the Missouri, but I have conversed with several Dacotas who say they remember when the Titonwan country was this side of the Missouri, on the Coteau, or hill of the prairie, extending eastward to the St. Peters and Blue Earth Rivers; and, until about the commencement of the present century, I think the Titonwan, at least occasionally, hunted in that country. In the Titonwan dialect, the sounds of l and g hard are both very common. In the other dialects the former is never heard, and the latter only at the end of words.

Thomas S. Williamson, M. D.


The difference in regard to the attention paid to the sick is greater among the Dacotas than among white men in the United States. Mothers frequently, and sometimes fathers, watch over their sick children with great assiduity, and manifest the strongest affection. But not only old and decrepid persons, but children also who have no near relatives, and sometimes those who have, are in sickness greatly neglected. Lads and young men, both in sickness and in health, receive usually more attention than any other class of persons.


Dacotas, from their manner of cutting up animals, and the frequency with which all classes of them do it, must acquire far more knowledge of comparative anatomy than most white men possess. Many of them are well acquainted with the names and general form of the bones, the principal viscera and the muscles, both in men and other animals; but I doubt whether any of them have any tolerable idea of the circulation of the blood. I am fully persuaded that most of them know nothing about it; one proof of which is, that they have but a single word by which to name nerves, tendons, veins, and arteries.

Their idea of the pathology of diseases is, that the spirit of something, perhaps a bear, deer, turtle, fish, tree, stone, worm, or of some deceased person, has entered into the sick person, and causes all the distress.

According to the theory above given, the pathology of all diseases being nearly the same, their professed medicine-men treat all diseases nearly alike. The main efforts are directed to expelling the spirit, whatever it may be, which it is expected the medicine-man will soon discover: and having informed the friends what it is, he usually requires them to be in readiness to shoot it as soon as he shall succeed in expelling it. This he attempts in the first place, by certain incantations and ceremonies, (see Plate 46,) intended to secure the aid of the spirit or spirits he worships, and then, by all kinds of frightful noises and gestures, and sucking over the seat of the pain with his mouth. As soon as he thinks he has succeeded, he gives the command, and from two to six or more guns are fired at the door of the tent, to destroy the spirit as it passes out.

Healing Remedies

Some of the medicine men of the Dacotas rely entirely on conjuring as above described. Others use various remedies, the most common of which is scarifying the neighborhood of the pain, to which, after he has drawn what blood he can by sucking with his mouth, they sometimes apply tobacco, red pepper, or the pulverized root or bark of some of their native plants, among which is the pyrethrum, or pellitory of Spain. They also practice anointing, and sometimes steaming, and sometimes washing the pained part, or, where the pain is general, the whole body. These latter means, however, are not very frequently resorted to, but in nearly all cases of severe sickness they use fumigations; burning on a few coals, in a pan near the sick person, the leaves of the red cedar or other aromatic substance, and sometimes sugar. They are much pleased to get camphor, or any of the aromatic oils, or aqua ammonia, for the sick person to smell and to scent the tent in which he is.

For pain in the head, they scarify the temples. For sick stomach, they endeavor to induce vomiting, and to this end administer the decoctions of certain plants, but have to rely mainly on tickling the throat with a feather. Those who have taken or witnessed the effect of antimonial emetics, in general greatly prefer them to any of their native emetics.

For pain in the bowels, connected with constipation, they use certain roots or seeds of native plants, some of which purge promptly and occasionally severely, but most of which, either from something in their own nature, or in the manner of preparing them, are uncertain in their operation. On this account, they generally prefer castor oil, jalap, or salts, to any of their own purgatives. All who have taken both jalap and rhubarb, prefer the former, on account of its more prompt operation.

To remove constipation and bring away bile, they use clysters, composed of decoctions of certain vegetables, which, in general, are much more efficacious than any of their purgatives, administered by the mouth.

They are very careful to conceal from each other, except a few initiated, as well as from white men, a knowledge of the plants which they use as medicines, probably believing that their efficacy in some measure depends on this concealment.

The purgative chiefly used by the Dacotas who reside on the Mississippi, is the Euphorbia corollata, a tall, handsome, branching plant, which grows abundantly in the open woods and prairies near the Mississippi, from Lake Pepin to St. Peters, and I know not how much farther. If found on. the Upper St. Peters, it must be rare in that region, as I have no recollection of having seen it in the neighborhood of Lac qui Parle, where I resided for many years, and the Dacotas in that region are not acquainted with it. A small portion of the root is eaten, and the patient is forbidden to drink anything after eating it. It sometimes operates mildly and effectually; sometimes very violently; and occasionally irritates the bowels excessively, without causing any discharge. I once saw a Chippewa chief suffering from it in the latter way, whose death was attributed by his companions to his having drunk water after eating of this plant. I suspect it not very infrequently proves fatal among the Dacotas. For their knowledge of this plant, and some others, and of the art of conjuring evil spirits out of the diseased, they acknowledge their indebtedness to the Chippewas. They mostly preserve the roots and barks which they use for medicines in the form of a coarse powder, and administer them in the form of decoction, being very particular in regard to the quantity of water used. One chief design of pulverizing them is to prevent others from discovering what they are. They are usually kept in skin bags; a bag being composed of the entire skin of some animal, with the hair on, and the otter and mink are most frequently used for this purpose. Often some other article is combined with that on which they chiefly depend, to disguise its taste and smell, and thus prevent it from being discovered.

They mostly forbid their patients who are taking medicine, to drink anything except the water with which the medicine is combined, and have an idea that drinking water, either cold or warm, generates bile. Sometimes they allow them to drink soup, that is, the simple water in which corn, flesh, or fish has been boiled, without any kind of thickening or seasoning. All the drinks which I have found them giving to the sick to quench thirst, are astringent, sometimes slightly bitter, and sometimes slightly mucilaginous. By far the most common, is a decoction of the root of a plant abounding in the western prairies, and commonly called red root, (ceanothus canadensis.)

Their country affords many carminative and aromatic plants, among which are calamus aromaticus, northern mint, and field thyme; but though they use these in water in which they wash, or in oil with which they anoint the patient, and still more frequently burn them as a perfume near the sick, I have never known an infusion of any of them used as a drink by a sick Dacota, except where they had been taught this use of it by white men. From the nature of the drinks which they allow in sickness, I infer that the assertion that they have not been subject to fevers, is in the main true, and that diarrhoeas have been frequent among them.

In the twelve years which I have resided among them, I have conversed with the chiefs and some of the principal men of every village on the Upper Mississippi and St. Peters rivers, and I am persuaded, that if they possess any medicines of much value as internal remedies, the knowledge of them is confined to a few individuals. In saying this, I have reference not to the intrinsic value of their medicines, but to their value in comparison with other articles, well known to educated physicians. At first, they are all afraid to swallow any of our medicines; but such as have once experienced their efficacy, almost without exception, prefer them to their own, provided they can get the same article which they have used.

Female Cleansing Rituals

Females, after parturition, and it is said after their monthly courses also, bathe themselves swim, as they express it, in the nearest river or lake. This is, no doubt, a most efficacious means of arresting the hemorrhage in the former case, and probably imparts vigor to the constitution in the latter; for it is certain, Dacota females are far less subject to what are termed female complaints than white women. It is equally certain they are not exempt from such diseases, for I have seen among them a few cases of almost every form of such diseases. I have not learned that they have any remedies of value in such cases, and am persuaded, that if any such are known to them, the knowledge is confined to a few individuals. I have heard of females among them, who died in labor, and known one or more, who died shortly after parturition, probably from the effects of it. Going into water to arrest uterine hemorrhage, is in general not followed by any unpleasant consequences, even in winter; but I have seen one or two women who suffered severely in consequence of it, for months afterwards. One reason why female complaints are not more frequent among the Dacotas is, that amid the hardships to which Indian females are subjected, such diseases soon prove fatal to most of those in whom the vis medicatrix naturae is not adequate to effect a cure. They are acquainted with some plants, which, taken by pregnant women, in many cases cause abortion, and sometimes prove fatal to the mother, as well as the child. It is commonly taken by those who have become pregnant without a husband, and not very infrequently by those who have husbands, but do not wish to be encumbered with another child, mostly because they have already as many as they can carry, unable to follow them in moving.

In cases of tedious labor, those who can procure it take two or three joints of the rattle of the rattlesnake, which they believe to be a medicine of much efficacy in such cases. I once inquired of one of their medicine men, of more than ordinary intelligence, with whom I was intimate, in regard to the modus operandi of this article. He replied, “I suppose the child hears the rattle, and thinking the snake is coming, hastens to get out of the way.” As the rattle is pulverized before it is swallowed, he doubtless meant the spirit of the child of the rattle, &c.


I am not aware that the Dacotas practice bleeding in fevers, except locally for the removal of some fixed pain; and then it is generally done by scarifying with a short piece of flint sometimes with a knife; the flowing of the blood is promoted by sucking the place with the mouth, and spirting the blood into a bowl of water. Sometimes they use a tube of horn as a cup, applying the larger end to the skin and taking the smaller in the mouth, but I think this is not common. Sometimes they cord the arm and open a vein; and for this purpose use an instrument smaller, but similar in form to the fleam used in bleeding horses. This instrument they make by tying a sharp piece of flint, or the point of one of their butcher knives, filed off and sharpened for the purpose, to a wooden handle. The point is held over the vein, and by a stroke driven into it as far as the handle will permit. The quantity of blood obtained, even in this way, is usually small, but sometimes they find it difficult to arrest the flow. Those who have had much intercourse with white men, when a vein is to be opened generally prefer to have it done by a white man. Many have applied to me to bleed them. Some for the removal of pains, but more, I think, on account of drowsiness, though in the latter case I have seldom acceded to their request. They cannot bear the loss of as much blood as white men. I have seldom, if ever, drawn to the amount of a pint from an Indian without inducing something like syncope, and have seen many sicken with the loss of one-fourth of that quantity.


I have seen no instance of aneurism among the Dacotas, and the disease is extremely rare among the white population of the Valley of the Mississippi, except the few who are in the habit of using fermented drinks.

Hemorrhage from Wounds

They are not acquainted with any styptics, of much power, in arresting hemorrhage from wounds. Very many have applied to me for something for this purpose; and those to whom I have given alum, blue vitriol, or Turlington’s balsam, have generally returned, after a time, highly commending the medicine and begging for more. They also highly value cerates, unguents, and medicated oils such as camphorated oil, Seneca oil, and opodeldoc; also plasters, such as Burgundy pitch, but I have known of no instance of their using any thing of the kind of their own manufacture. Nevertheless, there are individuals amongst them who are very successful in treating wounds and burns. This is doubtless owing chiefly to the great assiduity with which they watch their patients, seldom having more than one at a time. But it is not owing wholly to this. Some of them know how and when to promote or arrest a purulent discharge, as well as most regular physicians. They are especially successful in drying and healing running sores. One of the articles used for this purpose is the dry, pulverized root of the asclepies tuberose. I have seen pieces of the inner bark of some species of pine, boiled till it was soft, applied to an extensive surface which had been scalded so as to raise and partially remove the cuticle, some days previous, and it acted not less advantageously than the best preparations furnished by our drug-stores. They make lints of slippery-elm bark, and use them skillfully to promote the discharge of pus from wounds or abscesses; and they wash out such places with syringes of their own manufacture. The number of those who have such skill in the treatment of sores and wounds is not great, and they are chiefly from among the Mde-Wakan-tonwan, who have had much more intercourse with the Chippewas, and with white men, than others of their tribe. This seems to confirm their assertion that they have acquired their knowledge of medicine from that tribe. The roots and barks which they apply to wounds and burns, are generally prepared for that purpose by mastication, and are spread on thinly and suffered to dry. Sometimes they cover it over with moistened paper, to make it adhere, or to protect the surface from the external air.


The Dacotas never amputate a limb, but laugh at the folly of white men for doing it. I have heard individuals, to whom it was proposed, declare that they would rather die than have an arm or foot cut off. There may be, and I suppose are, a few individuals skilful in the application of splints and bandages, and of compresses to arrest hemorrhage; but where I have witnessed the use of such things, they were applied without skill or success, which was the occasion of my seeing them.

For carrying the sick or wounded, or a dead body, they make a litter speedily and skillfully, more so than is common among white men. For this purpose they take two poles, four or five feet longer than the person to be carried, and place them on the ground parallel, and two or three feet apart. Across these, at proper distances, are laid two short poles, at right angles with the first, and these are tied firmly to their places by leathern thongs. Over these poles is laid a blanket or buffalo robe, which is stretched and tied in the same way. On this the invalid is laid. Two carrying straps are now tied to the ends of the long poles, in such a way that when the carrier stands between them, with the middle of the strap resting firmly on the top of his head, he can easily seize the ends of the poles in his hands. When they move, a person at each end of the litter stoops, and having adjusted the strap across his head, seizes the long poles with his hands, and rises, (if need be, with the assistance of some of the by-standers,) and they march off, each walking in the path, and in this way a person sick or wounded is sometimes carried securely many miles in a day, through a country destitute of any road for wheel-carriages or horses.

Imposthumes and Eruptions

So far as I have had an opportunity of observing, they have very little skill in the treatment of imposthumes and eruptions; generally choosing to apply to them any kind of grease. They know that imposthumes should be opened, but most of them are afraid to have the operation performed. Proper phlegmons are very rare among them, while carbuncles are frequent. Scrofulous swellings and sores are also frequent, especially when they subsist chiefly on corn and muskrats.

Their failure in the treatment of smallpox is owing to the fact that it is a febrile disease, and they know nothing about the proper treatment of fevers.

Men sometimes conjure over, and sometimes administer medicine to, parturient women. I have heard of no instance of their doing more, but cannot say they never do. I have heard of one case in which the hand of the child presented, and after twelve or twenty-four hours it was supposed the child was dead, and, to save the life of the mother, the arm was cut off, and the child brought away in pieces, but the operation was performed by women who professed no particular skill in such business, but did it because they were hired to do so.


Paralysis they always attribute to the agency of some spirit; generally that of some deceased person. Of course, the treatment consists entirely in efforts to drive away the spirit by conjuring and uncouth noises. They use the vapor-bath, made by pouring water on hot stones, sometimes successfully for the treatment of rheumatic pains, and, perhaps, of other diseases also. This bath is also used for the removal of ceremonial uncleanness, such as created by killing a person, or touching a dead body.

Legislation of Congress

Laws made for the benefit of Indians should be equal laws, inflicting the same punishment on the perpetrator of a crime, whether he be white, black, or red, and affording equal protection to the persons and property of all. Many of the present laws are unequal; at least, as interpreted by the agent near Fort Snelling, and they are nearly useless; for where two races of men come in contact, unequal laws, in favor of the weaker, can never be enforced against the stronger. As the law is interpreted, if a white man kills an Indian, the officers of the United States must seize him and have him punished; but if an Indian kills an Indian, they must not interfere. The law denounces a heavy penalty against persons carrying intoxicating drinks into the Indian country; but our agent says Indians are not persons, in the eye of the law; and so the country is flooded with intoxicating drinks, and murders are frequent; and for these offenses no one is punished according to law. If the law denounced a proper penalty against every individual who steals or destroys another s property, whether he be Indian or white man, and made provision for remunerating the injured individual in all cases where the guilty has any property or claims on the United States government, the Indian would be stimulated to industry by the prospect of improving his condition. At present he has no such stimulus; for if by superior industry or economy he should acquire any species of property which his neighbors have not, he knows that the envy of some of them will be aroused, who will take or destroy it, and that he can have no redress.

A law to prevent, in time to come, white men who cannot read and write from entering the Indian country, either as boatmen or otherwise, would be useful in promoting civilization among the Indians. At present most of the labor in the Indian country is performed by unlearned foreigners, whose influence on the Indians is injurious in several ways, but chiefly as it tends to make labor dishonorable.

One of the most effectual laws which could be made to prevent the introduction of ardent spirits into the Indian country, would forbid any person from keeping alcoholic drinks on lands the property of the United States, and require the officers of the army, when they have reason to suspect that such drinks are kept in any house on such lands, to search the house, and in case intoxicating drinks are found, to destroy all such drinks and the house or houses in which they may be found. It would tend much to promote the same object, if, in all future treaties with the Indians for the purchase of land, it should be stipulated that so far as intoxicating drinks are concerned, the lands ceded shall be considered Indian country till the same shall be sold; or at least, till they shall be surveyed and offered for sale.

Among a people like the Dacotas, annuities should in all cases, as far as practicable, be paid to heads of families rather than the chiefs. Many of the horses given to the Dacotas and distributed by their chiefs, have been shot soon after they were distributed, because some of those who received none have thought they had as good a right to a horse as some of those who received one. To guard against this, when horses or cattle are sent to Indians in payment of annuities, a sufficient number should be sent at one time to give one to each family, or a greater amount of money or goods should be given to those who do not get a horse or cow, so that all the families, in proportion to the number of members they contain, might be nearly on an equality.

Thomas S. Williamson

Dacotah, History,

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860.

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