Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Wildflower That Killed Lincoln's Mother

This time of year, our woodland is full of this modest native plant, with a flat topped cluster of fuzzy white flowers; it is Eupatorium rugosum, the white snakeroot. Though one of the commonest plants to flower in the late summer in midwestern woods, it is little noticed, being somewhat weedy and nondescript. Little did I know that it is a notorious killer, and at one time ravaged whole communities with its poison! In the first half of the 19th century, pioneers began to settle what was then called the West, the territories of Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. In the first two territories especially, small pioneer settlements began to be visited by a terrible affliction, which came to be called "the trembles", or later "the milk sick". It struck both adults and children, occurring mostly in late summer or fall; many of its victims died, and recovery was slow and often incomplete for the survivors. It was soon recognized that it seemed related to cattle, which often became ill or died at the same time; it was the malady "under which man turns sick and his animals tremble". However, the agent which caused it remained a mystery, and thus there was no protection against it, and while there were folk "doctors" who were called "milk sick doctors", there was, in fact, no useful treatment for it. Milk sickness, which was unknown in the rest of the world, and not recognized even in New England, was the leading cause of death in some small communities in the frontier, killing numerous infants, and many adults; supposedly one-half of the deaths in Dubois County, Indiana in the early 19th century were attributed to milk sickness. It was characterized by lethargy (thus it was also sometimes called "the slows"), vomiting, trembling, and then coma. Most famously, Abe Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died of it, on October 5th, 1818. Thomas Lincoln had moved his family to Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana two years before. The disease continued to ravage this little community for the next ten years after Nancy Hanks death, supposedly being the reason the surviving Lincolns later moved to Illinois. It only slowly became appreciated that white snakeroot was the cause; Dr. Anna Bixby in the mid-19th century, supposedly followed cows about to see what they might eat that could pass along the disease, and asked a Native American healer about it, who told her about snakeroot. Dr. Bixby then fed some plants to a calf, who developed the trembles. Unfortunately, her discovery was not widely accepted, and it was not until 1928 that the toxin, called appropriately Tremetol, was isolated from white snakeroot, and the scientific community recognized the true cause. Early settlers had only cleared small areas of the forests for pasture, so in late summer they would drive their cattle into the woods for forage, where large stands of snakeroot were to be found. The disease gradually became much less common as the 19th century progressed, not because people really knew how to prevent it, but just because larger areas of forest were cleared to pasture. It may well be that this modest woodland wildflower changed the course of U.S. history, as it caused the Lincoln family to move to Illinois, where Abe became involved in politics, and went on to become one of our most influential presidents.
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Whoa! i had no idea about the story behind snakeroot! thats so cool....

I was just noticing it in bloom around here :)
Thanks for telling a very interesting story. I have visited Lincoln's boyhood home which is a National Park in what is now called Lincoln City, Indiana. His mother is buried there.
I was quite amazed to come across this story... i'd never heard of milk sickness (and I'm a retired M.D.) yet it was devastating to the early pioneers.

So, should we worry about putting it in our gardens? What if a small child ate a leaf??? Or a neighborhood animal??? Would they have to eat a whole plant to get sick?
Wildwood weed grew wild on the farm and we never gave it much thought.....
Fascinsting history. I have loads of Eupatorium rugosum around my house, and I actually like it. Since I don't plan to eat it or graze cattle in my garden, I'll plan on keeping it. If only the deer would partake!
I'm starting to find it's really invasive into my flower beds; it grows from nothing to a huge clump in a season, then blows seeds all over.
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