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Splendid and miraculously at Fort Delaware

John Conway
Posted 9/9/22

From their earliest visits here, the Lenape, who constructed their sweat lodges among the wil- low trees on the banks of the Delaware, revered this area because of what they recognized as its …

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Splendid and miraculously at Fort Delaware


From their earliest visits here, the Lenape, who constructed their sweat lodges among the willow trees on the banks of the Delaware, revered this area because of what they recognized as its curative properties, and utilized many of the plants that grew here as medicines.

“The Indians know how to cure very dangerous and perilous wounds and sores by roots, leaves and other little things. . . as we are not skilled in those things, we cannot say much about them,” observed one of the first Europeans to interact with the Lenape, the Dutchman Adriaen van der Donck in 1650.

Swedish engineer Peter Lindstrom concurred, writing in “Geographia Americae” in 1656, that the herbal remedies of the Lenape people were “splendid and miraculous.”

And in 1702, Thomas Campanius Holm wrote of the Lenape that “their medicines seem very trifling, yet their effects are astonishing, and unless a man be truly incurable, they know immediately how to prescribe for him; but the remedies they employ they carefully keep secret from the Christians.”

Moravian missionary John Heckewelder concurred with that assessment. Writing around 1820, he noted that the Lenape “make considerable use of the barks of trees, such as the white and black oak, the white walnut, of which they make pills, the cherry, dogwood, maple, birch, and several others. They prepare and compound these medicines in different ways, which they keep a profound secret.”

In more modern times, some of the Lenape remedies have been confirmed by science to have medicinal benefit. The bark of the willow tree, for example, which the Lenape healers boiled in water to make a tea they administered to treats aches and pains, contains salicin, which is an active ingredient in aspirin.

The seeds of wild grapes were crushed and boiled by the Lenape to treat heart problems, and today grape seed extract is considered a powerful supplement for lowering blood pressure without prescription drugs.

Although many of the Lenape’s plant-based remedies were quickly adopted by the European settlers who witnessed their efficacy, some Europeans brought with them to this country their own herbal traditions, and by the time Cadwallader Colden of Orange County became the only 18th century botanist to adequately document the botany of colonial New York in 1743, herbal medicine in the colonies had become a mixture of Native American tradition as well as those based on plants brought here from Europe, and those based on local flora.

Registered Herbalist Richard Mandelbaum of Forestburgh will examine this history of herbalism in 18th century America when he delivers a program at Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History in Narrowsburg on Saturday, September 10 at 1 p.m.

The program is part of the Bold Gold Media Speaker Series at the Fort and is included in the price of admission.

“The use of botanical remedies has been the norm for the long arc of human history, including here in North America,” Mandelbaum says.

“Our local flora includes countless medicinal plants used for millennia by Native American peoples. From the beginning of colonization, Europeans brought remedies with them from home, as immigrants often do to this day, while enslaved African peoples brought their ancestral knowledge with them as well, and in many ways the blending of these disparate traditions created the unique approach to herbal medicine seen today in the USA.”

In his program, Mandelbaum will talk not only about the herbalism used throughout the 18th century, but also about some of the more innovative herbalists of the time period.

“The 1700s in particular was a time of turmoil as much in the world of herbal medicine and health care as everything else, and in many ways reflected the broader social changes leading eventually to the American War of Independence,” he notes.

“In this talk we’ll discuss some of the prominent herbal remedies used in the 18th century, focusing on plants found here locally in the Upper Delaware region, and place those remedies in their historical context.

“We’ll hear some familiar names from American history such as Ben Franklin and John Bartram, and some lesser known ones such as Johann Sauer, as well as some discussion of local Lenape medicine and its significant contribution to herbal medicine locally and eventually, globally.”

Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History is located on the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway at 6615 Route 97 in Narrowsburg. It is owned by Sullivan County, and operated by the non-profit history education group, The Delaware Company. The Fort is open from 10 – 5 on Saturdays and Sundays through October 16.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. He can be reached at jconway52@hotmail.com.


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