How did a wildflower change the course of American history?

White Snakeroot Flower - courtesy homeredwardprice - CC-BY

White Snakeroot Flower - courtesy homeredwardprice - CC-BY

This deadly bloom is one of the most common wildflowers in the late summer in U.S. Midwestern woods and is seldom noticed, since it is somewhat weedy. It is a notorious killer, and at one time ravaged whole communities with its poison. Small pioneer settlements were visited by a terrible affliction, which came to be called “the trembles.” It hit 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. The cause remained a mystery, and there was no protection against it. Supposedly, one-half of the deaths in Dubois County, Indiana in the early 19th century were attributed to the trembles. 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, being the reason the surviving Lincolns later moved to Illinois.

The wildflower is Eupatorium rugosum (white snakeroot). People only slowly became aware white snakeroot was the cause. Dr. Anna Bixby in the mid-19th century, 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 to a calf, which developed the trembles. It was not until 1928 that the toxin, called Tremetol, was isolated from white snakeroot, and the scientific community recognized the true cause, from plant, to cattle, to eventual human consumption.

Early settlers had only cleared small areas from the forests for pasture, so in late summer they would drive their livestock into the woods for forage, where large amounts of snakeroot were found. The disease gradually became much less common as the 19th century progressed just because larger areas of forest were cleared to pasture and the environment for growing white snakeroot diminished. It may well be that this 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 we know the story from there.

For more information about North American wildflowers

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