Magazine | October 14, 2019, Issue

Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye weed in bloom (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Flowers have identities that call to bees, flies, and other pollinators, but they have no names. The names we give them are sometimes our own: Queen Anne’s lace, from the last Stuart monarch of England; Good King Henry, from a German sovereign, not the ones celebrated by Shakespeare or Herman’s Hermits. Other flower names belonged to botanists who described or grew them: monarda (from Nicolás Monardes, a 16th-century Spaniard who wrote about New World plants), forsythia (from William Forsyth, who tended George III’s gardens). Who gave his name to Joe Pye weed?

It is one of the late-summer flowers, only just now gone to sleep. It has a tall stalk, surmounted by a crown of small blossoms that is shaped like a shallow parachute. The color is pink with a lot of red in it. It grows, and glows, in clumps in marshes or roadside ditches — anywhere it can put down wet feet. We planted it a few years ago on a short slope behind a stone wall in a patch of ironweed and jewelweed; it liked the spot, for it has spread. At season’s end it attracts butterflies, fueling for the flight to Mexico before the frost deadline. In a wet summer with no real scorchers, its blossoms last a long time.

The name is notably simple. No crowned head here. Weeds are for commoners. Joseph was the odd man out in the holy family; “joe” is what we call diner coffee. And “Pye” — did someone mean pie, to go with the joe? — adds a note of the ludicrous.

Herbalists used the flowers and leaves as a diuretic, or tea made from the leaves and roots to bring down fever. Herbal books attribute knowledge of the last quality to an Indian, Joe Pye, who shared it with Pilgrims or Puritans in 17th-century Massachusetts.

This is the most common account of how the weed got its name. It encapsulates an old (white) American myth, the helpful red man, which lasted as late as Tonto, and was sometimes even true (Pocahontas, Squanto). Like many myths, that of Joe Pye the Indian herbalist has variations. Some versions trace him to Maine, western New England, or even the Carolinas. If he actually existed in all or some of these places, then perhaps he was a traveling herbalist — or possibly a white patent-medicine salesman of the 19th century, a type that often claimed knowledge of Indian lore.

In 2017 two scholars, Richard B. Pearce and James S. Pringle, got to the bottom of all this in an article published in The Great Lakes Botanist. They added one more variation of the legendary account, from a 20th-century Indian herbalist and storyteller. The Joe Pye of this version, because he shared his knowledge with white people, was forbidden to accompany his tribe when they moved west to Wisconsin. But he gave his grandchildren the seeds of the weed so that in the next life he could follow the plants to their destination. Then the authors got down to work.

The name “Joe Pye weed” is first found in the botany manuals of Amos Eaton, which began appearing in 1818. Eaton said the plant was in common medical use “in the western counties of Massachusetts.” Zephaniah Moore, president of Williams College, cured himself of a “very alarming fever” by drinking Joe Pye weed tea. Pearce and Pringle then looked for an Indian Joe Pye in the neighborhood, and found one. Joseph Pye, or Joseph Shauqueathquat, was a Mohican, born in 1722 in New York. Like many Christian Indians, he had a biblical first name, a native surname, and an alternative white surname, for ease of communicating with palefaces. In the 1730s and ’40s, his tribe, decimated by war and disease, moved to Stockbridge, a town in western Massachusetts reserved by the colony for Indians. He left a long paper trail. He appears in the diary of Samson Occom, an Indian evangelist who helped raise money for what became Dartmouth College (the two engaged in “heart exercises” — not cardio, but prayers). Joseph’s name appears in legal documents — witnessing a land transfer, owing money to a tavern keeper. He also became a selectman of the town of Stockbridge, and chief sachem of the local Mohicans. He and they sided with the Americans in the Revolution; when they moved back to New York after the war, they carried a certificate from George Washington, testifying that they had “fought and bled by our side” and should be considered “friends and subjects to the United States.”

Friendship, even Washington’s, did not guarantee stability. Pressure from their white neighbors kept pushing all Indians, including the Mohicans, farther west. Sometimes the pressure was merely demographic, sometimes it was actively avaricious: Encouraging Indians to run up debts, then seizing their land in payment, was a common tactic (cf. Joseph’s debt to the tavern keeper; liquor also frequently played a role, the addict’s downfall, the con man’s tool). At the end of Joseph’s life he was negotiating with natives in Indiana for a new homeland there; the battle of Tippecanoe would block that plan. By then Pye/Shauqueathquat was dead; the last we hear of him is in 1809.

Pearce and Pringle nail down every detail except one: There is no mention of Joseph’s being an herbalist. Samson Occom was, but he left no account of professional consultations with his Mohican acquaintance. The best they offer is surmise: Joseph’s people lived in Stockbridge; some or one of them (possibly Joseph himself) said they used the plant, or were observed using it. Since Pye/Shauqueathquat was their leader, his name got attached to it. The four-decade gap between their departure for New York and Amos Eaton’s descriptions would add just the necessary touch of nostalgia. America was ready for it; James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans would be published in 1826.

Now the last of the Mohican’s flowers have faded behind my stone wall, to await their darkly burning return.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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