Root beer is now a ubiquitous soft drink in America, but it’s modern form is nothing like the original teas brewed by Indigenous peoples on the American continent. It’s loaded with sugar. It’s made with artificial flavoring. It’s much less of a medicine than it originally was made to be.
Back in 1871, Charles E. Hires was involved in the wholesale drug business. He came up with a mix of herbs to sell for people to make into a “root beer” at home. Then in 1876, he started promoting a bottled extract to make it even easier for people to enjoy the benefits of this brew. Hire’s Root Beer was born and the push to dominate the market ensued. A few years later, the fermentation process was abandoned and carbonated water was used. This was the start of the industrialization of root beer and the progression from naturally derived ingredients to artificial flavoring.
The advertising in 1876 pointed back to to what the “forefathers used in ‘ye olden time’”. This is likely pointing back to the American Revolution. After the Boston Tea Party, wintergreen was the tea of choice while the boycott of tea from Europe was in place. Prior to then, it was popularized by Native Americans and local herbalists alike.
The original root beer recipe called for a combination of 25 roots, barks, berries, and flowers. However, the main flavor profile of the drink comes from the sassafras and wintergreen. It also had sarsaparilla, dandelion, wild cherry bark, prickly ash, cinchona, and juniper berry. These are all native medicines.
Sassafras was the name given to a tree which grows all over the eastern united states. The Spaniard Ponce De Leon was first shown it back in 1512 during his exploration of what is now known as Florida. The Indigenous peoples of the eastern coast through to the Missouri River used various parts of sassafras for different purposes. It was called winauk through the region now known as Delaware and Virginia. The Timuca tribe call it pauane. The Choctaw call it kombu. In the east, the Algonquin languages call it weyanoke. The Cherokee call it kan’statchi. It shouldn’t be taken continually — as it can be hard on the liver. It does help with many different issues rooted in the immune system from allergies to rheumatoid arthritis. It is analgesic and antiseptic.
Wintergreen is a plant which has been used by native groups wherever it is found in the North American continent. The Penobscot name is kαkάkəwipakʷ. The Abenaki name is k8g8gowibakw, which is pronounced similarly to the Penobscot name. The Cree call it pipisisikweu. The Ojbiwe call it winisi’bugons, the Potawatomi call it wînîsi’bag, the Cherokee call it as’ugiiyu’sti. The flavor is from methyl salicylate, which is also found in birch and willow trees. Once digested, methyl salicylate becomes aspirin in the body. Now days the flavor is an artificial wintergreen flavor derived through petrochemicals. Depending on the natural source of the flavoring, it can have additional medicinal properties. If Birch bark is used it can have anti-cancer properties. Using willow can make it more of a diuretic.
Sarsaparilla is a vine with briars that grows in Central America. It was used be the Maya and called ko’keh’ak. As it was used by Nahuatl speaking groups it became known as mazayelli (from deer + liver or essence) or cocolmecatl (from sore, pimple, or scorpion + vine or rope). It was used for quite a few issues. In the north there is a vine in the Araliaceae family which is called bristly sarsaparilla in English and babîkwe’wûnûskûns in Potawatomi. Bristly sarsaparilla and it’s relative wild sarsaparilla have both been used as substitutes for Mexican sarsaparilla. It has medicinal properties which strengthen the blood and immune system.
Dandelion is a plant familiar to many native peoples on the continent. In fact stories have been told about the plant for many millennia. Sixteen tribes used dandelion as a medicine and at least 17 tribes considered them food. There is even an Ojibwe story of the South Wind becoming enamored with the dandelion. It is considered a traditional part of Lakota food and is called waȟčá zí.
Cherry bark was used as medicine for many tribes. In many cases the name for the cherry was the same for both wild cherry and choke cherry. The various names are: capolcuahuitl (Nahuatl), do’icabui (N. Paiute), toshəbui (N. Paiute), to’nampih (Shoshoni), cuiwap (Pit River), dewich’käsh (Klamath), dsamchit (Washoe), canpahu (Lakota), nopa-zhinga (Ponca & Omaha), nahaapi nakaaruts (Pawnee), puck’keep (Blackfoot), monotse (Cheyenne), malupwa (Crow), schlascha (Flathead), ohpanaigaw (Kiowa), champa (Assiniboin), goonpa (Osage), təya (Cherokee), okwe’mînûn [wild cherry] (Potawatomi), soswa’mînûn [choke cherry] (Potawatomi), oluwiminaks [choke cherry shrub] (Passamaquoddy), kci-masqesiminimus [black cherry tree] (Passamaquoddy). The inner bark must be gathered at the right time of year and prepared properly otherwise it will have too much cyanide content.
Prickly Ash was used by the Alabama, Cherokee, Chippewa, Comanche, Creek, Delaware, Iroquois, Oklahoma, Menominee, Meskwaki, Ojibwa, Pawnee, and Potawatomi tribes. Different parts of the plant were used for different maladies. Modern studies have shown the plant to have antifungal and cytotoxic properties which can account for the plants medicinal use.
Chinchón is the Spanish name for the tree which might have originally been called quinaquina in Quechua. The chinchón tree is known as chichiccuahuitl in Nahuatl. However, the tree quinaquina referred to originally is likely the modern day myroxylon peruiferum. It was used by the Inca to relax sore muscles. As it was being exported it became confused with the chinchón tree which is the source of quinine. Eventually, this complete mishap was exploited by colonial powers to overcome malaria and continue their colonization of the world.
Juniper berry is used as medicine by many tribes and varieties are found all over the world. When I was with a group of Sicangu Lakota, they considered it a medicine. It is called ȟaŋté šá in Lakota. In Northern Paiute languages it is called wá’pui or waapipui. In the southern Paiute language it is . In Shoshoni it is sanappoo, eshap’pu, or ishap’pu. In the Diné language it is gad bináá’. In the hypothesized proto-Uto-Aztecan language, it is wa’ac. It has been considered medicinal or part of the cuisine in many cultures. The species native in modern day USA have a sweeter quality to them then species from across the pond.
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