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Disentangling commodity histories: pauame and sassafras in the early modern global world

  • Clare Griffin (a1)


This article takes a close look at the history of an American tree now known as sassafras but known to the Timucua of early modern Florida as pauame. Sassafras root was a major anti-febrile medicament in the early modern world. The history of that medicament has thus far primarily been written in terms of the Spanish empire, which commodified it in post-contact Eurasia. Yet Native Americans, in particular the Timucua, as well as the French, the British, and the Russians, all played major roles in the history of sassafras. That history involves several objects derived from the tree sometimes called sassafras, knowledge about those objects, and Eurasian ideas about the Americas. This article focuses on the issues of entangled empires, and commodity and knowledge exchanges, to show that early modern commodities were not unitary objects, but rather shifting entanglements of objects, words, and ideas.


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My thanks go to everyone who read and commented upon this article or the issues discussed within it, including the Eurasian Studies Reading Circle here at Nazarbayev University, and two anonymous peer reviewers; the many archivists and librarians who helped me track down the sources I rely upon here; the editors of the Journal of Global History for their patient encouragement; and the Wellcome Trust (grant no. 101554/Z/13/Z), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and Nazarbayev University for supporting this research. All remaining errors, omissions, and unfortunate oversights are entirely my own.



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1 On imagined and imaginative geography, see Said, Edward, Orientalism, London: Penguin Classics, 2003, esp. p. 54.

2 Bullard, Mary R., Cumberland Island: a history, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005, p. 295.

3 Magnaghi, Russell M., ‘Sassafras and its role in early America, 1562–1662’, Terrae Incognitae: The Journal of the Society for the History of Discoveries, 21, 1997, p. 11; Dugan, Holly, The ephemeral history of perfume: scent and sense in early modern England, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011, p. 94.

4 Ibid., p. 79.

5 Vogel, Virgil J., American Indian medicine, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, p. 175. My thanks to Adrienne Keene and several other kind tweeters for sharing their expertise on and experiences of sassafras use in present-day Native American communities.

6 Francisco Pareja, Confessionario en lengua Castellana y Timuquana con unos consejos para animar al penitente. Y assi mismo van declarados algunos effectos y prerrogariuas deste sancto sacramento de la Confession. Todo muy util y prouechoso, assi para que los padres confessores sepan instruyr al penitente como para que ellos aprendan à saber se confessar, Mexico, 1613, (consulted 9 September 2019); Dubcovsky, Alejandra and Broadwell, George Aaron, ‘Writing Timucua: recovering and interrogating indigenous authorship’, Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 15, 3, 2017, pp. 409–41.

7 Spike, Tamara Shircliff, ‘Sucking, blood, and fire: Timucuan healing practices in Spanish Florida’, Florida Historical Quarterly, 94, 2, 2015, pp. 143–68.

8 Cook, Harold J., ‘Markets and cultures: medical specifics and the reconfiguration of the body in early modern Europe’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 21, 2011, p. 140.

9 Gänger, Stefanie, ‘World trade in medicinal plants from Spanish America, 1717–1815’, Medical History, 59, 1, 2015, p. 53.

10 Mamonov, N. E., Materialy dlia istorii meditsiny v Rossii (Materials for the history of medicine in Russia), St Petersburg: M. M. Stasiulevich, 1881, vol. 4, pp. 1204, 1207. Unkovskaya, Maria, Brief lives: a handbook of medical practitioners in Muscovy, 1620–1701, London: The Wellcome Trust, 1999, p. 74.

11 Kelton, Paul, Epidemics and enslavement: biological catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492–1715, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2007, p. 83.

12 Magnaghi, ‘Sassafras’, pp. 10–21.

13 Loudon, John, Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum, or the trees and shrubs of Britain, London, 1838, vol. 3, p. 1301.

14 Nie, Z.-L., Wen, J., and Sun, H., ‘Phylogeny and biogeography of Sassafras (Lauraceae) disjunct between eastern Asia and eastern North America’, Plant Systematics and Evolution, 267, 1–4, 2007, pp. 191203. On cha mu, see (consulted 14 March 2019). On tai wan cha mu, see (consulted 14 March 2019). My thanks to Michael Stanley-Baker for his invaluable expertise and kind help on the East Asian part of this story.

15 Wolfe, J. A. and Wehr, W. C., ‘Middle Eocene dicotyledonous plants from Republic, northeastern Washington’, United States Geological Survey Bulletin, 1597, 1987, pp. 125.

16 Frampton, John, Ioyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde, wherein is declared the rare and singular vertues of diuerse and sundrie hearbes, trees, oyles, plantes, and stones, with their applications, as well for phisicke as chirurgerie, London, 1577, book 2. See also Beecher, Donald, ‘John Frampton of Bristol, trader and translator’, in Biase, Carmine G., ed., Travel and translation in the early modern period, Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2006, pp. 7190.

17 Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge, ed., Entangled empires: the Anglo-Iberian Atlantic, 1500–1830, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018; Romaniello, Matthew P., Enterprising empires: Russia and Britain in eighteenth-century Eurasia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. My thanks to Matthew Romaniello for the kind preview of his book.

18 For example, Monahan, Erika, The merchants of Siberia: trade in early modern Eurasia, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.

19 Smith-Peter, Susan, ‘Russian America in Russian and American historiography’, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 14, 1, 2013, pp. 93100.

20 On the tobacco ban, see Romaniello, Matthew P., ‘Muscovy’s extraordinary ban on tobacco’, in Romaniello, Matthew P. and Starks, Tricia, eds., Tobacco in Russian history and culture, London: Routledge, 2011, pp. 1935. For a work focused on the post-1732 period that briefly discusses earlier developments, see Bolkhovitinov, N. N., Rossiia otkryvaet Ameriky, 1732–1799 (Russia discovers America, 1732–1799), Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia, 1991.

21 Cañizares-Esguerra, Entangled empires, p. 5.

22 Raj, Kapil, Relocating modern science: circulation and the construction of knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; see also the ‘Global histories of science’ focus in Isis, 2010.

23 Schiebinger, Londa and Swan, Claudia, eds., Colonial botany: science, commerce, and politics in the early modern world, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005; Delbourgo, James and Dew, Nicholas, eds., Science and empire in the Atlantic world, New York: Routledge, 2008.

24 Boumediene, Samir, La colonisation du savoir: une histoire des plantes médicinales du ‘Nouveau Monde’ (1492–1750), Vaulx-en-Velin: Les Editions des Mondes à Faire, 2016. See also Cook, Harold J., Matters of exchange: commerce, medicine, and science in the Dutch Golden Age, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007; Crawford, Matthew James, The Andean wonder drug: cinchona bark and imperial science in the Spanish Atlantic, 1630–1800, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.

25 Sivasundaram, Sujit, ‘Sciences and the global: on methods, questions, and theory’, Isis, 101, 1, 2010, pp. 146–58.

26 Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Caroline Wigginton, and Kelly Wisecup have recently argued for the importance of including indigenous sources. See Pleasant, Alyssa Mt, Wigginton, Caroline, and Wisecup, Kelly, ‘Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies: Completing the Turn’, Early American Literature, 53, 2, 2018, pp. 407–44.

27 Magnaghi, ‘Sassafras’, pp. 10–13.

28 Sánchez-Menchero, Mauricio, ‘“From where they are now to whence they came from”: news about health and disease in New Spain (1550–1615)’, in Slater, John, López-Terrada, Maríaluz, and Pardo-Tomás, José, eds., Medical cultures of the early modern Spanish empire, Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2014, pp. 91106.

29 Walker, Timothy D., ‘The medicines trade in the Portuguese Atlantic world: acquisition and dissemination of healing knowledge from Brazil (c. 1580–1800)’, Social History of Medicine, 26, 3, 2013, p. 429.

30 On Monardes and sassafras, see Ralph Bauer, ‘The blood of the dragon: alchemy and natural history in Nicolás Monardes’s Historia medicinal’, in Slater, López-Terrada, and Pardo-Tomás, Medical cultures, p. 67; Dugan, Ephemeral history of perfume, p. 76.

31 Nicolás Bautista Monardes, Segunda parte del libro des las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, que siruen al uso de la medicina. Do se trata del tabaco, y de la sassafras: y del Carlo Sancto, y de otras muchas yeruas y plantas, simientes, y licores: que agora nueuamente han venido de a quellas partes, de grandes virtudes y marauillosos effectos, Seville, 1571.

32 Ibid., pp. 27–58.

33 Huguet-Termes, Teresa, ‘New World materia medica in Spanish Renaissance medicine: from scholarly reception to practical impact’, Medical History, 45, 3, 2001, pp. 368–70.

34 Ibid., p. 368.

35 Ibid., pp. 359–76.

36 Bleichmar, Daniela, ‘Books, bodies and fields: sixteenth-century transatlantic encounters with the New World’, in Schiebinger, and Swan, , Colonial botany, pp. 8399.

37 Huguet-Termes, ‘New World materia medica’, p. 366.

38 Pardo-Tomás, José, ‘Two glimpses of America from a distance: Carolus Clusius and Nicolás Monardes’, in Egmond, Florike, Hoftijzer, Paul G., and Visser, Robert, eds., Carolus Clusius: towards a cultural history of a Renaissance naturalist, Amsterdam: Edita-Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007, pp. 189–90.

39 Černá, Jana, ‘A powerful antidote, a strange camel and Turkish pepper: Iberian science, the discovery of the new world and the early modern Czech lands’, Early Science and Medicine, 21, 2–3, 2016, pp. 214–31.

40 Frampton, Ioyfull newes.

41 Luppov, S. P., Kniga v Rossii v XVII veke (The book in Russia in the seventeenth century), Leningrad: Nauka, 1970, p. 206.

42 Ole Worm, Museum Wormianum, Leiden, 1655, vol. 2, pp. 171, 173–4.

43 Ibid., pp. 159–60.

44 Wallis, Patrick, ‘Exotic drugs and English medicine: England’s drug trade, c.1550–c.1800’, Social History of Medicine, 25, 2012, pp. 2046.

45 Danish Sound Toll records online, (consulted 28 August 2019).

46 Griffin, Clare, ‘Russia and the medical drug trade’, Social History of Medicine, 31, 1, 2016, p. 17.

47 Stadsarchief Amsterdam, The Netherlands, collection no. 78, Archief van de Directie van de Oostersche Handel en Reederijen (Archive of the Directorate of the Baltic Trade and Shipping Companies), Item 399, ‘Reglement van laden en lossen en tarief van inkomende en uitgaande rechten van de havens Petersburg, Viborg, Narva, Archangel en Kola (Rules on the loading and unloading and tariffs of incoming and outgoing goods of the ports of Petersburg, Viborg, Narva, Archangel and Kola)’ (1724), pp. 30, 49.

48 Gänger, ‘World trade in medicinal plants’.

49 On British attempts to find sassafras, see Dugan, Ephemeral history of perfume, p. 73; Manning, Charles and Moore, Merrill, ‘Sassafras and syphilis’, New England Quarterly, 9, 3, 1936, pp. 473–75. On French attempts, see Boucher, Philip P., France and the American tropics to 1700: tropics of discontent?, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, pp. 4061; Magnaghi, ‘Sassafras’, pp. 10–21.

50 Roebuck, Graham, ‘Sassafras’, in Ostovich, Helen, Silcox, Mary V., and Roebuck, Graham, eds., The mysterious and the foreign in early modern England, Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2008, pp. 170–86.

51 Loudon, Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum, p. 1301. Sassafras was certainly being cultivated as a botanical specimen in the Americas by the early nineteenth century. See William Dandridge Peck, A catalogue of American and foreign plants: cultivated in the Botanic Garden, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge, MA: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1818, p. 81.

52 Dugan, Ephemeral history of perfume, p. 92.

53 Ibid., p. 92.

54 Osher Map Library, ‘The diffusion of Columbus’s letter through Europe, 1493–1497’, (consulted 21 May 2018).

55 Lehmann, Martin, ‘Amerigo Vespucci and his alleged awareness of America as a separate land mass’, Imago Mundi, 65, 1, 2013, pp. 1524.

56 Hamdani, Abbas, ‘Ottoman response to the discovery of America and the new route to India’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 101, 3, 1981, pp. 323–30.

57 Tezcan, Baki, ‘The many lives of the first non-Western history of the Americas: from the New report to the History of the West Indies’, Osmanlı Araştırmaları / Journal of Ottoman Studies, 40, 2012, pp. 138.

58 Zhishan, Zhang, ‘Columbus and China’, Monumenta Serica, 41, 1993, pp. 177–87.

59 Benedict, Carol, Golden-silk smoke: a history of tobacco in China, 1550–2010, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011, p. 17.

60 Matthee, Rudolph P., The pursuit of pleasure: drugs and stimulants in Iranian history, 1500–1900, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005, pp. 119–20.

61 Romaniello, ‘Muscovy’s extraordinary ban’.

62 Vinkovetsky, Ilya, Russian America: an overseas colony of a continental empire, 1804–1867, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

63 Bolkhovitinov, Rossiia otkryvaet Ameriky, pp. 6–7.

64 According to the pre-1700 Russian calendar.

65 Grek, Maxim, Sochinenia (Essays), Kazan: n.p., 1862, vol. 3, p. 44.

66 Loudon, Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum, p. 1301.

67 Bolkhovitinov, Rossiia otkryvaet Ameriky, p. 7.

68 Boterbloem, Kees, Moderniser of Russia: Andrei Vinius, 1641–1716, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 85.

69 Moldovana, A. M. and Maier, Ingrid, eds., Vesti-Kuranty, 1656g., 1660–1662g., 1664–1670g. Chast 1. Russkie teksty (News and newspapers, 1656, 1660–1662, 1664–1670. Part 1: Russian texts), Moscow: Rukopisnye pamiatniki drevnei Rusi, 2009, p. 235.

70 See, for example, ibid., pp. 128, 514; Kotkova, S. I., ed., Vesti-Kuranty, 1645–46, 1648g. (News and newspapers, 1645–1646, 1648), Moscow: Nauka, 1980, p. 164.

71 Maier, Ingrid and Waugh, Daniel C., ‘How well was Muscovy connected with the world?’, Forschungen zur osteuropäischen Geschichte, 75, 2009, pp. 1738.

72 Maier, Ingrid, ‘Newspaper translations in seventeenth-century Muscovy: about the sources, topics and periodicity of Kuranty “Made in Stockholm” (1649)’, in Ambrosiani, Per, Löfstrand, Elisabeth, Nordquist, Laila, and Teodorowicz-Hellman, Ewa, eds., Explorare necesse est: hyllningsskrift till Barbro Nilsson (tribute to Brabro Nilsson), Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis, 2002, pp. 181–90.

73 Crawford, Andean wonder drug, pp. 26–30.

74 Griffin, Clare, ‘Bureaucracy and knowledge creation: the Apothecary Chancery’, in Franklin, Simon and Bowers, Katherine, eds., Information and empire: mechanisms of communication in Russia, 1600–1850, Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2017, pp. 255–86.

75 Monahan, Erika, ‘Locating rhubarb: early modernity’s relevant obscurity’, in Findlen, Paula, ed., Early modern things: objects and their histories, 1500–1800, London and New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 227–51; Romaniello, Matthew P., ‘True rhubarb? Trading Eurasian botanical and medical knowledge in the eighteenth century’, Journal of Global History, 11, 1, 2016, pp. 323.

76 Koroloff, Rachel, ‘“In imperio Rutheno”: Johann Amman’s Stirpium rariorum (1739) and the foundation of Russia’s botanical empire’, in Batsaki, Yota, Cahalan, Sarah Burke, and Tchikine, Anatole, eds., The botany of empire in the long eighteenth century, Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection Washington, DC, 2017, pp. 235–56.

77 Gregory Dmitrievich Afinogenov, ‘The eye of the tsar: intelligence-gathering and geopolitics in eighteenth-century Eurasia’, PhD thesis, Harvard University, 2015.

78 For an overview of Russia’s foreign trade in this period, see Kotilaine, Jarmo T., Russia’s foreign trade and economic expansion in the seventeenth century: windows on the world, Leiden: Brill, 2005.

79 Dale, Stephen Frederic, Indian merchants and Eurasian trade, 1600–1750, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 78.

80 Monahan, Merchants of Siberia.

81 Levi, Scott Cameron, The Indian diaspora in Central Asia and its trade, 1550–1900, Leiden: Brill, 2002; Burton, Audrey, The Bukharans: a dynastic, diplomatic, and commercial history, 1550–1702, Richmond: Curzon Press, 1997; Aslanian, Sebouh, From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: the global trade networks of Armenian merchants from New Julfa, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011.

82 Mamonov, Materialy, vol. 2, pp. 334–46; Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents, Moscow (henceforth RGADA), f. 143 (Records of the Apothecary Chancery), op. 2, ed. khr. 748.

83 Griffin, ‘Russia and the medical drug trade’, p. 16.

84 Soler, Ana María Schop, Un siglo de relaciones diplomáticas y comerciales entre España y Rusia: 1733–1833, Madrid: Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, 1984, pp. 2831; Zakharov, V. N., Zapadnoevropeiskie kuptsy v rossiiskom torgovle XVIII veka (Western European merchants in Russian trade of the eighteenth century), Moscow: Nauka, 2005, pp. 200–9, 218–30.

85 On the 1602 import document, see Richter, Wilhelm, Geschichte der Medicin in Russland, 3 vols., Moscow: N. S. Vsevoloski, 1813–17, vol. 1, pp. 448–55. On the origins of medical practitioners at the Russian court, see Dumschat, Sabine, Ausländischer Mediziner im Moskauer Russland, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006; and Unkovskaya, Brief lives.

86 Griffin, ‘Russia and the medical drug trade’, pp. 16–17.

87 Mamonov, Materialy, vol. 1, p. 31–2.

88 Ibid., pp. 120–3; Akty Istoricheskie, sobrannye i izdannye Arkheograficheskoiu kommiseiu (Historical documents, collected and published by the Archeographic Commission), St Petersburg: Tipografiia Ekspeditsii zagotovleniia Gosudarstvennykh bumag, 1841–42, vol. 3, p. 404, no. 246.

89 1664 prescription to Prince I. D. Miloslavskii, in Mamonov, Materialy, vol. 2, pp. 290, 306. 1665 prescription to Prince I. D. Miloslavskii, in RGADA, f. 143 op. 2, ed. khr. 748. Collection of prescriptions from 1672 and 1673 in Mamonov, Materialy, vol. 3, p. 813.

90 Savel’eva, E. A., ed., Katalog knig iz sobraniia Aptekarskogo prikaza (Catalogue of books from the collection of the Apothecary Chancery), St Petersburg: Al’faret, 2006, p. 188.

91 RGADA, f. 143, op. 2, ed. khr. 738.

92 Griffin, Clare, ‘In search of an audience: popular pharmacies and the limits of literate medicine in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Russia’, Bulletin for the History of Medicine, 89, 2015, p. 714. Russian State Historical Museum, Moscow, Collection of Graf A. S. Uvarov, no. 172, fols. 24r–25v.

93 RGADA, f. 346 (Records of the Medical Chancellery), book 1.131, fol. 14v.

94 Rowell, Margery, ‘Russian medical botany before the time of Peter the Great’, Sudhoffs Archiv, 1978, p. 357.

95 Griffin, ‘In search of an audience’.

96 Florinova ekonomiia, s nemetskago na rossiiskoi iazyk sokrashcheno perevedena i napechatana poveleniem eia Imperatorskago Velichestva Vsemilotsiveishiia Velikiia Gosudaryni Imperatritsy Anny Ioannovny Samoderzhitsy Vserossiiskia (Florin’s economy, concisely translated from the German to the Russian and printed on the order of Her Most Beneficent Imperial Highness Grand Princess and Empress Anna Ioannovna, Autocrat of All the Russias), St Petersburg: Imperatorskaia Akademiia Nauk, 1738; Florinova ekonomiia v deviati knigakh sostoiashchaia; s nemetskago na rossiiskoi iazyk sokrashcheno Sergiem Volchkovym. Izdanie vtoroe (Florin’s economy composed of nine books, concisely [translated] from German to Russian by Sergei Volchkov. Second edition), St Petersburg: Imperatorskaia Akademiia Nauk, 1760.

97 Florinova ekonomiia, 1738, p. 288; Florinova ekonomiia, 1760, p. 325.

98 Alexander Iosad, ‘Sciences strange and diverse: Europeanization through the transfer of scientific knowledge in Russia, 1717–65’, PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 2017.

99 Franklin, Simon, ‘Printing and social control in Russia 1: passports’, Russian History, 37, 2010, pp. 208–37; Franklin, Simon, ‘Printing and social control in Russia 2: Decrees’, Russian History, 38, 2011, pp. 467–92.

My thanks go to everyone who read and commented upon this article or the issues discussed within it, including the Eurasian Studies Reading Circle here at Nazarbayev University, and two anonymous peer reviewers; the many archivists and librarians who helped me track down the sources I rely upon here; the editors of the Journal of Global History for their patient encouragement; and the Wellcome Trust (grant no. 101554/Z/13/Z), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and Nazarbayev University for supporting this research. All remaining errors, omissions, and unfortunate oversights are entirely my own.


Disentangling commodity histories: pauame and sassafras in the early modern global world

  • Clare Griffin (a1)


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