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Before the advent of allopathic medicine, healthcare was characterized by its imprecision, drawing upon a knowledge base spanning countless centuries and diverse cultures. Through trial and error, specific remedies for various ailments made their way into medical practice, evolving through research, exploration, and experimentation. Theories were passed down through generations and communities, largely through oral tradition and later through written text. As healers familiarized themselves with natural substances and their medicinal properties, ineffective practices were abandoned in favor of medically effective herbal treatments. Some might be inclined to dismiss home remedies as a primitive form of healing when compared to contemporary biomedical practices, but recent scientific research increasingly validates the therapeutic properties of ingredients commonly utilized in home remedies. Although conventional western medical practices and pharmaceuticals are typically favored for major afflictions, home remedies remain a primary choice for treating minor illnesses and ailments for many, particularly in rural communities where access to healthcare remains tenuous. According to a 2004 news release from Wake Forest Baptist Health, nearly half of the adults in rural western North Carolina rely on home remedies for both curative and preventative purposes (1). In “Stories to Save Lives,” several interviewees reflect on home remedies they grew up using, and several remedies are repeated across their narratives, despite differences in location, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and culture. Investigating these commonalities reveals that the diverse origins of rural North Carolinian home remedies are shaped by a blend of modern biomedicine and historical sources, prominently influenced by Native American medical practices, colonialist tradition, and global folk medicine.

Native American Medicine

Native American contributions to western medical health practices have historically been overlooked, despite indigenous practices predating and shaping early American healthcare. This inattention is largely due to the inherent connection between spirituality and wellbeing in Native belief systems (2). However, Native healers’ propensity for spiritual care practices did not negate their experiences with healing physiological issues. Through the use of herbs, tinctures, and poultices, healers were able to treat injury and illness (3). For example, the Cherokee Nation, who occupied lands in western North Carolina, have a historically documented rich ethnobotanical heritage for treating diseases, ailments, and injuries, as discussed by William N. Setzer in “The Phytochemistry of Cherokee Aromatic Medicinal Plants” (4). Despite the substantial loss of medical knowledge during population decimation and displacement from European settler conquest and colonialism, records of Cherokee ethnobotany remain and even persist through the assimilation of this knowledge into European settler healing practices (5). 

These influences persist through modern day, with their influence manifesting in the health practices of many North Carolinian households. In an interview through the Southern Oral History Program, Pinehurst, NC native Thomas McLaughlin, Jr. reflects on several home remedies his mother utilized for the children of the household, with notable mentions being the use of sassafras tea and pinetop tea for unspecified ailments (6). Sassafras and pine trees are both native to eastern North America and cited as plants used in Cherokee healing practices (7, 8). Sassafras, in particular, has a longstanding history of being used for its medicinal properties by numerous Native American tribes, with the Cherokee Nation using all parts of the sassafras plant as a treatment for diarrhea, rheumatism, measles, and scarlet fever (9). Barbara Gay Kearney, another participant in the oral history program, also mentions her grandmother giving her teas made from sassafras and sage, another plant commonly cited in Native American medical practices (10). 

Colonial Medicine

Colonial era medicine and its modern variants are characterized by their integration of traditional European and Native healing practices to suit the unique maladies of the American frontier during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In “Home Remedies in Rural America,” Gordon M. Meade discusses how American farmers, ranchers, and townsmen were increasingly reliant on self-treatment, which they drew from the folk medical traditions of the Old World (11). Although colonial medicine was largely informed by the healing practices of multiple Afro-Eurasian cultures, it is responsible for the popularization and proliferation of certain home remedies in use by rural North Carolinian households. 

One such case is that of Reverend William Kearney, whose interview with SOHP’s Stories to Save Lives series revealed that his grandmother and mother would tie turpentine-soaked yarn string around his neck when he had a severe sore throat (12). Turpentine, referred to as oil of turpentine in various historical records, is an oil extracted and distilled from the gun resin of pine trees originating in southeastern United States and was a prominent therapeutic used in the 18th and 19th century (13). Used for both injury and illness, it was used both as a home remedy and an agent prescribed by colonial era physicians for typhoid, intestinal worms, and even hospital gangrene; however, in modern day, the oil remains firmly in the realm of home remedy (14, 15).

Additionally, Ebony Talley-Brame recollects in an interview how her grandparents gave members of the household a combination of alcohol, honey, and lemon as a remedy for colds (16). This combination is colloquially referred to as a “hot toddy,” with typical ingredients being hot water, bourbon or whiskey, honey, and lemon juice (17). Origins of the beverage are uncertain, with many believing that it originated in 15th century British-occupied India while others claiming that it was invented by 18th century Scottish doctors (18). Regardless of its history, the hot toddy was popularized in the United States during the 1800s as a symptom-reliever for colds. 

Global Folk Medicine

It’s unlikely to find a modern day home remedy that is entirely innovative—many common present-day remedies are the result of centuries of knowledge being passed down and originate from ancient medical practice. Natural products have been applied medicinally since prehistoric times, with the first known mention of medical practice dating back to around 2600 BCE in the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (19). Interviewee Ana Maria Deaver cites the use of several natural substances rooted in global folk medicine, primarily garlic, honey, and castor oil (20). Both garlic and honey have had significance in traditional medicine for millennia, with their use being cited in Ancient Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, and India for a range of illnesses and ailments (21, 22). Considering modern research that highlights the antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and analgesic properties of both these natural resources, it’s not surprising that they have remained relevant throughout medical history on a global scale (23, 24).

The use of castor oil is especially prominent in rural North Carolina and was referenced as a home remedy in several of the SOHP interviews. The castor plant has a longstanding history in the traditional folk medicine of ancient cultures, with archeological evidence from the Border Cave in South Africa even suggesting its prehistoric use (25). Polito et al. discusses the pharmacological use of castor oil in ancient Mediterranean, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, and African societies for a wide range of illnesses and ailments, and they follow up with research on its use for the development of anti-cancer immunotoxins (26). Now produced and exported globally, castor oil has become synonymous with home remedies in the present-day United States. 


In tracing the lineage of rural North Carolinian home remedies, it becomes evident that these practices are not merely remnants of a bygone era but rather a testament to the enduring fusion of diverse medical traditions. Rooted in a blend of Native, colonialist, and global folk medical traditions, the home remedies used in rural NC reflect a deep connection to the land, culture, and a shared human experience. While allopathic medicine reasonably holds sway over major ailments, the resilience of home remedies speaks to their persisting relevance to the personal histories of each household, especially in communities where access to healthcare remains a challenge.



Allen, Rachel  Stout. “Primary Source: Rachel Allen’s Experience as Midwife and Use of Herbal Medicine.” NCpedia ANCHOR, Accessed 26 Apr. 2024. Taken from Rachel Stout Allen Medicine Recipe Book, from the John Allen Papers (1815–1816 Papers), North Carolina State Archives Collection 1467.

“Almost Half of Rural North Carolina Adults Report Using ‘Home Remedies.’” Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, 24 Mar. 2004,

Cirlillo, Vincent J. “Oil of Turpentine: Sheet Anchor of 19th-Century Therapeutics.” Medical History Society of New Jersey, 4 Jan. 2021,

Deaver, Ana Maria. Interview with Maddy Kameny. 28 June 2018 (Y-0020). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Dinkins, Hannah. “PLANTS OF THE CHEROKEE AND THEIR USES.” Highlands Biological Station, Western Carolina University, 21 July 2019, .org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Plant-webpagee3.pdf.

Eschner, Kat. “The Hot Toddy: A ‘Medicinal’ Drink That Might Actually Work.” Smithsonian Magazine,

Eteraf-Oskouei, Tahereh, and Moslem Najafi. “Traditional and Modern Uses of Natural Honey in Human Diseases: A Review.” Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences, vol. 16, no. 6, June 2013, pp. 731–742,

Hines, Nick. “The History of the Hot Toddy.” VinePair, VinePair, 7 May 2021,

Immel, Diana L. “Sassafras.” USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, 27 Sept. 2001.

Kearney, Barbara Gay. Interview with Susie Penman and Bill Kearney. 11 June 2019 (Y-0105). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Kearney, William. Interview with Anna Freeman. 28 June 2018 (Y-0034). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

McLaughlin, Thomas Jr. Interview with Maddy Kameny. 28 June 2018 (Y-0040). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Meade, Gordon M. “Home remedies in rural America.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 120, no. 3, July 1965, pp. 823–828,

Multicultural Approaches to Health and Wellness in America : [2 Volumes], edited by Regan A. R. Gurung, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Polito, Letizia, et al. “Ricin: An ancient story for a timeless plant toxin.” Toxins, vol. 11, no. 6, 6 June 2019, p. 324,

Rivlin, Richard S. “Historical perspective on the use of garlic.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 131, no. 3, Mar. 2001,

Setzer, William. “The phytochemistry of Cherokee Aromatic Medicinal Plants.” Medicines, vol. 5, no. 4, 12 Nov. 2018, p. 121, 

Talley-Brame, Ebony. Interview with Maddy Kameny. 28 June 2018 (Y-0054). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Wagner, Stephen L. “The Origins and History of Medicine and Medical Practice.” Fundamentals of Medical Practice Management, Health Administration Press, Chicago, Illinois, 2017, pp. 1–38,

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