A Family of Healers

In a letter to Thomas Prince of Boston dated in September of 1730, the Rev. William Russell, pastor of Middletown’s First Church, wrote that among the neighboring Wangunk there was a family of healers noted for their skill in curing the King’s Evil or scrofula (tuberculosis of the neck lymph nodes). “It was first practiced on the English by an Indian called Robin,” Russell recalled, “and a grand-daughter of his, many years after, was very remarkable in her success in curing this terrible disease.  Many very remarkable cures have been [made by] them on persons where the most skillful English physicians have not been successful.”

Robin (or Puccaca) was an heir and successor of Sowheage, the 17th century sachem who invited English settlers into his territory of Pyquag in 1631.  With such status, Robin was one of the proprietors of land at Mattabesset (Middletown) and Wangunk (Portland) and rose to be a person of authority among the Connecticut River people in the later end of the 17th century.

As Rev. Russell indicated, Robin and his family were noted for their ability to heal, most notably scrofula, the medical condition that produces a swelling of the lymph nodes of the neck.  In European culture, especially in The Middle Ages, the cure for such a disease was a touch from the fingers of royalty, which was purported to be a sign of the divine right of sovereigns.  Whether English colonists in New England may have interpreted Robin’s skills as equally providential is unknown, but the ability to cure certainly amazed them and earned him a mark of respect, for he, or a son of his with similar healing abilities, was known as Dr. Robin.

Robin’s descendants in the eighteenth century can be found in the documentary record.  Tom Robins was a Wangunk leader whose land policies of selling property to other tribal members protected the reservation land base for at least a generation.  Tom’s kinsman, Samuel was among a group of Wangunk, who, when faced with the continued problem of colonial trespass in 1760 and 1762, decided to sell the reservation, or parts of it, and exchange it for land elsewhere.  That “elsewhere” would be among the Tunxis in Farmington, Connecticut, and several of the Robins family, like Samuel and David, his brother, moved there, and had land assigned to them.  Some married into other Indian families, like Ann Robins, who wed Aaron Occum, the son of Sampson and Mary (Fowler) Occum.  Others, like Richard Ranney, Dr. Robin’s grandson, had moved further west to Newtown but had maintained ties to the community nonetheless. 

Still, wherever they were, the family continued practicing their medical skills, as Joseph Johnson’s diary indicates that Hannah Robins, possibly David’s wife, treated him for a leg ailment while at Farmington in the winter of 1772.

For more on the Wangunk, see Timothy Ives, Wangunk Ethnology: A Case Study of a Connecticut River Indian Community, Masters Thesis, College of William and Mary (2001).


Credits: “Midew Preparing Herbal Medicine,” J.W. Powell, Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology (Washington, D.C., 1891) Wikimedia Commons; Jean Jouvenet,  Louis XIV Curing the Scrofula (1690) Wikimedia Commons






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