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Last Updated 05/24/00

Preface to Natural History of North Carolina


The following sketch of the life of John Brickell, author of this work, is by Dr. Thomas C. Parramore and appears in William S. Powell (ed.), Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979-1996), I, 221-222.

John Brickell, an early eighteenth-century naturalist and physician, was a native of Ireland. Virtually nothing is known of him before his appearance in North Carolina in 1729. His Natural History of North Carolina, published in Dublin in 1737 following his return from America, indicates that he was familiar with the coastal towns of Bath, Beaufort, and Edenton. This work, heavily plagiarized from John Lawson's A New Voyage to Carolina (1709), can be used for biographical information on Brickell only with great circumspection. Brickell also drew heavily on letters from the Reverend John Clayton to the Royal Society of London, 1693-1694.

North Carolina records show that Brickell practiced medicine at Edenton during the winter of 1730-1731 and that he was, during that time, physician to the family of Governor Sir Richard Everard. His name does not appear in North Carolina sources after July 1731, about which time he presumably returned to Ireland.

Brickell's Natural History reveals the mind and workmanship of a man of grammar school education at best. He was evidently unfamiliar with such great medical authorities of the age as Sydenham and Boerhaave, as he settled most issues by reference to Pliny the Elder. Irish subscribers to the book included, among medical men, mostly apothecaries and chirurgeons (surgeons), an indication that his contacts were mostly with the lower stratum of the profession. His observations in the area of folk-practices and remedies are not without value, however, and serve as an interesting complement to the more nearly scientific gleanings of Lawson. Brickell showed no discrimination whatever in recording the Carolina medical folkways, a fact which, however much it may please the folklorist, was a disservice to the medical practice of his day: shrewd uses of local herbs by the colonists received no greater emphasis in Brickell's notebook than did the practice of applying the anus of a hen to a snakebite.

Brickell is known to have published another work in London in 1739, entitled Catalogue of American Tree and Plants which will Bear the Climate of England. It appears that he may have gone from Ireland to England and that he took with him from America a collection of seeds and plants, some of which he grew successfully. Of his later life and career, nothing is presently known.

Something must be said of the tissue of misconceptions that has attached itself to Brickell's name in various historical writings. A legend that he received any part of his education at Edinburgh University, then the leading medical school in the world, is without foundation in the school's alumni records. Another legend--that he was a brother of a colonial Bertie County Anglican priest, Matthias Brickell--is substantiated by no known record in North Carolina or in Great Britain. Indeed, the existence of such a person as Matthias Brickell is itself much in doubt. Finally, it is purely speculative to associate Brickell's name with that of a late eighteenth-century Georgia physician also named John Brickell and sometimes alleged to have been the son of the author of the Natural History of North Carolina.

SEE: John Brickell, Natural History of North Carolina (1737); M. B. Gordon, Aesculapius Comes to the Colonies (1949); Archibald Henderson, North Carolina: The Old North State and the New, vol. 1 (1941); North Carolina General Court Records, July 1731 (North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh); Marcus Simpson (personal contact).


IT will not be to my purpose to enquire whether America was known to the Antients, there being various Opinions about it, yet with more Curiosity than certainty, whence this New World was Peopled; some assigning that the Hesperides (so called from HESPERUS King of Spain) and the Continent of America were Peopled by the Spaniards. Others affirm that the Americans are the Race of Jews carried into captivity by Salamanazer and placed in Countrys till then not Inhabited, after a progress of 18 Months. Many believe they were People carried by Storm, being Chinesses sailing on the Pacifick South Sea, or other Northern People (allowing the possibility of each Opinion) I will not pretend to take upon me to decide the Controversy, being altogether a stranger to the certainty of the Fact.

The Writings of many Learned Men may be seen on this Head, who after having search’d all the Records of Antiquity, shew much Erudiction, but nothing of certainty, concerning the Antient Affairs of America. I know the Memory of a Deluge is preserved amongst these People, but whether it is to be understood of the universal Flood, or the Inundation of some particular Provinces, I leave it to others to discourse upon, for I am willing to lay aside all manner of Conjectures of this Nature, having enough of Truth to treat of.

The several Climates of the World have influenced the People with Natures very different from each other, and even their different Speeches bear some proportion of Analogie with their Natures, as is to be seen amongst the Whites, Indians, and Blacks, that are to be met with in this part of the World.

But waveing these Discourses, we here present the World with a Natural-History of North-Carolina, it being a compendious Collection, of most things yet known in that part of the World; wherein I have laid down every thing with Impartiality and Truth, in the most plain and easie Terms, which indeed is the Duty of every Writer, and preferable to a more eloquent Stile, accompanied with many Falsities.

I have therefore endeavour’d in the following Sheets to give as faithful and exact Account of Carolina, as discoveries yet made will Authorize, and if any take offence at what is said about the Indians and their wanton and lascivious manner of living, I hope they will Judge of every Passage with due deference to good Authority of the most knowing and substantial Planters in those Parts. And consider that the nature of the Work required my being somewhat particular, in order to shew the good and bad Qualities of these poor Creatures, who at present have no light or benefit of the Gospel.

And had we been as careful as the Spaniards and French, in sending over proper Missionaries to Instruct these miserable People, we shou’d never have had occasion to give this Relation of them. Besides if these Methods had been put in practice, we undoubtedly had been better informed and acquainted with the many hidden Secrets in this part of the World, which these People are well acquainted with, and which they never will make known to us till they are Instructed in the Christian Faith, and have intirely abolished the many Idolatrous Customs and Practices still prevailing amongst them.

I have viewed not only most part of the Lands Inhabited by the Christians, but likewise vast spacious Tracts lying between them and the Mountains, from whence our noblest Rivers have their rise, running for several hundreds of Miles towards the Ocean, while they water and adorn as pleasant and fertil a Country as any in Europe, the greatest part whereof is only inhabited by Savage Indians, who covet a Christian Neighbourhood for the advantage of Trade. But not to amuse the Reader any longer with Encomiums on Carolina, I refer them to my Description of that Country, and it’s Inhabitants, which they will find in the following Natural History, in which I have been very exact; and for Methods sake, have ranged each Species of Animals, Vegetables, etc. under distinct and proper Heads.

A Collection of the Natural Curiosities of this spacious part of the World, will, I hope, not only give Satisfaction and Pleasure to each Reader, but likewise Profit, to all that are inclined to live in those Parts.

If these my Endeavours meet with this good success, I am thoroughly satisfied, having nothing more at Heart than to be in any Degree serviseable to the Publick; this being the principal Motive that induced me to undertake any Work of this Nature, (the Task being not only Laborious but Difficult) and not out of any Praise I expected from it.

To conclude, Whatever Defects may be found in this Undertaking, we hope in time they will be supplied by the Labours and Industry of such as shall come after; and this we are made to expect chiefly from those of our own Nation; and that their laudable Attempts may meet with just Encouragement, shall be my constant Wish and Desire.


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