So many credible books on native North American flora often share the same story about Joe Pye yet seldom provide sourced information. Was Joe Pye a real person and if so, who was he?
Many websites and books refer to Joe Pye as being a Native medicine man from Salem, Massachusetts who earned his fame from curing colonial settlers of typhus using his eponymous healing herb. Some sources state that Joe Pye was a phonetic translation of jopi or jopai.
The first known use of the term Joe Pye as a common name for a plant was in 1818. Joe Pye appeared in Manual of Botany, for the Northern and Middle States of America: 2nd edition, a widely distributed publication authored by the famous New England geologist and botanist, Amos Eaton.
Eaton directly stated that Joe Pye is taken from the “name of an Indian,” not a white man posing as one. He understood that the use of the plant was that of a diaphoretic (sweat inducer) in western Massachusetts—not in Salem on the eastern seaboard as the Joe Pye legend of today states.
In the Manual of Botany, Eaton wrote that President Zephaniah Swift Moore of Williams College used an herbal tea made from one or both of the Eupatorium species listed by Eaton to treat his own fever. Moore was president of the college from 1815 to 1821. In 1817, Amos Eaton delivered a series of lectures there on botany and geology. Likely, it was during this time that Eaton learned of Moore’s success in treating fever with the liberal use of Joe Pye weed.
Before Eaton’s Manual of Botany, and for a time afterward, the popular names for Empatorium purpureum were Trumpet Weed, Gravel Root, Gravelweed, Purple Boneset, Purple Thoroughwort, and Queen of the Meadow. Today these names are rarely in use and Joe Pye has become the preferred common term.
There’s so much more information about the legend behind the name of Joe Pye weed. If you’re interested in learning more, then please visit the University of Michigan.