Dr. Gideon Lincecum is not one of the more famous names of Texas History, but he witnessed many important events in his time and his work in medicine touched many lives. His works, later published, became some of the first in-depth written works on the Choctaws. Though he was as controversial for his ideas in his own time as he is among modern scholars, Lincecum lived a life of adventure and discovery.
Gideon Lincecum was born into a farming family in eastern Georgia in 1793. As a child, he lived near a Creek settlement, and he learned the Creek language and culture, an experience that guided him for many years. Lincecum had little formal education, as very little was to be had. His only education was at age 14 in a one-room schoolhouse. Though he admitted some embarrassment by sitting in a group that included seven-year-olds who could read and write perfectly, he nevertheless mastered his literacy skills within the five-month term.
With a curious mind eager to absorb knowledge, he made the world his classroom and left home at 15. He soon found work as an assistant to a merchant where he also met the famed early American writer Parson Mason Weems as he helped sell some of the writer’s books.
Eventually, Lincecum married, and the couple had 13 children together. He arrived with his family in what is now Lowndes County, Mississippi, in 1821. He co-founded the city of Columbus, served as the first postmaster and co-founded the first free public school in Mississippi, the Franklin School. Though he never had the opportunity himself, he made sure that others would.
After a prolonged illness in the 1820s, he began reading medical textbooks with a nearby doctor, an apprenticeship of sorts. He soon began practicing on his own as it was possible to become a doctor without attending medical school at that time.
Medicine was still in a very primitive stage, and Lincecum developed a great frustration with the medicines often prescribed at that time, which included different acids, arsenic and strychnine. He lived with the Choctaws for a time, learning their culture and history while studying the herbal cures their own healers had used for generations. He soon mastered the many medical treatments and folk remedies that the Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks used for a variety of ailments which further spurred his interest in local plant life. As the nineteenth century progressed, there was an increasing division in American medicine between those who believed in the value of folk herbal remedies and those moving to a more scientific approach to research and treatment.
He took an expedition to Texas in 1835. It was engaging and insightful trek, and he learned much of the varieties of plant life available on the prairies. He journeyed from San Augustine to San Antonio and as far north as what is now Falls County. He steadily cataloged the wildlife and plant life of Texas.
His expedition was just as the Texas Revolution was brewing. By late February 1836, he was exploring along the Brazos River near San Felipe as Captain Moseley Baker began organizing troops for the defense of the settlement. Lincecum signed up to volunteer, but old friends from Alabama and Georgia at the scene argued it was too risky given his large family back in Mississippi, though Baker was anxious to build up numbers and include a doctor in his ranks. He was struck from the rolls and returned home.
Lincecum returned to Texas in 1848, settling on an 1,800-acre tract he claimed in Washington County in 1835. He set up a successful medical practice and continued studying the local environment. He published a history of the Choctaws that drew praise in 1861.
Lincecum enjoyed corresponding with many different scientists and thinkers of the time. He communicated regularly with the scholars at the Smithsonian Institution and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, who rewarded his samples and research notes with the latest scientific texts and equipment for his research. He had several essays and scientific papers published in noted journals. Lincecum also exchanged several friendly letters with naturalist Charles Darwin.
In 1868, he decided on a new adventure, moving with one daughter’s family to a community in Mexico founded by Confederate refugees. Once again, he studied the wildlife and fauna while also learning about the tribes of the area and exploring the ruins of long-abandoned Native American communities. After five years, he returned to Texas, writing his memoirs along the way. He died in 1874.
His works has caught the attention of scholars since his time. Mississippi historians re-published his autobiography and his works on the Choctaws in the early 1900s. The University of Texas also boasts the Gideon Lincecum Herbarium, a collection of more than 300 specimens of medicinal plants from his collection. In 1994, one of his descendants, Prof. Jerry Lincecum, now an emeritus professor of English at Austin College in Sherman, published Lincecum’s notes and journals in Adventures of a Frontier Naturalist. Texas A&M University Press has also announced a special series of books from his writing and inspired by his work. HIs cabin in Washington County is a historic site.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org