You are on page 1of 4

Indian John Johnson and the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show

At the turn of the twentieth century the most popular shows in the rural northeast- rural meant
most of the region- were the Chatauqua and the medicine show. The Chatauqua, which generally
charged a fee for its offerings, was billed as “High Culture.” Its entertainment consisted of
lectures and traveling exhibits. The medicine show was more popular, however, because it
offered free entertainment to sell its motley collection of nostrums, cure-alls and patent
medicines.

There were two very distinct types of medicine shows, the “Psychic Opera” and the “Indian
Medicine Show.” The former was more vaudevillian in nature. Well known names like Buster
Keaton, W. C. Fields and Pigmeat Martin got their start in Psychic Opera. The Indian medicine
shows, featuring Native Americans- or individuals made up as Native Americans- in full regalia,
pushed their special brands of laxatives, liniments and therapies. Of the Indian medicine shows
that operated across the northeast the most popular as well as the most successful was the
Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show.

The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show operated out of New Haven, Connecticut. (It would serve
as Al Capp's inspiration for the Kickapoo Indians in his Lil' Abner cartoon strip.) The Kickapoo
show was a staple in the rural northeast, including New England and the Maritime Provinces
from the 1880's into the 1920's when its white owners sold out for almost a half million dollars.
It pushed such nostrums as Kickapoo Indian Sagwa (Al Capp’s Kickapoo Joy Juice), which was
basically a mixture of alcohol, stale beer, and a strong laxative such as aloe. Purchasers of
Kickapoo Sagwa were sure it worked as they would be affected by it twice. There was also
Kickapoo Indian Oil, Kickapoo Cough Cure and Kickapoo Worm Remedy.

The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show featured entertainment like horseback riding, Pow Wows,
dances and invocations to various spirits in darkened tents. One of the most popular figures in
the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show was a man named Dr. John Johnson. Johnson actually had
some training as a medical doctor. Late in his life he wrote a narrative of his adventures and
misadventures as a doctor and Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show performer.

John Johnson's story is one of the strangest in the annals of Indian medicine shows. Johnson was
not an Indian but for just over twenty years believed he was. John Johnson had been kidnapped
from Saco, Maine's Factory Island by Mi’kmaq Indians from Nova Scotia in 1834, when he was
four or five years old and brought up to believe he was a member of the tribe. During the early
part of his life, he learned tradition Indian medical practices so that he was actually regarded as a
medicine man. Later, he studied with several doctors in New Hampshire, basically as an
apprentice- an accepted way of becoming a physician in the early nineteen century- so that he
was recognized as an actual doctor.

John Johnson was born in Hollis, Maine in 1829. In 1833, his family moved to Factory Island.
As the story goes, one day the little boy was playing near workers who were digging gravel from
a pit for use on a local road. Inadvertently, one of the workmen clipped Johnson on the forehead
with a pickax causing a minor skull fracture and permanently scarring him. The youngster was
treated by a local doctor by the name of Newell, who, many years later, would help confirm
Johnson's true identity.

Some time after the accident with the pickax, when he was playing by the shore of Factory Island
with his older brothers and sister, Johnson disappeared. His brothers and sister each believed the
youngster was with his oldest brother, Samuel. What must have happened- Johnson’s narrative is
not clear on the matter- is that some wandering Mi’kmaq came across Johnson and decided to
take him along.

As will be seen from the story of Indian John and as backed up by a variety of accounts and
nineteenth century histories of the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia and elsewhere Downeast, it was not
all that uncommon for Mi’kmaq from the Maritime Provinces to travel to Massachusetts and
further south to find work. The fact that some would abduct a child at this late a date is rather
surprising, though. However, the Mi’kmaq were known for their love of children.

Johnson's first recollections from childhood are of living with a group of Mi’kmaq in the general
area of Halifax. He also lived with Mi’kmaq families in the Amherst and Pictou areas. He
describes playing games like “snow snakes,” which was a kind of leap frog played along paths
children made in the snow specifically for the game and attending Catholic church. In short,
Johnson grew up among the Mi’kmaq being transferred from one family to another and learning
their traditional ways and practices, including traditional healing and the use of various herbs. As
a youngster, he traveled with the Mi’kmaq on hunting and fishing trips, even going as far north
as Labrador.

As has been noted, the Mi’kmaq of the nineteenth century were great travelers. By the time
Johnson was a teenager, he had made a succession of trips to Maine and the rest of the New
England states. He had even gone as far as upstate New York and held temporary jobs in such
diverse places as Boston, Newport, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire. Oddly, he spent
more time in Maine than anywhere else, especially around Bucksport, Corinna and Old Town,
areas frequented by members of Maine’s Penobscot tribe, as well as around Hollis, where he had
been born, and Biddeford right next to Saco where the Mi’kmaq had abducted him from Factory
Island. In fact, it was while Johnson was camped in a tent near Biddeford Station that he
discovered his true identity.

Some twenty-two years after his abduction by the Mi’kmaq, Johnson and his wife stopped in
Biddeford on their way from Kennebunk to Downeast Maine. Johnson was in a local grocery to
make some purchases when the owner said to another man in the store that John looked just like
a Johnson. The other man was Daniel Johnson, John's cousin. Daniel went and got John's brother,
Samuel, who in turn got their father, James Johnson. James Johnson identified his long lost son
by the scar on his forehead. This was later reaffirmed by Dr. Newell, who had treated John after
the accident with the pickax.

After his reunion with his family, John Johnson continued his wandering ways. In Gorham, New
Hampshire, he was employed by two doctors and learned enough medicine from them that he
was actually able to practice as a doctor. It was with the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show,
however, that he attained his real claim to fame as both Indian John and Dr. John Johnson.
The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show was a vehicle for marketing the nostrums of the Kickapoo
Indian Medicine Company. The company and the show are generally considered the creation
and brainchildren of Charles Bigelow and Thomas Healy. Neither Bigelow nor Healy were
Native Americans. Nor did their creations have any connection to the real Kickapoo tribe.
Nevertheless, the shows did have actual Native Americans as part of their makeup. During the
heyday of the Kickapoo show, which was roughly the period of the Gay ‘90’s, about seventy-five
Kickapoo touring companies crisscrossed North America. Most companies consisted of from
fifteen to twenty members. Half of them were Native American. The latter played the role of the
stereotype Indian that dominated the public’s mind at the time, taciturn and laconic.

Indian John's Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show act used Sable Island ponies. Sable Island, off the
coast of eastern Nova Scotia, is one of the most treacherous islands of the North Atlantic. In the
eighteen century, a vessel carrying horses had been wrecked there. Over generations, the horses
had bred to a size little better than ponies. They had also become virtually untamable. Somehow,
John Johnson acquired several of the feral beasts and rode the bucking rambunctious creatures to
the delight of audiences all across the northeast. He even managed to get two to draw a carriage,
something experts said could never be accomplished. Of course, in his persona as Dr. John
Johnson, Johnson peddled the various Kickapoo nostrums.

Indian John Johnson died in 1907. He is buried in Biddeford, Maine.

At the time of his death, Indian John Johnson considered himself, first and foremost, an Indian.
Even though he had been born white, he was always distrustful of whites. This seems to be so
even after he came to know his birth family.

Dr. John Johnson was without doubt one of the few individuals able to live the traditional
lifestyle of the Mi’kmaq and make a way for himself in the white world using traditional Native
American skills and knowledge.

Addendum: A relative of Johnson’s continued the medicine show tradition after John Johnson’s
death. Johnson had married Susan Newell, a Penobscot. Newell’s nephew, Louis Newell, who,
for what can only be considered advertising purposes, often called himself a Kiowa, operated one
of the last big time Indian medicine shows, the Rolling Thunder Kiowa Medicine and Vaudeville
Company. Louis Newell went by the name Chief Rolling Thunder. Intriguingly, a Mi’kmaq who
went by the stage name of Dr. Jerry Lonecloud is credited by some for founding the Kiowa show.
Lonecloud, who was born in Belfast, Maine spent most of his latter life in Bear River, Nova
Scotia.

Author’s Note: Much of the material for this article came from a document in possession of the
Maine Historical Society in Portland. It purports to come from a book, a memoir written by John
Johnson. The document was compiled by hand and the several individuals who compiled it wrote
from their particular perspective, inserting what they thought to be the feelings and thoughts of
Johnson and others seeming at random. E.g. The emotions of Johnson’s mother upon coming to
accept her little boy was really missing are gone into in depth. Rather than being a first person
narrative, the document is third person. One could surmise the writing was done as the
compilers read the original material written by Indian John. It should be noted that there are a
fair number of Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show advertisements naming and picturing Johnson.
Some of the pictures include Indian John with his Sable Island ponies.