In the late 1800’s, John E. Healy and Charles F. Bigelow founded a small business that sold various medicines and called it the “Kickapoo Indian Company.” Although they had no affiliation with the Kickapoo Indian tribe, Bigelow claimed that an Indian chief who happened to have this “Sagwa” medicine saved his life when he had fallen ill in the wilderness.
The company sold many medicines and cosmetic products, but their most famous product was the Sagwa Laxative. The formula for this laxative probably changed over time, but in the early 1900’s it apparently consisted of over a dozen ingredients including: yellow dock, licorice, and roots of gentian, mandrake, and rhubarb. Sagwa and other products such as Kickapoo Indian Oil, Kickapoo Buffalo Salve, Kickapoo Indian Cough Cure, and Kickapoo Indian Worm Killer were sold at “Indian medicine shows” put on around the country by the Kickapoo Indian Company. This company was not the first to capitalize on the prevailing view of native Americans as natural physicians endowed with secret healing powers. But with aggressive advertising and extravagant productions, the Kickapoo Indian Company’s shows became some of the best-known and most widely attended, from the large cities of the East coast to tiny towns in the midwest. These shows featured native Americans, none of whom were in fact from the Kickpoo tribe, who entertained and enticed customers to buy these “Kickapoo” remedies. Soon, the shows became so popular that the company had a many as one hundred troupes touring the country and selling products.
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Revised and edited 3/2/14 S. M. Kerwin