Oregon Indian Medicine Company
The founder of the Oregon Indian
Medicine Company was one Thomas
Augustus Edwards, born in 1832 in Saugerties, New York. At seventeen Thomas
left home to go to sea, where he worked at the whaling trade.
Upon returning he worked as a grocer until he met John Robinson,
a professional circus man. Around 1855 Edwards became me
business manager of the Spaulding and Roger's Circus.
In 1857, he joined with General Albert Johnston on an expedition
to Utah to help with the difficulty with the Mormons. He was at
Pike's Peak in 1858 and then returned East to work for the
Memphis Transportation Company until the outbreak of the Civil
War. Entering the ranks of the Secret Service, he operated
behind enemy lines as a spy for the Union Army, was captured,
and would have probably been shot, had he not escaped. Having
earned the rank of Colonel he worked in Arkansas as a scout for
In 1866, still employed by the Secret Service, he traveled to
Oregon during the Snake Indian War. It must have been in Oregon
that the idea for Indian Medicines came to Colonel Edwards, for
when he returned East again, he brought with him a band of
eighteen Indians of the Warme Springs Tribe. In 1874, he and the
band of Indians, the Heroes of the Lava Beds, traveled around
Europe putting on displays of Indian skills and customs.
He returned to Philadelphia m 1876 and was an unofficial part of
the Centennial Exposition. It was at the Exposition that Edwards
claims to have introduced the medicines. In the fall of 1876,
Edwards with his brother, Alfred Edwards, organized the Oregon
Indian Medicine Company with headquarters in Pittsburgh. No
records of the business could be found in the Pittsburgh
directories. At first, the medicines were sold to the public in
raw form, to be compounded at home. Edwards maintained that the
company did not do well at first because the medicines, sent
East from Oregon, were compounded carelessly and did not bring
satisfaction. For several years the Colonel took up with John
Robinson, the veteran showman trying to sell the medicines at
his Indian shows. According to the advertising, in the early
1880's, while in Boston, Edwards was shown by a chemist how to
prepare the remedies so that they could be bottled.
Around 1882 grounds for erecting laboratories were purchased in
Corry, Pennsylvania. Corry was chosen as the site for the
factory because of its central location and existing railroad
facilities. The factories took up an entire city block and in
front of several of the buildings the grounds were paved with
bricks embossed with the words Ka-ton-ka. By 1885 the factories
at Corry were operating at full scale production.
Edwards claimed that his partners in the manufacture of the
medicines were Dr. William C. McKay and his brother, the famous
Indian fighter, Donald McKay. Although no documents could be
located to prove or disprove his story, Edwards made great use
of his name in the advertising and promotion of the products.
Supposedly, Donald McKay was the son of a Scotsman, Alexander
McKay, and his Iroquoi bride. Donald achieved his greatest
victory over the Modocs as an Indian fighter. He married a woman
of the Nez Perce Tribe, Minnie McKay, and his people were the
Warme Springs Indians, who regarded him as a medicine man.
Accordingly, he associated himself with Edwards for the purpose
of introducing to the public, real Indian medicines. He would
have his people gather the remedies at the proper season and
then have them sent East to his partner.
Edwards employed a number of successful means to sell the
remedies. He kept the medicine shows going through the turn of
the century and hired Indians to hawk the remedies on the
streets. He printed a newspaper called The Ka-Ton-Ka Story and a
paper back booklet The Last War Trail of the Modocs, in addition
to other printed material Colonel Edwards retired from active
participation in the management around 1901 and left the
business in the hands of a man named Claude D. Place, who was
president and general manager for a number of years. When
Edwards died in December of 1904, the company was carried on by
his daughter, Mrs. Daisy Van Vleck, until the firm was sold to
Jerry Frantz around 1912. Frantz had worked for the company and
managed the medicine shows for several years.
Early Traveling Medicine Show - Advertising for the Oregon
Indian Med Company