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Gideon Lincecum: Ants, Homeopathy, and "Slangwhangers"

If you are on Farm to Market Road 390 near Burton, you might stumble across this historical marker. And, oh boy, does it leave me with more questions than answers. However, it turns out that this was a fairly influential scientific figure. Who knew? Right here in the Lone Star backyard.

As the sign says, Gideon Lincecum was born in Georgia and learned medicine from Native Americans he spent time with, and it was these interactions that inspired him to practice and advocate for botanical medicine. Most of the sign's information focuses on his time in Texas, which makes sense given that it is a Texas historical marker; however, he didn't make the move to Texas until later in his life. Interestingly, it turns out that his homeopathic and medicinal views were quite progressive for his time. But, he wasn't ahead of his time in ALL of his thinking: Lincecum was a slave owner, and "vigorously" campaigned for the legalization of castration of criminals and the mentally disabled. He saw castration as "the only method of improving the human race" (TSHA). Hoo boy, that hasn't aged well. Although, for context, he wasn't the only scientist during the late 19th century that championed eugenics and this type of cultural evolution (I'm lookin' at you, E. B. Tylor). However, and I can't say this loud enough, these views are antiquated and no longer in keeping with modern science.

But back to Gideon, pre-Texas. He married in 1814 and in 1818 he, his wife, his two small children, his parents, a few siblings, and the enslaved members of his household, moved to Mississippi where they stayed for around 30 years. Gideon was very active in Monroe County, Mississippi, working at the lumber yard, acting as chairman of the school commissioners, and hunting and trading with the Choctaw and Chickasaw. In fact, he did more than just trade and hunt with these groups, he recorded their oral histories, learned how to speak and write their language, and learned their medicine (more on that in a second). By all accounts, Gideon respected Native Americans as equals and was against their forced removal to reservations by the federal government in the early 1830s and openly criticized Christian missionaries for not attempting to prevent this process.

Gideon Lincecum

Gideon was self-taught but also a strong believer in education. In fact, one of my favorite stories about Gideon concerns him trying to educate his children. In 1831, he enrolled 6 of his 10 (yes 10!) children in the only school around in a neighboring town. After 6 months, he went to visit them to see how much they had learned and after some intense questioning, Gideon figured out that the only thing they had learned were Bible stories. Gideon, enraged, pulled all 6 of his children out of school and homeschooled them from that point forward.

There seem to be some recurring themes with this man: critical of religion, constantly learning, a fan of Native Americans...he was also a doctor, and, unsurprisingly, a self-taught doctor. After losing several patients during the cholera outbreak in the 1830s. he argued that the practices of bleeding patients and administering mercury were doing more harm than good (in hindsight, he was very right). He also argued that the American medical journals were written by northern doctors who did not understand southern environments or diseases. So, doing what he did best, he sought out a local Native American doctor (Alikchi Chito) who taught him herbal medicine. He preferred and advocated for herbal medications for the rest of his life. And, I got to say, he sounds like a doctor I would have wanted around back in the day. If only to avoid blood loss and mercury poisoning. Luckily for Texas, he and his family eventually moved to the Lone Star State.

He didn't make it to Texas permanently until 1848. However, in 1835 he joined an exploratory group of Mississippians traveling to Texas to see if it was a place they could settle. On this visit, he spotted a piece of land he really wanted, but couldn't afford (the asking price was $5 - to be fair, this is too steep for me too. I feel you, Gideon). This bit of land must have made an impression because he came back 13 years later with his family, purchased it for 75cents an acre, and named it Long Point. This is where Gideon did all of his publishing--on medicine, geology, meteorology, daily activities of insect life, etc.--and became recognized as a naturalist, corresponding with national and international scientists. He even corresponded with Charles Darwin twice. Oh yeah, this is also where the ants come into play. Remember the ants mentioned by the historical marker? Turns out, Charles Darwin had to sponsor Gideon's publication on agricultural ants because it was too "controversial". Now, what could possibly be so controversial about ants: from what I can gather, his observations were too anthropomorphic - attributing to the ants human-like social and agricultural skills. This was a real controversy (I know - I'm scandalized too. I'll be running for the smelling salts in a minute) and apparently is still referred to as the "Lincecum myth". However, our pal Gideon was able to survive the scandal and went on to publish several more articles.

Now we reach the most intriguing part of the historical marker. Why and how did he end up in Mexico?! Well, long story short, Gideon was not a fan of the Union. He frequently called them "slangwhangers" (which means loud, abusive speaker, but really, use it however you wish. Consider it my gift to you). After the Civil War, you know, the one where the "slangwhanging" Union won, he took his family and ran away to Mexico where he joined a Confederate colony and started a banana plantation. There are some nuances with the history of these colonies and the motivation for Confederates to flee the States, but, in general, they were an attempt to maintain, or re-create, Dixie, in the face of "northern aggression". Gideon's relocation did not last long though, and he moved back to Texas 5 years later and, after a long illness, died in 1874.

Not the colony Lincecum was at but a similar one in Villa Americana (Confederate Colony in 1906 Sao Paolo, Brazil)

So there you have it: Gideon Lincecum. An advocate for science, herbal medicine, and Native Americas, but not really anyone or anything else that aged well (like the slavery and eugenics). He was a self-described "infidel" and "free-thinker" and declared that "no church could be built at Long Point unless it had an arch over its entrance with the words 'Free Discussion' permanently inscribed on its face" (Gideon Lincecum Chapter). He adiosed to Mexico after the Confederacy lost the Civil War and his final resting place is in the Texas State Cemetery.

Most importantly, Gideon Lincecum had controversial opinions about ants.

For more information, please see these sites:

The Gideon Lincecum Chapter (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension):

Lincecum, Gideon (TSHA):

Gideon Lincecum (1793-1874): Mississippi Pioneer and Man of Many Talents (Mississippi History Now):

Confederates in Mexico: Lost Cause or New South Vanguard? (Southern Spaces):

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