May 08, 2019

Native American Uses of Yaupon

By Abianne Falla
Native American Uses of Yaupon - CatSpring Yaupon

Yaupon use pre-dates the formation of the United States of America. Before even early traders landed on these shores, many Native American tribes had a Yaupon tradition.


Records show that yaupon was consumed by many tribes of the Southeast and trans Mississippi south in political, religious, and social contexts. While it grew primarily in the Southeast region, extensive trade networks established between tribes spread yaupon far and wide. It has been found as far west as New Mexico, as far south as Mexico, and as far inland as Cahokia in Missouri, all most likely as a result of trade with Southeastern tribes.


The most well documented yaupon usage is that of the Creek Confederacy that dominated the Southeast while the earliest known reference was from Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca while traveling along the coast of Texas in 1542.


Another early account comes from John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina, printed in 1709. According to Lawson, yaupon was used by the Native Americans of the Carolina coast, who “bore this plant in veneration above all the plants they are acquainted with”. It was used for rituals, ceremonies, village councils, and other important meetings. It was also used as a social drink and to show friendship. Cups made of whelk, a sea snail whose shells are found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, were frequently used.


Purification ceremonies in which large quantities of the black drink (which contained yaupon amongst other ingredients) were consumed were followed by vomiting, and this was credited by European travelers to the yaupon. Through the test of time, numerous explorers and travelers experiences, and recent scientific study however, the emetic properties of yaupon have been disproven. 

Jonathan Dickinson (later the mayor of Philadelphia) reported that amongst the St. Lucian people on Florida’s east coast, yaupon was traditionally only served to important men. Throughout the Southeast, yaupon stood as a symbol of purity and was used for peaceful purposes; therefore, some Native Americans in this region referred to the tea as “white drink” because it signified health and peace.