Curators' Choice

Chief Two Moon Meridas: Native American Healer or Snake-Oil Salesman?

75_72_1T1 Advertising is one of my favorite primary sources for historical research. Ads can tell you so much about the time in which they were made. They can also tell you about some of the compelling characters who made and sold products.

Not much is known about Chief Two Moon, whose real name was Chico Colon Meridas, before 1914, when he moved east and began selling his patent medicines in New York and Philadelphia. Soon after, he met and married Helen Gertrude Nugent and set up shop in Waterbury, Connecticut. Although his marriage certificate states that he was born in Devil’s Lake, South Dakota, in 1888, historians have not been able to confirm this information. As his product’s name implies, he claimed to be of Native American descent, but this information is also unconfirmed. In fact, his 1933 obituary states that when he died, the Department of the Interior had recently refused to certify him as an Indian. Biographers have suggested that his father, Chico Meridan, was Mexican, but this too is unconfirmed. One thing seems clear, however. He took his pseudonym from his mother’s maiden name, Mary Tumoon.

Chief Two Moon’s popular patent medicines and his practice as a naturopath made him a wealthy man. Sales took off following the 1918 influenza epidemic, when, according to newspaper accounts of the time, none of his patients died. By his death in 1933, “his immense [medical] ‘practice’ was more than mere legend,” according to the New York Times.

A clever salesman, he hawked his products by combining modern advertising practices with Americans’ romantic ideas about Native Americans’ healing powers in the 1920s. As seen in this advertisement, which is featured in our new exhibition, "Curators' Choice: Favorites from the Collection," depictions of his motorized advertising bus—“The Only one of its Kind”—and his 1925 Waterbury, Connecticut, laboratory—implying that he used scientific manufacturing techniques—flank the mystical central image of a contemplative Indian above a powerful waterfall. The word “Health” magically floats between the waterfall and the moon. At the time, a number of patent medicine companies featured Indians in their advertising because the American public believed that Native Americans, especially their medicine men, had knowledge of herbal remedies through a deep connection with the natural world. But Chief Two Moon claimed to be the real deal.

The last few years of Meridas’s life contained both honors and difficulties. The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council named him an honorary chief on August 6, 1930, for his philanthropy, providing cash, food and other supplies for the tribe. However, he was also faced with several lawsuits in New York and Connecticut for practicing medicine and naturopathy without a license. He died on November 3, 1933, of liver failure. His wife continued to sell the Chief Two Moon products long after her husband’s death.


"Chief Two Moon Dies in Waterbury," The New York Times, November 3, 1933.

Tom Fillius, "Chief Two Moon Meridas":

Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, "Indian in a Bottle," unpublished paper, February 2008

The Mattatuck Museum Arts and History Center has a number of objects related to Chief Two Moon and his products. Here is one example.


Advertisement, 1925–1933. Parker-Brawner Co., Washington, D.C. Gift of Deborah Hills, 75.72.1. Photograph by David Bohl.


Phony as a $3 Bill

3-dollar bill cropped “Phony as a $3 bill.” Today, this phrase conjures up images of smarmy swindlers selling counterfeit merchandise. So I was surprised to learn that legitimate $3 bills, like the one seen here, once existed. So did bills in a variety of denominations that might seem strange to us today, from 1/2¢ on up.

In the early 1800s, the newly formed United States made several attempts to nationalize banking. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton convinced Congress to create the First Bank of the United States in 1791. Its charter expired in 1811. To control inflation and pay debt from the War of 1812, Congress established the Second Bank of the United States in 1816. President Andrew Jackson vetoed its recharter in 1836, letting loose a banking free-for-all.

From 1836 to 1866, no Federal laws regulated banks. Each state chartered its own financial institutions, and each bank issued its own currency. According to one source, over 30,000 different bank notes were created during this 30-year time period. Not always backed by gold or silver and often easy to counterfeit, many of this wide variety of bills could prove worthless—or, as we say might today, phony as a $3 bill.

The U.S. government reestablished control of the banking system to finance the Civil War. In 1861, it began issuing bank notes. Then the National Bank Act of 1863 created a national banking system and uniform national currency, printed by private companies under contract to the U.S. government.  In 1865, the government levied a 10 percent tax on state bank notes, rendering them unprofitable for the banks to issue, thus ending what is now known as the free banking era. Since 1877, the U.S. Department of the Treasury has been responsible for printing all U.S. currency, and it hasn’t printed any $3 bills. But you can see this one at the National Heritage Museum, on view in “Curators’ Choice: Favorites from the Collection.”
Reference: Gene Hessler, The Comprehensive Catalog of U.S. Paper Money, 4/e (Port Clinton, OH: BNR Press), 1983.

Photo: Bank Note, 1800–1860. The Merchants and Planters Bank, Georgia; Bald, Cousland and Co., Philadelphia; Baldwin, Bald and Cousland, New York. Gift of Clinton E. Brooks, 78.17.1.


Fall Public Programs at the Museum

Fall is a busy time, so be sure to mark your calendar with the following public programs at the National Heritage Museum. We look forward to seeing you!

Gallery Talk: Curators’ Choice Theodore Ross and His Wife's Spirit, 85_80_25cS1

Saturday, October 9, 2 p.m.

Join Museum staff as we explore favorite objects from our broad collection in “Curators’ Choice: Favorites from the Collection,” a brand new exhibition opening today. Free.


DeanLahikainen Lecture: The Art of Collecting: A Curator's Personal Journey

Saturday, October 23, 2 p.m.

Dean Lahikainen, Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Peabody Essex Museum, will discuss our fascination with historical objects and show us some of his personal favorites. This lecture complements the exhibition, “Curators’ Choice.” This free public lecture is funded by the Lowell Institute.


Lecture: What Is It about Diners? More Than a Meal, That's for Sure RJSG at CAM lg  

Saturday, November 20, 2 p.m.  

Richard J. S. Gutman, director and curator of Johnson and WalesCulinary Museum in Providence, RI, will hold an illustrated lecture that complements the exhibition, “Night Road: Photographs of Diners by John D. Woolf.” Gutman will elaborate on the staying power of the classic diner, based on 40 years of eating and research. This free public lecture is funded by the Lowell Institute.


Yosemite Gallery Talk: Treasured Lands

Saturday, December 4, 2 p.m.

Join Museum staff and enter worlds of stunning natural beauty in the popular exhibition, “Treasured Lands: The Fifty-Eight U.S. National Parks in Focus.” Free.


Finally, looking ahead to winter, we know you've been waiting for the holiday train show dates – we've received inquiries. Note that the Museum will be open for both Saturday and Sunday on this mid-December weekend.


Model Trains 2010_02_14_0237_Cropped

Saturday, December 11, 10 AM–4:30 PM and Sunday, December 12, Noon–4 PM

An annual favorite, the HUB Division of the National Railroad Association will delight fans large and small with their model train display. $5/family (members); $7/family (non-members).


All programs take place at the National Heritage Museum, located at 33 Marrett Road, Lexington, Massachusetts (at the corner of Mass. Ave. & Rte. 2A). Admission and parking are free.


Please note our winter hours:

From Monday, October 4, 2010, through May 3, 2011, the Museum will be open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m.


The Museum is wheelchair accessible. Hearing assistance devices are available for all lectures.

For more information, call 781-861-6559 or visit


Photo credits:

Dean Lahikainen. Courtesy of Dean Lahikainen; Richard J.S. Gutman. Courtesy of Richard J.S. Gutman; Theodore Ross with His Wife’s Spirit, 1862–1875. W.H. Mumler (1832-1884). Boston, Massachusetts. Gift of the Supreme Council, 85.80.25c; Yosemite National Park, California, January 2002. Quang-Tuan Luong. © by the artist; Train Show. National Heritage Museum.