Presented at the Agricultural History Society,  Lexington, Ky, June 4-6, 2015

In 1908, a 21-year-old son of a tenant farmer named Millard Collins set out to dig ginseng in the forests of Wise County, Virginia.  Married just three months earlier, Collins had recently found himself in some legal trouble, and he needed a quick source of cash to pay a fine.  Ginseng, a plant highly prized by the Chinese, always commanded a high price with local merchants, and Collins found a patch of the plant growing on a forested hillside.  Undeterred by the makeshift fence surrounding the plants, he waded stealthily into the patch.  Tragically for him, his foot kicked a wire that was rigged to the trigger of a shotgun, which delivered a fatal discharge into his chest.   The owner of the patch discovered Collins’s body eight days later and buried him in a nearby grave.  A coroner’s jury would later rule that Collins was at fault for his own death.[1]

The killing of Millard Collins was not an isolated episode.  Indeed, conflicts over ginseng patches were somewhat common across Appalachia around the turn of the twentieth century, although most did not end in death.  In this paper, I will argue that such conflicts were the consequence of an enclosure movement that took place across the region beginning in the 1870s aimed squarely at the harvesters of ginseng and other wild forest plants.  Since the region’s settlement a century earlier, residents of Appalachia had regarded ginseng and other plants, fruits, nuts, and berries growing in uncultivated spaces as the property of the harvester, rather than the landowner.  By the Civil War, the gathering commons provided important sources of revenue for the state’s landless and smallholding population.  Ginseng was, by far, the most lucrative.  However, beginning in the 1870s and accelerating through the turn of the twentieth century, local elites, allied with state legislators and commercial developers, sought to turn ginseng and other valuable plants into the property of the landowner.  As these elites attempted to impose a more stringent private property regime on the countryside, local harvesters resisted, leading to class tensions that occasionally erupted into violence.

Despite recent attention by Appalachian scholars and environmental historians on the forest commons, the struggle over ginseng has not yet been explored.   This is likely due to a daunting lack of sources.  The ginseng trade, as well as the trade in any other wild plants, was not consistently documented by any government agency until the twentieth century.  Economic and political leaders were not interested in ginseng and hardly talked about it.  And ginseng diggers themselves left virtually no written records.  I have found that store ledgers, periodicals, business and legal records are the most useful in piecing together this story.

The first attempt to end the practice of gathering medicinal plants on private property appeared in the form of an 1873 bill in West Virginia.   Introduced by William J. Woodell from Pocahontas County, the bill was entitled “A Bill prohibiting persons digging ginseng or other medical roots, or prospecting for the same on the land of another, without the consent of the owner, and prescribing the punishment therefor.”  It imposed a fine and jail time for violation of the law.  Interestingly, the bill’s preamble claimed that “in some sections of the state, the citizens are greatly annoyed and their property often damaged by evil disposed and idle persons congregating in certain localities, under the pretense of digging and prospecting for ginseng, and snake root, &c.”[2]

The bill elicited strong reaction from West Virginians, including legislators.  Introduced at the beginning of the term, the bill was tabled at least three times after debate appeared at an impasse.  The bill also drew harsh criticism from commentators in the pages of the Wheeling Intelligencer.  Critics felt not only that it would it hurt the poorest class of people economically, but also that it was an affront to the freedom and independence of the people.[3]  One writer, for example, claimed that the bill “is a step towards enslaving the industrious poor people and placing them in the power of the wealthier class of land owners.”  He continued: “God created all men free, and He intended the uncultivated hills and hollows for their heritage.”[4]   After debating the bill off and on throughout the 1873 term, opponents in the legislature further amended the bill so that it would apply to only three counties—Greenbrier, Webster, and Pocahontas—with a provision that other counties could petition for inclusion in the law.  This amendment succeeded in garnering the necessary votes for passage, and the bill became law in December 1873.  The tangled journey of the bill through the West Virginia legislature suggests that commons rights were still very much a potent political issue in much of the state in the 1870s.

Following the passage of the bill, some diggers actually mobilized against it. According to an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune, West Virginia diggers in Pocahontas County held a mass meeting after the passage of the law and adopted a resolution stating, in whole, “Whereas, the cows roam the forests and eat grass on the common; the sheep can feed on the mountain-sides by a natural and indefensible right; and whereas, we, as human beings, created in the image of our Creator, have been placed below the level of the cow and the sheep, the only brute put on a level with us being the hog, by the Democratic Legislature of West Virginia, depriving us of our natural right to dig ginseng; therefore, Resolved, that the said Legislature was made up mostly of asses; and further resolved, that, although we are Democrats, we will never vote another Democratic ticket, until the Sang law is repealed.”[5]   This suggests that these rural mountain people’s identity was deeply bound up in commons rights.

So why did many West Virginia leaders in 1873 feel it was time to enclose the gathering commons?  Evidence I’ve examined suggests that the post-Civil-War years saw a growth in the number of people who relied on the forest commons for subsistence. One store from Pocahontas County, for example, dealt in large amounts of ginseng beginning in the late 1860s and 1870s.  Indeed, at least 25 percent of its customers gained a majority of their income from commons commodities—mostly ginseng but also chestnuts and snakeroot.  While there were a few customers whose income came exclusively from the commons, most customers simply used commons commodities to supplement their farm production.[6]   Other store ledgers from the region exhibit similar tendencies.  There were simply more people in the forests looking for ginseng.

Many West Virginia leaders felt that this growing group of people was not compatible with the industrial future they envisioned for the state.  As Barbara Rasmussen, Ronald Lewis, and others have shown, the decades leading up to 1873 witnessed the ascendancy of state leaders who courted capitalist investors from the Northeast to develop its timber and mineral resources. By the 1870s, railroad, timber, and coal companies were in the process of securing titles to vast stretches of land in the interior. Political leaders seemed to believe that reliance on the forest commons had conditioned people to habits of idleness, waste and a lack of ambition, as well as a lack of respect for private property. One writer called sang diggers “as incurably lazy, shiftless, and immoral as their [farmer neighbors] are upright, industrious, and manly.”[7]   They believed that sang diggers were “wholly incapable of keeping up with the march of modern progress.”[8]

In addition to this social reason, there was another reason why many mountain people felt that ginseng should be privatized, and this had more to do with conservation.  They feared the plant was fast becoming extinct, and they blamed the sang diggers for it.  One observer, for example, accused the sang diggers of “maiming the goose that laid the golden egg through ignorance.”  Their biggest fault, according to the critics, was that they “exercise no judgment whatever in collecting. They take even the tiniest roots whenever they see them…and the plants are given no chance to reproduce themselves.”  There is plenty of evidence to suggest that wild ginseng populations entered a steep decline in the late nineteenth century.  Virtually every observer commented on this, including some fairly reliable studies from agencies like the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station and the USDA’s Division of Botany.  What data we do have on exports and prices also seems to bear this out.

These widespread accusations would seem to support Garrett Hardin’s thesis in his influential essay on the tragedy of the commons.  He argued that commons resources are subject to collapse because individual users lack long-term incentives to preserve them.  An individuals’ self-interest lies in short-term exploitation.  But the story of ginseng is more complicated than the one critics offered.  Diggers weren’t the only culprits in the plant’s disappearance.  Other factors do seem to be at work.  Free-ranging hogs in much of the region in the nineteenth century did much damage to the forest understory.  The development of more farmland and the deforestation that followed the timber and coal companies into the region also undoubtedly played a role.  While diggers were not the only factors, they certainly had the most potential to shape ginseng populations in much of the region’s forests.  Karl Jacoby has asserted that nineteenth-century rural New Yorkers maintained a sense ‘moral ecology,’ a sort of conservation ethic, enforced by community sanction, that worked to prevent the overharvesting of game animals.  Did ginseng diggers develop a similar moral imperative?

In a 2011 ethnographic study of ginseng digger communities in eastern Kentucky, one scholar has found that a distinct community of individuals exists today whose identity is bound by a sense of forest stewardship.  They take certain precautions against overharvesting, such as selecting the more mature plants and waiting until the plant goes to seed before digging it, and they actively work to replant ginseng in the areas they harvest.  While there is no doubt that such practices are embraced by many ginseng diggers today, the extent to which nineteenth-century diggers did so remains unclear.  Due to a lack of sources, it is very difficult to get at the experience of the diggers to test this hypothesis.

Fortunately, there is a way to use store ledgers to find some answers. The ginseng plant produces seeds in September, so one way to look into this question is to examine store ledgers to determine when they were harvesting the plant.  The 1870s store ledger from Pocahontas County, West Virginia, that I mentioned earlier reveals that while the majority of the harvest came in September and October, a sizeable amount of the root was still harvested in the spring and summer before the plant could develop seeds.  Those doing the harvesting out of season tended to be those whose only income—or the vast majority of it—came from ginseng.  Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that those who relied heavily on ginseng during the post-Civil-War depression were less likely to be bound by any kind of conservation ethic.  Whatever customs mountain communities may have had to prevent the abuse of the ginseng commons was undercut by the exigencies of economic necessity.

It was in this context of tension over the future of the de facto commons that modernizers began championing the promises of ginseng farming.  Sporadic attempts to cultivate the plant had been made as early as the mid-eighteenth century, but these efforts had not been successful due to both physiological and social factors.  The plant was not amenable to row-crop agriculture—experiments had repeatedly failed to produce a healthy crop—and it grew very slowly, requiring at least 4 or 5 years and, preferably, 10 or 15, to reach a healthy, marketable size.  But the biggest challenge to cultivating ginseng remained the fact that people simply dug it up wherever they saw it growing.[9]

Beginning in the 1880s and accelerating in the 1890s, however, more people felt it was time to forcefully privatize this commodity.  Ginseng cultivation became a minor craze in the mountains.  A rash of publications in the 1890s helped further a national discussion on the methods of raising ginseng, including a periodical entitled Special Crops. Ginseng growers associations were established in several states across the nation.  Tales of farmers clearing $5,000 a year on one-third of an acre generated tremendous interest in cultivation, and by the turn of the twentieth century, gardens were popping up throughout rural communities in the North, South, and Midwest.[10]  The most important variables, growers generally agreed, were adequate shade, moist, fertile soil, and a means to protect the crop from ‘thieves.’

Many farmers found that their ginseng grew best in its natural conditions, and they focused their efforts on transplanting wild ginseng to a patch in the forest and putting a fence around it.  However, this trend only brought the conflict over the ginseng commons to a head.  State legislatures bowed to pressure from growers to pass laws aimed at protecting ginseng gardens.  In 1902, Kentucky made it a felony with a one- to three-year sentence for someone to enter a ginseng garden demarcated by posted signs and some type of fence.[11]  Over subsequent decades, other states would adopt laws similar to Kentucky’s and West Virginia’s 1873 law requiring written permission from the landowner.  Many growers, however, took the law into their own hands, using intimidation and the threat of violence—even booby-traps—to deter thieves, and the courts generally supported them.  Meanwhile, people like Millard Collins who continued to treat ginseng as a commons resource found themselves increasingly on the wrong side of the law.  Legally speaking, at least, ginseng had been effectively wrested from the de facto commons and rendered the property of the landowner.   Although the harvesting of wild ginseng continues to this day, some of it illegally, it is no longer dictated by the common rights of the nineteenth century.

[1] “Ginseng Thief Killed,” The Tazewell Republican, 6 August 1908; “Dead Man was Robber,” The Democratic Banner (Mt. Vernon, OH), 29 June 1915.

[2] H.B. 93, Acts of the Legislature of West Virginia at the Eleventh Session, 1872-73 (Charleston: Henry Walker, 1873).

[3] [Tomahawk], “Charleston,” Wheeling Intelligencer, 9 December 1873.

[4] [Tomahawk], “Charleston,” Wheeling Intelligencer, 11 November 1873.

[5] Chicago Daily Tribune, 27 September 1874.

[6] Account Ledger,  Box 8, Isaac McNeel Papers, West Virginia History Center, West Virginia University Library, Morgantown, WV.

[7] John McElroy, “Where the Laurel Blooms and Men and Women Live Near Nature’s Heart,” The National Tribune, 12 August 1897.

[8] R.R. Freer, “Ginseng Growers Meet,” New York Times, 14 September 1902.

[9] H. Garman, “Ginseng, Its Nature and Culture,” Bulletin No. 78, Agricultural Experiment Station of the State College of Kentucky (Lexington, 1898).

[10] R. R. Freer, “Ginseng Growers Meet,” New York Times, 14 September 1902.

[11] Statute 1228a, Kentucky Statutes, 4th ed. (Louisville: John Carroll, 1908).