Invited Lecture at Mars Hill University

Sept. 15, 2015

Hello, and thank you all for coming tonight.  I would like to thank Miss Hannah Furgiuele for inviting me here tonight. I’m super excited to be here and tell you about the research I’ve been doing for the past several 5 years.  Tonight, I’m going to tell you a story that has really never been told before.  There have been little pieces here and there, but the entire story has never been told.  It is the story of how the forests saved many Appalachian people from destitution after the Civil War.  Actually, to be more accurate, it’s a story of how the forests, along with global markets for wild herbs, and enterprising merchants inside and outside the mountains, combined to save many Appalachian people from destitution after the Civil War.

I’d like to start by giving you a little background of my project and tell you how I came to this topic.  So this entire project began back in 2010 during my first graduate school seminar in Richard Starnes’s class.  I was looking for a topic to research, and I decided to try and find out how western North Carolina recovered from the Civil War.  I wanted to write something about the aftermath of the war.  So I started scanning the digitized periodicals for the late 1860s and 1870s, looking for reports on Western North Carolina, and I kept seeing references to a peculiar little plant called ginseng.  Now, I was fairly familiar with ginseng.  My grandmother had always told me that she, her father, and her grandfather had dug ginseng around their home place in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.  I had never dug ginseng, but I had always kept a look out for it when I hiked in the woods.  Without much luck, though.  I had seen two ginseng plants in over 10 years of looking.  It’s a pretty nondescript herb (SLIDE) that grows in the deep woods, primarily in the southern mountains and in the North where it stays cool most of the year.  It has from 1 to 5 or more palmately compound leaves, typically with 5 leaflets.  The more leaves it has, the older it is.

So that semester I spent looking through large amounts of digitized newspapers.  And let me tell you, this project could not have worked even 15 years ago. Today, I have the ability to keyword search for “ginseng,” and it instantly pulls up thousands of pages relevant to my topic.  My advisor, John Inscoe, gives me a hard time.  “Back in my day,” he says jokingly, “we had to sit in front of a microfilm reader for days on end, scanning newspapers until our retinas detached.”  Its hard for me to even imagine.  Anyways, as I poured over these newspapers, I kept finding these reports about the people who dug ginseng.  They were pretty shocking.  They called them names like “sangers,” “mossbacks,” “movers,” semi-nomads,” and, most commonly, “sang diggers.”   They called them a separate race, a class, a tribe, a colony.  They claimed that this group included deserters from the armies of North and South and even freedmen and women, criminals, paupers.  They did not hide their disdain for them.  One writer called them “low-browed, stupid, and sullen,” and a “people who are as savage in instinct as those who roam the impenetrable wilds of Zululand.”

I just want to read you one of the more popular articles.  It was published in 1878. “The sangers are a curious race of mountaineers who inhabit several wild counties of West Virginia. Their origin is unknown. The pure Sanger is a being by himself…Lawful marriage is unknown among them, and they have no use for lawyers, doctors, preachers, or school-teachers. They live in the woods and among the rocky fastnesses, far away from highways and civilized settlements.  Their abodes are log-cabins, with mud chimneys, and sometimes caves and holes in the ground.  They live on game, and include in the list which furnishes their bill of fare, raccoons, opossums, groundhogs, squirrels, snakes, owls, crows, polecats, and other animals that come to their traps. The women drink tea of sassafras and the roots of the golden rod.  In the spring they find a delicacy in brook trout…They despise frogs, which are about the only living things the Sanger does not eat, while fried grasshoppers are a rare luxury.  The sangers have a commerce, too. They dig the ginseng root, which is plentiful in the mountains, steal into the nearest settlement by night, and sell it by appointment with their grocer, and steal out again with corn meal and bacon, of which they have learned the value, when their small game is scarce.  The ginseng is shipped to China, where it commands a high price. So they contribute to the commerce of the outside world, after all, and are not altogether useless human beings.”

Here’s another one:  “The ‘sanger’ is a man of irregular habits, and cannot be trusted any too far. Being a cross between a ku-klux and a moonshiner, he is naturally a devil-may-be fellow at best, and handles his ‘gun’ in the same chilling, restless manner that he does the truth and other people’s property.  He works about two months out of the year [digging ginseng] and puts in the other ten kicking himself for it.”

They kept getting more and more unbelievable. “I can remember when I was a boy in Virginia, years before the war, hearing the old negro mammies speak almost in whispers of the mysterious sangers of the mountains. They were described as elfish beings, who lurked in the fastnesses, always on the watch for fat negro babies, which they would carry away to their inaccessible haunts, there to roast and eat them. They also had eagles that did their bidding, and when it was not convenient for them to secure a baby themselves they sent an eagle to swoop down and snatch a pickaninny from where it might be sleeping in the sun and bear it away to the Sangers.”

So, like I said, some of these reports were just shocking.  Being an Appalachian scholar, I immediately doubted everything these reports said.  After all, the 1870s and 1880s was the era in which many of the Appalachian stereotypes were born, when all mountain people came to be considered backward and primitive by the rest of America.  So the sang-digger stereotype fit neatly into that narrative.  But I couldn’t help but wonder: how true were these reports?  Now, I think its safe to assume that they had no eagles doing their bidding and didn’t feast on African American babies, but I kept wondering: was there really a large group of people who dug ginseng for a living in the years after the war? And did they develop their own customs and habits that were distinct from their farming neighbors?  Driven by these questions, I decided to spend the next several years trying to get to the bottom of it.

Sources. The problem was, I immediately discovered, these sang diggers didn’t leave many written records.  If some of the more neutral-seeming reports were half accurate, they were probably illiterate.  And if they did write down their experiences and reflect on their existence, they were nowhere readily accessible to me.  But I began to think that if they were trading ginseng at the country store for bacon, cornmeal, powder, shot, and other necessities, there should be records of them in the store records.  So for the next 5 years, I traveled all over Appalachia, from Charleston, West Virginia to Murphy, North Carolina, hunting ginseng in store ledgers from the nineteenth century.  And today, I’m going to share some of my findings.  But first, a few words about the ginseng trade.

Beginnings of the ginseng trade. Up until about 1850, the only wild plant with any real value was ginseng.  The ginseng trade is one of the most peculiar aspects of mountain commerce, and it has a long history.  It began roughly in the 1720s, when the Jesuits living among the Algonquin in Canada discovered that the Chinese would pay good money for American Ginseng.  The Chinese were—and are—voracious consumers of ginseng.  For nearly 5,000 years, they had used ginseng for a variety of things, mostly as a general tonic to give the body vigor and energy.  But by the eighteenth century, they had nearly exterminated the Asian ginseng from the wilds, and they were looking for an adequate substitute.  So when Jesuits discovered an American cousin growing wild in Canada, they induced the Native Americans to dig it, and they sold it to the Chinese via Europe.

Ginseng boom in West Virginia. The trade gradually spread down the Appalachian mountains, where ginseng grew in particular abundance.  By the 1780s, it had reached western Virginia.  Scholars have studied the role of the fur trade in frontier commerce extensively, but my research suggests that ginseng played nearly as big of a role in supporting the earliest settlers of what is now West Virginia.  Local legend has it that what is now Raleigh County, West Virginia was settled by sang diggers sent by Tennessee governor John Sevier.  I found a few trading posts from the era that dealt almost exclusively in ginseng.  Nearly every customer traded large amounts of the root for supplies necessary to begin life on the frontier: knives, saddles, scythes, plates, shoebuckles.

Ginseng in WNC.  The ginseng trade reached western North Carolina in earnest around 1808 when a Philadelphia physician recruited local merchants to buy ginseng, and by the 1830s, there were ginseng collection points in Jonathan’s Creek in Haywood County, along the Caney River in Yancey County, near Boone in Watauga County, another in Ashe County, and probably several more that we don’t really know about yet.  William Holland Thomas, the legendary white chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and a prominent merchant in southwestern North Carolina, dealt in large amounts of the root.  His business records suggest that while many of his customers were white, virtually all the ginseng he purchased were dug by the Cherokee themselves.  There is speculation among some historians that Thomas obtained much of the funds he used to purchase land for what is now the Qualla boundary from the sale of ginseng.

The Commons.  The importance of ginseng in the early mountain commerce was made possible by a custom that early settlers brought over from Europe and nurtured on the Appalachian frontier.  It was what scholars call a commons tradition, meaning that common rights governed the harvesting of naturally occurring resources.  Virtually everyone in the community had access to the plants, animals, and minerals occurring in the unsettled areas of the mountains, typically the forested mountainsides where there were no homes or roads.  It didn’t matter on whose property the ginseng was growing, the plant was considered by local custom to be the property of the harvester.  So looking at the history of the ginseng trade is one way to examine how the commons system worked.

Decline in antebellum trade. So by the time of the Civil War in the 1860s, the ginseng trade was well established in southern Appalachia, but by then, ginseng was growing harder and harder to find.  You’ll need to know something about the botany of ginseng to understand how sang digging was changing.  Ginseng is a slow-growing perennial.  Once it is dug, unless the digger replants the seeds, that same plant will not come back the next year.  Even if it the seeds are replanted, the plant takes at least 5 years, and more like 10, to reach a good, harvestable size.  So, in other words, it was highly susceptible to overharvesting.  It was also highly susceptible to habitat alteration.  It thrives in moist, shady, old-growth deciduous forests, and largely disappears with the trees.  In the early years, the plant would have been easy to find in the woods surrounding new settlements, but as the trade continued, the plant got harder and harder to find.  Furthermore, as the economy expanded and farmers obtained more of their income from other farm produce like livestock, it simply was no longer as profitable to spend so much time in the woods.  So the initial frontier ginseng boom could not be sustained, and the trade gradually decreased over time.  I found this to be true in some store ledgers from West Virginia, as well as the data on ginseng exports.   Most scholars who have discussed ginseng in Appalachia have suggested that the ginseng trade had largely died out by the late antebellum period.

Post-war boom.  My research, however, suggests that people were digging not only more ginseng after the war but also a wide variety of other roots and herbs.  For starters, this graph shows that wild ginseng exports reached their peak in the decades after the Civil War.  To examine the postwar boom in root digging and herb gathering in greater detail, I have focused in on three communities: Cherokee County, North Carolina, Watauga County, North Carolina, and Pocahontas County, West Virginia.  Let’s take a look at these counties.

Cherokee County, NC.  The story of one postal service clerk from Washington D.C. named Edwin B. Olmsted helps illustrate the importance of the trade in Cherokee County, North Carolina.  In 1870, Olmsted was in a bit of legal trouble after being convicted of embezzlement of public funds, and he believed the best way to recoup his finances was trading in ginseng.  He approached the large wholesale drug firm, Lanman and Kemp, of New York City, with a proposition: front him $1,000 and he would be the firm’s agent in Murphy, North Carolina.  So in the fall of 1870, he said goodbye to his wife and children and headed South to the war-torn mountains of Cherokee County to buy ginseng for cheap.  When he got there, he was greatly disappointed.  He wrote to his bosses: “The universal feeling this far is that ‘sang’ is scarce, having been so thoroughly dug out last year and the year before…The whole country has changed within three years, and there is great competition in the root business…In consequence the diggers have ascertained the value of roots and do not dig at old prices.”  He ended up reaching an agreement with other ginseng buyers, which divided up territory.  In his territory, he tried to contract with country stores, as well as the diggers themselves, but he had a hard time finding the diggers because they were “away in the mountains.”  He found that the best approach was working through the country stores.  By the end of the season, he was forced to leave with a small load of average quality roots that he purchased for much higher than he anticipated.

Olmsted’s correspondence reinforces my thesis that ginseng was very important to the postwar economy of many mountain people, more important than scholars have yet recognized.  One U.S. Department of Agriculture report from 1872 suggested that some 75,000 to 85,000 pounds of ginseng was traded in Murphy in 1871, which means diggers made somewhere from $18,000 to $22,000 that year from ginseng.  If Olmsted was accurate when he said that the ginseng had been thoroughly dug out between 1867 and 1870, then it may have been that locals made even more money in the years before 1871.  What makes this trade even more significant was the fact that Cherokee County was devastated by the Civil War.  Between 1860 and 1870, according to census reports, the county lost 40 percent of its improved farmland and over half of its livestock values.  Ginseng took on added importance.

Pocahontas County, WV: The same trend seems to have taken place in West Virginia as well, particularly among the southern and eastern counties.  Buried in the archives at West Virginia University I found a ledger from a country store owned by Isaac McNeel in Pocahontas County, from 1871-1874. It proved to be full of ginseng diggers.  Let’s look at a few of them, using census records to flesh out the details of their lives.  Henry Adkison was a 35-year-old tenant farmer with three children in Pocahontas County when the war broke out, and he enlisted in the Confederate army.  When he returned from war, he had few resources at hand.  He turned to digging ginseng and gathering chestnuts.  From 1867 to 1868, some 85% of his store purchases were made with ginseng, the rest coming from gathering chestnuts.  But after that, he gradually moved away from ginseng.  From 1869 to 1870, he sold mostly chestnuts, and after 1870, he made most of his purchases with cash, butter, and cattle products.  Why did he move away from ginseng?  It could be that he could no longer find as much as he once had.  Or, he may have simply found other avenues of income.  Census records show he owned $3,000 worth of real estate in 1870, and by 1880, he listed his occupation as a shoemaker.  It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that ginseng played a part in getting him back on his feet after the war.   But he was no vagrant.  He didn’t live in the woods.

Josiah Cline was one of the more prolific sang diggers around Mill Point.  He relied much more heavily on ginseng than Adkison.  He was married with 5 children and listed himself as a tenant farmer in 1870.  From 1869 to 1874, Cline sold some $140 worth of ginseng to McNeel.  His entire bill for that period was just $150. So over 90% of his income was from ginseng.  Every couple of weeks, he would bring in a bag of ginseng. And look at what he purchased:  Corn, bacon, meal, flour, sugar.  And this pattern continued for the 5 years we have records for.  What does that tell us?  He probably didn’t maintain much of a farm.  He may have even paid rent with proceeds from ginseng, and he probably got his kids to do their share of digging.  Cline helps confirm the popular notion that there were mountain people who relied exclusively on ginseng.

So how did they go about harvesting ginseng?  What were their methods?  Again, sources are scarce, but in 1939, an employee of the Federal Writers’ Project interviewed an old mountain woman from a nearby community, who was born in 1859 and helped her family make ends meet after the war by digging ginseng.  She gives some important insights into the methods of the sang diggers that seem to have been fairly typical in some areas.  She said that in the fall, she used to go with her family and friends, sometimes 15 or 20 in a group, into the more remote sections of the mountains and set up camp for 2 or 3 weeks at a time.  They would pack in corn meal but would also eat wild game, fish, and roasted chestnuts.  They would camp under cliff ledges and spend their days roaming the forests in smaller groups harvesting ginseng.  This might explain why some people thought sang diggers lived in the forests.  They might have encountered groups of people on the ginseng expeditions and assumed they had no home to return to.

The sang bill and social tensions: In West Virginia, it seems, ginseng proved to be a source of social tension, much moreso than it appears to have been in Murphy.  In 1872, another Pocahontas County merchant named William J. Woodell was elected to the West Virginia state legislature, and in his first session, he introduced a bill aimed squarely at the diggers of ginseng and other medicinal roots.  The long title was, “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.”  In essence, it was attempt to enclose the common by rendering ginseng and other medicinal plants the property of the landowner, rather than the harvester.  Woodell explained in his preamble 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.”[1]  Originally introduced as a statewide bill, it was amended to apply to just three counties.  One of those was Pocahontas County.

Diggers Reactions: The bill elicited strong reaction from some in the West Virginia press who were largely sympathetic with the sang diggers.  It also prompted some sang diggers from Pocahontas County to hold a meeting and adopt a resolution threatening political pressure on the Democratic-controlled state legislature.  “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.”[2]   Not only does this suggest their deep commitment to the commons tradition, but it also suggests that these sang diggers were no isolated subset of mountaineers, shut off from any interaction with the outside world.  The resolution was apparently written by a local schoolmaster from nearby Webster County.  The experience of Pocahontas Countians in the 1870s suggests that many people did indeed become more dependent on the root after the war and that the root became a source of division within mountain communities.  But it wasn’t really ginseng per se that divided communities.  It was the commons tradition on which it depended.

Watauga County, NC. Let’s now move down to Watauga County, where something very interesting was happening.  Scanning through the store ledgers of merchants in the area, I discovered that the people there were digging much more than just ginseng.  They were trading in literally hundreds of different wild roots, herbs, berries, seeds, barks, and nuts.  There was mayapple, wild ginger, lobelia, boneset, angelica, turkey pea, ladies slipper, and more and more.  And as I dug a little deeper, I found that Watauga County was the epicenter of a little-known but expansive trade in what was called “crude botanical drugs.”  Whereas ginseng from Cherokee County and Pocahontas County went to China, these wild plants were going to the growing pharmaceutical industry in the northeastern and Midwestern United States.  Some of them even went to Europe.  Let me just give you a brief history of this trade.  It started before the war around 1848, when a Wilkesboro merchant named Calvin Cowles discovered that he could make a decent profit in this cash-strapped area by trading wild plants to northern pharmaceutical manufacturers.  He realized that the Blue Ridge just to the west of him was a haven for medicinal plants of all kinds, and he also realized that the botanical drug industry was poised to expand.  From his store outside of Wilkesboro, he contracted with individuals and country store owners on the Blue Ridge, one of which was Henry Taylor who helped start what is now Mast General Store.  He would post his price lists of dozens of different plants on public places in mountain communities, and people would bring them in, making 8, 10, 12 cents a pound.  He traded in ginseng, but ginseng formed only a minor part of his business.

When the Civil War broke out, he was cut off from his northern buyers, but there was a new buyer in town: the Confederate government.  For a couple of years, the Confederate government undertook the task of developing its own botanical medicines for use by the army.  They were kind of forced to by the Union blockade.  This effort didn’t last long, but it did help introduce other Carolinians into the trade.  The war also stimulated the growth of the pharmaceutical industry in the North, and when the war was over, there were more and larger companies that needed plants for its medicines.

Postwar expansion.  Encouraged by Cowles’s business model, other western North Carolina entrepreneurs got into the business, and by the early 1880s, the industry had reached the height of its influence in the region.  The pharmaceutical industry was booming in the North.  The Wallace Brothers out of Statesville quickly emerged as the industry leader.  In the 1880s, they were contracting with more than 300 country stores in western North Carolina, and they estimated that some 40,000 people were supplying them with roots and herbs through those stores.  They boasted that they were the largest wholesale supplier of medicinal plants in the world.   After their decline in the 1890s, other companies stepped into the void.  One of the most prominent was started by George Greer, a native of Watauga County.  His father was a Confederate veteran, and his family was poor after the war.  He helped support his family as a young boy by selling herbs to Cowles.  In the 1890s, he started his own business and eventually opened up collection centers in Marion, Virginia, and Pikeville, Kentucky, under the name R.T. Greer Herb Co.   Grant Wilcox started an herb business in Ashe County at the turn of the century, and then relocated to Boone shortly thereafter, where he became one of the most successful dealers in roots and herbs in the region for much of the twentieth century.  So from its start on the Watauga County Blue Ridge, this trade expanded to much of southern Appalachia by the early 20th century.  By 1917, according to a few estimates, the southern Appalachian region was supplying some three-quarters of all the botanical drugs obtained in the United States.

Roots and herbs in the local economy.  The growth of the botanical drug trade touched the lives of a large segment of mountain society.  People spent more time in the woods looking for medicinal plants than they ever had before.  Population growth was pressuring farmers to locate their farms on increasingly marginal land, and roots and herbs gave them a measure of assurance that they would at least be able to pay their taxes and maybe help purchase coffee, calicoes, eyeglasses, or other store-bought goods that they needed or wanted.  In essence, roots and herbs served as a social safety net for mountain communities.

Women.  It also gave women more of a chance to participate in the world of commerce.  In the early part of the century, trading and marketing cash crops was largely the domain of men.  Women tended to concentrate on the garden and the home and were also in charge of gathering medicinal herbs for home use, but after the war shook things up and expanded markets for medicinal plants, women used their knowledge and skills at gathering wild plants to earn some income.  Store records from one merchant in Lenoir, for example, reveal that nearly half of his customers were women and that they were more likely to trade in roots and herbs than men.  Sources also suggest that men were a little hesitant to engage in the trade, thinking digging herbs was women’s work, but as they realized the commercial potential of it, they began to participate more.

20th Century.  The digging of wild roots and herbs would continue through the twentieth century, but it would never attain the local significance that it did in the immediate post-Civil War decades.  Things changed for several reasons.  As the economy developed and more people obtained “public work,” root digging and herb gathering became more of a pastime, albeit a potentially lucrative one, that people did on the weekends.  Also, ginseng populations were hit hard by the postwar boom.  By the late nineteenth century, the plant seemed to have disappeared in many areas.  Across southern Appalachia, the price for wild ginseng skyrocketed to above $7/pound, and more people entered the business of ginseng farming.  One-by-one, state legislatures began to pass laws protecting these growers, which gradually and effectively rendered ginseng the absolute property of the landowner, rather than the harvester.  By the 1940s, it was illegal in most Appalachian states to dig medicinal plants on other people’s property without written permission from the landowner on his/her persons.  This transition did not happen peacefully.  It created a lot of tensions among neighbors between those who wanted to grow their own ginseng patches and those who wanted to keep treating it as a commons.  ANECDOTE ABOUT GUY GETTING KILLED?????   Although many people would continue to treat these plants as common property, they found themselves increasingly on the wrong side of the law.

Takeaways.  So what can this examination of the wild plant economy tell us about Appalachian society in the postwar era?  There are at least 4 takeaways I’d like for you to leave with.

First.  In some ways the sang digger stereotype did describe a new postwar reality.  There were more people depending heavily, if not exclusively, on roots and herbs in the postwar years.  Economic hardship, along with expanded markets, helped fuel this postwar boom.  However, these root diggers do not appear to have been fundamentally different from the rest of mountain society.  They certainly did not live in the woods.  They were more likely small farmers who found themselves squeezed by the economic destruction of the war, as well as longer-term pressures like soil exhaustion, population pressures, and a diminishing of quality farmland.  The high price of ginseng induced them to hunt ginseng, but as it became scarce, they were pulled deeper and deeper into the forests to search for it, which may have given outsiders the impression that they lived in the forests.  Their concerted opposition to the West Virginia sang law suggests they were politically active, and other sources indicate they paid attention to global commodity markets and global politics, as their livelihood depended on it.

Second.  It is not a little ironic that contemporary observers believed root diggers and herb gatherers were the most isolated group of people in a generally isolated region when, in fact, they were situated prominently in supply chains of industrial proportions that stretched across both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  The plants they harvested made their way into pharmaceutical products consumed around the Western and Eastern world.

Third. The unique ecology of the southern Appalachian region made the trade possible.  The region is universally recognized as one of the most biologically diverse temperate forests anywhere in the world.  Nowhere else in the United States could supply such a diversity and abundance of botanical products.  Indeed, full-time root digging and herb gathering was more profitable in the mountains than anywhere else because people could find so many of so many different kinds of plants. The botanical drug markets were notoriously fickle.  Demands for certain plants could change with the season, so having such a diverse array of plants ensured that there would always be some medicinal herb nearby that was in demand.

Fourth.  There is a popular belief among many in the academic and non-academic world that Europeans arrived in North American with a firm belief in the sanctity of private property.  People were land crazy, this thinking goes, and they gobbled up the frontier by signing deeds and marking boundaries.  But we must not forget that private property rights were not absolute.  Those boundaries were incredible porous.  They were under continual negotiation by local community members, and many of them believed—and continue to believe—that there were resources that might be located on private lands that should not be privatized.  And that belief in common rights enabled many people to obtain a modest level of subsistence.

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

[2] Chicago Daily Tribune, 27 September 1874.