‘Ginseng Diggers’: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia

Photo: WVU Press/Provided
Photo: WVU Press/Provided

The following is an excerpt from “Ginseng Diggers: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia,” published in March 2022 by University Press of Kentucky. Author Luke Manget is an assistant professor of History at Dalton State College, located in Dalton, Georgia.

Henry Webb scanned the ground for plants among the forested mountainsides surrounding the picturesque hamlet of Valle Crucis on the Watauga River. It was 1873 and, as in every other spring, the forest floor of this spot in northwestern North Carolina was deco- rated in a colorful carpet of wildflowers and herbaceous plants. Trilliums, trout lilies, Solomon’s seal, blue cohosh, black cohosh, and dozens of other plants grew in the shade of Fraser magnolias, chestnuts, striped maples, sugar maples, beech, buckeye, and basswood trees.

Webb may not have known every species of mountain flora, but he knew the ones that brought good prices at Henry Taylor’s store down in the valley. The ultimate prize was ginseng, but it was becoming harder to find, so he settled for the lower-valued mayapple, bloodroot, angelica, and jack-in-the- pulpit, which everyone referred to as Indian turnip. Webb referred to them collectively as “roots and herbs,” and he could certainly use the bartering power these plants offered.

Like everybody else’s life in the Watauga Valley, Webb’s had been severely disrupted by the war-torn 1860s. In 1870, pushing sixty years old, he had moved residences at least three times during the previous decade, married a wife half his age, had a son, and moved again to Valle Crucis, where he found work as a farm laborer. However, his wages alone did not provide his family with any measure of comfort. So he dug the roots of the medicinal plants that abounded in the mountains. From 1873 to 1876, he used $23.50 worth of roots to buy corn, sugar, tobacco, fishhooks, leather, and other necessities. It may not have been much, but it was all the store purchases he made from Taylor during that time.

At his store in Valle Crucis, Henry Taylor collected a variety of roots and herbs from customers like Webb. He had done so for more than two decades. At least once every fall, “Uncle Henry,” as he was affectionately called by the people of the valley, loaded up a wagon with his peculiar produce and hauled it down the mountain to sell. Before the war, he took his roots to a store near Wilkesboro owned by Calvin Cowles, exchanging them for goods that he hauled back up the mountain to sell in his own store. After the war, he started taking his roots and herbs to George W. F. Harper in the Piedmont town of Lenoir. Although it was not his entire source of revenue, the trade in native medicinal plants helped Taylor weather the post–Civil War depression when cash was scarce. In 1883, he opened a new store with a new partner, W. W. Mast, operating it until he died in 1899. In 1913, Mast purchased Taylor’s interest, and the store became known as Mast General Store. There are now ten Mast General Stores scattered around the southern mountains.

George W. F. Harper, a veteran of the Confederate Fifty-Eighth North Carolina Infantry, returned from the Civil War to revive his father’s store in Lenoir. Domestic demand for roots and herbs had grown since the war, and Harper eyed profits in purchasing roots and herbs from storekeepers like Taylor and selling them to wholesalers in New York, Boston, St. Louis, and Cincinnati who would, in turn, sell them to drug- gists, patent medicine makers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers. The roots and herbs that Harper and his competitors obtained from rural Appalachians eventually made their way into drugstores, physicians’ offices, traveling medicine shows, and ultimately human bodies across the United States. As these roots, leaves, berries, flowers, barks, and seeds were abstracted from their mountain environment and entered the webs of exchange that scattered them to distant markets, they became known as “crude botanical drugs,” or sometimes just “crude botanicals.”

Harper found an eager buyer for his crude botanicals in Boston wholesaler Gardner S. Cheney. A mason in Boston before the war, Cheney had enlisted in a Massachusetts artillery company five days after President Lincoln’s call for troops on 15 April 1861, and crossed Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam. After the war, he jumped with both feet into the wholesale drug trade, forging a partnership with a former Harvard Shaker named Elisha Myrick to form Cheney and Myrick. Despite their divergent allegiances during the war, Cheney and the ex-Confederate Harper found common cause in the botanical drug trade. From 1867 to 1869, Cheney purchased nearly $10,000 worth of crude botanicals from Harper, far more than any other buyer. In the summer of 1869, the two spent a week botanizing and trout fishing in the Watauga Valley.

Webb, Taylor, Harper, and Cheney formed one of many supply chains established in the wake of the Civil War that would turn the Southern Appalachian bioregion into the United States’ largest supplier of medicinal plants to global markets. Stimulated by the Civil War and its aftermath, the pharmaceutical industry in the United States entered a period of rapid expansion and consolidation, and demand for crude botanicals skyrocketed. Consequently, between 1865 and 1900, root digging and herb gathering became a general occupation in some mountain communities. One observer claimed that more than forty thousand people gathered roots and herbs for one wholesale herb dealer in Western North Carolina alone during the height of the botanical drug boom in the 1880s.4 By the turn of the twentieth century, according to one US Department of Agriculture estimate, the region supplied some three-quarters of all the native medicinal plants sold commercially in the United States. Unmatched before or since, this botanical drug boom left a lasting impression on Appalachian communities.

On a basic level, this is a story about humans, plants, and mountains. While scholars have long known that Appalachian people engaged in root digging and herb gathering, this is the first monograph dedicated to the topic. This book digs into the roots (pun intended) of the unique relationship between the Appalachian region and the global trade in medicinal plants to explain how and why the region became so integral to the trade. Re-creating the ecologies of root digging and herb gathering, it explores how the trade functioned on the ground, how that experience changed over time, and how the burgeoning commercial relationship influenced the region’s land use, social relations, culture, economy, and ecology. While the trade involved hundreds of different kinds of plants, this book focuses primarily on a select handful of the most commonly traded, including mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), bloodroot (Sangui- naria canadensis), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), lobelia (Lobelia inflata), and pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule). The star of the book, how- ever, is American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium). Ginseng was one of the first Appalachian herbs traded on a global scale, and it remained the most lucrative and sought-after throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, any understanding of the botanical drug trade in Appalachia must begin and end with ginseng. This book does just that.

Total
65
Shares
×
You have free article(s) remaining. Subscribe for unlimited access.