by Luke Manget, PhD
By the turn of the twentieth century, the imminent extinction of ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was one of the common topics of conversation around the country stores. Ginseng had been a lucrative commodity in the United States since the 1730s when European and colonial traders realized the value of a common woodland herb in the China market. These trading firms contracted with smaller dealers, often country store owners, who would, in turn, purchase them from diggers. Throughout the nineteenth century, diggers used the root to buy knives, plow points, sugar, and land and to pay taxes and school fees. They could reasonably assume that the plant belonged to whomever dug it up, regardless of land ownership (Manget, 2017). But by the 1890s, those days were numbered. It was “as scarce as hen’s teeth,” one observer noted (Anonymous, 1901). Export totals reflected the growing scarcity. After averaging nearly 400,000 pounds per year from 1865 to 1889, exports fell to just 216,000 per year in the 1890s. Simultaneously, prices paid by exporters skyrocketed, jumping from $1.30/lb in 1880 to $2.00/lb in 1887 to $4.00/lb in 1899 (Carlson, 1986, p. 239). Writers began to refer to the ginseng trade in the past tense, and mountaineers reflected nostalgically on the days when ginseng was plentiful. “It was a sad day for the people when the ‘sang’ grew scarce,” wrote James Lane Allen in 1892 (p. 250). “A few years ago one of the counties [in Kentucky] was nearly depopulated in consequence of a great exodus into Arkansas, whence had come news that ‘sang’ was plentiful.” As wild ginseng seemed on the verge of disappearing, gardeners and horticulturists rushed to fill Chinese demand with cultivated root.
I have been interested in ginseng since I was a boy, having heard my grandmother tell stories about how her family hunted “sang” in eastern Kentucky, but it was not until graduate school that I delved into researching it. For my dissertation, an environmental history of the medicinal plant trade in southern Appalachia, I traveled across the eastern United States, scouring business records, country store ledgers, and manuscripts in more than a dozen archives, trying to piece together the long history of Americans’ relationship to ginseng and other roots and herbs. Among the many questions I sought to answer was why wild ginseng populations declined so precipitously by the turn of the 20th century. In outlining some of my general findings, this essay offers a parable for us to consider as we think about the human/ginseng relationship moving forward.
It has been easy to blame the diggers for ginseng’s disappearance. Contemporary observers certainly did. Beginning in the 1890s, writers, conservationists, and agriculturists who lived outside of the region accused sang diggers of being “the principal agents in the extermination of the native supply” of the root (Kains, 1903, p. 13). One anonymous writer (1899) attacked them for “maiming the goose that laid the golden egg through ignorance.” We would recognize these critiques of sang diggers’ ecology today as a classic “tragedy of the commons.” As Garrett Hardin posited in 1968, common resources are destined for tragedy, or collapse, because commons users have no incentive to conserve the resources. They could reap the benefi ts of the commons without incurring the costs and would, therefore, overgraze or overharvest. Hardin’s commons was a pasture “open to all” on which herdsmen ranged their stock, but any reader of middle-class magazines and newspapers in the late- 19th-century U.S. would have recognized the same scenario playing out in the forests of Appalachia. But had ginseng really fallen victim to the tragedy of the commons?
One of the problems with the tragedy thesis is that it posits an ahistorical and overly deterministic interpretation of the human/nature relationship, as if all humans can be reduced to economic beings who always exploit nature for their own individual advancement. My research suggests that the decline of ginseng populations in the late nineteenth century was the consequence of something more complex. First and foremost, one primary culprit, perhaps the most significant, is deforestation. Ginseng requires at least 65 percent shade (Persons, 1994, p. 51), and from 1880 to 1920 virtually all of southern Appalachia was deforested using clearcutting methods to fuel the nation’s insatiable demand for firewood and timber (Lewis, 1998, p. 3). This certainly had devastating impacts on ginseng habitat. This does not exonerate the diggers. Exploitation and overharvesting certainly took place, but it was not always the overriding habits of sang diggers. It happened at various times and places for historical reasons. Wendell Berry (1986, pp. 3-10) reminds us that we are not all driven by the exploiter mentality. There is a powerful but historically weak countercurrent that carries the values of nurture and stewardship. We might use this insight to reexamine the ginseng tragedy.
When the trade first developed into an economic force in southern Appalachia in the 1780s and 1790s, there appeared to be no eff rt to conserve the plant. “Dig out and move on” seemed to be the mantra of these frontiersmen like Daniel Boone. Sources suggest that a good digger could harvest more than 40 pounds a day, an astonishing sum that would never again be matched (Manget, 2017, p. 79). Store records that have survived from the period indicate that settlers traded green (undried) ginseng throughout the growing season beginning in May. Because the root is the valuable part of the plant, and because the plant begins to produce seeds in September, harvests like these would have led to the destruction of entire patches of ginseng.
By the 1840s, however, some harvesters’ mentality seems to have evolved from the initial smash-and-grab frontier phase. As ginseng disappeared from easy-to-reach places and settlers began to grapple with the prospects of long-term land tenure, some voices emerged to champion the cause of ginseng conservation, urging people to avoid digging plants until they bore seeds and to actively replant those seeds. Some communities even began to observe an unofficial ginseng season decades before states began legislating for that purpose. The comprehensive store records (1840-1860) of Randolph County, (West) Virginia merchant Ely Butcher, for example, indicate that ginseng was never traded at his store before September 1. This would have given local plants the chance to develop seeds and thus reproduce, and residents could find enough root to effectively supplement their farm production (Manget, 2017, pp. 83-88).
The Civil War and its aftermath disrupted these efforts at conservation, leading to louder cries for state-mandated conservation efforts. The economic depression, dislocation, and social upheaval that followed the war brought greater pressure on the ginseng commons. More wild ginseng was exported to China from 1865 to 1900 than before or since, but the people who dug this ginseng were different from those who dug it in the 1840s. First, these diggers often traveled to the mountains from outside the region. Second, they had farmers. They had little concern for the long-term health of ginseng populations and did not observe any season. Store records show that ginseng was traded almost year-round, and green sang was brought in as early as May and June. Whatever conservation ethic may have existed among some forward-thinking diggers of the antebellum era dissolved into a milieu of mistrust and competition. And ginseng’s disappearance accelerated (Manget, 2017, pp. 243-251).
North Carolina (1867) and Georgia (1868) were the first states to mandate a ginseng season that began September 1, and a wave of other state laws followed, each one attempting to manage ginseng and its harvesters in its own way. At times it was a struggle. Some were championed by landowners and timber speculators, who did not want diggers on their property, and these attempts were publicly and privately resisted by the diggers. Other laws were promoted by diggers themselves, who were alarmed by the plant’s disappearance. Whatever the motivation, these laws had a similar effect. This widespread renegotiation of common rights made ginseng effectively a private commodity, accessible only by landowners and those to whom landowners gave their permission. The questions of who could hunt ginseng, where, and when were increasingly determined by state and federal governments (Manget, 2017, pp. 243-251).
If my reading of the sources is accurate, it means that local communities struggled to manage their own ginseng populations well before the state compelled them to. The wasteful frontiersman has long been an important trope in the history of conservation, but we must not forget those who refused to move on to greener pastures and put down roots in a particular place. Sometimes they maintained wasteful ways, but sometimes they adapted to scarcity. Indeed, the struggle for ginseng conservation took place at the grassroots level within rural communities. Their ultimate failure to prevent the widespread population decline had more to do with deforestation and the eff ects of the post- Civil War depression—in other words, specific historical circumstances—than it did with any putative universal exploitative tendencies.
Luke Manget is an Assistant Professor of History at Dalton State College in Dalton, Georgia. He earned his PhD in history at the University of Georgia in 2017. An expert on Southern Appalachian environmental history, his dissertation, “Root Diggers and Herb Gatherers: The Rise and Decline of the Botanical Drug Trade in Southern Appalachia,” is currently in the process of publication. firstname.lastname@example.org
- Allen, J. L. (1892). The Blue-Grass region of Kentucky and other Kentucky articles. New York: Harper Brothers.
- Anonymous (October 16, 1901). In Highland County. The Richmond Dispatch.
- Anonymous (September 17, 1899). Big profits in ginseng. The Baltimore Sun.
- Carlson, A. W. (1986). Ginseng: America’s botanical drug connection to the Orient. Economic Botany, 40(2), 233-249.
- Berry, W. (1986). The Unsettling of America: Culture and agriculture. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.
- Kains, M.G. (1903). Ginseng: Its cultivation, harvesting, marketing and market value, with a short account of Its history and botany. New York: Orange Judd Co.
- Lewis, R. (1998). Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
- Manget, T. L. (2017). Root Diggers and Herb Gatherers: The Rise and Decline of the Botanical Drug Industry in Southern Appalachia (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Georgia, Athens, GA.
- Persons, S. W. (1994). American Ginseng: Green Gold. Asheville, NC: Bright Mountain Books.