E. B. Olmsted and the Post-Civil-War Ginseng Boom
By Luke Manget
Particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction and overharvesting, ginseng plants like this once covered the mountains, but over the course of the nineteenth century, they gradually disappeared from much of their former range, leading many mountaineers further into the mountains in search of them.
One of the most interesting set of sources I have ever encountered in the archives is a series of letters written by an unknown former post-office clerk named Edwin B. Olmsted in 1870 to the large New York botanical firm of Lanman and Kemp. These letters, housed at Appalachian State, provide the most important and fascinating glimpse that historians have into the post-Civil-War ginseng trade, one of the most unique and mysterious mountain industries. It is a subject of my dissertation.
Edwin B. Olmsted was in serious legal and financial trouble in 1870. Charged with stealing $75,000 from his U.S. Postal Service co-workers in 1868, he fled his family and Washington D. C. and wandered through West Virginia for months before turning himself in to authorities in Richmond. His court-imposed punishment left him with no job and his family with no money, but he had a plan to recover some of his lost fortune. Two years earlier, he had spent some time around the town of Murphy, North Carolina, the county seat of Cherokee County, where he witnessed a flourishing trade in a peculiar woodland plant called ginseng, or “sang,” as the locals called it. Putting his hopes in his ability to purchase cheap ginseng root from local diggers, he persuaded the New York wholesale drug firm Lanman and Kemp to front him $1,000, and he hopped aboard the Orange and Alexandria Railroad heading southwest.
Olmsted’s ginseng expedition got off to a rocky start. He had hoped to monopolize the trade and extract the root for 20 cents per dried pound, but upon his arrival, he found Cherokee County crawling with agents representing firms from Atlanta, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York. He quickly abandoned his hopes of cheap roots and resolved to purchase them from diggers at a market rate of over 60 cents per pound of green root. He lamented that “The whole country has changed within three years. The diggers have ascertained the value of roots and do not dig at old prices.” Although he would send a modest shipment to New York at season’s end, he was obviously disappointed at how the expedition turned out.
Following the lead of the French Canadians, American colonists began exporting large amounts of American Ginseng (Panax Quiquefolia) roots to China in the early eighteenth century. The Chinese, who had been consuming the related Asian ginseng for thousands of years as a health tonic, found the American species to be an adequate substitute, providing generations of backcountry settlers with a ready market.
Little did he know that his expedition corresponded with one of the greatest ginseng booms the region had experienced. One of the hardest hit of all the mountain counties in North Carolina, Cherokee County lost some 40 percent of its improved farmland, over half of its livestock values, and more than ten percent of its population between 1860 and 1870. Meanwhile, ginseng took on increasing importance.
Ginseng digging had been a means of supplemental income for at least two generations of mountain residents, but after the war, in the face of a tattered livestock industry and depressed agricultural prices, many came to depend heavily, if not exclusively, on the plant. While they also harvested other plants, herbs, and marketable forest products, ginseng was by far the most lucrative. They traded its root for necessaries of life, including coffee, sugar, shoes, whiskey, powder, and lead. Country merchants performed the role of middlemen, collecting the roots and selling them to trading firms primarily in the northeastern cities, which would, in turn, ship them almost exclusively to China. Utilizing these networks, residents of the southern Appalachians fueled a boom that raised the nation’s ginseng exports from less than 200,000 pounds per year in the 1850s to over 400,000 pounds per year from the start of the Civil War through the 1880s. According to one federal report, Cherokee County produced 75,000 to 85,000 pounds of ginseng in 1871, making it one of the centers of the trade.
Women and children played an important role in generating surplus income for their families during the post-Civil War depression. This boy, from Clay County, Kentucky, displays a giant ginseng root.
The post-Civil-War ginseng boom gave rise to a popular archetype of the southern mountaineer: the “Sang Digger.” I will write more about the sang digger in a later blog.
I would love to hear your stories of ginseng in the mountains. As always, please email me if you have any stories, thoughts or ideas at all.
For further reading, see:
Luke Manget, “Sangin’ in the Mountains: the Ginseng Economy of the Southern Appalachians, The Appalachian Journal, 40, 2 (Fall 2012/Winter 2013), 29-55.
Alvar Carlson, “Ginseng: America’s Botanical Drug Connection to the Orient,” Economic Botany, Vol. 40, No. 2 (April-June, 1986), 239.