In the Footsteps of Herb Diggers
By Luke Manget
Rarely do I get the opportunity to do field work as a historian. Most of my hours are spent in front of a book or a computer, but last week, during a research trip to the “Lost Provinces” of northwestern North Carolina, I managed to get out of the archives and into the “field,” which for me was the forests of Mt. Jefferson in Ashe County.
The forest was slightly past its prime bloom time. The lily of the valley, the ladies’ slipper, mayapple, and other spring wildflowers had already peaked, but the flame azaleas, Catawba rhododendron, and mountain laurel, still provided a brilliantly colorful context to my hike. Chestnut saplings no bigger than me served as a reminder of what the forests must have looked like before the blight struck in the 1920s, when these very woods were crawling with men, women, and children, all looking for roots and herbs.
From the top of Mt. Jefferson, I could see far to the west and southwest, where undulating mountainsides marked the gathering commons that once provided so many people with a means of subsistence. Even though the “land” had been privately owned since Euro-Americans moved into the area in the late 18th century, the plants and animals of its forests were, according to local custom, owned by no one and, therefore, accessible to everyone. The valleys quickly filled up with farms but the forests remained a hunting/fishing/gathering commons until—well—until today thanks to the U.S. Forest Service and other government land-owning agencies. And in the years following the destruction of the Civil War, people came to rely more heavily on the forests.
For four years, I have been tracking these men, women, and children through store ledger books. Records of their transactions at their local country store are just about the only records they left behind, and they can reveal a lot about their purchasing habits and their harvesting habits, but much of their experience will forever be left up to the imagination.
Beginning in the early 1800s, mountain people began harvesting ginseng to sell to the Chinese, which proved to be a dependable and lucrative market, but beginning in the 1850s and possibly earlier, they began harvesting roots, herbs, barks, flowers, seeds, and berries to supply the growing national demands for mass-produced botanical drugs.
To the west and southwest, I could see across the New River Valley to the Blue Ridge that separated the highlands from the foothills. That was the direction that people traveled to sell their roots and herbs. Beyond the Blue Ridge, in a small community called Elkville, Calvin J. Cowles began purchasing these commodities from his store south of Wilkesboro in 1846 and selling them to emerging pharmaceutical companies. The Civil War provided the capital and the organizational power for the pharmaceutical industry’s rapid growth, and, consequently, the number of wild plants from which mountain families could derive some income greatly expanded.
Although the so-called “root-and-herb business” continues in the southern Appalachians today, it no longer carries the same economic or cultural importance that it attained in the years following the Civil War. In the northwestern corner of North Carolina, thousands of people participated in this trade, many of whom relied heavily on roots and herbs for their routine store purchases.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to learn how these herb gatherers felt about their activities, their habits, their lives. They didn’t leave much evidence behind. Oral histories reveal that most people who remembered digging roots and herbs in their youth reflected positively about it. Although most claimed that they enjoyed doing it, some insisted that it was done only out of economic necessity. There was probably an element of both in individuals’ reasoning behind getting involved in the trade. Poor farmland, combined with shrinking markets, and the decimation of the livestock industry, made herb digging an economic necessity, but it was an activity they surely enjoyed, especially when compared to other farmwork. They could make good money at it too–$2 a day—which was better pay than most mine workers and iron laborers in the region.
Walking in their footsteps on the slopes of Mt. Jefferson, it is easy to conclude that people did indeed enjoy doing the work of herb digging. If you could avoid rattlesnakes and copperheads, walking through the woods all day and looking for plants was not a bad way to spend your time. Then again, is my perception skewed because I have a job that requires long hours in front of a computer? Is such work romantic only because I see it through the lens of contrast?