Death of a Sang Digger and the Fate of the Commons
By Luke Manget
On July 28, 1908, a Mrs. Collins appeared at the Lee County, VA, courthouse with a shocking and peculiar letter. The letter relayed third-hand news that her husband had been killed by a shotgun in a nearby ginseng patch and the only witness was nowhere to be found. No one knew what to think of the letter, as no one had come forth with any murder charges and no body had been found. But that changed one morning when Jones Wilson went out to inspect his ginseng patch and found the badly decomposing body of Millard Collins.
Eight days earlier Collins and his brother, Rube, had attempted to rob Wilson’s ginseng garden. Unfortunately for the brothers, Wilson had rigged five shotguns in the center of his garden to a trip wire that surrounded it. When Collins unwittingly kicked the wire, one shotgun discharged, killing Collins and wounding his brother Rube, who promptly disappeared into the forest. Collins was buried in a nearby grave, and Wilson was later exonerated by a coroner’s jury, which found that it was Collins’ own fault that he was killed.1
Conflicts over ginseng patches like Wilson’s were a common occurrence across Appalachia around the turn of the twentieth century. In southeastern Ohio in 1915, for example, a civil engineer found two men robbing his ginseng patch and opened fire on them with a repeating rifle, killing one.2 Most conflicts over ginseng did not end in killing, but violence and altercations with thieves were a real possibility for those who ventured into the ginseng growing business. Understanding these conflicts can bring us closer to grasping the full implications of one of the most pivotal eras in Appalachian history.
Until a few pioneering gardeners began to discover the tricks to cultivating ginseng in the 1890s, nearly all the ginseng exported to China was dug from the wild. Indeed, it was the chief commodity of a socio-cultural system we call the forest commons. We, as Americans, like to think of ourselves as a nation conceived of and dedicated to the sanctity of private property, but such was not the case in nineteenth-century Appalachia. From the time of the first settlements, people here established a custom, rooted in English common law, that treated many resources as common property. People fenced in their crops and turned their hogs loose to roam on whosever property provided the best forage. Small farmers harvested timber, honey, fish, game, feathers, beeswax, and other resources from lands that were not their own. Ginseng and other marketable roots and herbs were also considered common property; whoever found them and dug them up claimed ownership of them. And nearly every small farmer dug wild ginseng as a way to earn much-needed store credit.
But ginseng populations did not keep up with the levels of harvest. Overharvesting drove the plant deeper and deeper into the forest, prompting calls for reform. A chorus of economic developers, conservationists, and agricultural reformers began arguing that the ginseng plant should become privately owned in order to both save the plant from extirpation and provide a source of middle-class income. Many of the more progressive farmers and professionals like Jones Wilson adopted this new outlook and took up cultivation. Some simply built crude fences around the patches on their property and tended them year after year. Others invested considerable capital in land, sophisticated fencing, and high-quality Canadian seeds. However, they would find that taming the ginseng plant was not as easy as replicating conditions suitable to its growth. They had to defend it against theft. Some poorer farmers, perhaps like Millard Collins, did not subscribe to this new status for ginseng and insisted on treating it as common property. The problem was that much of the ginseng left in the region was now located in private gardens. Conflicts proliferated throughout the southern mountain region as growers sought to defend their crop from diggers.
By this time, the commons system had fallen under attack by modernizing forces and was in full retreat. Fence laws were changed in most mountain counties in the 1880s and 1890s to require livestock owners to fence in their stock, which, in theory, allowed crop farmers to remove their fences and utilize the full extent of their property. At the same time, laws were passed in different states to enclose the root-and-herb commons. West Virginia passed a law in 1873 that forbade the digging of any roots or herbs from another person’s land without written permission, and Kentucky followed with its own law, mandating a 1-to-3 year sentence for anyone caught removing game, fruit, or ginseng from any lands posted by a no-trespassing sign. Many diggers found familiar patches now surrounded by crude fences. To people like Millard Collins, this was an enclosure movement. The tensions between growers and diggers over the status of ginseng illustrates more poignantly than anything the tumultuous process of modernization that swept the mountain region around the turn of the twentieth century.
1 “Ginseng Thief Killed,” The Tazewell Republican, 6 August 1908.
2 “Dead Man was Robber,” The Democratic Banner (Mt. Vernon, OH), 29 June 1915.