Book review: ‘Ginseng Diggers’ traces the history of Appalachia’s root and herb trade


“GINSENG DIGGERS: A HISTORY OF ROOT AND HERB COLLECTION IN APPALACHIA” by Luke Manget (University of Kentucky Press, 304 pages, $28).

In the 19th century, large numbers of people living in southern and central Appalachia supported themselves to varying degrees by harvesting herbs, roots, and other medicinal plants that grew wild in the forests of mountains around them. These “blood diggers”, as they were colloquially known, and the story of their importance to the global trade in botanical pharmaceuticals are the focus of “Ginseng Diggers: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia” by Luke Manget.

Both demonized and romanticized, these root and herb gatherers have become a flashpoint in an ongoing dispute over the use of the mountain’s so-called “commons”. Digging has become “an aspect of mountain life to be ridiculed or ignored”, writes Manget. “Therefore, telling this story requires overcoming this bias in the historical record.”

University of Kentucky Press / “Ginseng Diggers”

A historian whose Kentucky “family of root-diggers and herb-gatherers” instilled an appreciation for the importance and pleasures of commerce, Manget speaks honestly about his subject. His book provides crucial missing pieces of this previously misunderstood and undervalued aspect of the region’s history and economy.

Much of “Ginseng Diggers” is based on the concept of the “commons”. Manset defines the botanical goods that diggers have foraged as “common goods”, and he carefully describes the Appalachian iteration of this idea, delineating a number of arguments about its economic evolution. It offers an in-depth and nuanced discussion of this particular form of capitalism, offering a unique perspective through which to understand how the work of diggers has become so controversial.

Released at the same time as Tennessee became the first state to make camping on state and local public land a crime, Manget’s study of earlier eras’ debates over the use of common spaces – and the evolution of the laws surrounding this debate – feels particularly timely.

In the opening chapters, Manget traces the overall history of the botanical pharmaceuticals trade, globally and domestically, but with particular emphasis on Chinese markets. Manget goes on to describe the rise and eventual decline of Appalachia’s importance in the botanic drug trade, emphasizing the profound effect of the Civil War on many aspects of the region’s economic realities and attitudes towards land use.

The following decades saw sweeping changes in the botanical professions, and Manget’s discussions of the fallout from these crucial changes are clear and illuminating. After a huge boom in these markets – which included a wide range of herbs, ginseng being the most lucrative – business began to cool.

Deforestation, population growth and concerns about overexploitation have contributed to growing skepticism in the region about the legitimacy of the commons. Once power swung to the demands and agendas of landowners, larger swathes of common territories were closed and foraging penalties were imposed. As a result of these changes, ginseng was privatized as a commodity. The importance of the history of communal foraging in the region has been downplayed or completely erased, with the diggers themselves being referred to as “beasts in the garden”.

The book’s final chapter explores the cultural image and mythologizing of the “blood digger”, a favorite of 19th-century journalists and novelists whose stories had something to say about “the dichotomy between savagery and civilization”. Such writers played into racial and gender stereotypes, and the myth of the blood seeker “was nurtured by ignorance, cognitive dissonance, and capitalist goals until it became pure fantasy”.

Described as “reckless and lazy”, hostile to cultural institutions like marriage, threatening modernization and the rule of law, and – in the most surreal newspaper reports – even cannibalistic, the blood seeker represented a “cautionary tale which has proven useful to many people. cultural and economic movements (sometimes competing).

Like Jessica Wilkerson’s study of Appalachian women on social justice and union activism, “To Live Here, You Have To Fight,” and the much-needed and extensive anthology “Appalachian Reckoning,” the study by Luke Manget joins a number of books in recent years that challenge reductive narratives about the cultural and economic history of Appalachia. “Ginseng Diggers” belongs in any library of books devoted to this necessary course correction.

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