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Collection Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

Historical Background

The history of human interaction with ginseng lurks in the language of the land. Look at a detailed map of almost any portion of the region and ginseng is registered somewhere, often in association with the deeper, moister places: Seng Branch (Fayette County), Sang Camp Creek (Logan County), Ginseng (Wyoming County), Seng Creek (Boone County), Three-Prong Holler (Raleigh). The hollows, deep dendritic fissures created over eons by water cutting through the ancient table land to form tributaries of the Coal River, receive water from lesser depressions that ripple the slopes. These depressions are distinguished in local parlance as "coves" (shallower, amphitheater-shaped depressions), "swags" (steeper depressions, "swagged" on both sides), and "drains" (natural channels through which water flows out of the swag or cove). The prime locations for ginseng are found on the north-facing, "wet" sides of these depressions. "Once in a while you'll find some on the ridges," said Denny Christian, "but not like in the swags there."

"You just go in the darker coves," said Wesley Scarbrough, twenty-five, who grew up on Clear Fork, "where it just shadows the ground so it'll be rich for ginseng."

Occupying higher and drier ground are sandstone "camping rocks," formed on the bottoms of ancient seas. These natural ledges have sheltered people hunting and gathering in the mountains since prehistoric times, and during centuries of corn-woodland-pastureland agriculture such ledges sheltered stock as well. Named by early settlers who came to stay, sites like Jake Rock, John Rock, Turkey Rock, Crane Rock, and Charlie Rock served as bases for ginsenging expeditions.

"My granddad and all them used to go and lay out for weeks, ginsenging," said Kenny Pettry. "A rock they stayed at, they called it the Crane Rock, and they stayed back in under that. They'd be gone for weeks ginsenging."

"Did you ever hear tell of Charlie Rock?" asked Woody Boggs, of Pettry Bottom. "That's a famous place."

"I've camped out many a night under Charlie Rock," said Randy Sprouse, of Sundial. "People used to live under Charlie Rock two or three months at a time, camp out and dig ginseng."

The harvesting of ginseng (as well as other wild plants) flourished within a system of corn-woodland-pastureland farming. Crucial to this system was recourse to a vast, forested commons rising away from the settled hollows. Though nineteenth-century patriarchs like "Mountain Perry" Jarrell homesteaded portions of it, the mostly unsettled higher-elevation ridges and slopes supplied the community with essential materials and staples: wood for fires, barns, fences, homes, and tools; coal for fuel; rich soil for growing corn, beans, and orchards; nuts, herbs, mushrooms, berries, and game; an open range for hogs and cattle; and spaces for anonymous stills. Because of the abundant supply of tree fodder (wild nuts and fruit), the central Appalachian plateau in the nineteenth century furnished some of the best pastureland in the country. A seasonal round of plying the commons is registered in many of the names for swags and coves: Walnut Hollow, Paw-Paw Hollow, Beech Hollow, Red Root Hollow, Sugar Camp Hollow, and so forth. During the turbulent early decades of industry the suppressed civic commons survived in lofty thickets where miners met in secret to organize the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

As practice and concept, the commons is ancient, predating the idea of private property, which began exerting pressure on local commons in England at the time of the Norman Conquest.7 Since then history has been marked by recurrent efforts to enclose the commons for use by wealthy non-local interests.8 In England the social and environmental effects of such use included irreversible deforestation, degradation of soils and water, homelessness, and the emergence of the world's first industrial working class.9

What happened in the late nineteenth century on Coal River and throughout the plateaus may be viewed as an episode in the continuing history of transnational appropriation and enclosure of the commons. Throughout central Appalachia, newly formed land companies surreptitiously subverted the system of the commons, taking out deeds on its unclaimed portions, offering small amounts of money and the right to continue using the surface resources in exchange for mineral rights.10 Hence, despite the flurry of "quit claim deeds" and "deeds in ejectment" on record for the early decades of the century, the condition of exile imposed on some people by those transactions has only gradually been realized. In the aggregate, whatever the terms of individual transactions, access to the land for fructuary uses like hunting, gathering, and farming has tempered the negative effects of corporate domination over the past century.11

Before the development of a wage-labor economy, ginseng was the most reliable source of cash income on Coal River. "The whole economy was built up around ginseng," said Quentin Barrett, of Beckley. "They had a few eggs and chickens, but most of it was the whole crew would go out and hunt ginseng in the fall."

"That's all my grandma used to do, years ago, she'd ginseng," recalled Shelby Estep, who now ginsengs with her daughter and granddaughter on Coal River Mountain. "That's the way she bought the kids clothes. She had twelve."

Around the export of ginseng a class of entrepreneurs emerged who would buy the ginseng from diggers and get it to the metropolitan centers to trade for goods that could not be produced locally. In 1871 Quentin Barrett's grandfather, R. E. Barrett, began trading merchandise for ginseng from his store on Dry Creek. "Just about his only source of cash was from ginseng sales," said Bob Daniel, R. E. Barrett's great-grandson. "The people would come out of the hollows in the fall and sell him their ginseng and they would buy their shoes and salt and staples and so forth and he in turn sold it to exporters in New York or a broker, and that sent some cash dollars back here."12

Fortunes and political careers were built on ginseng in the nineteenth century. Daniel Boone on a bad day lost two tons of the root when the barge carrying it sank in the Ohio River. Ginseng money helped build the fortune of John Jacob Astor as well as the political career of an early senator from California, according to a "ginseng tale" told by Quentin Barrett.

"There was an old man at Madison, over on Little Coal River," said Barrett, speaking of his great-grandfather. "His name was Griffin Stallings. And he was a wheeler and dealer. He was wealthy. So he puts up a store at Whitesville and he buys all the seng at Whitesville, and he buys all the seng at Madison and puts up another store somewhere toward Logan up in the head of Pond Fork.

"So he buys all the seng coming and going. So come fall, he's ready to ship it. How do you get your seng to market? Only place you could sell it, really a big bunch, was Philadelphia or Cincinnati or someplace like that. So he loads up his hired man, the wagons, and takes all the seng down to Huntington, puts him on a boat. The hired man was supposed to take all this seng, a year's supply of seng and sell it and bring the money back. He never saw the hired man again. He never got it back."

"Well, after the Civil War was over, he had a boy [Joel], and the boy was a high-ranking man in the Confederate army and so his son ran for office. Along about that time, he got elected, he goes to Washington. And the first man he run into was a senator from California, and that senator from California was the hired man who'd left with his daddy's ginseng!"13

During the first half of the twentieth century, ginseng continued to infuse cash into the scrip-driven economy of the coal camps. "My dad was a coal miner when the union was organizing," said Randy Halstead. "He was involved in that, so a lot of times he was out of work. So you send ten children to school, and working now and then, you had to make money whatever way you could. We would dig ginseng to buy our school clothes and buy our books so we could go back to school in the fall."

In the coal boom of the 1990s, when the coal industry no longer depends much on a resident population, many roads leading into the commons have been gated off. Ginseng nonetheless contributes a vital piece to an economic patchwork that includes recurrent outmigration to find temporary employment, odd jobs, fishing, flea-market work, and raising produce.

"Ginseng's getting rare because so many people's out of work and so many people's digging it," said Randy Sprouse, who was himself unemployed at the time.

Joe Williams, who ginsengs with Randy, disagreed. "I'd say most of the people that ginseng are people that works. They just love to ginseng. I miss work to go ginsenging."

"What do you like about it that you'd miss work for it?" I asked him.

"Well, it's really something to find a big old stalk of seng. That's what you're looking for. Five prongs. If you'd ever get into it, you'd like it."

[Detail] "In passing over the Mountains, I met numbers of Persons & Pack horses going in with Ginsang; & for salt, & other articles at the Markets below…" George Washington, Diary, September 1 - October 4, 1784. (Manuscript is from The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 1b.)

Transcription is from The Diaries of George Washington. Vol. 4. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Papers of George Washington. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
[Detail] The confluence of Peachtree Creek and Drews Creek. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/10/26. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
[Detail] Initials etched with carbide lamps on John Rock, Bolt Mountain. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/04/13. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
[Detail] Randy's Recycling, Peytona, WV. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/10/26. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
[Detail] Bob Daniel, in the family cemetery on his farm. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/10/04. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
[Detail] The Charles Jarrell General Store, the oldest continually operated store in Raleigh County. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/08/31. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
[Detail] Randy Halstead, ginseng broker, evaluates ginseng in the purchase room of Randy's Recycling. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/10/26. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
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