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In the space of a year foragers practically wiped out the ginseng supply in Minnesota’s Big Woods

The appeal of hunting ginseng came from the cash paid for it — hard currency was scarce after the financial crash of 1857.

illustration of american ginseng
Creative Commons/Wikimedia
Colored engraving of ginseng by Jacob Bigelow (1786–1879). From Wikimedia Commons: "'American medical botany being a collection of the native medicinal plants of the United States, containing their botanical history and chemical analysis, and properties and uses in medicine, diet and the arts,'" by Jacob Bigelow, 1786/7–1879. Publication in Boston by Cummings and Hilliard, 1817–1820.”
The demand for American ginseng (panax quinquefolius), which grew abundantly in the “Big Woods,” reached its peak in 1859. Following a nationwide economic panic in 1857, and near crop failure for Rice County in 1858, many locals found themselves in dire circumstances. Enticed by ginseng’s profitability and local abundance, settler-colonists were quickly overcome by “ginseng fever,” which led many to dig up as much of the aromatic green root as they could. However, it was not long before excessive exploitation depleted easily accessed ginseng and the rising grain market encouraged farmers to work the land again.

Indigenous people of North America have the longest relationship with American ginseng. Various tribes have used the versatile root in a variety of medicines to treat asthma, body sores, digestive troubles, and fever; to staunch wounds; to increase fertility; and much more. In 1939, Huron Smith documented Ojibwe harvesting practices for ginseng which were sustainable.

Beginning in 1784, ginseng was being exported from the US to China for its medicinal qualities. Found growing in the shade of deciduous trees, like sugar maple and basswood, its fleshy taper root, when dried, is amber colored. The root possesses a sweet taste similar to that of licorice, accompanied by a slight bitterness.

Settler-colonists dubbed the plant “sang,” and those who sought the wild root were “sangers.” The typical tools of the trade were a long narrow-bladed hoe, which could remove a young root in a single stroke, and a gunny sack for collecting. The twenty-inch-tall plant features five ovate leaflets arranged palmately. Ginseng’s particular tinge of green provides easy identification.

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For the sanger, the challenges included the hot summer sun, wood ticks, mosquitoes, and, on occasion, becoming lost in the lush forest known as the “Big Woods.” The last sizable remnant of the woods that retains the character of the broadleaf deciduous forest is Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, situated in Rice County.

The considerable appeal of hunting ginseng came from the cash paid for it (hard currency was scarce after the financial crash of 1857). Northfielder Evelyn Sloan Wood (1830–1923) recalled, “So great was the poverty of the old settlers in this vicinity that frequently they did not know where their next meal was to come from.”

Prices soared on food staples such as flour (sold at eleven dollars per barrel); butter (sold at one dollar per pound); and eggs (sold at one dollar per dozen). Considering that a good wage laboring in the fields yielded no more than a dollar per day, foraging for ginseng proved to be a great alternative. On average, buyers paid, in gold or silver, six to eight cents per pound [fresh?] and twenty-five to thirty cents per pound dried. When unearthed, most roots weighed less than several ounces, but older roots could measure half a pound.

Multiple stories circulated about how individuals and families were averaging less than five dollars a day while a select few averaged double up to ten dollars a day harvesting ginseng. Frank AnDyke (1855–1941), formerly of Cannon City, recalled his experiences at age four when he father took him into the woods, “I earned seventy-five cents in two days, and I thought I was rich.” A Mr. Whitney, who operated a pay station in Faribault, purchased six tons of ginseng in one week alone in early June.

A month later, on July 16, 1859, The Wabasha County Herald stated that the supply of ginseng in the Big Woods was practically exhausted and demand had fallen off rapidly. By then, approximately 22,000 pounds of the root had been shipped from Faribault, and statewide the number by the end of the year reached 203,000 pounds. Mixed arguments emerged to explain the sharp decline in the market. Some pointed to the rapid and relentless harvesting that depleted naturally growing ginseng while others speculated that massive exports of ginseng to the East had oversaturated the market. In any case, the ginseng cash crop limped through July of 1859 before the market completely bottomed out.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.