Ginseng sales helped Mankato area survive 19th century depression

Edie Schmierbach The Free Press, Mankato, Minn. McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Farm Forum

The United States’ Panic of 1857 was fueled by speculation and credit and especially felt in Minnesota by those who had acquired land during the preceding prosperous years.

That national economic depression had the biggest effect on those without anything to sell.

Newspapers of the time are filled with notices of foreclosures, sheriffs’ sales or mortgage sales. Farming was basically a subsistence operation. Farmers who needed to provide food for their families did not have an abundance of crops or livestock to take to town.

Some residents of southern Minnesota and Blue Earth County who were anxious for cash became “sangers” when they discovered an exportable product was growing practically in their backyards, ginseng.

These plants grow up to 20 inches high and feature clusters of crimson berries and leaves which turned bright yellow in fall.

Ginseng grew well in The Big Woods of southeastern Minnesota. Settlers had undoubtedly seen ginseng growing in wooded areas, but had not realized its value until buyers came into the county.

William E. Lass published an article about the Ginseng Rush in Minnesota for the Summer 1969 issue of Minnesota History. Lass wrote about St. Peter having one of the first and biggest trading centers of the area.

There was a market in China where the root of the plant was used for tonics and tea believed to have restorative value.

Digging ginseng required little skill: a hoe, gunny sack, strong back, and willingness to work in humidity, dust and mosquitoes.

If the roots could be sold with some soil still clinging to them, both the digger and the buyer were happy. The soil added a little weight, but kept the roots moist. It also proved that the roots had not been soaked, adding water weight.

Alongside sheriff’s sales announcements, newspapers were filled with advertisements by those who wanted to buy the root. A typical ad offered cash. The Mankato Weekly Independent reported in 1859 that two tons of ginseng were being brought into Mankato every day and the product was selling for eight cents a pound.

Thirty tons of ginseng had been marketed in June 1859. That number rose to 50 tons by July.

The popularity of the root even led to a Ginseng Ball in South Bend that summer. Attendees danced to the ginseng polka, “unquestionably an original idea” commented a newspaper editor in 1859.

Eastern market buyers began to receive more ginseng than they could sell. Prices fell and the rush for the root seemed to be over.

In 1860, one Mankato dealer dried more than 6,000 pounds of ginseng. However prices remained low.

A brief resurgence was noted in early 1861, but by June, the price had declined to four cents per pound.

Clark and Kegerreis in Mankato continued for a time to take ginseng in trade for goods but St. Peter dealers stopped buying it completely.

The market price rose up to seven cents a pound by the end of August that year, so trade in September was brisk. Most of the roots sold that year were brought in by Winnebago people.

Records from Sept. 10, 1861 indicate 2,100 pounds of ginseng was purchased for $168 in gold and silver. The Record newspaper reported the sellers used most of the profits that same day for flour, pork and general merchandise.

The following week White and Marks purchased 4,000 pounds from the Winnebagos for $320.

The price per pound for ginseng rose to 10 cents The same edition of the paper contained a small article titled “Selling Whiskey to Indians,” which suggested some dealers were paying for ginseng with whiskey.

Frost ended the 1861 season. An estimated 83,000 pounds of the green root had been bought in Mankato that season, at an average price of eight cents a pound.

By 1862 there were few ads and no articles about ginseng sales published in local papers. The Civil War, the deportation of the Winnebago Indians from Blue Earth County, along with over harvesting and the clearing and cultivation of wooded areas put an end to the ginseng trade.

Most ginseng now found in Minnesota is cultivated. Today, wild ginseng is now considered a species of special concern, according to the Department of Natural Resources. However, sangers still may harvest between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31.