The Shaker Connection: The Origins of the Botanical Drug Trade in Southern Appalachia


by luke manget

The Shaker Village at New Lebanon, NY, ca. 1890. Edward D. Andrews Collection Winterthur Museum.

The Shaker Village at New Lebanon, NY, ca. 1890. Edward D. Andrews Collection Winterthur Museum.

In the fall of 1850, an enterprising young merchant named Calvin J. Cowles left his home outside of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and headed north with his brother, Josiah, with a most unusual cargo.  Inside the burlap sacks piled high on his wagon were lobelia seeds, elm bark, and the roots of wild ginger, bloodroot, mayapple, and ladies slipper.  His destination was the town of New Lebanon in upstate New York.  After a long and arduous journey, he reached the small community on the western edge of the Berkshire Mountains and sold the bulk of his cargo to some of the pioneers in the emerging botanical drug industry.  Those pioneers, it turned out, were members of a remarkable communal sect known as the Shakers. 

The story of New Lebanon’s rise as the center of botanical drug manufacturing is a fascinating story and one that I’ve been piecing together during a month-long fellowship at the Winterthur Museum, Gardens, and Library in northern Delaware.  This library, which contains one of the most comprehensive collections of Shaker sources in the United States, has helped me understand why Cowles sought out this obscure community to unload his cargo of roots and herbs from the Southern Appalachians.[1] 

Many of you may have heard of the Shakers through their association with the valuable antique furniture they handcrafted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they were also among the nation’s most respected manufacturers of botanical medicines in the mid-nineteenth century.  To understand why they became so requires a bit of background.  In 1774, a woman named Ann Lee arrived in New York from Manchester, England, where she was a member of a radical offshoot of Quakers that eschewed religious and social convention and decried the evils of the emerging industrial society.  Facing persecution from all quarters of society, she led a small group of followers to the New World where they began calling themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming and worked to establish their society in the rural fringes of colonial society.  Convinced that “Mother Ann” was the female counterpart to Christ, they pursued a sectarian life based on pacifism, millennialism, celibacy, and complete separation from the outside world.  Using recruitment methods to expand their membership (because they could not do so through natural reproduction), they quickly established multiple communities across the northeast, including New Lebanon, and spread into Ohio and Kentucky by the first decade of the nineteenth century. 

The Herb House at New Lebanon, ca. 1890. Where plants were processed into pharmaceutical products. Edward Andrews Collection, Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library.

 Shaker communities became known throughout the northeast for their elaborate and strange worship practices that involved dances segregated by sex, but they also quickly gained a reputation as skilled agriculturists.  Their fields, worked communally according to rigid annual cycles, were neatly maintained and demarcated according to their function.  One of the more prominent features was their herb gardens.  Initially, these herb gardens served the medical needs of their communities, but in the 1820s, they began producing extracts, tinctures, and ointments to sell “to the world,” as they called non-believers.  The changing beliefs and financial needs of the community induced them to relax their expectations of complete withdrawal of the world and commercially engage with it to a limited extent.  As they came to depend on the income from this crude drug production, labor within the community was increasingly oriented towards it, with roles divided largely according to gender.  In the gardens, the men generally took charge of cultivating belladonna, poppies, sage, boneset, horehound, valerian, and a dozen other species, while in the fall, women and children gathered mayapple, yellow dock, and dozens of other species from the surrounding forests.  Back in the herb house, men engaged in drying, cracking, and pressing herbs through the fall and winter, preparing them to ship to nearby physicians and druggists.

While many scholars and Shaker enthusiasts prefer to view their herb production as one of their simple and quaint practices with which they supported their deeply religious lifestyle, my research has led me to view them in a different light.  They were, indeed, astute businessmen who capitalized on growing trends in medicine to become one of the leading names in the early history of pharmaceutical manufacturing.  In short, they were the progenitors of Big Pharma.

Calvin J. Cowles. North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill. 

Calvin J. Cowles. North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill. 

The antebellum decades were tumultuous for medical professionals.  As an understanding of disease and illness continued to elude them, they doubled down on their draconian practices of bloodletting and their prescriptions of mercury and chemical cathartics, and consequently many Americans, particularly those in the west and south and outside the urban areas, had lost faith in the ability of “regular” doctors to heal them.  They turned to proponents of competing therapeutic regimes, and many came to believe that “vegetable drugs” were safer and more effective.  The Shakers met that demand with a wide variety of vegetable products, including oils, tinctures, extracts, and powders, made from one species of plant.  These simples quickly earned a widespread reputation in the North and Midwest for their purity, and druggists and physicians purchased them in large quantities.  In his influential 1828 manual, Medical Flora, Constantine Rafinesque declared that the Shakers had the “best medical gardens in the United States.”[2]

In the 1840s, Shaker herb production stepped up a couple of notches.  In addition to the herbs they grew and gathered, the Shakers of New Lebanon began purchasing others from individuals and country stores in surrounding towns.  Men traveled to places like Pittsfield, Canaan, Richmond, and Stockbridge to obtain more herbs, expanding their supply chain to a much larger area.  This may have been due to the fact that many of the herbs they gathered, particularly those that had valuable roots, had begun to grow scarce around New Lebanon.  By the 1840s, the mountains behind the Shaker settlement were increasingly denuded of their forests for timber and agricultural purposes.  There are numerous references in their journals to ongoing fence construction, oat cultivation, and other activities on the mountains, and they were forced to travel to distant places like Mt. Washington to obtain timber.  By the 1850s, their supply chain extended down into the southern Appalachians.  Indeed, this was no small-time operation. 

The Shakers had a significant impact on pharmaceutical history, if for no other reason than the impact they had on the Tilden family.  Although sources are rare from the early years, later sources all agree that the success of the Shakers’ business convinced Elam Tilden, the grandfather of future Democratic presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden, to enter the business of manufacturing botanical remedies. Tilden may have even received substantial help from a “seceder” from the Shaker community. By the late 1840s, Tilden & Company had become one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of botanical extracts and even purchased a machine that enabled the evaporation of the alcohol to take place in a vacuum.  The Shakers soon followed with their own vacuum evaporator, and physicians and pharmacists favored the new products.  

From 1850-1858, Wilkesboro’s Calvin Cowles sold 180,000 pounds of dried roots, herbs, seeds, leaves, flowers, and barks to the growing botanical pharmaceutical industry.  The Shakers and Tilden & Company were his two largest and most consistent buyers, each purchasing some 40,000 pounds of crude drugs.  While this sum might not seem too high, it should be noted that it took thousands of lobelia seeds, for example, to reach one pound.   He developed a lasting friendship with Edward Fowler, the Shaker agent in charge of the herb business at New Lebanon.  Every spring, Fowler and Tilden sent Cowles orders for roots and herbs—1000 pounds of wild ginger root, 500 pounds of ladies slipper root, and 1000 pounds of lobelia herb, for example—and Cowles sent out price lists to country stores primarily in Watauga and Ashe Counties.  Rural customers brought in bags full of various roots on the list and traded them for fabric, powder, knives, books, coffee, and even cornmeal, and the storekeepers took the roots and herbs by wagon over the Blue Ridge to Cowles’s.  Cowles, in turn, paid them in goods that he procured from commission merchants in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and the storekeepers took them back to their stores and sold them.  And all of this was made possible by the trends in medical therapeutics toward botanical medicine and the efforts of the Shakers and Tilden & Company of New Lebanon.        

The Shakers’ herb business declined precipitously after the Civil War when dozens of new and very large corporations entered the drug-making business and pharmaceutical production moved away from botanicals. One of the last preparations the Shakers sold was Dr. Norwood’s Tincture, made from American Hellebore (Veratrum viride) to treat pneumonia.  Today, you can still visit the Shaker herb gardens in places like Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, although the communities are no longer functioning.  Their gardens are peaceful, picturesque places, where visitors can go and ponder the costs and benefits of communal self-sufficiency, but these gardens do little to suggest their role in the creation of national drug markets.  


[1] For more on the Shaker herb business and Shaker history, see Edward D. Andrews, The Community Industries of the Shakers, New York State Museum Handbook 15 (Albany, NY: THe University of the State of New York, 1933); Amy Bess Williams Miller, Shaker Herbs: A History and a Compendium, 1st ed (New York: C. N. Potter : distributed by Crown Publishers, 1976); Stephen J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers, 1. Dr. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1992).

[2] C. S. Rafinesque, Medical Flora; Or; Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America. (Philadelphia: Atkinson & Alexander, 1828), 17.