The Tree That Sparked an Industry and a Riot

The mighty Eastern White Pine.

Notable high timber trees

In May of 1605 explorer Captain George Waymouth and his crew arrived off the coast of the “Northern part of Virginia” as that part of the New World was called. They were on a small island off the coast of what is now known as Maine and near the mouth of the Tanahock River, later to be known as the St. George’s River.

A copy of a copy of the 1610 Simancas (Spain) archive map. Waymouth’s explorations are in the area outlined by the blue box. From the Maine Historical Society.

Captain Waymouth took soundings and other measurements during the exploration but no maps survive. We do have the account of James Rosier, a gentleman employed on the voyage who wrote “The True Relation of the Most prosperous voyage made this present yeere 1605 by Captain George Waymouth in the Discovery of the land of Virginia” (that’s the shortened title). He provides a description of the fruits and trees found in mid-May while still on the island:

After constructing smaller boats for navigation in shallower waters they started to make excursions to other islands and into the river. They were astounded by the freshness of the water, the abundant catches of fish and the many deep coves along the river. In mid-June Rosier wrote:

The “notable high timber trees, mast for ships of 400 tun” were the Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus. Captain Waymouth was not on a pleasure cruise. He and and his crew were on a voyage to find and report on resources and within several decades the business of mast-making would become the first major industry of New England.

By the 17th-century Britain had exhausted the supply of timber need to make single-stick masts for the ships of the Royal Navy. Britain was in fierce and expensive competition for Baltic fir with Spain, France and Holland, a new and cheaper source for mast timber was desperately neeeded.  Pinus strobus was the answer and became known as the “mast pine.”

The Eastern White Pine is known as one of the tallest trees in the Eastern part of the United States. It is easy to work and lighter than other woods. Besides masts the wood could be used for other shipbuilding components, pitch and tar were used for seaming and resin and turpentine were used to make paint and varnish. For future colonists Eastern White Pine would be used to build homes, wagons, barns, furniture and so on.

First Person Observations

Samuel Sewall was a judge in Boston. He is best known in United Staes history as one of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials (he later apologized). He was also a businessman and he kept a diary of his daily actions and the events he witnessed or had reported to him. It is almost overwhelming to read the number of injuries that befall his friends and neighbors and the incredible number of deaths that seem to occur each week. But thanks to his dedication in keeping a record we get a few details about the timber trade and the progression of the mast industry some 80 years after Waymouth’s voyage.

From Thursday, September 1, 1687: “This day we receive a Sloop Load of Boards from the Salmon-falls Saw-mill and the same day, I think by the same Boat, I receive a Copy of a Writ of Ejection which Mr. Mason has cause’d to be serv’d on John Broughton respecting said Mill.”

Sewall was an investor in a sawmill and the writ he mentions may have  involved a mill in which he had an interest. He takes a trip to resolve the issue but the court involved cannot meet and the case is deferred until the following March. His trip continues and we get a glimpse of the mast industry from his entrry of September 14:

“See the Mill, get a Cut, visit Mrs. Rainer and her Daughter Broughton. Breakfast there. Ride into Swamp to see a Mast drawn of about 26 inches of 28 [diameter]; about two and thirty yoke of oxen before, and about four yoke by the side of the Mast, between the fore and hinder wheels. ‘Twas a very notable sight. Rode then to York…”

18th-century example of how a large beam was transported. Moving a mast would have required many more teams of oxen.

The following spring Sewall again traveled to resolve the business with the Writ at the Mill but the case was dropped due to the death of one of the parties. He continues his trip and notes on March 9, 1688: “Goe to the Great Iland [Island], saw the Mast-Ship sail.”

Although Sewall lived in Boston his many travels took him to other parts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The sawmill in which he invested, the swamp where he observed a mast being pulled and the sailing of the mast ship were along the Piscataqua River in what is now New Hampshire and Maine.

Map of the Pascataway River, ca. 1665-1670. Red arrows mark Quamphegan Falls (site of a sawmill) and Great Island. Portsmouth is not marked but is located at the mouth of the river. Today New Hampshire lies on the left bank of the river, Maine is on the right bank. From the Maine State Library.

Sewall’s sawmill may have been at Quamphegan Falls or further up the river at Salmon Falls. Both falls were an important part of the timber business in this part of the colony. Masts taken from the forests were moved down to Portsmouth at the mouth of the river, further processed and then loaded onto mast-ships for transport to shipyards in England and to other parts of the colonies.

A squared mast tree could easily be 100-120 feet long requiring mast-ships to have exta-long decking. One of these ships could transport 50 masts and the sight of a mast-ship embarking would certainly be a sight to note in one’s diary. Through Sewall’s diary we learn the mast-making industry, as well as other timber businesses, were well-established. Mast pines were felled, processed and transported to the coast for further transport to shipyards. Sawmills were operating and lumber supplies were moved over waterways.

Colony Growth and Crown Control

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was chartered in 1628. After political ups-and-downs between the colony and England, and within England itself, charters were revoked, rewritten in harsher terms and finally in 1691 a new charter was issued by William and Mary for the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

With the influx of immigrants to the new colony the domestic demand for wood grew and came into conflict with the Crown’s need for shipbuilding material. The very last section of the 1691 charter was very specific on the consequences of interfering with the Crown’s supply of mast pines:

“And lastly for the better providing and furnishing of Masts for Our Royall Navy Wee doe hereby reserve to Us Our Heires and Successors all Trees of the Diameter of Twenty Four Inches and upwards of Twelve Inches from the ground growing upon any soyle or Tract of Land within Our said Province or Territory not heretofore granted to any private persons And Wee doe restrains and forbid all persons whatsoever from felling cutting or destroying any such Trees without the Royall Lycence of Us Our Heires and Successors first had and obteyned upon penalty of Forfeiting One Hundred Poinds sterling unto Ous Our Heires and Successors for every such Tree soe felled cut or destroyed without such Lycence had and obteyned in that behalfe any thing in.”

This last section of the charter was known as the Mast Preservation Clause. Surveyors of Pines and Timber were tasked with finding and marking all suitable trees “within ten miles of any navigable waterway.” Trees were marked with three hatchet marks that formed the “King’s Broad Arrow.” Woe to any colonist found with a marked tree, or a tree that was unmarked but met the size requirements for a mast. The Mast Clause, as with most regulations limiting a vital supply, caused divisions among the colonists. Some were very much in support of supplying the Royal Navy with precious timber, others were more concerned with how they were able to sustain livelihoods with the Crown claiming the best and the most.

A New Century and Expotential Growth

Boston Mill Pond and Shipyards, 1743. Boston Public Library.

In the map above you can see that Boston bristled with shipyards. To power the sawmills and other mills in the area a damn was built to create the Mill Pond and use tidal power. As the tide went out it turned the water wheels that powered the mills. The goods made in the mills and shipyards were traded with England, other European countries and with other colonies. Moving commodities and passengers by water, both sea and rivers, was faster and more efficient than by overland route. Smaller ships made in the colonies were made for this purpose. The many shipyards also did repairs for larger ships damaged by weather or warfare. Samuel Sewall’s diary mentions several instances where a ship had lost its mast and arrived for repairs.

Using Boston as an example of the growth of the New England colony we see in 1650 the population of Boston was 2,000 and by 1742 it was 16,382.  New arrivals to the colony swelled city settlements and there was also a push into more remote and rural areas. Increased populations and increased trade put more pressure on natural resources. With the crown snapping up the best of timber there was more pushback from the colonists. Poaching timber that met the measurements in the Mast Clause was a cat-and-mouse game between individual citizens, sawmill operators and the Royal Surveyors.

In New Hampshire we can get an idea of how a Mast Clause constrained the livlihood of the colonists. But first, a note about a series of taxes that created revenue for the Crown and protected the trade of goods made in England. In 1733 there was the Molasses Act, in 1764 the Sugar Act and in 1765 the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act was particularly inflammatory as it required a tax on printed material that had to be on paper made in England – everything from legal documents to newspapers to playing cards. Not only was this a wooden age, it was a gambling age and a tax affecting playing cards was a low blow.

Prior to 1766 the governor of New Hampshire did not strictly enforce the Mast Clause, especially in the western portion of the colony. In 1764 the charter for incorporating Weare (by today’s roadways about 70 miles from Portsmouth) included the usual clause for reserving all white pines fit for use by the Royal Navy. New towns like Weare didn’t pay much attention to the clause and enforcement was lax. In 1766 John Wentorth became governor and he began to rigorously enforce the Mast Clause and thereby greatly increase revenue.

By this time the law had become an onerous weight on the newer towns and settlers. Prior to cutting any timber for a home or clearing any land a surveyor had to be summoned to assess and mark any pine trees suitable for the Crown’s use. A royal license also had to be paid to cut any other trees. If a settler did not follow this law he was subject to inspection and arrest for any white pine that might be found in his cabin walls. The law was unpopular from farmer to sawmill operator to minister, as none could escape paying for the use of their own trees and only after the Crown had marked and would take what was best.

Ebenezer Mudgett Has Had Enough

Royal Surveyors used the tactic of inspecting sawmills to find white pine logs of mast size, put the Kings Broad Arrow Mark on the logs and then fine the mill operator. In the winter of 1771-1772 they visted sawmills in the Piscataquog Valley and found six mills with white pine logs 15-36 inches in diameter. The owners were ordered to appear in court and pay fines. Some mill owners paid their fines but the owners from Weare did not.

Ebenezer Mudgett was the leader of the Weare group. He agreed to finally meet the sheriff and face his arrest but the night before he and others got together to plan their response.

From the archives of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

This event became known as the Pine Tree Riot. Yes, New Hampshire had a riot. Several accounts say the rioters used pine tree switches to assault the sheriff and the number of strikes equaled the number of logs that were confiscated. Some historians think the disguises used by the Weare rioters gave the Boston Tea Party members the idea to use disguises when they held their protest the next year.

Within a few years of the Pine Tree Riot the former colonists had a country of their own and could now command payment from England or any other country for their mast trees. Business would be brisk for many years as we launched our own Navy, more parts of the world were explored and trade routes expanded and Napoleon began his campaigns.

The cone of the Eastern White Pine.

There are still some old growth stands of the Eastern White Pine in protected forests and parks from Canada to North Carolina and in the Upper Midwest. Go find one and give it a few pats.

For the denizens of New Hampshire and Maine who probably know all about the mast pine and the riot I have one more map for you. It is from 1774 and shows about the same area around the Piscataqua River as the 1665-1670 map above.

Portion of 1774 map showing the most populated areas of New England. Boston Public Library.

Suzanne Ellison

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10 Responses to The Tree That Sparked an Industry and a Riot

  1. Eric R says:

    You always supply the best stories!
    Thank you.
    Eric
    central Florida

  2. Loved this history lesson. 👍🏼 >

  3. Well done, Suzanne. Easily read, educational, and a lovely (and uncommon online) use of source material. This is what the internet is really for.

  4. Bob Easton says:

    “There are still some old growth stands of the Eastern White Pine in protected forests and parks from Canada to North Carolina and in the Upper Midwest. Go find one and give it a few pats.”

    Even when not “old growth,” walking through our majestic forests is awe inspiring. More so when we have a fine story to go along with the walk.

    Thanks, Suzanne, for the history!

  5. Thank you for sharing ! Very much enjoyed reading about this portion of the history of forestry in early America and how figures into our nations yearning for freedom. “Woodn’t” have heard about it otherwise ! LOL!

  6. skilledno says:

    It’s rare to not want an article or story to end. This I really didn’t want to finish 😊 excellent piece.

  7. adumbiam says:

    We walked a white pine self-guided tour in Algonquin, Canada. The park identified the exact years of forest fires in the region basedo. the white pines groups of common height. After reading the tour description, it was clear those trees could explain the history of the forest. Wish we the people were more sustainable in their consumption!

  8. inorthwoods says:

    Thanks Suzanne,
    Sam Manning wrote and illustrated a neat book “New England Masts and the King’s Broad Arrow ” still an interesting read …

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