Author’s Note: This is the fifth part in a series of blog posts looking at the historical big picture of modern day urban flooding and the importance of trees. Go here for part one, two, three, and four. Read this blog post on why I’ve decided to take on this project.
By the mid 1600s the English colonies of North America had become firmly established on the world stage with profitable commodities of which trees and the harvesting of lumber played an integral role. And inevitably where there’s money to be made, there will be humans that swarm like flies to manure. Colonist populations exploded exponentially. The colonial immigrant population of North America around 1620 was around 500 total. By the start of the next century that number would increase to 250,900. By 1760, nearing the start of the revolution, it would be 1,593,600.
The single largest form of occupation during this period was agrarian based. Immigrants made their living owning land, building a fenced in farm, and selling farm commodities as a result of hard work. Land was cheap and jobs paid well in America. Nine out of every ten jobs in the colonies was related to these activities. The first and most crucial step was clearing forests, after which came crops (primarily maize/corn), and then domesticated animals. As a result, the populations of livestock exploded in even greater numbers. Prior to English settlers, domesticated animals were non-existent in the New England colonies. By the mid 1600s they dominated the land. With the aid of metal tools not previously seen by these forests, the colonial settlers cleared and burned the forests with little regard so that the cattle, horses, sheep, and goats could feast upon the resulting grass lands.
For a good visual take on the situation take a look at these fantastic dioramas of a typical New England landscape during this era from the Harvard University Fisher Museum:
Dioramas from the Harvest Forest Fisher Museum
New England’s profitable commodities, and really its entire reason for being, were intrinsically tied to some form of cutting down trees. Furthermore, all colonial settlers relied on wood for fuel to get through harsh Little Ice Age winters (see part two of this series). The greatest use of the forests was by far for domestic fuel for heating. From William Cronon’s “Changes in the Land – Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England“:
A typical New England household probably consumed as much as thirty or forty cords of firewood per year, which can be best visualized as a stack of wood four feet wide, four feet high, and three hundred feet long; obtaining such a wood pile meant cutting down more than an acre of forest each year. In 1800, the region burned perhaps eighteen times more wood for fuel than it cut for lumber. When the effects of such burning are summed up for the whole colonial period, it is probable that New England consumed more than 260 million cords of firewood between 1630 and 1800.
The economic and personal necessities of the colonists were so tied to trees that the colonies even minted some of the earliest silver shillings with trees emblazoned upon them.
By the way, you could still buy one of these super cool rare tree coins on eBay for about a cool $1k – 2k of your hard earned paper money. Go ahead and feel free to use a large sum of your paper tree money to buy another form of metal money with a tree on it! How’s that for sensible human logic? My brain sometimes hurts contemplating the reasoning behind us humans.
Trees were ingrained in the early colonists lifestyle, livelihood, way of life, keeping warm, and the overall colonial economy.
Then in 1691 one of the first sparks of colonial unrest on the match stick of the American Revolution were ignited because of the very same trees.
In 1691 the recently reinstated English monarchy and King William III began to take notice of their New England citizens tree cutting behaviors. By this time England was the world’s dominant sea power thanks in part to the great white pine trees from New England that they used for ship building (see part four). These ships were used to dominate the seas and increase their numbers in trading routes, goods, and profits. Nearly the entire fleet of English naval ships relied upon the best shipping masts in the world supplied directly from New England forests.
A Ship at Sea, 1650-1708, Ludolf Bakhuizen
King William III issued a royal charter in October 1691 to New England colonies reserving to the King “all Trees of Diameter of Twenty Four Inches and upwards” “for the better providing and furnishing of Masts for the Royal Navy.” And anyone who cut down such trees would be subject to a fine of “One Hundred Pounds sterling.”
And with that single charter, the best and most prized trees of economic value were the property of the King of the England and persons of the colonies were subject to fine for disobeying. The charter became known as the Broad Arrow policy since surveyor generals of the English crown went into the best forests marking trees with an axe indicating with a “broad arrow” insignia which trees were property of the King of England.
New England masts and the King’s Broad Arrow. Greenwich, London: Trustees of the National Maritime Museum. (1979)
The policy immediately drew resentment among colonists and was largely ignored. This was a land founded on personal freedoms and clearing, subduing and filling the land. Doing God’s work as deemed by God himself in the Bible. It was in direct contradiction to their belief system (see part three). White pine trees eventually became a symbol of repression. Trees and their rightful ownership drove a wooden wedge between the crown and the colonists.
As New England colonists transitioned into the 1700s, trees became a symbol of liberty and would unify the people against the King. Colonists began using a flag with a pine tree emblem, and used it heavily in the lead up to and during the Revolutionary War. A pine tree flag would wave at the battle of Bunker Hill and the same flag would be hoisted upon General Washington’s small fleet of naval ships. In the same vein, the Liberty Elm tree in Boston was a regular rallying spot for revolutionists. After it was cut down by English loyalists in 1775, it’s stump and the “stump speeches” made upon it, served to galvanize the people of Boston and provided a rallying location for organized protest such as the Tea Act and the Boston Tea Party.
We all know what happens next, the Declaration of Independence, war, and the birth of a new nation. All United under God, indivisible, to do as they please with their own land and trees.
So when 4th of July rolls around and you’re in the freedom of your back yard doing unwise American “hold my beer” tricks on your neighbor’s trampoline with a fist full of lit sparklers, think of the tree and the wooden crutches you will carrying for the next five months.
Because without them, there wouldn’t be the great land-of-the-free-to-do-stupid-things called the United States of America.
This nation was founded on the principle of freedom (caveat: as long as you weren’t a slave or native Indian). The freedom of choice and the right to our individual happiness and prosperity. The freedom to chop down as many trees as I please without a King telling me differently.
And as this story enters the 19th century, that is exactly what will happen to the trees of North America. On massive devastating scales.