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The Little Known Story of the Noble White Pine Tree

Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Green

Before Americans saluted the Red, White, and Blue, we waved the Red, White, and Green! The green on our flag took the form of a White Pine Tree. This fact reveals how important the majestic White Pine once was to our country.

The vast stands of White Pines that greeted European settlers in the New World were quickly put to hundreds of uses, including housing the new arrivals and millions of their descendants. Britain, however, had other ideas for the end product of that timber. The battle over ownership of the magnificent Pines was—like the Stamp Act and the Tea Act—a catalyst for the Revolutionary War. The history of the White Pines in America is a fascinating story that’s rarely told.

Gentle Giants

Unless you’ve been to the parts of the West Coast where Trees routinely approach 200 feet, it’s almost impossible to imagine what it must have felt like for the early colonists to encounter those gentle giants. Old growth White Pines were the largest Trees east of the Rockies; many of the virgin Trees were 300 to 400 years old and stood 150 to 200 feet tall. One specimen in New Hampshire, where Dartmouth University now stands, is said to have reached the lofty height of 240 feet.

White Pine Trees grew thickly, dominating the cool northern areas where they flourished. Most of Pennsylvania and New York State were covered in White Pines; a bird’s-eye view would have revealed little else. In spring, vast clouds of pollen would arise and drift out to sea, and sailors that reached the Northeast Coast at that time feared the yellow dust was brimstone ash—evidence of punishing fires like the Bible described. They didn’t know what terrors awaited them ashore.

The Tree of Peace

To many Native Americans, the majestic White Pine was a symbol of peace. Five warring tribes composed of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca united under the Iroquois Confederacy by burying the hatchet (now an everyday phrase, but once a solemn symbolic gesture of peace) under a White Pine Tree. White Pine was chosen because of its towering height, ensuring that the Tree would be seen by all around the Confederacy. The evergreen nature of the leaves represented the enduring peace among the tribes that would never waver through the seasons. The White Pine was also an appropriate choice because its needles are bundled into groups of five. According to the legend, the bundles symbolized the five members of the Confederacy united as one.

From Cradle to Grave

To the colonists, the gigantic White Pines were no doubt awe-inspiring, but they had no qualms about cutting them down to make way for the new country’s farms and villages. The White Pines began to tumble as the settlers carved their homes out of the wilderness.

The colonists soon discovered the lumber the venerable old Trees yielded was superior in many ways to any wood they’d dealt with before. It was light but strong, warp-resistant, largely knot-free, easily workable, and available in amazingly generous lengths and widths and in quantities that seemed endless. White Pine Trees were turned into homes, barns, churches, covered bridges, corn cribs, bobsleds, fences, shingles, bed posts, window sashes, doors, paneling, packing boxes, cradles, and matchsticks.

On the frontier, White Pine was commonly turned into coffins. When pioneers moved away from White Pine country and into the hardwood forests, homesteaders would often plant a pair of White Pines as “coffin Pines” for the husband and wife. Coffins were easier and quicker to manufacture from soft White Pine than from hardwood Trees given the primitive woodworking facilities that existed on the frontier in those early years.

The Tree of War

When the British first saw the New World’s colossal, arrow-straight White Pines, they saw neither a symbol of peace nor home-building material, but something entirely different—ships’ masts. Continually warring with other nations, the British Royal Navy was always in need of battleship masts. Suitable “mast sticks” in England and most of Europe had long since been cut down; England had to make do by splicing together sections of inferior Scotch Pine from Russian or Swedish Trees instead. This less-than-ideal plan was dependent upon a steady supply of Scotch Pines, which wasn’t sustainable. Furthermore, the plan was liable to break down completely if England was on bad terms with Denmark, as the Danes controlled the passageway to the Baltic Sea, where Scotch Pines were waiting to be shipped.

Property of the British Royal Navy

In 1691, under the reign of William and Mary, Britain decided to make it clear that the choicest White Pines in New England belonged to the Crown. In the Massachusetts Bay Charter, the monarchs claimed any Tree at least 24 inches in diameter for the British Royal Navy, and threatened a 100 pound fine for each Tree cut in violation of the code. The order was reinforced with the mark of the “broad arrow”—three hatchet slashes cut into each qualifying Tree’s trunk for all to see.

The colonists resented seeing this symbol on what they believed were their Trees, and they largely ignored the edict. The British had a hard time enforcing it, as most of the judges and deputies in New England were sympathetic to the colonists’ cause.

Don’t Make Me Tell You Again

Over the years, British efforts to hold on to the remaining mast Pines grew more desperate, the colonists’ resolve grew stronger, and enforcement continued to be difficult. Spying on behalf of the Crown was encouraged, and spies were rewarded with the offender’s property should they catch someone cutting one of the king’s Pines. When that didn’t work, offenders were threatened with flogging, which wasn’t effective, either. In 1722, Britain tightened the size requirements with a New Hampshire law that claimed all White Pine Trees upwards of 12 inches in diameter for England.

Tensions continued between the British and the colonists over ownership of the White Pines right up until the War for Independence. Frustrations came to a head in 1772, when a mob of villagers rallied around a mill owner accused of dealing in the Crown’s Pines by beating the sheriff and the deputy who had come to arrest him. Like the Boston Tea Party the following year, the “Pine Tree Riot” showed that the colonists were eager to get the British off their backs.

White Pines Today

We all know the resolution to this conflict. The good guys won the War of Independence and got full ownership of the White Pine Trees. However, the good guys also proceeded to cut down virtually all of the old growth White Pines to use as building material or to sell. Some of the Trees were simply burned in order to clear land for farming.

Although White Pine still grows abundantly in the eastern U.S., only tiny pockets of virgin White Pine forest and scattered single specimens in Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York give a hint of this Tree’s former glory.

Fortunately, White Pine is a fast-growing Tree, and it makes a quick comeback. Even a young Tree you plant today will soon reach an impressive size and make a striking evergreen presence in the landscape. White Pine has other important features, too, like the food and shelter it provides to countless birds and other animals that have evolved in its company. And of course, it has beautiful, long, soft, blue-green needles, which make a soothing sound when the wind blows through them. Some say the song of the wind in the Pines is as close as Trees come to speaking to us directly. Listen carefully, for this one has quite a story to tell.

1 Comment

  • Mary Riker says:

    Never knew this, and I am so glad I planted four of them 6 years ago. They are already at least 15 feet tall.

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