Pinus strobus and the Pine Tree Riot

by Brendan Keegan, Landscape Crew Gardener
April 14, 2017

Pinus strobus and the Pine Tree Riot

Walked through that beautiful soft white pine grove on the west of the road in John Flint’s pasture … Great pines two or more feet in diameter branch … sending out large horizontal branches on which you can sit. Like great harps on which the wind makes music. There is no finer tree. – Henry David Thoreau

We are fortunate at the Arboretum to be close to many of the famous sites of the American Revolution. The Old State House, Boston Harbor, and Bunker Hill, to name a few, are just miles away. However, visitors to the Arboretum may be surprised to learn that they can see an icon of the Revolutionary War right here on our grounds. Pinus strobus, the Eastern white pine, was immensely valued by New England colonists and also served an early symbol of American independence. In fact, on April 14, 1772, Pinus strobus and the Pine Tree Riot played a role in inciting the revolution itself.

Pinus strobus Peters Hill

Pinus strobus 727-2008-A on Peter’s Hill, courtesy of William (Ned) Friedman, Director of the Arnold Arboretum

Based on appearances alone, it is easy to see why Pinus strobus was admired and loved by early New Englanders. At the time of European settlement, truly colossal Pinus strobus forests dominated northeast and north central North America. Although the tallest specimens alive today are mostly 140-160 feet tall (“Old Boogerman” of The Great Smokey Mountains holds the record, at 189 feet), early colonists would have found tens of thousands of Eastern white pines over 170 feet tall, with some reportedly 240 feet tall and over 8 feet in diameter. This is not surprising, given that Pinus strobus can grow up to 3 feet a year as a sapling and has been documented to live well over 400 years.

The distribution of Pinus strobus would have stood out to colonists as well. Historically, Pinus strobus has grown in abundance from the tip of Newfoundland, south along the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia, and west to Minnesota. It is also easily identified by its blue-green needles, which grow in fascicles of five, as well as by its bark, which is smooth and light when the tree is young but becomes dark gray and deeply fissured as the tree matures. Wherever it grew, it was found and exploited by the early settlers; only 1% of the original Pinus strobus forests still exist.

Pinus strobus on Peter's Hill after a January snow. Photo courtesy of Danny Schisler

Pinus strobus on Peter’s Hill after a January snow. Photo courtesy of Danny Schisler

However awe-inspiring the old-growth pine forest must have been, the profit represented by a single mature tree must have excited colonists more. By the late 1700s, European powers had extensively exploited Europe’s remaining forests to feed their economies, and quality timber was in high demand. A significant amount went to building ships for navies that protected trade routes, conquered distant territories, and managed colonies across the world.

Great Britain, whose global empire was built on naval superiority, was particularly dependent on timber. While Britain possessed hardwoods like Quercus robur (English Oak) to build ship frames, it lacked softwoods essential for tall, strong, single-stick masts. As a result, Britain competed with other powers to import Pinus sylvestris (Scots Pine) from the Baltic region. This meant that the conquest of eastern North America was extremely important to the British. Through its colonies, it had access to millions of Pinus strobus, whose soft, lightweight, and rot resistant timber made it a superior mast tree when compared to the European stocks.

However, the same qualities that endeared Pinus strobus to the British Navy also endeared it to homesteading settlers, who used it to build houses, furniture, and tools. Both parties also preferred the tallest and widest trees, since the trees that made the strongest mast were also those that were the most economical for milling. The largest Pinus strobus specimens could exceed 900 cubit feet of timber by volume, making them extremely valuable and explaining why logging Pinus strobus drove the local and regional economies of New England for centuries.

Pinus strobus logging

Loggers hauling a load of Pinus strobus.

Recognizing that the colonists’ desire for Pinus strobus could result in the depletion of adequate mast trees for the British navy, the Crown’s authorities implemented a series of harvesting restrictions. For example, beginning in 1621, British forest surveyors began scouting New England and marking the tallest and straightest pines with the King’s Broad Arrow (also known as the King’s Mark), three hatchet strokes designating the tree as royal property. In addition, colonists were forbidden from cutting down Pinus strobus on their own properties until surveyors identified and marked any potential King’s Mark trees. In 1722, the British made it illegal for colonists to cut down Pinus strobus with diameters exceeding 24 inches at breast height. This limit was decreased to 12 inches in 1772, an indication of how quickly the giant trees had disappeared from the once virgin forests.

The colonists resented and rarely obeyed these restrictions. However, in 1772, the governor of New Hampshire, John Wentworth, cracked down on illegal logging and ordered that sawmills be searched for Pinus strobus wider than the legal limit. His chief surveyor found 270 illicit Pinus strobus in mills in Bedford, Goffstown and Weare, New Hampshire and the offending mill owners were summoned to pay a fine. Although the majority of the owners eventually submitted, the mill owners of Weare, led by Ebenezer Mudgett, refused.

To resolve the dispute, Benjamin Whiting, the county sheriff, and John Quigly, his deputy, were dispatched with a warrant to arrest Mudgett and collect the King’s compensation. The two colonial officials arrived in Weare on April 13, 1772 and found Mudgett late in the evening. Mudgett agreed to pay the ordered compensation and offered to meet the officials the following morning at the aptly named Pine Tree Inn, where the two men were staying the night.

bunker hill flag_Pinus strobus

The “Flag of New England” thought to have flown at the Battle of Bunker Hill, featuring Pinus strobus.

Rather than gather the payment as promised, though, Mudgett gathered a gang of incited townspeople. Early in the morning of April 14, Mudgett and around 20 local men went to the Pine Tree Inn and broke into Whiting and Quigly’s rooms. They grabbed the two officials, held them down, and beat them with wooden canes, giving Whiting a lash for each of the trees the Weare mill owners had illegally harvested. Afterwards, they cut the ears, tails, and manes of the two men’s horses and then rode the officials out of town through a crowd of jeering townspeople.

Words of Weare’s Pine Tree Riot spread through New England. It became an early example of rebellion against British rule and is now regarded as one of the precursors to the American Revolution. The riot also underscored the status of Pinus strobus as the symbol of New England’s independence. The tree figured on the first flags of the independent Colonies and was reportedly used on the Colonial flag at the battle of Bunker Hill. George Washington authorized the “Pine Tree Flag” to fly from the Colonial navy’s warships. Pinus strobus appeared on the flag of Massachusetts from independence until 1971, and continues to fly on the Commonwealth’s naval ensign today.

The 1892 logo of the Arnold Arboretum, featuring Pinus strobus.

Pinus strobus also connects to the identity of the Arnold Arboretum. The Arboretum’s first emblem, designed by George Wharton Edwards in 1892, depicts the sun rising behind Pinus strobus, symbolizing both the birth of an institution dedicated to plant conservation as well as the rich botanical heritage underpinning its founding.

Despite the fact that our logo has since changed to Metasequoia glyptostroboides to reflect the Arboretum’s leadership in plant exploration and research, Pinus strobus remains a prominent species in the collection. In the beautiful stand growing along the Walter Street wall at Peters Hill, two-dozen centenarian trees are slowly rising above the surrounding collection. Although these old trees are young and small when compared to their predecessors, they may one day reach the towering heights that endeared this species to early colonists and shaped the course of our nation’s history.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *