Masting on the Piscataqua, 1641 – 1815

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LOGGING TRUCKS LOADED WITN WHITE PlNE are a familiar sight in the Piscataqua region, but pine today is relatively small, and of no consequence to international politics. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, struggles over Piscataqua pine spilled much blood and treasure. Ultimately, human harvesting diminished stocks of what had been the largest tree in New Hampshire’s forest. When axmen reconnoitered the colonial forest for mast trees, individual specimens of white pine, Pinusstrobus,grew over 250 feet tall and measured more than six feet in diameter at breast height. No better tree existed for the masts of square-rigged sailing ships.

Shipwrights were masting English ships with Piscataqua pines as early as 1641, and by mid-century masting operations were under-way on every tributary. There were three mast coves along the main river, and another near the head of Spruce Creek in nearby Kittery. Felling mast pines and getting them out of the forest required special tools, considerable experience, and the collaboration of many men and oxen. First, woodsmen prepared a cushioning bed with smaller saplings so that the huge pine would not break when it struck the ground. Then a path was cleared from the stump to a mast road, or to a stream sufficiently deepened by small dams to carry the great log to navigable water. After axmen felled and limited the tree, it was cut to length and hauled to water on great wheels (in the summer) or on sledges (in the winter) drawn by asmany as thirty-two teams of oxen, down river where ocean-going vessels could anchor, the masts were hauled out in a mast yard, covered by a shed roof, squared, and then, eight-sided. Ships later carried them to England or to a New England shipyard.

Difficult though masting was, ten ship loads of masts left the Piscataqua annually for England by 1671. During the Anglo-Dutch wars the Royal Navy came to depend on Piscataqua masts for its great- est ships. The region was England’s “strategic naval reserve;” without its steady supply of masts the Royal Navy would have been immobilized after any large battle. During the second Anglo-Dutch War, in 1666, Samuel Pepys noted that the British Navy had been virtually saved by the arrival of mast ships from the Piscataqua. New Hampshire regained its independence from Massachusetts in 1679 in part because the Crown distrusted Massachusetts’ republican tendencies and did not want to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony in control of crucial Piscataqua mast stands.

Knowing how crucial mast pines were to the Royal Navy, the French in Canada armed and encouraged their Indian allies to attack masting centers during every Anglo-French conflict. Nearly every town on the Piscataqua and its tributaries was attacked at least once, and some suffered casualties repeatedly between 1675 and 1763. At Oyster River(now Durham), Dover, Berwick, and nearby York, the settlers were virtually wiped out in surprise attacks and massacres. In 1700 Jonathan Bridger, the King’s forester, made a map of the Piscataqua showing the forest reserves and a “large Swamp of White Pine Burnt by the Indians.”

Nearly every autumn from the 1660s until the 1760s, one or more mast ships arrived in the Piscataqua, often anchoring in the pool near Little Harbor. Carrying up to twenty cannon and sixty or more crew, these were the largest ships to enter the Piscataqua in their day, and the most heavily armed, for hostile navies regularly patrolled Atlantic waters looking for mast ships. It may have been

easier to protect masts on the high seas than in the forests, for while mast pines were legally property of the Crown, local foresters regularly harvested pine to feed the sixty-odd sawmills on the Piscataqua. Those mills, with no political loyalties, served a wide international market. The Surveyor General of the King’s Woods and Admiralty subcontractors with mast contracts were not the only ones to profit from the pines.

As early as 1665 observers complained that mast pines were getting scarce in the Piscataqua basin, and that sawdust from the mills was clogging the rivers and jeopardizing the salmon population. No doubt this was partly true, but the Piscataqua provided a steady supply of masts right up to the American Revolution, and over thirty Piscataqua masts and spars appeared on the cargo manifest of a ship bound to India from Portsmouth as late as 1802. The mast harvests during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries depleted, but did not eradicate, the supply of good white pine around the Piscataqua.

With the sheep craze in the early nineteenth century, however, local farmers began to clear their woodlots for pasture, and large stands of pine virtually disappeared from southern New Hampshire. Thereafter, Piscataqua shipbuilders were forced to import their masts from Maine, which still possessed large, untouched stands of pine. Today, as a result of the historic harvests of giant pines, there may be fewer pines in the Piscataqua basin that have the genetic potential to match trees that for two centuries supplied the mast industry. — WBL

Sources: Robert G. Albion, Forestsand Sea Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926); W. B. Leavenworth, “The Ship in the Forest” (PhD dissertation, University of New Hampshire, 1999); Calendar of StatePapers, Colonial Series, vols. 1 -43 (London: HM Stationery Office, 1860; Kraus Reprint, 1964).