Heather Cox Richardson
How many people today have heard of the King’s Broad Arrow?
Not many, I’d wager, and yet it was once the key to settling a continent and the spark to a revolution. It’s a simple mark: three quick swings with an ax, one straight up and two in a V at the top, to make an arrow. After 1711, the King’s Mark branded old-growth New England white pines as the property of the King of England.
Those old-growth white pines were key to British interest in settling New England. In 1605, Captain George Weymouth explored the coast of what is now Maine, sailing the Archangel to Monhegan, Camden, and up the Kennebec River. He discovered vast shoals of fish and, as one of his comrades recorded, giant “firre-trees,” “out of which issueth Turpentine in so maruellous plenty, and so sweet, as our Chirurgeon and others affirmed they neuer saw so good in England. We pulled off much Gumme congealed on the outside of the barke, which smelted like Frankincense. This would be a great benefit for making Tarre and Pitch.”
The trees that so impressed Weymouth and his men were White Pines, (Pinus Strobus), still known in England as the Weymouth Pine.
These huge trees dominated the coastline where Weymouth sailed. They were the tallest trees in eastern North America, standing up to 230 feet. Their wood is soft, easy to cut, straight, and generally without knots. Unlike hardwood, it can stand for years without cracking, and it bends, rather than breaks, in a high wind. It was a perfect tree to make masts, and if there was one thing the Royal Navy needed, it was its own source of mast wood. As William R. Carlton put it in his 1939 New England Quarterly article titled “New England Masts and the King’s Navy”: “Masts, in the days of wooden ships, played a far greater part in world affairs than merely that of supporting canvas. They were of vital necessity to the lives of nations. Statesmen plotted to obtain them; ships of the line fought to procure them. . . .” They were vital to the well being of the British Navy . . . and thus to Britain itself.
The Navy had been getting its masts from the Baltic countries and Norway, but the masts they supplied had to be spliced, and the supply was always susceptible to disruption. The discovery of a new source of masts was enough to spur interest in settling New England. By 1623, entrepreneurs in Maine and New Hampshire were milling pine masts for British navy yards, a trade centered out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s “Strawberry Bank.”
After a war with the Dutch closed off British access to the Baltic in 1654, England began to rely on the Colonies to supply masts. The resulting boom in mast wood created a frenzy of cutting which threatened to decimate the old-growth trees. By 1691, the Crown had protected almost all white pines more than 24 inches in diameter at 12 inches above the ground. Surveyors marked these potential masts with the King’s Broad Arrow.
Colonists were outraged. Pine wood was valuable—very valuable—not only for masts but also for boards. Men routinely poached the pines, sawing the old-growth trunks into widths no more than 22 inches wide to get around the new laws. They also protested the restrictions, which were a real hardship in a region where wood was imperative for everything from houses to heat. They began to mutter that the Parliament had no right to intrude on their private property.
In 1772, a New Hampshire official tasked with protecting the King’s Trees charged six sawmill owners with milling trunks that had been marked with the King’s Broad Arrow. One of the owners refused to pay the resulting fine. He was arrested and then released with the promise that he would provide bail the next day. Instead, the following morning he and 30 to 40 men, their faces disguised with soot, assaulted the government officials and ran them out of town. While eight of the men were later charged with assault, the local judges who sentenced them let them off so lightly the verdict could easily be seen as support for their actions.
The Pine Tree Riot, as it came to be called, has often been cited as a precursor to the Boston Tea Party. The latter is the more famous occasion when New Englanders challenged royal authority, but it is worth noting that the first flag of the American Revolutionaries bore the image of a White Pine in the upper lefthand corner.