During the very early days of New England history, it quickly became apparent that a valuable resource found in Maine was its abundant timber. In 1609, while on his second voyage in the Half Moon, Henry Hudson sailed down the Maine coast and stopped in Penobscot Bay. He needed to cut some trees for masts. Thus began Maine’s mast trade, a defining element to the state’s early maritime history.

The tree was the Pinus strobus, native to eastern North America, commonly called the eastern white pine or northern white pine. Long, straight, and perfect for ship masts, these trees became one of the first land resources developed in the region. It is the largest tree in the eastern forest, easily topping 100 feet.

Prior to its exploitation, it was common for these northern white pines to reach heights of over 200 feet, some colonial accounts reported pines of 230 feet length and four-foot diameter. They towered sheer for 120 feet before even a branch was reached. Henry David Thoreau said there was no finer tree.

The New England Flag, adopted by many Mainers during the mid-17th Century (Image in Public Domain)

New England colonists adopted the pine tree as a symbol on their flags and currency in the 17th century, including different versions of the Flag of New England. Maine even fought under the Tree Flag, or the Appeal to Heaven Flag, during the American Revolution. It featured a pine tree with the motto “An Appeal to Heaven.”

 

 

 

The Tree Flag used during the Revolutionary War (Image in Public Domain)

The tree has since become synonymous with Maine, indicative of its nickname the Pine Tree State. The eastern white pine is pictured on the state seal and the white pinecone and tassel has become the official state flower.

The Anglo-Dutch wars of the 1650s and later, which curtailed maritime movements in the Baltic, made England focus more on its New England colonies for its mast source. This has been called a real landmark in the development of the colonial timber trade. A mast could last up to a dozen years, before its pitch completely dried out and the stick lost its resiliency, more easily shattered in storms.

As Maine became settled, Royal Navy agents claimed specific trees and referred to them as mast pines. Restrictions on colonial cutting of masts began to appear as early as 1685. As a result, many large specimens were literally marked by agents of the crown with the Kings Broad Arrow. This Broad Arrow Policy was officially enacted in 1691. Renewed periodically, the last measures were passed in 1729 and remained in effect until 1775.

The Kings Broad Arrow, three marks pointing upwards, carved, or marked into northern white pine trees declaring them the property of the Royal Navy (Drawn by author)

The arrow was a hash mark applied to the trees, implying British naval ownership, it was their property. The design had three lines or cuts which formed an arrow pointing upwards. Cutting this tree down and not delivering it to the King’s mast agent could get you fined £100.

At first, New Hampshire was the center for this activity, particularly Strawberry Bank, but the policy was not popular with locals. In 1734, the King’s men were assaulted and beaten in Exeter, N.H., in what was called the Mast Tree Riot.

By that time, mast operations had shifted to Falmouth, now Portland, Maine. In 1727 Thomas Westbrook, who worked for Royal Mast Agent and merchant Samuel Waldo, relocated to Falmouth, and began hauling large pine masts from the forests around Casco Bay. He may have been engaged in this as early as 1718 in Scarborough. From this small beginning up to the 1760s, Falmouth became the essential colonial supplier of giant pines to the Royal Navy.

This edict of declaring a tree in the wilderness to be property of the crown destined for the Royal Navy was not well liked and often resulted in protests or outright violation of the policy. Official correspondence at this time is full of appeals against these restrictions. Opposition became pronounced. It can be argued this Broad Arrow Policy did as much to encourage acts of rebellion as the equally disliked stamp tax on documents or the indirect tax on tea.

But it was big business. In just one four-year span 1768-1772, Falmouth shipped out 1,046 masts which averaged nearly four tons apiece. How substantial was this trade? Well, that amount for those four years was 3.5 times more than Piscataqua, Halifax, Salem-Marblehead, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and the Lower James River area combined. It represented one-tenth of the entire timber export from the colonies.

Trees targeted for masts were usually scouted out by locals. While some tended to come from privately owned lands, most came from Crown lands. Mast agents hired local contractors to bring out the masts for a small fee, who then offered meager wages to hire day laborers. A day’s labor earned less than three shillings. The result was that most profit went to the British and a few Falmouth merchants. It is reported this was the cause of bitterness on the part of many locals.

The first part of the process, after finding a suitable mast candidate, was to bed its fall. This meant to put down lots of small brush or cut down and crisscross smaller trees for the large tree to land on and avoid splitting its trunk.

Once the tree was down, workers used axes to limb it. The head of the pine might be cut off to provide a nice spar as well. This harvest was done in the summer and autumn to ensure the trees would be full of pitch, desired to keep them supple and elastic.

Hauling took place during winter. Before the ground froze and snow fell, workers arrived on site and built hovels for the required draft animals. They also built large wooden sleds known as scoots. Twitching a mast meant moving it over ground by brute strength without the help of wheels or runners.

As long as the ice road did not break up or slump, flat stretches were relatively easy to move these ten-ton masts along, in a process known as baulking. Draught animals were used as braking agents at any downhill slope, this was known as tailing. Bridle chains and snub ropes were also used as restraining lines. This was tough on the oxen, many were killed or injured in the process, so teams of spare animals and their handlers stood ready to replace them.

Mast roads led to the nearest waterway, which often meant through coastal towns. In fact, the mast baulkers created miles of these hard-packed roads over which they hauled these masts. Falmouth, and many other Maine villages developed around these mast roads, cleared, and opened by Colonel Westbrook.

When the mast road met with an intersection to the landing, a wide sweep or open area was needed for the turning radius of the long masts. According to some, the classic town common or square of many New England communities owed their peculiar shape to these corners clipped by oxen teams dragging these large masts.

Sometimes the masts were twitched into a river or stream. But this could be dangerous too. One giant mast being floated downriver struck a rock and rose in the water and somersaulted. People watching from shore were horrified when the mast swung around and fell upon the shore, scattering the crowd and killing a small boy.

Once at the mast landing, usually a tidal marsh in the early days, the masts were piled alongside each other. The wood was often squared to better fit into the holds of waiting mast ships. A 100-foot-long mast was about 3 feet × 3 feet at the butt and 2 feet × 2 feet at the top. A 120-foot mast was 4 feet × 4 feet on its ends.

Once shaped, the mast was twitched into the water then rafted together for delivery out to waiting moored vessels. Some of these ships were special barge-like vessels built to ship the masts to England.
Many had large loading ports in the rear and could carry 50 to 100 masts, plus a large number of spars and bowsprits. Other assorted timber including boards, planking, and timber filled the rest of the empty spaces.

It was big business, but surprisingly involved little cash. Most work was done on credit, with surpluses credited for future use. For instance, local Falmouth resident Elizha Baker brought in a mast that was valued at £25. He received no cash, but a credit was applied to his purchases made over the next nine months.

The King’s Broad Arrow policy for New England lasted nearly a century and ended with the Revolutionary War. Great Britain, which had long relied on its Baltic imports of timber, now resumed that policy of keeping those waters open for the mast trade. Post-revolution, mast operations in Maine had pretty much located farther down east into the Machias region.

Still, the early 1770s had George Tate holding jurisdiction of the trade at Falmouth. The famous Tate House, built when he purchased the lot in 1753, still stands as a testament to his part as a procurer of masts in this maritime industry.

The current masts on the USS Constitution (Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom)

The advent of war and the ending of the royal policy did not stop good pine trees from being spotted, cut, and hauled out of Maine forests for masts. It became an American operation, some of the first ships of the U.S. Navy like USS Constitution had masts of Maine northern white pine, its original main mast was said to have come from Montville.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport.  He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.

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