By Daniel White, The Nature Conservancy
The most valuable tree to the naval stores industry was the longleaf pine.
– National Park Service brochure
To grasp the significance of America’s once-vast longleaf forests to the European explorers who first set eyes upon them, one must first understand the historical connections between pine trees and seafaring cultures. From the moment people first embarked upon the seas, they depended on a range of products—known collectively as naval stores—derived from pines. Naval stores that were essential for building wooden vessels and keeping them seaworthy included pitch, tar, turpentine and rosin—all produced from sticky, resinous pine sap. Other commodities, such as masts and planking, required harvesting and milling entire trees. “From ancient days until the end of the wooden ship era, the smell of tar and pitch was forever mixed with the sea’s salt air in the memories of sailors,” writes Lawrence Earley in his book Looking for Longleaf. Even the biblical Noah’s nostrils would have been filled with the aroma of pine products along with damp animal, assuming he had followed God’s instructions to “cover [the ark] inside and out with pitch.” Thousands of years later in the new world, after completing his famous trek through the South’s pinelands to the Gulf of Mexico, John Muir boarded a schooner bound for New York and laden with Florida oranges. In A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, Muir describes crates of the fragrant fruit filling every available space on board, yet he refers to the ship as a “Tar-scented community.”
As the term naval stores implies, a primary consumer of these products was the world’s navies. Because tar and pitch, in particular, were critical for building and maintaining fleets of wooden sailing ships, power on the high seas was utterly dependent on a reliable supply of naval stores. Britain had produced its own naval stores through the Middle Ages but, during the Elizabethan era, was forced to reckon with the depletion of its pine forests. In April 1584, under the command of Sir Walter Raleigh, Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe sailed two ships from the west of England on a mission to explore the North American coast. In Barlow’s report to Raleigh—recorded in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations—he described “trees which could supply the English Navy with enough tar and pitch to make our Queen the ruler of the seas.” Barlowe clearly was referring to vast forests of longleaf pine that dominated the coast. Hakluyt also encouraged Raleigh to pursue this potentially rich new source of naval stores, advising him to recruit from Prussia and Poland “Men skilfull in burning of Sope ashes, and in making of Pitch, and Tarre, and Rozen.” The failed Lost Colony of Roanoke, however, meant that more than two decades would pass—at least according to the surviving historical record—before England was able to experiment with producing naval stores from longleaf pines in America.
In October 1608, Captain Christopher Newport sailed the Mary Margaret on his return trip to Jamestown. Dubbed the Second Supply, Newport’s voyage replenished the settlement’s provisions and introduced 70 new immigrants, including eight “glasse-men” of German or Polish origins. Little is known about these skilled workers beyond that their ranks included not only glass makers, but also men with experience producing naval stores. Captain John Smith shipped the settlement’s first “tryalls of Pitch and Tarre” back to England with Newport in December. Surviving records indicate that Jamestown’s initial exports totaled only 3-4 dozen barrels. (Like wine barrels, barrels of pitch and tar typically contained 32 gallons.) Nevertheless, the naval stores industry had arrived on America’s shores. As the Jamestown settlers struggled to survive, squeezing out their few dozen barrels of pitch and tar from the sparse stands of surrounding pines, little did they know what lay directly across the mighty James River. South from the James to what is now the North Carolina state line stretched at least a million acres of longleaf—the most highly resinous pine tree on Earth. And Virginia was only the northernmost tip of seemingly inexhaustible forests reaching from the shore to the Piedmont and wrapping the Atlantic and Gulf coasts all the way to Texas. At that time, British naval power and maritime commerce relied on imports from Prussia, the world’s largest producer of naval stores. By the middle of the 17th century, Sweden had overtaken Prussia and would soon dominate the world market, as the label “Stockholm Tar” became synonymous with the highest quality. But England’s supply chain was severed at the turn of the 18th century, as Russia and Sweden were engaged in the Great Northern War. The American colonies generally were content making enough naval stores for their own needs, so the British parliament passed the 1705 Bounty Act, the first of several incentives intended to boost production. The act established a 5-10-shilling bounty for every barrel the colonies exported to England. Ultimately, these financial incentives worked. By 1725, the colonies were supplying 80 percent of England’s naval stores, and in the decade leading up to the American revolution, the industry was widespread and thriving—along with shipbuilding. Before the drumbeats of war sounded, Virginia was exporting an estimated 30,000 barrels of naval stores annually, according to Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia. Yet the heart of the industry was already rapidly shifting south into North Carolina where a century later it would come to define the identity of the “Tarheel State.”
So how exactly were naval stores used? At every stage in the life of a wooden vessel. “In the bustling shipyards of long ago, barrels of tar and pitch were everywhere,” writes Earley. And proximity to forests of longleaf pine, along with a warm-water port, helped determine the location of colonial shipyards, including the Navy’s oldest facility, which opened on the Elizabeth River in 1767. Tar was the most basic product, made by slowly burning pine wood in a kiln—a process comparable to smelting or slow-roasting. In a shipyard, caulkers hammered tarred hemp fibers called oakum into seams between planks for waterproofing. Outfitting a sailing ship required miles of rope and cordage, all of which were woven in a separate elongated building called the ropewalk. The first tar treatment would be applied “in the yarn” (i.e., to individual strands), finished ropes and cords received a tar coating to protect them from seawater and salt air, and rigging ropes got yet another slathering both to seal out water and to stiffen them for easier climbing. Rendered from boiling tar, pitch was used in the shipyard primarily to coat hulls. Pitch provided waterproofing and protection from wood-boring worms and mollusks. Ships at sea carried barrels of pitch and tar for routine maintenance and repairs, and these substances adhered to sailors and their language (and to ours, in some cases). Sailors were frequently called “tars”—British sailors were “Jack Tars”—and a coated canvas became a “tarpaulin.” If a ship had to be heeled over at sea to patch a leak in the “devil seam” at the very bottom of the hull, sailors dangling precariously from ropes with their buckets of pitch were said to be “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” And if hot pitch wasn’t readied in time to stop such a dangerous leak, the ships’ carpenters tasked with boiling tar would have “the devil to pay.” A third product, turpentine, was distilled from the gum of living pine trees into either rosin or spirits of turpentine. Both were used as ingredients in more than 100 other products, from soap to paint to gunpowder. One particularly gruesome application took place during naval battles, when surgeons used hot turpentine to cauterize wounds and amputations. Finally, of course, wooden ships required a great deal of timber. For key hull structures, shipwrights preferred oak, though pine was the favored material for hull and deck planking, spars and masts. The largest wooden merchant ship ever built, the Great Republic, measured 335 feet long and consumed an astounding 1.5 million feet of “hard pine” (i.e., longleaf).
Even with the arms race for ironclad ships underway, American shipbuilding—and, with it, the naval stores industry—enjoyed its heyday in the mid-1800s. But the ability to turn a profit from naval stores ended, at least temporarily, with the outbreak of the Civil War. Both sides still needed enough naval stores to maintain their vessels. And when the famous ironclads entered the fray, beneath their armor plating was still a tremendous amount of wood. “In Virginia, of Virginia iron and wood … was she built,” said Col. Charles Norris, describing the Confederate Merrimack (AKA Virginia). The Union Monitor’s four-inch plating was attached to a two-foot-thick sloped casement constructed of oak and longleaf pine, the timbers bolted together and caulked with tar-treated oakum. After the Civil War, international conflicts such as the Franco-Prussian War led to periodic spikes in demand for naval stores. The advent of the 20th century, however, saw the transition not only from wood to iron in shipbuilding, but also from whale oil and camphene—the latter made from turpentine—to petroleum-based fuels. Turpentine production actually did not reach its peak until 1909, having shifted ever southward into Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Even at its height, the industry was dying, and the dwindling market demand for naval stores was only part of the reason. First, the job was so dirty and dangerous—a single mistake or bad luck at the kiln could ignite a lethal explosion—that only workers with no better options engaged in it. Thus, the industry had exploited a labor force composed mostly of enslaved or impoverished black men. Moreover, “boxing,” the most common American method of tapping the pines for sap, mutilated and weakened otherwise hardy trees. Within four years, most boxed trees either died where they stood or succumbed to the wind. In 1893, forester B.E. Fernow declared that, in Virginia, “longleaf pine is, for all practical purposes, extinct.” By 1900, North Carolina’s longleaf systems also had been decimated and reduced to isolated pockets. And so it went, all along the coast. The march of the naval stores industry across the South, in ecological terms, left vastly more destruction in its wake than General Sherman.
Today, we can only try to imagine the vastness of the majestic longleaf forests gracing our shores when Amadas, Barlowe, and Newport crossed the Atlantic. Yet the surviving remnants have inspired conservationists with the vision and resolve to bring back significant representative examples of America’s founding forest and the diversity of life it supports. Throughout the historic range of longleaf, a broad coalition of partner agencies and organizations is restoring thousands upon thousands of acres of longleaf forest. Returning longleaf to our landscape keeps open a window to our past and promises a healthier, biologically richer and more resilient coastal forest for future generations. The Mariners’ Museum and Park is a partner in these efforts in Virginia, having recently joined with
Newport News Shipbuilding and The Nature Conservancy in planting a grove of longleaf seedlings on museum grounds. For our visitors, to see, feel or especially smell longleaf is an opportunity to connect with a time when these sensory experiences permeated American life on land and at sea.