envisioned America as a garden of Eden. But
they also assessed it for its commercial potential. Although gold, silver,
and other precious goods were particularly sought after, timber attracted
significant attention. By the sixteenth century, the old English forests
had been much reduced in size. Strategically important material such
as ship masts had to be imported from the Baltic region, creating an
undesirable and dangerous dependence upon foreign suppliers. Even the
inferior timber that was burned for winter fuel had become very expensive
hand reports began to emerge from the other side of the Atlantic, the
dream of a "Countrey overgrowne with trees" captured the British
imagination (Smith 10). Thomas Hariot, the scientific advisor on the
first expeditions to found a colony in North America, wrote in his Briefe
and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia of "ayre
. . . so temperate and holsome, the soyle so fertile and yeelding such
commodities. . ." (32). Hariot included an elaborate list of trees,
highlighting their uses. "Cedar," he writes in one example,
"a very sweet wood & fine timber; whereof if nests of chests
be there made, or timber thereof fitted for sweet & fine bedsteads,
tables, deskes . . . & many things else . . . to make up fraite
with other principal commodities will yeeld profite"(9). As interest
in the colonies continued to grow, promotional literature continued
to praise the size and quality of American timber, predicting (as did
Edward Williams) that it would "finde a speedy Market, since the
decay of Timber is a defect growne universall in Europe, and the commodity
such a necesarry Staple, that no civill Nation can be conveniently without
it." (Williams, Force 14)
John Smith agreed. Seeking to demonstrate the region's value to the
British dominions, Smith reported in his
Map of Virginia "The wood
that is most common is Oke and Walnut, many of their Okes are so tall
and straight, that they will beare two and a halfe square of good timber
for 20 yards long" (10). Hardwoods of such size were a rarity in
England by this time. Smith also noted other types of valuable hardwood
timber, such as ash, elm, and the tulip poplar
, and gave an account of valuable wood byproducts, such as potash,
used in glass and soap manufacturing, tar, and silk from indigenous
mulberry trees, "growing naturally in prettie groves." (11-12).
Disappointingly, they proved to be the wrong type of mulberry.
in New England also explored the uses of trees and the various commodities
could make from them. Francis Higginson claimed that trees were so abundant
(and so various) in the New World that "A poore servant here that
is to possesse but 50 acres of land, may afford to give more wood for
timber and fire as good as the world yeelds, than many noble men in
England can afford to do." (Higginson, Collections
of the Massachusetts Historical Society 122). William Wood composed
a mnemonic poem to distinguish the characteristics and uses of the trees
in New England.
of transatlantic shipping proved too high for the feasible exportation
of lumber. Only a few specialty products such as sassafras wood were
worth sending abroad for medicinal purposes. In the years to come, American
timber would find a profitable market in the shipbuilding industry.
Despite higher wage rates in the colonies, the American forests would
later make American shipbuilding very competitive with European producers.
Unfortunately, unanticipated environmental changes such as soil erosion
soon resulted from wasteful lumbering practices conducted on a commercial
scale as well as the general failure of the English to understand that
the American forests had a history.
Suggestions For Further Reading
Cronan, William. Changes
in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.
New York: 1983.
Higginson, Francis. "New-Englands Plantation"
(1630). Collections of the Massacussetts
Historical Society. Vol. I. Boston: Munroe & Francis, 1806.
A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South
American Forests, 1500-1800. New York: 1990.
Smith, John. A
Map of Virginia (1612). New York: Da Capo Press, 1973.
Stahle, David W. et al. "The Lost Colony
and Jamestown Droughts." Science
180 (1998): 564-67.
Williams, Edward. Virginia
More Especially the South Part Thereof, Richly and Truly Valued
(1650). In Tracts and Other Papers. Edited by Peter Force. New York:
Peter Smith, 1947.
Wood, William. New
Englands Prospect (1635). Edited by
Alden T. Vaughan. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.