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Forests: Wilderness or Commodity?

Ellen Eslinger
DePaul University

Europeans envisioned America as a garden of Eden. Click to See a Larger ViewBut 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 in England.

As first 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)

Captain John Smith agreed. Seeking to demonstrate the region's value to the British dominions, Smith reported in hisClick to See a Larger View 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.

Colonists in New England also explored the uses of trees and the various commodities Click to See a Larger Viewthey 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.

The cost 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.

Silver, Timothy. 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.