Lumber and Timber Industry

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America's vast forests were the most distinctive and impressive feature confronting settlers in the New World. The ubiquity of timbered lands greatly influenced the cultural and economic development of the American landscape. Whether providing fuel for frontier homes or masts for navy ships, the Eastern Woodlands of North America shaped the course of settlement and were central to the creation of a uniquely American identity. The numbers of products dependent on lumber production were many and varied, and the seemingly inexhaustible supply of timber quickly inspired the erection of mills, kilns, and other facilities to process cut timber into various products for domestic use and export to Europe and the Caribbean. In this latter respect, British attempts to maintain control over the "king's forests" in America through taxes and harvest restrictions played a crucial role in fomenting Revolutionary discontent in the 1760s and 1770s.

The ever-present forest was generally considered a bane more than a boon to most Americans, who viewed it with disdain as an impediment to progress and with fear as a haven for evil spirits. Prior to 1830, these attitudes in many ways kept the timber industry driven by a patchwork of full-time farmers and part-time loggers. For Americans in this period, clearing away the forests was requisite for the establishment of "civilization" in the New World—a sentiment that remained salient over commercial designs until the mid-nineteenth century. The arduous process of clearing the land, however, did provide settlers the materials to build their homes in addition to preparing agricultural lands. Dwellings and fencing, particularly the uniquely American zigzag fences, used tremendous amounts of lumber and could be easily constructed with roughly hewn unprocessed timber. Trees used for these purposes were either chopped down or girdled, a common method of killing trees by gouging out a band around their base that inhibits the flow of sap. Girdling was far less labor intensive, but rotting trees proved hazardous as they fell and produced far less timber for construction and fencing.

potash and cordwood

The clearing of land for agriculture created the two most prevalent commercial timber by-products in early America: potash and fuelwood. The number of trees cut in the process of clearing the land far surpassed local needs and excess timber was usually burned off. For the frontier settler, the resulting ashes provided an important source of cash that helped to defray the costs of clearing the land. Potash and the more refined pearl ash were valuable components in many industrial processes. Also, lye—the liquid form of potash—was widely used in the production of soap, glass, and gunpowder and in various cleaning and tanning processes. Because the soft and resinous forests of the South produced inferior ashes, potash and lye production was primarily limited to the hardwood forests of the Northeast. There, ashes of oak, maple, and other hardwood trees were processed at local asheries, which were frequently the first commercial establishments built on the frontier north of the Chesapeake.

Fuelwood, meanwhile, was another essential byproduct, particularly in the colder climes of New England. A household in early America required from twenty to thirty cords (1 cord equaling a 4-by-4-by-8 foot pile, or 128 cubic feet) of wood per winter, an amount easily harvested by rural homeowners. For the growing cities along the eastern seaboard, however, supplies had to be hauled in from the hinterlands, creating another source of income for frontier settlers. Brought in by boats or sleds, the consumption of cordwood was impressive. Between 1770 and 1810, American households warmed themselves with approximately 650 million cords of wood.

In the realm of industry, the advent of the steam engine along with the commercialization of iron and textile production led to increasing demands on cordwood supplies. Charcoal furnaces dominated the industrial landscape of early America, surviving there long after European factories had turned to coal. It required four tons of wood to produce one ton of charcoal, but Americans preferred the stronger iron produced from charcoal-fired blast furnaces, while the sheer magnitude of available timber rendered a turn to coke and anthracite impractical. It was not until the eve of the Civil War, when local resources had been exhausted and transport costs had become a significant consideration, that coal began to supplant charcoal as the predominant industrial fuel.


An early accompaniment to most settlements, sawmills produced a variety of products for domestic use and export. Nearly all mills were located on rivers, which provided both a source of power and avenues of transportation for logs. These enterprises existed primarily to provide materials for local use, though some surpluses were exported to larger settlements downriver. Unfinished timber for furniture, construction, farming implements, and any number of other products comprised the greatest output of the lumber industry. In the South, many mills concentrated on the production of shingles and staves out of the cypress and cedar forests that predominated there. Staves were an important export commodity, often returning from the Caribbean via barrels filled with molasses, sugar, and rum. They also served the maritime industries by providing containers for fish and brine production.

The difficulty of overland transport meant that mills rarely extended their harvests more than five miles from the mill site. By the late eighteenth century, however, the practice of rafting huge numbers of logs tied together down major waterways was commonplace. Larger mills along these watercourses, particularly the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers above Philadelphia and Baltimore, processed the raw timber of the interior for burgeoning metropolitan markets. By the 1830s these operations began to supplant the more locally focused farmer-logger as the dominant producer of commercial timber products.

naval stores

The British very early placed a premium on the production of masts, planking, turpentine, pitch, and tar sealants used in shipbuilding, which were known collectively as naval stores. The forests of the Baltic region had long been the source of these materials (and indeed, of most other timber products as well), in large part because they were much closer than those of America and therefore cheaper to transport. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, frequent warfare and periodic scarcity made the Baltic supplies an untenable commodity, rendering American production a necessity for the British navy. In the Caribbean, the economics of transportation were far more balanced than with the precarious Baltic sources, and a robust exchange between American ports, Cuba, and the West Indies continued well into the nineteenth century. In economic terms, the production of naval stores constituted a mere fraction of commercial forest exploitation compared to fuelwood and general lumbering operations. Nevertheless, the strategic and political importance of shipbuilding materials was paramount in the timber industry. The center of pitch, tar, and turpentine production was located amongst the longleaf pines of the Carolinas, while the larger trees and more developed network of mills in New England provided the majority of American masts and planking. Production and export of naval stores under the control of the crown peaked on the eve of the American Revolution (1775–1783). Following a nadir during that conflict, American production was quickly reestablished and rose steadily throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

See alsoConstruction and Home Building; Nature, Attitudes Toward .


Cox, Thomas R., et al. This Well-Wooded Land: Americans and Their Forests from Colonial Times to the Present. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Foster, Charles H. W., ed. Stepping Back to Look Forward: A History of the Massachusetts Forest. Petersham, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Williams, Michael. Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Bradley J. Gills