Nov 4, 2013
If you’re an American, no doubt you’ve heard about the Boston Tea Party. More than a year and a half before that, however, colonists in New Hampshire were frustrated about trees, not tea.
Back in the 16th-18th centuries, most European countries with any navy to speak of had fleets of ships with tall wooden masts –each ideally made from the trunk of a single large pine tree. By the late 17th-Century, Great Britain had used up most of their native timber to replace the masts of those ships that were damaged during the French and Indian War. Britain desperately needed a new source of lumber. They found it in the vast, untapped wilderness of North America.
The North American white pine was taller and wider than the pine trees of Europe, and the supply seemed inexhaustible. When he was granting lands to create colonies in 1690, King William forbade the cutting down of pines more than two feet across. 32 years later, Parliament changed that width to one foot, required a license to cut down pines, and fined people who ignored the law. Special men called ‘Surveyors of the King’s Woods’ were tasked with finding all the mast-worthy ships and to make a big mark on them so that everyone knew which trees they couldn’t cut.
This law wasn’t just annoying; it also hindered colonial building projects. Colonists were forced to pay a fee to have tree marked. Pine trees that had already been sawed could be taken away and the mill owner fined. This act made life much more painful for the American colonists than either the Tea Act or Stamp Act.
During the Winter of 1771-1772, a Deputy Surveyor by the name of John Sherman and his cronies inspected six mills in South Central New Hampshire. They found almost 300 contraband logs. Sherman fined the mill owners and went on his way. Not wanting to pay what they felt was an unjust fine, the mill owners hired a lawyer named Samuel Blodgett to talked the Governor into dropping the charges.
Oh, they talked alright. By the end of the meeting, Blodgett was made Surveyor of the Woods, and he told his clients to pay their fines. Some of them did, but the mill owners from Weare refused to and were called ‘notorious offenders’ for their trouble.
On the 13th of the following April, County Sheriff Benjamin Whiting and his deputy were sent to Weare to arrest the leader of these ‘notorious offenders,’ Ebenezer Mudgett. The duo arrested Mudget, and released him after he promised to pay his fine the next day.
The word went through town that the fuzz had come for Ebenezer. While the Sheriff and Deputy were spending the night in Weare’s inn, Ebenezer and his friends were meeting at his house to decide what to do. Some wanted to help Ebenezer pay his fine. Others wanted to toss the Sheriff out of town.
The next morning, more than 20 men with ash-covered faces burst into Whiting’s room with pine switches and gave the Sheriff one lash for every tree that they were being fined for. The mob took the Sheriff’s & Deputy ‘s horses, shaved them and cut off their ears, forcing the pair to ride away while the people laughed at them.
Whiting formed a posse and road back to Weare, where they only found one of the assailants. Eight more men were charged to appear in court and charged with rioting, disturbing the peace, and assaulting an officer. The men pled guilty and were forced to pay a fine of twenty shillings.
To most in Britain, the Pine Tree Riot wasn’t much of a big deal – if they even heard of it. It happened in a backwater colony, after all. It was, however, a motivator for the Boston Tea Party and tested the British resolve to enforce tariffs and fines throughout the American colonies. The Riot was also the inspiration behind the famous Pine Tree Flag often used during the American War for Independence.
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