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Big Timber: the Mast Trade

Tate House, Portland, ca. 1895
Tate House, Portland, ca. 1895Maine Historical Society

Text by Aileen B. Agnew

Images from Maine Historical Society, Greater Portland Landmarks

Great Britain had depleted its forests by the 17th century and looked to the tall, straight white pines of Maine and New Hampshire to supply its appetite for timber for wooden ships, especially the old-growth pines for masts.

To ensure that the best of the mast trees remained available for the Royal Navy and British ship builders, England declared the largest white pines to be the property of the King, marked, protected, and harvested for the government's use.

The trees and the other resources such as fur and fish that Britain sought in the American colonies appeared to be infinite, but in fact none of them were. By the American Revolution, most of the largest trees had been culled.

King George's broad arrow, a vertical line topped with an upside-down "V," slashed with a hatch onto the surface of a the straightest and tallest white pines warned others away.

To protect the marked trees, the King’s government appointed surveyor-generals for large tracts of land. Working in tandem with the surveyors, sometimes with a conflicting agenda, were the mast agents, who represented the interests of British firms that contracted to provide masts to the crown. The agents figured prominently in the local economy and society.

George Tate, a mast agent based in Stroudwater during the 1750s and 1760s, identified himself as merchant. His house in Stroudwater, built in 1755, physically expresses the social and economic position of its owner, its English formality tempered by the use of American materials.

White pine grant, Portsmouth, 1744
White pine grant, Portsmouth, 1744Maine Historical Society

Harvesting and distributing masts required a network of local workers, many of whom were involved in closely related forest industries that produced large quantities of boards for buildings and ships. The production of lumber supported many more people than did the masts, but to the crown, the masts were a priority.

Letter on lost ship masts, 1747
Letter on lost ship masts, 1747Maine Historical Society

A mast agent or surveyor general might see the white pines as a resource to be cultivated, to allow for a long term maximum profit, but the men who cut the trees likely were more interested in making money at the moment. Likewise, a small landowner with assorted trees that might be suitable for masts might see more profit in using the timber for a different project. For them, the focus on the masts was a hindrance.

Dealing with a distant market meant that delivery of the masts sometimes was beyond the control of the colonials. Massachusetts Governor Thomas Dudley complained in 1709 that “but One Ship of Three Arrived to take up the Masts, which if kept too long in the posture they are here in, will suffer damage…and if so, other Ships must be gotten least ye Masts be hurt by the Indians, or suffer with being undrest, or by lying part in and part out of ye Water.”

All of these problems, combined with the breakage noted by Benning Wentworth, added up to the waste of an inceasingly scarce resource.

Disputes, whether between European countries, or between Native-Americans and colonial powers, created hazards and opportunities for the mast trade. Rumors of war led Thomas Westbrook to write to a potential partner in 1734, “Wold it not be a good time to Ship of a lode of small mast…and offer them to the kinges yards.” He added, “If you think it wold dow I wold provide the tres and be consserded with you.”

Masts lost in various maritime encounters required replacements, sometimes several per ship. William Pepperrell wrote in 1747 that “the Warwick lost all three of her masts, the Spry Schoner Lost all her guns, yd Artillery only with her topmast away.”

The British Navy was not the only consumer of masts, although they may have claimed the best and tallest trees. Dealers in lumber and masts from the 17th and the 18th centuries recorded, sometimes in great detail, the size and varieties of masts, bowsprits and yardarms requested for purchase. Anglo-American used daybooks, ledgers, and small pieces of paper to keep track of accounts.

Letter on mast cutting, 1779
Letter on mast cutting, 1779Maine Historical Society

The overseas mast trade of Maine that centered in Stroudwater and Falmouth peaked just before the American Revolution. By the end of the 18th century, the best mast trees had been harvested and few replacements remained. In Gorham in 1770, one tree reserved as suitable for the king, stood isolated and thus subject to being blown down.

By the end of the 1770s, the English grip on masts had ended. Masts gathered by the British were no longer handed over by the locals, although some were harvested directly by the British Navy.

In the early years of the new republic, the maritime trades grew in importance to coastal New England. Trees large enough for masts retained their value, but were more difficult to obtain. A mast that washed up on Hog Island in Casco Bay in 1786 was notable for its size.

The extremely large trees of the colonial era became something of a curiosity before the mid-19th century. In 1839, an article in The Yankee Farmer and New England Cultivator commented on a stand of large trees, noting that a tree 154-feet long was to be used for canoes.


William David Barry and Frances Peabody, Tate House: Crown of the Mast Trade

Robert Albion, Forests and Sea Power: The Timber Problem of the Royal Navy, 1652-1862

Joseph Malone, Pine Trees and Politics: The Naval Stores and Forest Policy in Colonial New England, 1691-1775

Edwin A. Churchill, “Merchants and Commerce in Falmouth (1740-1775),” Maine Historical Society Newsletter (1970, vol. 9: 93-104).