The Story Behind the Pine Tree Flags of the American Revolution
Many flags from the Revolutionary War era feature a pine tree, a symbol that might seem innocent at first, but once you know its history, the meaning is much deeper.
England Lays Claim to White Pines
Leading up to the American Revolution, Great Britain relied heavily on its Royal Navy, and in order to build and maintain this huge fleet of ships, they needed trees. By the late 17
th century, the British had nearly depleted their own timber resources, and so they began harvesting and exporting Eastern white pines from Colonial New England.
Under the Mast Preservation Clause in the Massachusetts Charter in 1691, Britain laid claim to any white pine measuring 24 inches in diameter or greater, and in 1722 a law passed in New Hampshire made it illegal to cut down white pines measuring 12 inches or more. The “mast pines”, as they were named for their suitability as single-stick masts and booms, were identified by a Surveyor of the King’s Woods, and marked with a broad arrow for exporting to England.
The colonists resented the restrictions on the timber they used for their needs and livelihoods, and many continued to harvest the marked trees. The law caused more anger and backlash than the Stamp Act or even the Tea Tax, and eventually resulted in the Pine Tree Riot of 1772.
Colonists Protest with Pine Tree Riot
After being fined and refusing to pay for harvesting trees marked with the broad arrow, a New Hampshire mill owner, along with other mill owners and townsmen, assaulted the Sheriff and his Deputy by lashing them with tree switches, cutting off their horses’ ears, manes and tails, and forcing them out of town through a jeering crowd.
Occurring almost two years prior to the more well-known Boston Tea Party, the Pine Tree Riot was one of the first acts of forceful resistance against British royal authority by the American colonists, and among the disputes that culminated in the American Revolution.
Pine Trees Become Symbol of Independence
Because New England’s white pines were highly desired by Great Britain, they became a great source of symbolism for the colonists. Seen here on six different flags from the Revolutionary War era, the pine tree represents a resistance to colonization and a desire for independence.