March 21

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Mar 21 - 3:21:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (March 21, 1767).

“Eastern White Pine Boards and Plank.”

The “Eastern White Pine Boards and Plank” drew me to this advertisement. Where did they come from and what purpose did they serve in the Revolutionary era? The Eastern White Pine is native to the Northeast in North America, making it local to where Samuel Chace resided in the Providence area. Surprisingly, the Eastern White Pine had a role in the events that led to the Revolution, in particular the Pine Tree Riots.

As for the purpose of this product, colonists discovered that this tree was ideal for building ships. England wanted to stay on top being the most powerful European country in the region and one way to do so was to have the best quality and fastest ships. Eastern White Pine tree became a valuable commodity for making masts and Britain reserved the tree for that use. According to Justin Corfield, “The New Hampshire General Court passed an act in 1722 making it illegal to cut down any white pine that was more than 12 inches in diameter.” It was a crime to cut down these trees and resulted in a fine. “Any timber found in violation of this,” Corfield states, “was marked with white arrows painted on the wood, signifying that these trees were property of the British Crown.”[1]

For some time the law was not enforced as harshly as it was in the early 1770s. In April 1772, this law led to a riot when some sawmill owners were fined, and a group attacked two local officials and their horses. When the officials returned with more support, the riot had dissipated; nonetheless eight people were found responsible for the incident. This was later referred to as the Pine Tree Riot.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Had I been responsible for choosing which advertisement to feature today, I likely would have passed over Samuel Chace’s simple notice announcing that he sold “A Quantity of the very best Sort of Eastern White Pine Boards and Plank, all clear and seasoned.” When Ceara selected it, I wondered what she would do with it, but I have learned from experience that oftentimes the most interesting entries result from guest curators gravitating to advertisements that I would otherwise dismiss. In this case, I am exceptionally pleased that Ceara decided to work with an advertisement that turned out to be deceptive in its simplicity. Those “Eastern White Pine Boards and Plank” led Ceara to a little known story of colonial resistance during the period of the imperial crisis.

Throughout the semester, Ceara, her classmates, and I have examined the role of consumer culture in the Revolutionary era, focusing primarily on colonists’ relationship to imported goods and acts of resistance – nonconsumption and nonimportation agreements – predicated on abstaining from purchasing or using certain items. The Pine Tree Riot, however, requires us to approach some of our familiar questions from different perspectives as we consider commodities produced in the colonies that settlers were forbidden from using for their own purposes. When it came to prohibitions against cutting down Eastern White Pines less than a foot in diameter, the acts of resistance took the form of appropriating those commodities and, in some cases, ostentatiously displaying the results. For instance, cutting down Eastern White Pines “led to a fashion among anti-British activists to display proudly the width of the boards” used to construct their floors.[2] The material culture of resistance played out in floorboard, not just homespun clothing.

Earlier this semester Ceara and her peers read and discussed Ray Raphael’s chapter about “Blacksmith Timothy Bigelow and the Massachusetts Revolution of 1774.” Raphael argues that “because Bostonians played but a small role” popular narratives of the American Revolution do not commemorate events that took place throughout the Massachusetts countryside in 1774 when residents of Worcester and other towns “summarily cast off British rule” by closing the courts and forcing officials to resign.[3] The Pine Tree Riot in Weare, New Hampshire, occupies a similar position in our collective memory of the American Revolution. Like the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party the following year, the rioters disguised themselves to evade recognition. In many ways, their refusal to allow British policies to dictate whether they could consumer certain commodities could be seen as precursor to the Boston Tea Party. Parliament did not respond to the Pine Tree Riot with legislation that rivaled the Intolerable Acts that punished Bostonians. Over time, the events in Weare, New Hampshire, in April 1772 have faded as other acts of resistance have been accorded much more prominence.

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[1] Justin Corfield, “Pine Tree Riot (1772),” in Steven L. Danver, ed., Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 183.

[2] Corfield, “Pine Tree Riot,” 183.

[3] Ray Raphael, “Blacksmith Timothy Bigelow and the Massachusetts Revolution of 1774,” in Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, ed. Alfred F. Young, Gary B. Nash, and Ray Raphael (New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 2011), 35.

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