New England’s symbolic trees

A 1652 Massachusetts Bay Colony pine tree shilling.
A 1652 Massachusetts Bay Colony pine tree shilling.STACK’S BOWERS GALLERIES

Delegates in Paris this week hope to rally the world around an effort to combat climate change. To concentrate these hopes, it helps to have a banner to rally to. Going back to the first Earth Day in 1970, a number of environmental flags have been designed, but not one has ever established its authority. Perhaps, to go forward, it might help to look backward.

Fortunately, early New England offers a wealth of symbols suitable for environmental thinking. One carries a special relevance in December, for its promise of renewal.

The pine tree struck the first settlers of Massachusetts as a worthy self-image. In 1652, the first local coin entered circulation, the pine tree shilling. Oaks and willows also appeared on early coins — but the evergreen endured and found its way onto other regional emblems.

Trees were important to the Colonists in more ways than can be named — as fuel, as fencing, and as food. A pear tree planted by John Endicott in Danvers may be the oldest cultivated fruit tree in the United States. Settlers also conducted religious services beneath tree branches, as John Eliot did, under the Eliot Oak, in Natick.


The Connecticut charter 300th anniversary was commemorated by a 3-cent stamp on April 26, 1935.
The Connecticut charter 300th anniversary was commemorated by a 3-cent stamp on April 26, 1935.SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL POSTAL MUSEUM

Certain great trees acted as guides in the wilderness, used by generations of Native Americans, and then by the Anglo-Americans. One tree became especially important — the Charter Oak, a massive tree in Hartford, already centuries old, found new use as a hiding place for Connecticut's charter when agents of the crown were looking to revoke it in 1687. The great oak fell in a storm in 1856 but still can be found in the state's iconography — a state quarter issued in 1999 and a postage stamp from 1935.

Trees were not just sentimental artifacts; they were the realist symbols of a realist people. Indeed, they were essential to survival. Pine trees became an important export commodity for a cash-starved economy and critical to the relationship between Old England and New. Even before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, big trees were being cut in Maine and sent to England. The Eastern White Pine grew ramrod-straight, often 150 feet and more, the perfect mast for the British Navy as it expanded its fleet in the 17th century. The mighty British empire depended on this staple of Maine and New Hampshire — it allowed ships of the line to sail true.


Evergreens began to find their way onto local flags by the end of the 17th century, and arboreal images proliferated as the tensions with the British deepened. Trees were part of that tension — many New Englanders resented that agents for the British monarch walked through their forests, imperiously claiming the best trees for masts, with little consideration of local sensibilities. Any tree that was more than 24 inches in diameter was reserved for the Royal Navy and marked with three slashing ax marks — known as "the King's broad arrow." Later, that was reduced to 12 inches. In New Hampshire, the Pine Tree Riot of 1772 over logging policy is remembered as an important sign of the revolution to come.

It made sense, therefore, that trees were part of New England's counterattack. As the Colonists began to think of themselves as a different nation than England, trees struck them as an effective symbol of resistance. They sewed trees into their flags, they carved them into their powder horns, and they gathered under them to air their grievances. When George Washington took command of the new American Army, he did so under a spreading elm on Cambridge Common.

Depiction of the tarring and feathering of Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm by five Patriots in 1774 under the Liberty Tree in Boston.
Depiction of the tarring and feathering of Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm by five Patriots in 1774 under the Liberty Tree in Boston.

In Boston, a particularly impressive elm at the corner of what are now Washington and Essex streets became an important shrine to civil disobedience in 1765. In August of that year, crowds began to gather there to protest the hated Stamp Tax, and soon effigies of tax collectors and other threatening messages were hanging from its branches. This was no place for tree-huggers; it was a crucible of revolution.


Something about this elm, on the road in and out of Boston, spoke to provincial New Englanders as they sought to voice their grievances against the crown. In September 1765, a sign, "Tree of Liberty," was affixed to the elm, almost as if the tree had grown a new leaf. The Liberty Tree then became a vivid symbol of local anger. Thomas Paine wrote a poem about it; John Adams mentioned it in his diary; and one of Thomas Jefferson's famous quotes may allude to it: ("the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants").

A local Tory, Peter Oliver, complained that the Liberty Tree was a place where unpopular political officials were forced to undergo ritual humiliations, which he called "the Tree Ordeal." Exasperated, the British finally cut down the Liberty Tree in 1774.

After Lexington and Concord, New England cut off the shipment of tall pines to England, with the result that the British Navy was hampered by old, easily broken masts throughout the War for Independence. This affected the military outcome of the struggles, including at Yorktown, the final battle of the war, when faulty masts prevented a large British naval force from coming to the relief of General Charles Cornwallis. At the end, trees helped to win the very war that they had inspired.


The final moment came in Paris, when the British signed a treaty acknowledging that a new country had come into existence, founded upon an unusually deep respect for "the laws of nature and of nature's God." Indeed, in the very act of creating their country, Americans had discovered no better way to articulate their national purpose than to respect the land itself.

As the delegates to Paris today search for a new way forward, remembering that fighting tradition might again offer a path through the wilderness.

Ted Widmer is the Donald Saunders Fellow for Public Engagement at Brown University and a trustee of the Massachusetts Historical Society.