America’s First Navy Flag Featured the Eastern White Pine Tree

Have you heard the tale about how the Eastern White Pine tree sparked the Revolutionary War? Most people associate the start of that crucial moment in our nation’s history with tea and taxes, but it was “the King’s Broad Arrow” that played the biggest role. Growing extraordinary tall, light and strong all over what would become the Northeast United States, it was in great demand for shipbuilding during the 17th century, both by colonists and King George I of England. 

A little less familiar is the story of the flag of America’s first Navy, which featured the very same tree. Recently featured on “American Minute,” this bit of history reveals how citizens acting as merchant mariners interfered with British seafaring supply routes in 1775. Led by captain John Glover of Marblehead, Massachusetts, the flotilla included America’s first armed naval vessel, the USS Hannah, which was personally financed by George Washington, along with the vessels Franklin, Warren, Hancock and Lee. All had crews of Massachusetts fishermen who defended American ports and raided British ships transporting ammunition and supplies.

Sometimes called “Washington’s Fleet,” the flotilla captured 55 British ships full of muskets, flints and ammunition, “a tremendous benefit to the new Continental Army stationed near Boston.” 

“A flag flown by early American ships was the Pine Tree Flag, designed by General Washington’s secretary, Colonel Joseph Reed, who wrote in a letter, October 20, 1775: ‘… flag with a white ground and a tree in the middle, the motto AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN.'”

The Pine Tree Flag was also flown in towns, churches, riverbanks, and at the nation’s capital in Philadelphia. Why the Pine Tree? Eastern White Pine Trees grew to a height of over 150 feet and were ideal for use as masts on British ships.

“The King’s forest surveyor agents would go onto anyone’s land and mark the best trees as belonging to the King. These pines contributed to the British navy becoming the most powerful navy in the world. In 1734, there was a Mast Tree Riot where men disguised as Indians chased away the King’s forest surveyor. In 1772, New Hampshire had another show of resistance, the Pine Tree Riot.”

“In 1772, the sheriff came to South Weare, New Hampshire, to arrest those who had cut down some of the King’s trees. In retaliation, 30 men burst into the sheriff’s room at the inn at night, with their faces blackened with soot in disguise, and beat the sheriff sore with switches made from pine branches.”

You can read the rest of this story on “American Minute,” and learn more about the King’s Broad Arrow in our previous post. 

The Eastern White Pine Tree was celebrated by the Iroquois (whose true name is Haudenosaunee Nation) long before Europeans came along. Check out this story about the “Tree of Peace” and how it came to unite the Five Nations Confederacy.