Timber for America's Wooden Walls

By Louis Arthur Norton

In 1784 Algerians seized two American ships and held crew members for ransom. Cries of indignation concerning the loss of vessels and the possibility of white slavery echoed throughout the United States. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met with the ambassador of the Barbary state of Tripoli. When questioned about the unprovoked attacks on American ships, the ambassador said that the Laws of the Prophet gave them this directive. The Koran states that nations not recognizing the authority of Allah are considered sinful. The Muslim Barbary countries believed they had the right, if not the duty, to make war upon them and to convert or enslave all prisoners.

‘They Should Be Built of the Best Materials’

Isolated acts of vessel seizure continued unabated. In the fall of 1793 Algerine ships captured 11 American vessels and held 106 American seamen captive. Thirteen American merchant-ship captains petitioned Congress to address the situation. After much debate, “An Act To Provide A Naval Armament” passed in Congress, and President George Washington affixed his signature to it on 27 March 1794. The act allowed him to contract for the building of four ships of 44 guns each and two ships of 36 guns each, or to purchase an equivalent force plus funding for officers and men. Secretary of War Henry Knox consulted several ship designers and shipbuilders and finally accepted the ideas and plans of Philadelphian Joshua Humphreys. Six vessels were to be built at shipyards in different cities. Each had a captain appointed to command the ship and superintend the vessel’s construction and equipment procurement.

In a 1793 letter to financier Robert Morris, Humphreys gave his thoughts on the type of wood that should be used in the frigates of his design: “As such ships will cost a large sum of money, they should be built of the best materials that could possibly be procured, the beams of their decks should be of the best Carolina pine & the lower Futtocks & knees if possible of Live Oak.” 1

Live oak, the hardest and densest of oak species, could handle the ravages of saltwater well. Some shipwrights thought it to be the most durable wood in the world. Used in construction of frames, Humphreys thought that his “ships would likely be perfectly sound a half-century hence.” 2

Live oak, Quercus virginiana , grows along the southern coast of North America and particularly thrives on the Sea Islands of Georgia. About 65 feet high with a circumference of 25 feet, a mature live oak has multiple complex branches and a large, relatively shallow root system. The branches are naturally curved, ideal for ship timbers that require strength and curvature without joining many pieces together. They are ideal structural members for use as a ship’s frame and parts of the hull such as the futtocks, hawse pieces, bow timbers, counter timbers, various knees (brace, hanging, lodge, and thrust), breast-hooks, sternpost, stern frames, portions of the of stem, top timbers, and straighter pieces such as knightheads, stanchions, mast partners, pin rails, sheet bitts, coamings, and hatches. The lumber cuts, carefully selected to utilize the perpendicular line of the grain, offset the expected lines of stress. Because live oak produces relatively short trunks with many curved and convoluted branches, it was considered unsuitable for planking.

Georgia Slavery and Island Plantation Culture

Colonial Georgia originally was mostly composed of relatively poor farmers who tilled small plots of land. Few made enough money to obtain larger holdings, contrasted with the more landed gentry of the Carolinas and Virginia. But once slavery had become firmly established in Georgia by 1749, it evolved into the foundation for the colony’s plantation system, and for the Georgian way of life up to the Civil War years.

In 1774 a South Carolina planter named Pierce Butler purchased 1,700 acres on the northern end of Georgia’s St. Simons Island as a potential indigo, rice, and sea-island cotton-growing site. He called the plantation Hampton and began to fully develop it in 1793. Importing large numbers of slaves, he forever changed the economy of St. Simons Island and with it, its ethos.

In a similar manner, John Couper and his business partner James Hamilton, two expatriate Scots, began purchasing tracts of island land near the settlement of Frederica to develop their own sea-island cotton operation. Together they created Hamilton, a profitable plantation, and then built a badly needed dock/shipping facility on the southwestern portion of the Frederica River.

Meanwhile, James Gould, the son of a Granville, Massachusetts, lumber miller, had become caught up in Shays’ Rebellion of 1786–87. Perhaps politically disillusioned, young Gould envisioned more opportunity in the South than in New England, and immigrated to Georgia to become a government timber surveyor. In 1792 he settled on St. Simons, surveyed the island’s timber, and set up a lumber mill.

From Forest to Shipyard

The live oak forests of Georgia’s Blythe, Glover, Blackbeard, and St. Simons islands could meet most of the Navy’s needs, but the trees were far from the shipyards. Skilled Northerners could supervise the local labor used in their harvesting, but finding the proper timber presented a problem. Full-sized skeleton moulds (patterns or models) of the finished ship pieces, made from heavy paper, canvas, or light wooden battens were painstakingly laid out at the shipyard lofts. These moulds, taken directly into the maritime forests and swamps, determined which trees or parts of trees would best match to the ship architect’s plans. Once found, cut, hauled to docks, and then loaded on ships, the highly prized lumber commenced a northward journey that became a monumental task because of the shifting shoals, massive tides, and tricky tidal currents commonly seen along the Georgia coast.

In June 1794, John T. Morgan, a highly regarded Boston shipwright and provisional constructor at the Gosport, Virginia, shipyard, was assigned to seek live oak and cedar stands on Southern coastal islands, determine their proximity to shipping landings, and locate the property owners. Government lawyers would draw up the contracts with these landowners. Morgan would superintend the timber’s cutting, hewing, and shipping to the shipyards of the six frigate-building ports. 3 Jedediah Huntington of New London, Connecticut, recruited 60 axmen and 50 carpenters to work under Morgan. As part of the recruitment inducement, each man would be allotted half a gill (about two ounces) of distilled spirits a day; the “cheapest kind of Rum, with which [they] will be satisfied . . . should be preferred.” 4

By August, Morgan had received the moulds and oxen he needed, but no workmen. He complained to Joshua Humphreys of the constant rainy summer weather and the swampy low-country terrain. Morgan decided that St. Simons offered the best place to start the harvest. He soon contracted with surveyor Gould to locate the best trees for the shipwrights’ needs.

Meanwhile, John Barry, an affable Irish emigrant, senior in rank of the first six captains to be commissioned in the new U.S. Navy, received orders to supervise the building of and to command the 44-gun frigate United States . Captain Barry knew that live oak could be procured from Georgia, and because of the rapid rate of decay of white oak, its cost over 40 or more years should be the same as live oak. 5

Secretary of the Treasury Tench Coxe sent Barry to contact Morgan and expedite the shipping of the timber for use in all the frigates, including Barry’s United States . (Morgan may or may not have been behind schedule, because there did not seem to have been a schedule.) Barry sailed from Philadelphia to Georgia on board the brig Schuylkill to help assess the timber-procurement situation. The brig also carried additional oxen and horses for the completion of the project.

Once at St. Simons, Barry contacted Morgan and subsequently Gould. The hunt was on to locate the best live oak that met Humphreys’ specifications, especially those trees having sharp-angled knees, the so-called “compass pieces,” naturally occurring timbers arched or curved more than 5 inches over a length of 12 feet. Gould said that an old-growth live oak forest on Gascoigne Bluff on the Hamilton plantation should meet Humphreys’ needs, and they could use Hamilton’s docking facility for shipping.

Best-Laid Plans of Harvesters and Builders

Humphreys had optimistically calculated that 55 men working 24 hours a day could cut and ship the needed timber for one frigate every two months, but he had not considered a wide range of formidable obstacles. Morgan’s men got sick and produced little timber. Notably upset, Morgan wrote Humphreys that “If I am to stay her[e] till all the timber is cut I shall be dead. . . . I cannot stand it, you say that if I was there I should be mortified, if you were here you would curse live oak.” 6 Trees in remote locations in the island’s forests were difficult to cut down, and once felled, the challenge became to move the heavy timber through the thick underbrush and often-swampy terrain.

St. Simons Island had an abundance of slave labor available for cutting trees and building roads needed for hauling the cut lumber to Hamilton Wharf, the main shipping point of St. Simons. Morgan recruited six slaves and Barry enlisted ten more, likely from the nearby Hamilton plantation and/or the Hampton plantation located at the northern end of the island. He then set them to work. On 22 October, shortly after Barry’s arrival, 81 New London, Connecticut, men arrived at St. Simons via Savannah to help cut wood and run the sawmill. The New Englanders constructed shelters, and Barry directed the timber-collection operation from his canvas tent—the captain’s land-based quarterdeck.

The spring brought heavy rainfalls. The resulting pools of fresh water were ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes. High summer temperatures and humidity coupled with an increase of insects (especially chiggers and ticks), not to mention menacing alligators and venomous snakes, followed the inhospitable spring. Many of the Northerners died, probably from malaria, while others deserted. Only three men capable of selecting and moulding the timber could be persuaded to remain, and they continued to work along with the island’s slaves. 7 It became very difficult to recruit and keep Northerners for work on St. Simons.

Finally, on 18 December 1794, the first shipment of live oak reached the Philadelphia shipyard. After months of great effort, the needed live oak and other timber started to arrive with some regularity at the Northern yards, albeit about six months behind the work schedule. Making matters worse, the shipping route took the northbound vessels off Cape Hatteras, much of the time during hurricane season, causing delays and at least one lost shipment. The lumber-laden schooner Rachell , bound for Baltimore, was so badly blown off course she ended up at Martha’s Vineyard. 8

The War Department informed Portsmouth, New Hampshire, constructor/shipwright James Hackett that it was too expensive to send “people from your part of the country to cut the Timber as Negroes can be obtained in Georgia who are good workmen with an axe at a vastly cheaper rate . . . and their efficiency is very satisfactory.” 9 Much of the hard labor shifted to the slave population. The slaves who had drawn the harvested timber now became its hewers as well.

Timely delivery of the live oak to the shipyards was one requirement, but what’s often overlooked is that the distribution of the needed pieces was another. Some shipyards received a surplus of futtocks, but others desperately needed knees, and so forth. This led to a logistical problem—the communication of inventory needs and the subsequent transfer of essential pieces to or among the shipyards. Once delivered, some timbers proved to be defective and could not be used.

After ratifying a peace treaty with Algiers in early 1796, Congress scaled back the work and focused on the three frigates that were nearest completion. Still, delivery continued to be sporadic for the approximately 1,000 pieces of live oak required for each vessel. For example, in August 1796 41 frames for the Constitution had been built, but little live oak remained in the Boston shipyard. It was not until December that the supplies were sufficient for her October 1797 completion and launching.

Morgan remained in Georgia to oversee the timber harvest and supply the needs of the Northern shipwrights, but there is no record of the cubic feet of live oak shipped from St. Simons or other live-oak forest locations during this time. 10 No contracts signed by the St. Simons plantation owners have survived; perhaps the papers were lost in the U.S. War Office fire of 8 November 1800. Treasury Department documents that contained information about timber expenditures used in the construction of the ships also were lost, when arsonists burned the Treasury Building on 31 March 1833. One surviving document from that time, however, indicates that Humphreys estimated a cost of $453,272 for the completion of six frigates in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Norfolk, Baltimore, and Portsmouth (This computes roughly to $120 per ton for all the six shipyards, exclusive of men and provisions). 11

In Ships’ Timbers, a Slavery Paradox

While the number of cubic feet of live oak used to build the U.S. frigates is unknown, several of these ships fought the Barbary pirates off the coast of Tripoli and performed admirably. The 1805 peace treaty with Tripoli was signed on the deck of the 44-gun Constitution . Later, during the War of 1812, a witness or witnesses remarked that cannonballs bounced harmlessly off the sides of the frigate. The closely spaced frame of dense live oak strongly undergirded the ship’s hull, thus the origin of the vessel’s sobriquet “Old Ironsides.”

A series of tandem events occurred during the building of the Constitution and her sister ships; the imaginative plans of a brilliant naval architect took shape, a surveyor originally from Massachusetts found the right trees to harvest, slaves labored on Georgia island plantations to harvest the trees, and a naval hero procured and expedited shipment of the timber for America’s new warships. Meanwhile, a shipwright/superintendent oversaw the timber project.

This largely unsung slice of American maritime history produced a noteworthy paradox. Among the ships’ first missions was to forcefully free captives of the Barbary corsairs—captives enslaved or threatened with enslavement. And black slaves helped provide the timber for the wooden walls of the warships that would be used to free other slaves held in their ancestral Africa—Americans unknown to the American slaves who were forced to labor on their behalf.



1. Humphreys to Morris, 6 January 1793, Microfilm from the National Archives and Records Administration, Naval Records Collection: Sec Navy Requisitions on Sec Treas (hereafter cited as NARA:NRC), RG45, entry 41.

2. Tim McGrath, John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2010), 427.

3. Knox to Morgan, 8 August 1794, Provisional appointment of John Morgan as naval constructor of 44 gun frigate to be constructed at Norfolk Virginia, NARA:NRC, RG45, entry 50.

4. Coxe to Huntington, 18 June 1794. Letters of Tench Coxe, NARA:NRC, RG75, Microcopy M-74.

5. Marion Brewington Papers, 29 December 1794, RF 509. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Museum.

6. War Department, Morgan to Humphreys, 21 October 1794. Joshua Humphrey Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Collection 0306, vol. 13, letter book, (1793–97).

7. Virginia S. Wood, Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981) 29.

8. Ibid., 32.

9. War Department to James Hackett, 4 November 1795, NARA:NRC, RG45, entry 374.

10. Pickering to Pennock, 8 October 1795, Discharge of the workers at the Norfolk shipyard. NARA:NRC, RG45, entry 132.

11. Fox to Parker, 13 January 1796, Report of the state of naval equipment and frigate construction to house committee. NARA:NRC, RG45.

 

 
 

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