The Pine Tree Riot

The more commonly known Boston Stamp Act riots of 1765. Source: Library of Congress
The more commonly known Stamp Act riots of 1765. Source: Library of Congress

The more commonly known Stamp Act riots of 1765. Source: Library of Congress

Who can call to mind the Pine Tree Riot?  Until recently, this act of defiance to accepting British authority was one with which I was unfamiliar.

In 1722, the New Hampshire General Court passed a law making it illegal to cut down any white pine trees larger than 12 inches in diameter.  These trees were reserved for the Royal Navy and were to be used for masts for His Majesty’s fleet.  This law meant that the settlers could not cut any white pines unless they first had the Deputy Surveyor come to score the King’s trees with a broad arrow mark.   The settlers then had to pay a considerable sum of money to obtain a royal license to cut the rest of the white pines from their own land.  To say this made it inconvenient for building by colonists is an understatement.

The laws were not firmly enforced until 1766 when New Hampshire’s newly appointed Governor, John Wentworth, who, although sympathetic towards the colonists, strictly enforced the law.  In addition to carrying out his own inspections of properties to see who was cutting down trees, he also sent Deputy Surveyor, John Sherburn, to search the saw mills for white pines that had been clearly marked for the British Crown.

During these inspections, Deputy Sherburn found six mills that were offenders in the towns of Goffstown and Weare and named them in the February 7, 1772, edition of the New Hampshire Gazette.  The owners of these mills hired attorney Samuel Blodgett to represent them and to meet with Governor Wentworth to try and persuade him to drop the charges.  Mr. Blodgett failed to properly represent the mill owners. The Governor not only refused to drop the charges against the mill owners, he offered their attorney the job of Surveyor of the King’s Woods, which Blodgett readily accepted.  When he returned from his assignment, Attorney Blodgett advised the saw mill owners to pay their penalties.  The owners of the mills in Goffstown immediately paid their fines but the owners of the mills in Weare declined to pay.

On April 13, 1772, the Sherriff of Hillsborough County, Benjamin Whiting and his Deputy, John Quigley, set out for South Weare with a warrant to arrest the leader of the Weare mill owners, Ebenezer Mudgett.  Mr. Mudgett was arrested and released with the understanding that he would return early the next morning to pay his bail.

Both the sheriff and his deputy spent the night at a local tavern.   As word spread that Sherriff Whiting and Deputy Quigley had arrested and released Mudgett, towns people gathered at Mudgett’s home.  A few wanted to help pay his bail, while the majority of the crowd wanted to run the sheriff and deputy out of town.  They finally came to a decision to pay Sheriff Whiting back in a way that he would never forget.

The following morning more than twenty men, with their faces blackened and switches in hand, rushed into Whiting’s room led by Mudgett.

“Whiting seized his pistols and would have shot some of them, but they caught him, took away his small guns, held him by his arms and legs up from the floor, his face down, two men on each side, and with their rods beat him to their hearts’ content. They crossed out the account against them of all logs cut, drawn and forfeited, on his bare back….They made him wish he had never heard of pine trees fit for masting the royal navy. Whiting said: “They almost killed me.”  [1]

As for Deputy Quigley, the Weare men removed the floorboards from the room above his and commenced to beat him with long poles. Unfortunately, the  horses of the lawmen did not avoid the anger of the men. They cropped the animals’ ears and sheared their manes and tails. To “jeers, jokes and shouts ringing in their ears” the sheriff and deputy rode toward Goffstown and Mast Road, named for the logs that were moved overland to the sea and off to England for the king’s ships [2]

Sheriff Whiting recruited Colonel Moore of Bedford and Edward Goldstone Lutwyche of Merrimack to lend a hand and organized a posse to return and arrest the rioters. By this time the townspeople had fled.  They were eventually able to arrest one of the men involved in the assault, and the others were named and ordered to post bail and appear in court. Eight men were charged with rioting, disturbing the peace and with assaulting Benjamin Whiting.  Four judges, Theodore Atkinson, Meshech Weare, Leverett Hubbard and William Parker, heard the case in the Superior Court in Amherst in September 1772. The rioters pled guilty, the judges fined them 20 shillings each and ordered them to pay the cost of the court hearing.

Despite its scarcity among today’s narrative of the American Revolution, the Pine Tree Riot was a locally significant colonial uprising to take place between the Stamp Act riots and the Boston Tea Party.

 


[1]  William Little, History of Weare, New Hampshire 1735-1888, (Lowell, MA: published by the town, printed by S.W. Huse & Co., 1888).

[2] IBID

Pamela Murrow

Pamela Murrow, a native of Indiana, has devoted many years to finding and transcribing letters from the 18th century. Her recent book, Unending Passions: The Knox Letters, delves into the private lives of Henry and Lucy Knox. General Knox became the first Secretary of War after his distinguished service as head of artillery during the Revolutionary War.

7 Comments

  • Reply February 4, 2013

    Lisa Elble

    This was a very significant occurrence. I can understand how it would add to the frustration of the colonists. Imagine owning the land and the trees, yet having to submit to the crown the best of what belonged to you and not being able to utilize the resources of your own property! I had not been aware of this before. This is a very interesting article!

  • Reply February 6, 2013

    Hooky

    New series ‘Courage, New Hampshire’ touches on the pine tree ban. Only four episodes have been been produced so far and I hope more will follow.

  • Reply January 6, 2014

    Forrest Burgener

    I “stumbled” onto this website in search of some “micro” historical
    anecdotes for a series of Spring lectures on the Revolutionary War…so far, so good…excellent!!

  • Reply January 10, 2014

    Kerrie

    Thanks for writing about this. I lived in Weare, NH for ten years, so I had heard the story, but not in this much detail. The town still commemorates its role in this event by including a reference to the riot on its town seal.

    • Reply January 10, 2014

      Pam

      You are welcome, Kerrie. It was such a significant event and a sign of what was to come.

  • Reply January 10, 2014

    Pam

    Thank you, Forrest. Glad that you have discovered this amazing site. I am sure that you will be able to find many anecdotes for your lectures.

  • […] Hampshire’s oppressive pine tree laws sparked a little-known colonial uprising in 1772 called the Pine Tree Riot. It was an early test of British Royal authority and may have encouraged the Boston Tea Party a year […]

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