Stepping back in time, we can see the newcomers as they gather to hear Rev. John Davenport. It is the second day in the new colony. From under a large, rugged oak, Davenport begins his sermon on “Temptations in the Wilderness”. It is April 25, 1628; we are near what will be College and George Streets. Looking away from the gathering, we can see this “New World”, full of promise, abundance, a natural treasure.
As climbed over the Connecticut hills and through the valleys, they would find a land covered with trees except where the marshes abut the Sound and in the meadows along the rivers. The forest is part of the Central Hardwood Forest that extends from the prairies west of the Mississippi River to the Atlantic coastal area and from the Northern Forest nearly to the Gulf of Mexico, divided only by the Appalachian Mountain range which has the northern evergreens. Among the many tree species in this Central Hardwood Forest of Connecticut the settlers found pine, hemlock, cedar, oak, elm, hickory, birch, chestnut, ash, sassafras, witchhazel, maple, tulip, sycamore, tamarack, butternut, willow, beech, cherry, basswood, dogwood and hornbeam.
This great variety of trees astonished our early settlers, who were accustomed to only about a hundred in their European world. Today our country has over a thousand different tree species. At first, the colonists named trees after those they had known in Europe, but soon ran out
names. Thus, they made up new ones or borrowed Indian names. The European settlers would take full advantage of Connecticut’s primeval forest, its variety and abundance.
But the first people in our region, probably over 12,000 years ago, viewed, heard, felt and smelled a very different environment; their successors would experience yet others and each group of people would adapt in their own way to the different environments. About 8,000 years ago the forest was dominated by oak and hemlock with a climate warmer and drier than today’s. As more plants grow because of the warming trend, people shifted from hunting and fishing to gathering and eventually to agriculture. Woodland Indian women and children collected blueberries in birch bark containers. Many berries were dried and saved for the winter. As time passed and the population increased, artifacts became more varied. Tools for woodworking appeared. Milling stones were used and pottery appeared for storing acorns and hickory nuts. The forest began to fill in with laurels, viburnums and rich ground covers.
By the time of Christ, all of the trees we see today were present. The Indians began to influence their environment. Fire, for example, was used, probably to clear land, drive animals, improve visibility and destroy vermin. Because of fire, the oaks, hickories and chestnuts became dominate while the hemlocks and maples declined because of their sensitivity to fire. The Woodland Indians also planted to supplement their diet and thus further controlled their environment.
However, it was the forest that provided many products for the Indians and they were so wise in their use. The large white ash which has a straight trunk free of knots was used by the Indians for stressed items like snowshoes and for basket splints. Some Indians used the extracts from the ash for relieving itching, treating fever and rattlesnake bites. As its sap is inflammable, the ash can be used freshly cut as firewood. To the Eastern Woodland Indians, the acorns from the white oak were a staple food. Less bitter than those of other oaks, they were a source of carbohydrates. A bland meal was made by grinding and leaching out the tannic acid by boiling. The Indians gathered baskets of acorns to be used for cakes, soups or as bread meal. The Iroquois used the acorns for treating diarrhea and cuts. Also the oak provided them with a rot-resistant material and, like the ash, it was used for basket splints.
Also within the dense forest the maples, silver, red, sugar and some black, were plentiful because of their large seed crops. Like other trees, their buds and twigs provided food for the white tail deer and other animals that were important to the Woodland Indians. In late winter the sugar maple was tapped by them for syrup, sugar and flavorings which enhanced their food.
Sassafras means “green twig” and long before we used it for root beer the Indians brewed parts of the tree for various medicinal uses. They boiled the roots to treat fever; young sprouts were used to make an eyewash. The leaves were steeped to make a tea and the dried leaves were crumbled to be used as a seasoning. Sassafras is still used in creole cooking. It became an item of colonial export as it was highly valued in England and on the continent. Besides our root beer, today, tea and a perfumed soap are prepared from sassafras roots.
The forest which was owned in common by the Indian tribes, provided the wood for fires needed for warmth and cooking; it gave building materials for their “long houses” and for the dugout boats made from trees hollowed out by burning. The Indian was a skillful woodsman; indeed, his livelihood depended on his knowledge of the forest. The forest helped sustain life and the Indian returned the gift with his reverence and love for the woods. The deep, dark forest was sinister and terrifying to the first colonists, but to the Woodland Indians, it was home.
The European settlers would move against the determined steps of survivors and make this land their home as well. The toolmaker with his ringing axe and crosscut saw will mark the wilderness. Chip by chip, the trees will be felled; year after year, the bark will be girdled. The forest will be cleared and the corn planted.
In New Haven in 1640, beams for homes were a penny a foot, hewn square. By the late 1700’s, water-powered sawmills would rip the trees to lumber. Poplar, oak, ash and hickory, a wood for every need, for building, tools and wagons; for furnishings, maple, cherry and walnut were available. For fence rails, gun stocks, wood for every purpose from cradles to coffins. By necessity, wood was used for every fashioned article of living. Even so, most of the trees were burned because the land was needed for crops. Surrounded by trees, the settlers found a world rich in wood which would direct their lives.
The immediate problems that faced the early settlers were obtaining
clothing, shelter and tools. Soon the settlers came to rely upon the resources that the forest could supply. The forest abounded with animals for food and it supplied food for their hogs, horses, cattle and sheep. The scarcity of clothing was solved in part by use of animal skins and furs. The woods provided wild fruits, nuts and food flavorings. Mulberries were used by some settlers in place of raisins. Berries and nuts were easily found and the presence of these necessities allowed the pioneers to become established.
New England architecture used wood as its building material despite the available quantities of stone. Only twelve houses of stone or brick were built in New England before 1700. The English builders were acquainted with wood and lime for mortar was scarce. Thus with the oak, chestnut, pine and other trees, they built their brace-frame homes, many of which still stand today. Inside the houses, dinner was served on treen ware. Walnut, maple and sycamore was made into tables, chairs and wainscot; cedar was used for chests, cupboards and baskets.
The majority of colonists were farmers who cleared the land, but the forest’s products were an integral part of their daily lives. Wagons, tool handles, fence posts, carts and sleds, all were fashioned from wood. A black dye was made from the walnut; sugar from the maple sap and berries of bay and myrtle for making candles, were obtained free the forest. Medicinal herbs, leaves and roots for teas, spruce beer, elderberry wine, hardened blisters (galls) on oak trees caused by insects for making ink, products from seemingly unlimited resources. Likewise the forest colonists with water and wood as sources of power for energy. Permanent settlement would have been almost impossible without the materials and products which the forest provided.
A strong man could clear three acres of land a year, cutting, allowing to dry over the winter and burning the trees in the spring. Most Connecticut farmers had to clear in What trees were not kept, they took to a miller who made them into boards and beams. As more land was cleared and towns grew, those who needed timber went to hilly upland areas to cut. The rivers made it easy to float the logs downstream to sew mills. Lumbering became a good winter job for farmers who began to cut when the snow fell and helped with log drives in the spring. By 1700, almost every river in Connecticut had an annual log drive.
As the demand for bigger and newer houses and furniture in the towns grew, coupled with an increased need for building materials to trade with England and the West Indies, the first business in America was born. The forest formed the basis for the major colonial industries of: lumber products, shipbuilding, naval stores and potash.
In 1620, the year the Mayflower sailed from England, the Virginia Company met to decide if the Virginia colony was prosperous enough to continue as a business investment. Because of the increasing number of forest products being produced in Virginia, their report was favorable. Lumbering became important in every colony and the leading colonial industry. The demand for wood was large and widespread. Oak and pine provided shingles, boards and barrel staves; sweet gum, maple, walnut furnished wood for gunstocks, desks, chairs and tables; cedar was used in making caskets, door and window sills and in drawers and chests. The cooperage industry produced over 300,000 various barrels each year as containers for rum, naval stores and other items. The first exports from Jamestown and later from staves and cedar logs.
An allied industry was sawmilling. The first mill was built in 1635, in New Hampshire. The early mills used water power and farmers ran them often as a sideline until Millers established themselves. Within time, almost every town would have one or more sawmills. By 1750, New England was exporting lumber products worth 135,000 English pounds annually.
Yet there was more profit in shipbuilding. England’s increasing merchant marine and navy brought mare demands for ships timbers, casts, yardarms, etc. The tall pines and spruces were marked by royal woodsmen to be cut as mast’s for the King’s navy. Cutting them without permission brought a heavy fine. The white pine, which is the largest northeastern tree, grows straight. It was easy to cut and shape and therefore was of great value for ships’ masts. The wood of oak was soaked so that it could be bent into curved shaped to make ship’s ribs. With the forest close to the coastline, ships could be built in America cheaper than in England. By the end of the colonial period, at least one third of all ships under English flag were built in the colonies. Added to that number, New Englanders could boast of 2,000 fishing boats, built and owned here.
Shipyards, large and small, sprang up in the colonial ports and other related industries also grew because of the forest. The production of naval stores—tar, pitch, resin and turpentine-became a leading industry in the Southern colonies. The knots of the long leaf pine were roasted in kilns and the hot tar drained off into barrels. By distilling the tar, turpentine which was needed for paint could be produced. From the residue of the distilling, pitch was made to be used for waterproofing. These ships’ stores derived from Southern forests are still important for international trade.
Ash, birch, oak and ether hardwoods were burned to ashes which were then boiled. The residue that remained was called “pott ash.” Potash was used in the colonies for soap-making, glass making and bleaching. The farmer in clearing his land could make some money by selling the potash which was easier to transport than lumber. By 1766, New England was exporting 14,000 barrels of potash.
The role of the forest was enormous in the settling of America. It gave rise to industries as a raw material and as energy for forges and kilns allowed people to produce other product as well. Its firewood gave personal warmth, light and fuel by which to cook over. The wood helped form the tools and necessities of the home and its structure. The home of William Leete in Guilford, a governor of the New Haven colony, still stands on land that he cleared. His land is still farmed for its trees today, giving it the distinction of the oldest continuously owned property in the American Tree Farm system.
The story of people is found in our forest from that charter of independence hidden in the cavity of a white oak in the 1680’s to a boy learning to whittle in the 1980’s. The whisper of pines in the wind can make us stop to remember the importance of trees over the span of time.
Looking at our trees today, we can enjoy the flowering of the dogwood (
) as those before Us did. This well known ornamental, native to the eastern and central states, produces large blossoms in spring, bright red fall leaves and small fat winter buds and berries. The name, dogwood, possibly “daggerwood” indicating that it was a wood used to skewer meats over open fires. The Indians made a quinine substitute from its bark and a tea to reduce fever. They also used the spit ends of small branches as toothbrushes. handles, hay forks and sled runners from the wood; later the textile industry used it for shuttles and spools. Often seen reaching to the sun
under taller trees, the dogwood is a protected species in most states, yet its wood is still used for woodcut blocks, jeweler’s blocks and mallet heads.
Many of our medicine cabinets possess a bottle of witch hazel. The healing properties were discovered by the Indians who may have been attracted to this shrub by its golden blossoms which appear in November after its leaves have fallen. cut the flowers and twigs, boiled them and applied the cuts, bruises and muscle strains. Witch hazel (
) grows as a shrub but may reach thirty feet in height; it is found in many parts of Connecticut where the climate and soil suit its growth. In 1860, an Essex druggist, Elmer Whittemore, began to produce witch hazel for commercial use. Others joined the business, and in 1866, a Baptist minister, Rev. Thomas associated with the group. As others dropped out, Dickinson kept the business going and expanded it. After the witch hazel branches are The steam goes into a separator and condenser, after which it becomes the astringent. The alcohol content of witch hazel serves as a preservative without which it would sour. Eight and a half pounds of brush are needed to make a gallon of witch hazel. Today the E.E. Dickinson Company of Essex is still operated and is the largest distiller in the country. Witch hazel can be used as a aftershave lotion, a beauty aid, for muscular stiffness, to treat scratches, insect bites, poison ivy and for rinsing hair after shampooing.
On our kitchen shelves, we may find a jar of pure maple syrup. The large sugar maple tree which covers northeastern half of our country as far south as Louisiana produces maple sugar and syrup. They are produced from boiling down the tree’s sap; one tree can produce less than three pounds of sugar a year. Just as the colonists, we can sweeten apple sauce, flavor baked beans and cereals, pour it on toast and pancakes or on anything else for desired sweetness, even ice cream. The wood of the maple provides for products from flooring to musical instruments and bowling pins. The contorted grain of the sugar maple often is called curly maple or bird’s eye and is valued for furniture and in cabinet making.
One particular tree product has a special meaning to Connecticut, but in name only. The nutmeg is a spice used in cooking stews, baking and on eggnog. It is
of a tree grown in the East and West Indies and in Brazil. Nutmegs were not grown in Connecticut but colonial peddlers carved fake to match and sold them as the real spice. This forgery was practiced in other colonies but was so widespread in Connecticut that we earned the nickname “Nutmeg State”.
Looking back over three hundred years, we can view the benefit gained from our forests. Many of our forested land remains and continues to offer its promise as our most versatile natural treasure.