New Hampshire’s oppressive pine tree laws sparked a little-known colonial uprising in 1772 called the Pine Tree Riot. An early test of British royal authority, it may have encouraged the Boston Tea Party a year and a half later.
Britain had few trees big enough for the Royal Navy’s ships, and so the Crown reserved the tall white pines of northern New England for itself. The king’s surveyors traveled the woods, scoring the king’s trees with three slashes shaped like an arrow – the King’s Broad Arrow.
People honored the law far more in the breach than in the observance. In 1721, one of the king’s surveyors counted 25,000 logs in New Hampshire, all big enough to be masts. But none went to the king.
In 1722, another pine tree law decreed settlers couldn’t cut any white pines bigger than a foot in diameter. The colonists then had to pay for a royal license to cut white pine trees on their own land.
The law wasn’t enforced much, probably because it wasn’t easy to. In 1736, one of the king’s surveyors seized the king’s white pine logs in Exeter. The enraged residents disguised themselves as Indians, beat up the surveying party, sank their boat and chased them into the woods, where they hid all night.
Then in 1766, the King George III appointed John Wentworth governor of New Hampshire. Wentworth’s crackdown on violators caused the Pine Tree Riot.
Wentworth sent his deputy surveyor, John Sherburn, to search the sawmills of New Hampshire to find white pine trees marked for the Crown.
On April 13, 1772, the leader of the Weare mill owners, Ebenezer Mudgett, was arrested by Sheriff Benjamin Whiting and Deputy John Quigley. Mudgett said he’d bring bail in the morning and they let him go. The sheriff and his deputy spent the night at Quimby’s Inn.
The Pine Tree Riot
According to William Little’s The history of Weare, New Hampshire, 1735-1888, Mudgett spent a busy evening with the townspeople planning the Pine Tree Riot.
At dawn the next morning, Mudgett burst into Whiting’s room and told him he had his bail. As Whiting chided him for waking him so early, 20 men with soot-blackened faces rushed into the room. They held the sheriff down on the floor, two men on each side, and beat him to their heart’s content. Wrote Little:
]They crossed out the account against them of all logs cut, drawn and forfeited, on his bare back, much to his great comfort and delight. They made him wish he had never heard of pine trees fit for masting for the royal navy. Whiting said: ‘They almost killed me.’
As for Quigly, the Weare men removed the floorboards above his room and beat him with long poles. They then cropped the officials’ horses’ ears and sheared their manes and tails. Finally, Whiting and Quigley left town to a chorus of jeers, jokes and shouts.
Getting Off Easy
In the end, eight participants in the Pine Tree Riot were identified and ordered to appear in court. They were charged with rioting, disturbing the peace and assaulting Sheriff Whiting. The judges, clearly in sympathy with the rioters, ordered them to pay a fine of 20 shillings and court costs. Some view the light fine for the Pine Tree Riot as encouraging the Boston Tea Party.
One of the judges, Meshech Weare, helped to frame New Hampshire’s constitution and served as the first president of the state. The pine tree became a symbol of colonial resistance. Patriots used it in the flags flown at the Battle of Bunker Hill, by the Massachusetts navy and by ships commissioned by George Washington for the Continental Army.
This story about the New Hampshire Pine Tree Riot was updated in 2020.