Congratulations, it is 1794 and the United States government has accepted your proposal to supply the Navy with live oak for the frames of its new ships for $.75 per cubic foot.  Each ship requires about 30,000 cubic feet of timber, so in theory this should be a profitable venture for you.  The live oak the Navy requires grows principally along the coast of the southern states.  Hopefully, you own an island or two on the coast of Georgia- or have made friends with those who do.  Thanks to Mr. Eli Whitney’s new cotton gin, cotton cultivation and slave labor are more profitable than ever before.  All those stately live oak trees stand in the way of cotton fields.  As your friend has said, “The crops of cotton are so abundant this year, and the price so high, that in two years from this, there will not be a Forest of Live Oak standing in Georgia- except what is bought up by the Government.”[1]  Sounds like you’ve started this venture at just the right moment!

You will no doubt encounter “many various and extensive difficulties,” which you cannot possibly foresee at the time you enter into this contract with the government.[2] Yet, by following these eight easy steps, you’ll have a shot at success.

1. Send your agent to Boston, New London, or some other New England seaport to hire scores of workmen (carpenters, axe men, moulders, and hewers).  Advertise in the newspapers- Yankees love to read. Procure oxen and provisions (rum, pork, beef, bread, rice, butter, cheese, and molasses). As for the rum, buy “the cheapest kind…with which [they] will satisfied.”[3]

An advertisement for axe men and ship carpenters to cut live oak, from the Connecticut Gazette, 26 June 1794.

2. New Englanders won’t work in the south during the summer.  You must ensure that they arrive in the fall or early winter so they can cut timber the longest period before the real heat sets in.  If you must augment your cutting gangs in the hot days of summer, you might hire slaves from the local plantations.  Thomas Spalding and John Couper have been obliging in the past.

3. Beg, cajole, or threaten the naval constructor in Philadelphia to finish and send on the wooden moulds, or patterns, by which your men will cut each piece of timber.  Without the moulds, it is impossible to know what size and shape each piece should be.  If you must cut timber without the moulds, be prepared for the inevitable waste.

4. Supply each head carpenter with a book containing a “descriptive list of the Timber to be cut by the Gang of workmen under his direction.”[4]  The carpenter will “enter each stick of Timber” as it is cut, and when they return from the woods make a proper entry in your books of the quantity.

5. It would be nice if all the timber you need could be found within a circle of fifty miles, but most likely you’ll have to send cutting gangs to Florida, and all along the coast of Georgia, and far into South Carolina.  You’ll have to pile the timber at fifty or sixty different landing places, and at each of these places you must make camps for the workmen, cut new roads, and transport all the moulds, provisions, oxen, and wheels for hauling timber.[5]

A timber wain for hauling logs, by William Pyne, ca. 1800.

6.  Be aware that your axe men will need a great deal of time and energy to fell a massive live oak.  Here is the labor intensive process:  “[T]wo [axe men] have stationed themselves on the opposite sides of the trunk of a noble and venerable live-oak. Their keen-edged and well-tempered axes seem to make no impression on it, so small are the chips that drop at each blow around the mossy and wide-spreading roots. There, one is ascending the stem of another, of which, in its fall, the arms have stuck among the tangled tops of the neighboring trees. See how cautiously he proceeds, barefooted, and with a handkerchief around his head. Now he has climbed to the height of about forty feet from the ground; he stops, and squaring himself with the trunk on which he so boldly stands, he wields with sinewy arms his trusty blade, the repeated blows of which, although the tree be as tough as it is large, will soon sever it in two. He has changed sides, and his back is turned to you. The trunk now remains connected only by a thin strip of wood. He places his feet on the part which is lodged, and shakes it with all his might. Now swings the huge log under his leaps, now it suddenly gives way, and as it strikes upon the ground its echoes are repeated through the hummock, and every Wild Turkey within hearing utters his gobble of recognition. The wood-cutter however, remains collected and composed; but the next moment, he throws his axe to the ground, and, assisted by the nearest grapevine, slides down and reaches the earth in an instant. Several men approach and examine the prostrate trunk. They cut at both its extremities, and sound the whole of its bark, to enable them to judge if the tree has been attacked by the white rot. If such has unfortunately been the case, there, for a century or more, this huge log will remain until it gradually crumbles; but if not, and if it is free of injury or “wind-shakes,” while there is no appearance of the sap having already ascended, and its pores are altogether sound, they proceed to take its measurement. Its shape ascertained, and the timber that is fit for use laid out by the aid of models, which, like fragments of the skeleton of a ship, show the forms and sizes required, the ‘hewers’ commence their labors.” [6]

The mighty live oak, Quercus virginiana.

7. Get the government inspector to inspect all the cut timber at the landings as soon as possible.  By no means let it sit out all season exposed to the rain and sun, or else you will end up with great cracks and fissures that will render even the largest pieces useless.

8.  Submit your accounts and wait many months or years before you finally get paid what you are due for the unrelenting labor and huge amounts of your own cash you have expended to fulfill your contract. In the end, if you are lucky, you might have made some money!

[1] Ebenezer Jackson to Benjamin Stoddert, 5 December 1799, in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[2] “Interrogatories to Ebenezer Jackson, Esquire former Navy Agent for the State of Georgia,…” 1 Feb. 1805, in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[3] Ibid.  See also Virginia Steele Wood, Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981), 26.
[4] Interrogatories to Ray Sands, 25 January 1805, in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[5] Ebenezer Jackson to Benjamin Stoddert, 7 April 1801 , in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[6] Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and his Journals, vol. 2 (London: John C. Nimmo, 1898), 328-329.

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USS Constitution Museum