Myth #149: Wide floorboards were illegal in English colonial America since trees wider than 24″ were considered “King’s lumber.”

Lisa Hassler, a Massachusetts realtor specializing in selling historic homes, wrote, “I was reading your blog and I couldn’t find any reference to wide plank floors, so I thought I’d ask. Many times, when visiting a house museum, the curator will say that the floor boards were “King’s wood” or “King’s lumber” because anything wider than X (I think 24”) was supposed to be sent back to England for the King’s use as ship’s masts. If that was true, then breaking the law was the norm rather than the exception. Would love to know, is King’s wood truth or fiction?”

Well . . . a little of both. Call it a stretch. Certain tall straight trees, especially Eastern white pine, could be marked with a Broad Arrow (three slashes) to reserve them for the monarch because they were so vital to making ship’s masts and booms. (Andrew Vietze, White Pine: American History and the Tree that Made a Nation) But this didn’t apply to all large trees or to all colonies. People using wide pieces of lumber for floorboards were not necessarily breaking the law or stealing the king’s lumber. Large, old-growth trees were plentiful in the early colonial years and widely used in furniture making and building.

Here’s where the 24″ part comes in. In Massachusetts, the Charter of 1691 states in part, “And lastly for the better provideing and furnishing of Masts for Our Royall Navy Wee doe hereby reserve to Vs Our Heires and Successors all Trees of the Diameter of Twenty Four Inches and upwards of Twelve Inches from the ground growing vpon any soyle or Tract of Land within Our said Province or Territory not heretofore granted to any private persons And Wee doe restrains and forbid all persons whatsoever from felling cutting or destroying any such Trees without the Royall Lycence of Vs Our Heires and Successors first had and obteyned vpon penalty of Forfeiting One Hundred Pounds sterling vnto Ous Our Heires and Successors for every such Tree soe felled cult or destroyed without such Lycence had and obteyned in that behalfe any thing in.” (Note the phrase: growing upon any soil or land . . . not heretofore granted to any private persons.)

In New Hampshire, an act passed in 1708 reserved all mast trees with a diameter greater than 24″ for the royal navy. Violators faced a fine of fifty pounds. In 1722 a new law reduced the diameter 12″. Surveyors of the King’s Woods were assigned to identify suitable mast pines with a broad arrow mark. (see http://www.NewEnglandHistoricalSociety.com, New Hampshire Pine Tree Riot of 1772, and https://websterhistoricalsociety.org/?p=309)

I wasn’t able to find similar laws in other American colonies.

However, it was definitely illegal to sell mast trees to anyone but the British navy, even though they paid less than the French or Spanish. That was a law colonists must have broken all too often, because Parliament kept passing laws protecting mast trees for the British navy.

5 Responses to Myth #149: Wide floorboards were illegal in English colonial America since trees wider than 24″ were considered “King’s lumber.”

  1. Kenneth T. says:

    It’s a shame “we” broke from Europe (Greater Britain) to start our own “world” yet still allowed them their…
    Oh – – nevermind

    • Curtis Cook says:

      I’ve recently read three works of British history — Churchill’s “History of the English-Speaking Peoples”, “The Oxford Illustrated History of Great Britain” and “The Lion in the North”, which is a history of Scotland up to late 1800s. Something that was mentioned prominently in all of them, but NOT in any American history books I’ve read, is that North America was England’s original penal colony and tens of thousands (almost certainly in excess of a hundred thousand) of the ‘colonists’ were actually prisoners sent to America against their will, including nearly all of the Irish and Scots who came here before 1776*.

      Also, at one time or another all of the colonies either lost their charters and reverted to Crown control, or they were that way from the start. Put it together and we didn’t actually ‘break’ from Europe until we revolted, so it wasn’t a matter of ‘allowing’ England anything.

      * = Australia was founded as a replacement penal colony when England was no longer able to send her convicts and political prisoners here, and the public became upset by the cost of maintaining them in ‘the hulks’… and the increasing number of prisoners dying in those derelict ships.

      • Kenneth T. says:

        Hmm… I thought that Australia was the original penal coloney. *my understanding of the time-line is skewed.
        I understand that many colonists paid for their journey by becoming indentured servents. *but that’s neither here nor there*

      • Curtis Cook says:

        Ah, but it may be both here and there! Like you, my American history books mention indentured servitude (and one goes into great detail about how it could be abused via unilateral extension through sale of the indenture), but it gets no mention in the British history books. This makes me wonder whether the ‘term of service’ may have actual been a ‘term of sentence’ and these servants were the same people the British call ‘transported convicts’.

        Maybe Mary has a way to find out?

  2. Mary Miley says:

    Many indentured servants were sent to all the original British American colonies; some were undoubtedly minor criminals. But it was Georgia that was originally set up as a penal colony and many of the first settlers were from debtors prison. When the American colonies became independent, GB began using Australia. What’s this got to do with floorboards?

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: