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The Pine Tree Riot

Background: The Pine Tree Riot - Weare, NH, April 1772
Summarized by Betty Ann Sutton from History of the Town of Weare, New Hampshire

There's a white pine tree in the town of Somersworth, New Hampshire that is 128 feet tall. That's as tall as an eight-story building. The trunk of this white pine is six and one-half feet across at the base. It's the tallest white pine in New Hampshire and one of the very few white pines left in our state that would be considered large enough to be used as a mast for one of the wooden sailing ships built for the Royal Navy of King George III in the 1700s.

Colonial Economy

In the early 1700s more and more people were leaving England and Europe and coming to the American Colonies. The towns along the coast of New Hampshire were developing into trading centers for the supplies that the colonists needed to buy from England. The colonists also had materials to sell to the ships that were sailing back to England.

ShipOne of our most abundant resources was trees. By the late 1600s, England had few forests left that could provide suitable trees for the giant masts, support timbers, and lumber for their growing Royal Navy and merchant ships. Tall, straight white pines were needed for "single- stick" masts. A single stick mast was hewn from one tree, rather than fastening two or more trees together with wooden pegs. A single-stick mast was by far the superior mast. It could hold full sail in the heaviest gales. The colonists soon started moving away from the farms and towns along the coast. In the mid- 1700s. Governor Benning Wentworth granted huge parcels of land to many of his friends and granted charters for incorporation to newly developing towns west of the Merrimack River. Families made the dangerous trip from the coastal towns to the forests. They cleared the land for farms and built roads for travel.

Property of the King

King George III No matter who owned or cleared the land, the white pines on the land belonged to the King of England. In 1772 the British Parliament and King George III made a law protecting "any white pine tree of the growth of twelve inches in diameter." There was already a law protecting the larger white pine trees. All of these laws meant that the settlers couldn't cut any white pines unless they had the Deputy Surveyor come to mark the trees with the broad arrow, saving them for masts. Then the settlers had to pay a tidy sum of money to get a royal license to cut the rest of the white pines from their own land.

Deputy surveyors of the King's Woods were appointed by the governor. The Deputy Surveyor and his crew had the authority to mark any and all suitable white pines with the broad arrow mark of the king. The Deputy Surveyor also had the authority to check the sawmills run by the settlers. If he found any white pine logs or lumber that had been cut without a royal license, he could mark each piece with a broad arrow. The logs and lumber could then be seized by the sheriff and the owner of the sawmill had to pay a huge fine or go to jail.

The Governor Steps In

Benning WentworthWhile Benning Wentworth was governor of New Hampshire, he did little to enforce the pine tree laws. He rarely sent the Deputy Surveyor to the new towns, like Dunbarton, Weare, and Henniker, that were so far away from Portsmouth. And the governor saw little reason to deny the settlers their trees as long as there were enough masts being hauled to Portsmouth for the Royal Navy.

A New Administration

Benning's nephew, John Wentworth. became governor in 1766. John Wentworth soon saw how much money was being lost by not enforcing the license fees and fines for the pine tree laws in the new towns, so he instructed the Deputy Surveyors to attend to their duties.


Reclaiming the Logs

In the winter of 1771-72, John Sherburn, a Deputy Surveyor of the King's Woods, visited the sawmills in the towns of the Piscataquog Valley. Sherburn found just what he hoped he would discover - white pine logs that measured 15 to 36 inches in diameter at six different mills in Goffstown and Weare. He claimed them as "The King's White Pine Trees" and chopped the mark of the broad arrow in every log. The owners of the mills were warned not to touch the logs and to appear before the Court of Vice Admiralty in Portsmouth on February 7, 1772 to pay their fines.

The sawmill owners hired Samuel Blodget, Esquire, a lawyer from Goffstown to represent them at court in Portsmouth. Blodget didn't represent them very well. He forgot his loyalty to them when the governor offered him a job as a Surveyor of the King's Woods. But Blodget did arrange for the sawmill owners to pay their fines and to get their logs back.

The mill owners from Goffstown paid their fines at once and had their logs returned to them. But the sawmill owners from Weare did not. They decided to be "obstinate and notorious" even though Blodget had sent them letters warning them against it.

A Warrant is Issued

On April 13, Benjamin Whiting, the Sheriff of the County, and his deputy, John Quigly, rode to South Weare. They came with a warrant for the arrest of sawmill owner Ebenezer Mudgett. Mudgett was the leader of the Weare mill owners. The sheriff thought that if he arrested Mudgett, the other mill owners would give in and pay their fines.

It was nearly dark when Sheriff Whiting and Deputy Quigly found Ebenezer Mudgett.  Mudgett agreed to meet the sheriff at Aaron Quimby's inn in the morning and pay his fine. News of the sheriff's arrival spread quickly through Weare. That night scores of men gathered at Mudgett's house to work out a plan for paying the sheriff in a way that he wouldn't soon forget.

A Riot Ensues

Mudgett rode to Quimby's Inn at dawn and burst in on the sheriff, who was still in bed. Then more than twenty townsmen, with their faces blackened for disguise, rushed into the sheriffs room and began to beat him with tree branch switches. Sheriff Whiting tried to grab his guns so he could defend himself, but he was thoroughly outnumbered. Men grabbed him by his arms and legs, hoisted him up, face to the floor, while others continued to switch him mercilessly. Whiting later reported that he thought the men would surely kill him. Deputy Quigly was also pulled from his room and received the same treatment from another group of townsmen.

The sheriff and deputy's horses were brought around to the inn door. The soot-blackened townsmen cropped off the horses' ears and sheared off their manes and tails - ruining the value of the animals. The two men were forced to mount and were shouted and slapped down the road toward Goffstown.

At this point the sheriff was not about to admit defeat. He went to Colonel John Goffe and Colonel Edward Goldstone Lutwytche and arranged for them to bring a posse of soldiers to Weare to arrest Mudgett and the other rioters. By the time the posse arrived, the rioters were long gone. They had disappeared into the woods without a trace.

The Sheriff Stays on the Case

But Sheriff Whiting didn't give up on the whole matter. Later in the spring he was able to capture one of the rioters, so the rest of the men agreed to pay the bail money and appear in court to accept their punishment.

In September, eight men from Weare were brought before His Majesty's Superior Court. They were Timothy Worthley, Jonathan Worthley, Caleb Atwood, William Dustin, Abraham Johnson, Jotham Tuttle, William Quimby, and Ebenezer Mudgett. They were charged with being rioters and disturbers of the peace and with "making an assault upon the body of Benjamin Whiting, Esq., Sheriff, and that they beat, wounded and evilly intreated him and other injuries did so that his life was despaired of." They were also charged with going "against the peace of our Lord the King, his crown and dignity."

Four judges heard the case in the Superior Court in Amherst. They were Theodore Atkinson, Meshech Weare, Leverett Hubbard and William Parker. The rioters were very humble and submitted themselves to the grace of the court and king. They were lucky. The judges fined each of the men 20 shillings and ordered them to pay the cost of the court hearing.

It was certainly a light punishment for the crimes they had committed.  The small fine ordered by the judges showed that they understood why the men from Weare attacked the sheriff and deputy. The judges, like many other citizens of New Hampshire, thought the pine tree laws were oppressive and unfair. The pine tree laws were just another way of making the colonists pay taxes to the British king.

The Pine Tree Riot, the raid on Fort William and Mary in Newcastle, the threats to the Tax Stamp Master in Portsmouth, and many other acts of rebellion grew from the anger that the citizens of New Hampshire felt over these laws. They all helped to bring New Hampshire into the Revolutionary War against Great Britain.