North Carolina -Naval Stores- Janaury 26

North Carolina People, Places, and Things-January 26

I am the dad to five adult children. As they were growing up I attempted to remind them they were special and to implore them to learn something new. My goal was to do that daily.

In 2016 my goal is to learn something new daily on the people, places, and things that make North Carolina special.

There was a period of time where people from around the world craved products that came from North Carolina’s long leaf pine trees. In fact there was a myth that perpetuated North Carolina reputation. The long leaf pine could be used to produce tar, pitch, and turpentine. These products became known as naval stores.

Naval stores are goods (stores, or things stored for later use) used in building and maintaining ships. Originally, “naval stores” included everything used to build a ship, including wood and cloth, but by the end of the colonial period it meant tar, pitch, and turpentine. All of these products were manufactured from pine trees, which North Carolina had in abundance.

tar heels

For that reason and others, North Carolina became a key supplier to the British Navy, and naval stores became central to the colony’s economy.

England had tried before to encourage its colonists to manufacture naval stores. In Virginia, the Jamestown colonists had briefly tried making tar, but they quickly found that tobacco could bring them more money. Efforts to build a naval stores industry in New York and New England failed for similar reasons: Other crops and other industries were more profitable, and the colonists did not want to take on the messy work of making tar and pitch. And by 1700, New Englanders had cut down most of their native pine forests, which made manufacturing naval stores nearly impossible.

The southern colonies, though, had a longleaf pine forest that covered 90 million acres, including nearly all of North Carolina’s coastal plain and much of the southern Piedmont.


And while Virginians and South Carolinians could grow other crops for export — such as tobacco, indigo, and rice — the soil and climate of most of eastern North Carolina didn’t make it profitable to grow those crops on a large scale. Farmers in the pine belt who needed cash found that naval stores were their best option.

A quick review of tar, pitch, and turpentine.

Tar is a dark, thick, sticky liquid produced by burning pine branches and logs very slowly in kilns. Seamen painted coats of tar on riggings that held masts and sails in place. It was also used on land, as axle grease, to preserve fence posts, and to cover wounds on livestock to help them heal. You may have smelled it when you passed a new road being laid down.

Pitch is produced by boiling tar to concentrate it. It was painted on the sides and bottoms of wooden ships to make them watertight. At room temperature, pitch is nearly solid, much like modern caulk, which has similar uses. When heated, it flows like a liquid and can be used as a paint.

Turpentine is distilled from a gum that living pine trees secrete to protect wounds in their trunks. It was not much used in the colonial period, but by the nineteenth century it was used in manufacturing paint and a variety of other goods as well as for medicinal purposes.1 You may have used this colorless but strong-smelling fluid used as a thinner for oil-based paints.


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