When settlers first came to the New World forests covered a large per cent of the land. The forests all had a wide range of trees and bushes in them. The "primeval forest" or the first forest Europeans came into contact with had been changed by many acts of nature such as floods, hurricanes, and flood. Actions of Native Americans also had a hand in changing forests. Such forests included redwood forests, which were home to huge redwood trees, mossy forests, and swamp forests.
To many European settlers
, these forests represented a wild and evil area. Many feared the forests and wilderness as the antithesis of civilization, community, and religion. One group in particular, the Puritans, viewed the forests not as an abundance of natural resources but as an impediment to settlement.
Once forests began to be viewed as beneficial, it opened up a whole new lifestyle. The forests and nature might have been an evil and scary place, but it was a place filled with resources and opportunity. Settlers began using trees and wood in a plethora of ways. Not only was it used for families own use, many began logging forests as a business; a very profitable business at that. Once wood started being used for beneficial purposes, a snowball effect occurred by the settlers to cut down every tree in sight and turn it into a profit.
Logging was the process of cutting down numerous amounts of trees to use wood in a capitalist way or to clear land for agricultural purposes. Two main techniques
were used by the settlers to clear away these large forests. One technique was called girdling. Girdling is the process of cutting a strip of bark off of the circumference of the tree which eventually killed it. Another technique used for deforestation is the "cut and burn" method. This method was the process of cutting down many of the trees and burning the rest of the brush and plants to clear land.
Cutting down these massive amounts of forest proved to be a very difficult task. On average it took about 10-15 years for a family to clear 100 acres of land to make a comfortable living. Most of the logging was done in the winter months. Placing large amounts of logs on sleds and moving them on snow proved to be far easier then trying to move them in the rainy, muddy spring and summer months. Horses were used to haul such sleds but each horse had its limit. Another way in which to move logs was done by floating them down rivers. By shipping logs this way it allowed settlers to move lumber in any month. The only problem of this method was that logs were sometimes left in the middle of rivers turning into treacherous obstacles for tugboats. Quite often tugboats would be seen zigzagging across a river just to avoid hitting a log and sinking the ship.
There were many reasons logging became such a profitable business. Wood was used around the house and property in numerous ways in the 1600's, 1700's, and 1800's. Settlers began building log homes. These homes were relatively simple to build, only taking a few weeks, with the right equipment, to build and provided exceptional protection from the elements. If settlers had a tool for paining logs into boards then this allowed for a superior home, but most were just constructed from shaped logs. These homes were very basic in structure usually having only one large room, a few windows, and a door. Crude gaps between the logs had to be filled in with a mud and straw mixture to keep the houses as insulated as possible. Also, before metals and plastics were used, wood was used for cooking purposes, cups, dishes, pots, and even utensils. Leftover wood and stumps were burned and the remaining ashes were used to make potash. This material became very popular, profitable, and could be used in many different ways. Potash was the leftover ash after burning these wood pieces that could be made into lye and soaps.
Outside of the house were many other uses of wood. Barns were also constructed using logs and boards. Fences were also built using this natural resource. Three main types of fences were being constructed. One type of fence was the double post-hole fence. This fence was the least popular type of fence in America because it took the most amount of effort to construct even though it required a small amount of wood. Post holes had to be dug as well as drilling holes through the uprights had to occur before fitting the pieces together. Then the rails had to be slotted between the posts in alternate layers. A second type of fence used was the single post-hole fence. This fence was constructed in relatively the same way but used much less timber and were located in places where wood was scarce. This was the second most popular fence. The most popular type of fence was the worm or zigzag fence. This fence required an immense amount of lumber but was relatively easy to construct. Six to ten slender 12-foot-long poles were laid horizontally and interlocked in a zigzag patter with another layer of 12-foot-long poles. Heavy bracing logs were used to lock the intersecting angles. Almost 80% of all fences in the United States were constructed using the zigzag method in the 1850's. Also, wood was used for railroad ties. These new railroads began to stretch across America so increasing amounts of ties were used.
Along with these uses of wood, many other uses were common. Settlers were able to create or turn wood into numerous profitable items. Naval stores were set up next to rivers to sell such items and also build and repair ships. Leftover wood stumps and scraps could be used to make a wide range
of products such as resin, turpentine or tar. Each of these substances comes from the saps of pine trees and was used to caulk the seams of wooden ships. Potash products were also sold at naval stores such as lye, soaps, and paints. Naval stores also stored the wood in which tugboats traveling on the rivers would buy. Burning this wood fueled the ships and a single boat would have to stop many times during one trip to "re-fuel."
Cutting down forest proved to be a constant struggle for Americans. A typical family would begin to plant crops as soon as they settled on a piece of land. These crops included corn and tobacco. After years of growing the same crops year after year, the soil became exhausted. This exhausted soil proved no good for planting additional crops so after 5-10 years the settlers would move on leaving land only partially cleared. But once a family settled on a piece of land it was only natural that they wanted to acquire more and more land. Land was a symbol of power and importance to the settlers.
Nearly all of the land at this time was public domain. In the 1700's, 75% of this land was given to the national government. Two governmental officials, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson had two opposing view on what to do with this land. Hamilton, who was the Secretary of the Treasury, wanted to create a manufacturing nation, one with countless factories and using raw materials only to produce other goods. Jefferson, Vice President and later President, believed the only way the United States could live up to the Declaration of Independence was to have a farming, middle-class nation. One where people had to won land to be able to vote and the more people to vote, the better the country will be run. A decision had to be made on what to do with this land.
The decision made was to divide the land up and sell it to settlers. This decision was called the Land Ordinance of 1785. The Land Ordinance of 1785mapped all land in the Northwest Territory and divided it into squares. Such land acquired by the national government was 220 thousand square acres given up from England in 1783, the Louisiana Purchase which was 828 thousand square miles in 1803, Florida from Spain, which consisted of 72 thousand square miles, and also the Texas Cession, Oregon Country, the Mexican Cession, the Gabon Purchase, and Alaska. These lands were divided into ranges, townships and sections. A range was an area of 50 square miles. In these ranges were townships which were 6 square miles and in townships were even smaller portions called sections. A full section was 160 acres but they were divided into half-sections of 80 acres and quarter-sections of 40 acres. This was a way for the government to pay off some of the debt caused by the Revolutionary War.
Land was to be sold for $1 per acre. Settlers could buy 640 acres or more for cash but this was usually too much for a single farmer to purchase. Later, land laws dropped the minimum of land purchased to 320 acres, and then to 160 acres, and finally to 80 acres to suite people's needs. By purchasing smaller amounts of land, it cause the price per acre to increase and decrease depending on how much was paid up front and when the land was bought. In 1796, the government started selling the land on credit. Farmers had to pay $120 down, 50% of the land had to be paid in 30 days, and the total amount had to be paid within one year. The laws became less strict because people failed to pay in the allotted amount of time. This ended up being a disaster because settlers began writing off the owed money causing more debt. In these cases it allowed wealthy men to buy the land as an investment with no intentions of putting it to use. This prevented small farmers to purchase the land who would actually use it.
Many times rules were set up to ensure proper care of the land. In Massachusetts, for example, a settler must construct an 18 square foot house and plant at least three acres of grass for each section they owned and every township must have a meeting house. This land was first given away to soldiers. The government had no means of paying these soldiers so instead soldiers were given notes saying that they were eligible to acquire certain areas of land. To some soldiers these papers were used as currency. Those who need money "now" sold their notes to speculators. Speculators bought cheap land and held on to it until the prices went up. They then would sell the notes for a large profit. This was one problem with the Land Ordinance of 1785, but there were also many other problems that came about.
One major problem with the Land Ordinance of 1785 was there was only one survey office and it was located in Philidelphia. This was a problem because it tood a very long time to survey all of the land and usually not all land was mapped which led to preemptioners or squatters. Squaters settled the land before it became surveyed. This allowed them to set claim to the land and once it was mapped, they were able to purchase it for very cheap. Many people did this and were able to just steal the land so the government began to sell the lands to large companies such as the Ohio Co. in order to get some profit, assuming the companies would turn around and sell it to settlers. This caused the settlers to fan out. Settlers would wait and try to sell the land for more money instead of farming it. This dispels the myth that the settlers loved farming.