Report on Forest Trees of North America

North America is vast and by North Americans’ own frequent admissions, everything there is bigger and more profuse than anywhere else.

We’re all vaguely aware of the prodigious amounts of oak, pine, walnut, ash and cherry grown in – and which has been exported from – the North American continent, however, it’s not until one sees these late nineteenth-century maps of the extent of the major tree species that one really appreciates the enormity of the picture.

The US Department of the Interior’s tenth census (1884) of the United States contains a Report On Forest Trees Of North America which is accompanied by sixteen comprehensive maps (click the maps to enlarge).

1884_census_oaks_01aDistribution of the oaks in North America, 1884. (David Rumsey Map Collection)

1884_census_pines_01aDistribution of the pines in North America, 1884. (David Rumsey Map Collection)

1884_census_walnuts_01aDistribution of the walnuts in North America, 1884. (David Rumsey Map Collection)

1884_census_ashes_01aDistribution of the ashes in North America, 1884. (David Rumsey Map Collection)

Click here to see all sixteen maps at David Rumsey Map Collection.

Jack Plane

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Furniture Timbers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Report on Forest Trees of North America

  1. ROBERT LINDH says:

    Being from Pennsylvania, USA…I might mention, Pa. is known for its Cherry, a fine furniture wood.

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  2. Tim Shaw says:

    My mother was born in Indiana in 1913. She once told me that she remembered in her childhood split rail fences made of walnut, from clearing the land for farms.

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    • Ron says:

      I grew up in northern Indiana and in my town we had a building built in 1840’s that had walnut flooring. I’m sure when the building was made walnut trees were like weeds.

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  3. LD says:

    When the first Europeans reached the North American continent, it was said that everything East of the Mississippi River was forested, so much so that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic coast to the River without ever setting foot on the ground. By the time these maps were created, logging and clearing for farmland had been taking place for about two hundred years in the US.

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  4. LD says:

    It is possible that there was no distribution map for cherry because it is a ‘pioneer’ species; it thrives on the boundaries between forested and open areas.

    In ecological terms, logging and clearing for farmland create a disrupted and damaged ecosystem, which is where pioneer species do best.

    In Colonial times, cherry was most often found in New England, especially Connecticut, as the land was logged and cleared for farming. As the descendants of the Colonists moved into the Midwest, much of the farmland reverted back to oak, maple and pine forest. (Cherry competes poorly with these species and is eventually supplanted by them.) In the Midwest and Central Atlantic, logging and clearing for farmland meant an increase in cherry trees in those areas.

    Currently, cherry stands in Pennsylvania are reaching maturity, and the highest-quality cherry lumber typically comes from that part of the country

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  5. Paul C. says:

    Hi Jack, I’m a new subscriber and would like to thank you for sharing that wealth of knowledge, it’s one of a kind.

    It’s worth mentioning the enormous width of some timbers used in cabinet making of the period in North America, I have seen table tops, backboards, etc. made from these woods in excess of two feet in width. My understanding is that a lot of the lumber exported to Britain was used as ballast and smaller logs were used in order to pack the hulls more efficiently.

    Also in some early towns in southern Ontario (Canada), white pine was so abundant, trenches were dug and logs a few feet long were placed in on end like a butcher block to make roads.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      It’s thought mahogany first arrived in Britain purely as ballast in the second half of the seventeenth-century, due in part to its density. Apparently some was used initially for building piers before its value as a furniture timber was realised.

      That mahogany and walnut was shipped as ballast in the eighteenth-century is only partially true. It is a fact that ships require some form of ballast in their holds to remain upright and stable at sea and in many recorded instances, ships holds were filled with logs and sawn timber when more precious cargoes, such as sugar and tobacco, couldn’t be had. It is also recorded that upon arrival in England, those same timber cargoes made very good money at auction on the quay side.

      Ships’ logs and inventories tell us some exceptionally wide timbers were imported into Britain from the Americas during the eighteenth-century. I have seen chests of drawers with single pine backboards and tables with over 30″ wide leaves of mahogany.

      I know some factory floors were made from end-grain oak blocks and I did some work in a castle with a similar ground floor.

      JP

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  6. Paul C. says:

    The rest of the story, thanks.

    …if it was only still possible to obtain easily!

    Did birch make an appearance in Britain? It was widely used in most periods here but, also didn’t make the list.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Birch is widespread in poorer areas of Britain and Ireland and is considered a weed by many. It wasn’t employed for furniture-making in any great quantity until Victorian times.

      One occasionally sees wooden planes made from birch.

      JP

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  7. D.B. Laney says:

    I knew there was a reason why I’ve continued to live in the lower Great Lakes region. It certainly isn’t for the weather. I live in a house built in 1860. Sills, beams and much of the vertical framing is walnut. It’s hard to walk more than a city block without seeing a 30″ diameter walnut. IMHO, there is no better material for fine furniture or any other wooden object, for that matter.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Have you ever looked at a door frame and thought of harvesting some old walnut for a bit of furniture?

      JP

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      • D.B. Laney says:

        Just a few weeks ago I picked up several 5/4 x 20″ x 10′ boards from my local sawyer. All select stock. Hold on to your hat, $4.25/bdft (American). Not too long ago a fellow asked me if I’d like some barn frame brackets, he thought they might be walnut. I said “sure”. He brought me a half dozen 16/4 square x 6 footers, old growth (approx 15-20 rings to the inch.) When it rains, it pours! But in answer to the original question, I do think about the occasional salvage. But I’ve run out of room. All that said, the weather here still sucks! You’d see more sun in Dublin. Put me on the waiting list for two copies, my friend.
        Good on ye

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  8. Jeremiah says:

    The map of chestnut makes me sad. Natural stands are all but extinct now, although genetic crossbreading will likely reverse this trend in my lifetime, but I’ll be a very old man before they are ready to harvest.

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