“…to procure the most durable wood in the world – the live oak of Georgia…”: Building the New U.S. Navy in the 1790s

Aug. 3, 2022 | By Margherita M. Desy, Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston
"Editor's Note: On May 10, 2022, Naval History and Heritage Command will commemorate the 225th anniversary of the launch of the first of the U.S. Navy's six frigates (United States), which began the new United States Navy. The launch of the frigates is a significant moment in both U.S. Navy and American history,  and the U.S. Navy's earliest heroes, achievements, and traditions are part of the six frigates story.

 “From the present appearance of affairs, I believe it is time this country was possessed of a Navy…. (Frigates) I suppose will be the first object…. As Such Ships will cost a large sum of money they should be built of the best materials that could possibly be procured… the lower Futtocks (frames) & Knees if possible of Live Oak…”Joshua Humphreys to Robert Morris, 6 January 1793.  Joshua Humphreys Papers, Coll. #306, Vol. 1, 1793-1797, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

When Joshua Humphreys, Philadelphia ship designer and builder, penned the above statements in January 1793 he knew the dangers the United States merchant fleet faced sailing unprotected in foreign waters.  The “present appearance of affairs” likely referred to the escalating war between Great Britain and France and its disruptive effect on shipping to and from Europe, Great Britain, and the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas.  Humphreys was a well-known shipbuilder who designed and retrofitted vessels for the Continental Navy during the American Revolution.  His opinions on creating a navy from scratch would have held great weight with George Washington’s administration. Eventually, “An Act to provide a Naval Armament” was signed by President Washington on March 27, 1794 which allocated $688,888 for six warships to be either purchased or built for the new U.S. Navy.
 
Frigates were decided upon, but Humphreys was not the first to suggest the versatile warship as the optimal vessel for the U.S. Navy.  In 1791 Secretary of War Henry Knox submitted an estimate in which he calculated that a 40-gun frigate would cost $73,840.00.[1]

Live Oak Quercus virginiana

Quercus virginiana, St. Simons Island, Georgia
Quercus virginiana, St. Simons Island, Georgia
Quercus virginiana, St. Simons Island, Georgia
Quercus virginiana
Quercus virginiana, St. Simons Island, Georgia
Photo By: Courtesy Image
VIRIN: 220801-N-IP911-0001
Knox’s estimate did not specify construction materials, but shipbuilder Humphreys pressed for live oak for the warships’ structure.  Southern live oak, although more expensive to harvest and ship from Georgia[2], was deemed a “valuable wood” as Knox specifically noted in a late 1794 report: “The frigates will be built of live oak and red cedar…These valuable woods afford the United States the highest advantages in building ships, the durability being estimated at five times that of the common white oak.”[3]
 
Live oak is a member of Fagaceae – the Beech family, which also includes oaks.  Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers in today’s Florida extolled the natural resources they discovered and referred to local trees as “green” or “live” oak because they retained foliage the year-round[4]. By the seventeenth century, live oak’s properties were recognized for shipbuilding and that it was superior to any oak found in England.[5]
 
Live oak was valuable to the maritime trades because of its tensile strength and resistance to rot and disease.  It was posited, therefore, that the extra costs to harvest would be amortized over the much longer length of time the live oak framing was expected to last. 
 
Live oaks do not grow tall and straight like white oaks.  Instead, live oaks tend to grow only 40 to 70 feet in height but can be up to 40+ feet in circumference and display crowns that can span 150 feet or more.  Live oak limbs with their myriad shapes were perfectly suited to the curves of a vessel’s structure.
 
Building the Original Six Frigates of Live Oak
The decision to use live oak for six simultaneously constructed warships – the largest vessels of any type built in the United States up to that time – required vast quantities of timbers from a state (Georgia) that was hundreds of miles distant from the closest frigate-building shipyard (Gosport, VA) and well over one thousand miles to the most distant port (Portsmouth, NH)[6]. In 1796 purveyor Tench Francis, Captain Thomas Truxtun, and naval constructors Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox submitted a list of the amount of live oak required for the larger-sized 44-gun frigates:
            “Number of pieces of live oak in the frame – 724
             Number of live oak knees – 528
             Number of pieces of live oak for inside [“inside” is not delineated] – 81”[7]
 
For a total of 1,333 pieces of live oak of varying sizes – a vast quantity.[8]
 
Master shipwright John T. Morgan of Boston was hired in June 1794 to oversee the selecting and cutting of the timbers.  Beginning on St. Simons Island off Brunswick, Georgia, Morgan’s harvesting of appropriate trees was guided by “moulds,” wooden patterns of specific ship structural parts, supplied by Humphreys.

shows how the natural shapes of trees were assessed for practical use in shipbuilding

Peter Guillet’s Timber Merchant’s Guide
Plate 23 from Peter Guillet’s Timber Merchant’s Guide (1823) shows how the natural shapes of trees were assessed for practical use in shipbuilding.
shows how the natural shapes of trees were assessed for practical use in shipbuilding

Peter Guillet’s Timber Merchant’s Guide
Plate 23 Timber Guide
Plate 23 from Peter Guillet’s Timber Merchant’s Guide (1823) shows how the natural shapes of trees were assessed for practical use in shipbuilding.
Photo By: Courtesy Image
VIRIN: 220801-N-IP911-0002
Extremely rainy weather made work all but impossible for Morgan who noted to Humphreys: “…the whole country is almost under water and if the rains should continue it will be impossible almost to get the timber for where the live Oak is all low Land and Swampy in a dry time, but there never was so much rain known in this Country…”[9]
 
Weeks later, Morgan was sick due to the swampy and malarial conditions as were many of his northern axmen hired for the job.  The scale of work – clearing roads into the back country, hauling the enormous quantity of cut timber out to the coast, and the sheer size of the structural timbers – caused Morgan to complain to Humphreys: “…these Moulds frighten me they are so long & they will be hard to be got…if I am to stay here till all the timbers is cut, I shall be dead….I cannot stand it, you say that if I was there I shou’d be mortified, if you was here you would curse live Oak.”[10]
 
The U.S. Navy’s origins are not often associated with the institution of American slavery, but they are.  The use of enslaved African American men to harvest the live oak was essential in the swamps of St. Simons Island.  Local enslaved men were rented by the War Department from area plantations to initially supplement, and then replace, Morgan’s axmen[11]. The enslaved men were at first used to cut and clear the roads to access the stands of live oak.  Eventually enslaved African American men were employed in the actual harvesting of the live oak that made the wooden walls of the Navy’s first warships.[12]
 
Secretary of War Timothy Pickering wrote to James Hackett (constructor of USS Congress in Portsmouth, NH) that the enslaved African Americans “obtained in Georgia…are good workers with the axe…and Mr. Morgans [sic] report of their efficiency is very satisfactory.”[13]

illustration demonstrating the extremely difficult work of felling large trees; from William Henry Pyne’s Microcosm
“Woodmen” illustration demonstrating the extremely difficult work of felling large trees; from William Henry Pyne’s Microcosm; or a Picturesque Delineation of the Arts, Agriculture, Manufactures, &c… (1802-1807).
illustration demonstrating the extremely difficult work of felling large trees; from William Henry Pyne’s Microcosm
Woodmen
“Woodmen” illustration demonstrating the extremely difficult work of felling large trees; from William Henry Pyne’s Microcosm; or a Picturesque Delineation of the Arts, Agriculture, Manufactures, &c… (1802-1807).
Photo By: Courtesy Image
VIRIN: 220801-N-IP911-0003
In late December 1794 Humphreys, constructor of United States at his Philadelphia yard noted, “One cargo of live oak has arrived from Georgia…This timber is greatly superior to any in Europe, and the best that ever came to this place.”[14]
 
The superiority of Georgia live oak and its benefits to the structures of the six frigates was not in doubt.  However, the difficulty in procuring the timber greatly delayed the vessels’ construction and contributed to extraordinary cost overruns.  In 1798, after United States, Constellation, and Constitution were launched, Secretary of War James McHenry reported to the House of Representatives on the reasons for the cost overruns and the lengthy time it took to build the three frigates.  He noted five causes including “the quantity of live oak used in the construction of the Ships.”[15]  The report suggested that the use of live oak contributed to the extra costs because the original building estimates were based upon the more commonly found and more easily acquired white oak.  However, “The durability of ships built of live oak and cedar, compared with those built of the common white oak, may be estimated as five is to one.” [16]
 
McHenry concluded, “The frigates…promise to prove the most complete of their kind that have appeared on the ocean; and such as would do credit to the most skillful [sic] workmen, of countries more experienced in naval architecture than ours.”[17]  James McHenry’s 1798 statement was not an idle boast.  He, along with Secretary of War Henry Knox and frigate designer Joshua Humphreys, lived to see the original six frigates’ anticipated promise of success in the U. S. Navy’s performances in the Quasi-War with France, the first Barbary War, and, especially, with USS Constitution’s and USS United States’ brilliant victories in the War of 1812.

[1]  George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence: Henry Knox, Ship Construction & Costs.  1791.  Manuscript/Mixed Material.  https://www.loc.gov/item/mgw437243/.
[2]  Southern live oak can be found along the U.S. coast from southern Virginia, through the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, the Gulf coast states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and into the central heart of Texas.  For a map of southern live oak, see Virginia Steele Wood, Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981), 5.
[3]  “Report of Secretary of War concerning Construction of Frigates under the Act of 27 March 1794, communicated to the House of Representatives, 29 December 1794,” Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers…, 1:90.
[4]  Wood, 8.
[5]  Ibid., 9.
[6]  The distance between Brunswick, GA to Gosport, VA is approximately 600 nautical miles; the distance between Brunswick and Portsmouth, NH is approximately 1,115 nautical miles.
[7]  “A Statement of the quantity of Materials most essential for building the Frigates for the service of the United States…,’ 13 January 1796, American States Papers, Naval Affairs, 1:23.
[8]  While this total is for pieces of live oak needed and not the number of trees to be harvested Judge H. M. Breckenridge’s description of how much of a live oak tree was usable is important to note: “The body of the tree is seldom of any value…It is the natural shapes of the limbs, the angles which they form, that renders them valuable.”; from “Extracts of a letter from the Hon. H. M. Breckenridge to the Secretary of the Navy, dated – Pensacola, August 4, 1831,” American State Papers, Naval Affairs, 4:120.
[9]  John T. Morgan to Joshua Humphreys, 30 August 1794.  Joshua Humphreys Papers, Coll. #306, Vol. 1, 1793-1797, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
[10]  Ibid., 21 October 1794. 
[11]  Wood, 161, n16.
[12]  Carl Herzog, “Slavery and USS Constitution,” https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/2020/06/19/slavery-and-uss-constitution/.
[13]  Timothy Pickering to James Hackett, 4 November 1795.  Letters Sent by the Secretary of the Navy to Federal Executive Agents (Letters to President, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and Letters to (Requisitions on) Secretary of the Treasury and other Treasury Department Officials), June 1798-June 1824. (RG45, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC).
[14]  “The Report of Joshua Humphreys, Naval Constructor, on the progress made in building the Frigates,” 23 December 1794.  American State Papers, Naval Affairs, 1: 9.
[15]  The five causes were: building the frigates in six different ports; the large size of the frigates; the quantity of live oak required for the frigates; the rising costs of materials and labor; and unforeseen losses and contingencies. “Naval Expenditures, and the Disposition of Materials,” 22 March 1798.  American States Papers, Naval Affairs, 1:37-39.
[16]  Ibid., 38.
[17]  Ibid., 39.