Guest post by Amber Skinner
Have you ever wondered where the term “tar heel”, a common nickname for North Carolinians, came from? For centuries North Carolina residents collected tar from trees, and then they’d be covered in the messy substance: hence the name. The tar, however, came from a very special type of tree known as the longleaf pine. The longleaf pine once covered over a thousand miles across the Southeast United States. Today 97% of the forest is gone and with it an entire legacy. The tar and turpentine industry destroyed longleaf forests while fueling the North Carolina economy. Although restoration efforts are underway, they may not be enough to truly replace what was lost.
The Biology of Longleaf
Longleaf pines are unique for several reasons. First, they are adapted to live in fire and actually rely on it for survival. Fire kills competing plants, while longleaf seeds and young trees survive the flames. Seedlings, while susceptible to the flames, are protected by a sheath of needles that burn instead. The seeds also sprout almost immediately upon release. This keeps the seeds from being in a vulnerable position for too long. On the other hand, saplings and adult trees have thick bark that protects the weaker inner tree. By a growing tree’s second year, it develops a resistance to fire. These adaptations allow the longleaf pine to survive in temperatures as hot as 1600 degrees Fahrenheit! Without regular wildfires, competing plants overgrow and kill longleaf seedlings.
In addition to these clever adaptations, the longleaf pine has a few other tricks. Its giant, nutrient-filled seeds make a good snack for animals in the forest. In order to make sure its seeds aren’t eaten, the pine doesn’t release them consistently. Instead, the pines release almost all their seeds on what is roughly a seven year cycle. There are so many seeds that predators can’t eat them all, so some survive. Finally, the tree grows very quickly, but most of the growth is below ground in the roots. The longleaf pine’s taproot is critical for its survival. It delivers important nutrients, and it can grow to eight feet deep in less than a year.
The Longleaf Pine Ecosystem
The longleaf pine is also an essential part of the American Southeast’s biodiversity. In fact, it’s one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world! It’s home to many unique species that are endemic to the forest. Examples of these include the gopher tortoise and red-cockaded woodpecker. The gopher tortoise is an interesting little creature that likes to burrow into the ground like a gopher- hence the name.
The red-cockaded woodpecker, on the other hand, is the only woodpecker in the world that chooses to take the time to carve its home into the living bark of longleaf pines. There are also hundreds of rare plant species that live within the longleaf pine ecosystem. Researchers have identified roughly 600 types of plants in the ecosystem with 389 of the species being considered “rare”.
The Turpentine Industry and Slavery
The longleaf pine’s special characteristics did not go unnoticed by residents of the South. People realized the pine was perfect for producing turpentine, a resinous substance that came from the inside of living trees. It is made by distilling collected tree resin in a copper still. Turpentine was useful in all sorts of ways, like making soap, skinning animals, and even lighting lamps. It was also believed to be a cure to most ailments. American physicians prescribed it regularly. However, turpentine was most important for the naval industry. Turpentine was used to repair boats, waterproof the wood, and perform maintenance on ships.
The sandy soil of North Carolina couldn’t grow cotton, the staple crop of the South, quite as well as other states, but it was perfect for longleaf pine. Many venture capitalists purchased parts of forests and mined them for turpentine. North Carolina’s nearness to the coast, large enslaved labor force, and many railroads made the state more appealing for the turpentine industry. Soon, North Carolina had the largest naval industry in the country, driven by enslaved labor. This industry was worth roughly $12 million in the mid 1800s. At the start of the Civil War in 1865, North Carolina was producing 97% of turpentine in the United States. Much of this product was being shipped to European countries for their naval stores.
It is impossible, however, to talk about the naval and turpentine industries without recognizing the enslaved people and other workers of color that made them possible. Members of the Lumbee Native American tribe, located in Robeson County, North Carolina, were staple workers in the turpentine industry. They moved South with the industry until the early 1900s, leaving their home in North Carolina and relocating to Georgia. Black men and women were forced to do the hard labor, like collecting the turpentine and moving it to the distillery. Some enslaved people also worked as distillers, using the copper still to turn resin into turpentine. This was a very difficult job, and distillers had to be highly skilled. Enslaved people who didn’t meet their quotas were subject to harsh punishments. Following the Civil War, former owners of enslaved people used a cycle of debt to trap freed Black people and take advantage of their labor. Otherwise, plantation owners would have lost money on the expensive upkeep of the forests. The turpentine industry would have collapsed, if not for the constant exploitation of Americans of color.
The Downfall of Longleaf Pine
The turpentine industry boomed once wealthy owners of enslaved people began purchasing large sections of longleaf pine forests. However, this also ultimately led to the longleaf pine’s demise. Out of the 92 million acres of pines that were spread over 1,200 miles in the American Southeast two centuries ago, only roughly 2 million are left, or 2.2% of the original forests. As each plantation was inevitably used up, North Carolinian turpentine workers moved into other Southeastern states, namely South Carolina and Georgia. What caused this unimaginable destruction? Turpentine was collected from longleaf pines by a destructive method known as boxing. Workers would cut a deep pocket into the bottom of the tree, and the wounded tree would send resin to the hole to seal it. Some of the resin would flow through the wound, and it would be collected in boxes at the base of the pine. This resin would later be distilled and transformed into turpentine.
Once trees had been boxed, most were cut down and used for the lumber industry. Leftover boxed trees, however, were incredibly susceptible to many ailments. This included water decay, fire, drought, and being knocked over by heavy winds. Worst of all was a condition called dry face. This occurred when resin in boxed trees dripped through the bark, permanently stopping gum flow. Dry face was made worse by drought and insect infestations. Longleaf trees were particularly appealing to bugs like the ips beetle, black turpentine beetle, and turpentine borer. All of these insects attacked the weakened trees, serving only to make their condition worse.
These ailments would not have been as devastating to the longleaf pine population if the pine was capable of efficient regeneration. Unfortunately, the longleaf’s creative adaptations became its enemy when the turpentine industry destroyed the forests. When a plantation was being used, overseers used controlled burning, a technique Native American communities used first, to kill competing plants. Once a plantation had been fully exploited, property owners would leave the dying trees behind without proper management. The plants that normally would’ve been burned through fire management could now overgrow budding pines. This, combined with the longleaf pine’s slow growing period in its youth, led to little to no natural regeneration. Longleaf’s reliance on fire, once a brilliant survival technique, was now its Achilles’ heel.
Restoring Longleaf Pine Savannas
Today, efforts have been made to restore the longleaf forest. The pines cannot ever be truly returned to their original state, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Some researchers are attempting to find the fastest way to grow longleaf. As the threat of climate change becomes more imminent, it is vital that our forests continue to grow in a healthy way. Longleaf is a crucial part of this planet’s biodiversity, and through that, fighting climate change. We must restore longleaf pine ecosystems without simultaneously letting logging companies take advantage.
Without enslaved labor, the turpentine industry would not have thrived for as long as it did. Reparations must be paid to Black and Indigenous Americans whose labor was exploited by that industry. This could be done through housing grants, business stipends, or even direct payments. We cannot fully undo the damage done by the turpentine industry, but perhaps there is some redemption in the restoration.
More About The History Of Longleaf
Earley, Lawrence S. Looking for Longleaf: the Fall and Rise of an American Forest. The University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Jose, Shibu, et al. The Longleaf Pine Ecosystem: Ecology, Silviculture and Restoration. Springer-Verlag, New York, 2016.
Outland, Robert B. “Suicidal Harvest: The Self-Destruction of North Carolina’s Naval Stores Industry.” The North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 78, no. 3, 2001, pp. 309–344. JSTOR.
Kuhn, Mary. “Chesnutt, Turpentine, and the Political Ecology of White Supremacy.” PMLA/Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 136, no. 1, 2021, pp. 39–54.
Amber Skinner is a rising junior at Duke University and an intern at Dogwood Alliance for the summer. She is working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Science and Policy with a special focus in environmental justice and education. Amber loves the outdoors, particularly hiking, and can be frequently found playing outside her home with her two kittens.