Georgia’s naval stores industry: Harvesting

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Display showing a pine tree with bark sliced of so that the sap will run out and be collected into a Herty cup (see below) to be processed into naval stores.

Naval stores is the term for a variety of products that were used to maintain ships, including lumber, but by Colonial times, the phrase was mostly applied to products made from pine-tree sap, including turpentine. (Amber is fossilized resin.) In Georgia, pine sap was harvested mostly in coastal areas, and the most frequently tapped trees were longleaf pines, or Pinus palustris.

To get the tree to yield its resin, harvesters scar the tree so that the sap flows out of the tree, then capture it. David Walbert, writing on the Learn NC website, notes that the three main Colonial-period products were 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 fenceposts, 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.

Ceramic Herty cup similar in size to flower pot

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. You may have used this colorless but strong-smelling fluid used as a thinner for oil-based paints.

J.W. Joseph, Theresa M. Hamby and Catherine S. Long note on page 15 in Historical Archaeology in Georgia, University of Georgia Laboratory of Archaeology Series Report Number 39 (2004; accessible as a free PDF) note:

The so-called Wiregrass and Pine Barrens areas of the Central Coastal Plain were not amenable to cotton agriculture. Thus, livestock herding and small-scale farming was of greater importance in the area…. This pattern of subsistence farming was one found throughout the state, and farmsteads and associated features are among the most common historical archaeological site types found in the state. The naval stores industry, in which pine tree sap was collected to produce tar, pitch, and turpentine, was a major industry in the Central Coastal Plain by 1860. The predominance of long leaf pine in the region made it the ideal location for the collection of sap, and production of naval stores products. The industry resulted in the formation of sites such as tar kilns and turpentine stills.

Visit the Million Pines Welcome Center just off Interstate 16 north of Soperton and see the displays of this important industry in Georgia.

Where to find it