Naval Stores

Written By Lloyd Johnson

In the Coastal Plain region of North Carolina, Long Leaf Pines were plentiful, and the resin extracted from the trees provided the raw material for the naval stores industry.  Tar kept ropes and sail rigging from decaying, and pitch on a boat’s sides and bottom prevented leaking.  Tar Heels manufactured turpentine for a variety of uses.

The naval stores industry in North Carolina started during the early 1700s.  In 1720, the English Parliament enacted a bounty to encourage colonists to engage in the industry, because Great Britain’s dependence on its naval trade necessitated many boats.  In the 1720s and 1730s, the industry in the Northeast Cape Fear region of present-day Duplin County attracted Welsh migrants from Pennsylvania and Delaware.  By the 1770s, the production of naval stores was widespread in Eastern North Carolina, as noted by Janet Schaw, a well-educated Scot who toured the Cape Fear region a couple years prior to the American Revolution.  Small farmers and their slaves (typically one to four on each farm) provided the infrastructure of the naval stores industry while growing grains and raising cattle.

During the colonial period, turpentine was used mainly as a laxative or as a water repellent for cloth and leather, but demand for it increased exponentially during the nineteenth century.  Although soap manufacturers started using leftover resin from the stills in which turpentine had been extracted, turpentine was used primarily from 1800 to 1860 as an illuminant; the substance when combined with alcohol provided a cheap form of lighting that was used in homes, public buildings, and streets.  This mixture was known as camphene, Teveline, or palmetto oil.  By 1860, a less costly illuminant replaced the turpentine-based one: kerosene.
During the 1840s-1860s, the production of North Carolina naval stores increased dramatically.  For one reason, Great Britain in 1840 repealed her non-importation duties on naval stores with the United States.  Even before then, North Carolina produced 95.9 percent of the naval stores in the country.  Also, inland transportation improvements, such as the Wilmington and Manchester, S.C. Rail Road, encouraged the industry’s expansion.   The Wilmington and Weldon Rail Road, in particular, persuaded many in Craven, Pitt and Beaufort counties to participate, the Charlotte and Rutherford Rail Road cut through the abundant, pine forests of Bladen, Robeson, and Richmond counties, and (by the 1850s) the Fayetteville to Bethany Plank Road had been completed.  By 1860, the Wilmington and Cape Fear Navigation Company temporarily succeeded in making the Cape Fear navigable for small, steam-powered vessels from Fayetteville to Chatham County.  That year, however, freshets destroyed the locks.

With the increasing demand for naval stores during the antebellum era, the demand for slave labor to work in the labor-intensive industry increased.  Many slaves on the plantation, working sunup to sundown, shouldered a lighter burden than did those producing naval stores.  Percival Perry, one of the first authorities of the naval stores industry, writes that slaves preferred to work in the naval stores industry, because it relied on task labor, whereas plantation slaves usually worked in gang labor.  Historian Robert. B. Outland, however, more recently argues that slaves in the naval stores industry were often bored and lonely while for consecutive months cutting boxes, or holes approximately six to eight inches, to collect resin in barrels placed at the base of trees.  A boxer worked typically from November to March and cut anywhere from 80 to 500 boxes per week.  Overworked slaves in the pine forests were often subjected to cruel punishment and labored in conditions similar to slaves on sugar cane plantations.  Temporary housing was another difficulty.  Unlike plantation slaves, bondsmen in the naval stores industry primarily lived in crude lean-tos, no more than four feet high, and were therefore constantly exposed to the elements.  Many were also poorly clothed and fed, and more than a few suffered illnesses caused by breathing the fumes of the portable copper turpentine stills.

Statistics from the mid-1800s reveals the importance of the industry in Tar Heel history. In 1850, North Carolina listed 444 tar and turpentine makers in the US Census, and 1, 114 distillers were listed in state records.  Wilmington led the state with the largest number of turpentine distillers, and New Bern and Washington closely followed. By 1860, the total value of crude in North Carolina was $5, 311, 420 dollars.

As a result of the Civil War (1861-1865), technological innovation, and exhausted raw materials, the prosperity of the naval stores industry in North Carolina came to a dramatic end.  Once the Confederacy ended trade with the Union, Northern shippers looked elsewhere for naval stores.  Meanwhile, the widespread use of kerosene replaced camphene as a popular illuminant.  Also, the Long Leaf Pines had been over harvested. It now took 3,000 Long Leaf Pines to obtain barely 75 barrels of raw turpentine.  After the Civil War, farmers turned the decimated pine forests into meadows and grew cotton and tobacco.