Tuesday, July 11, 2023

White Pines: Colossal in Many Ways

white pine

The eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) isn’t really a crop-bearing tree, but it has borne priceless “fruit” for American democracy. Physically as well as culturally massive, there are many accounts from the early 1800s of white pines over 200 feet tall being harvested. One credible report pegs a white pine at 247 feet, and unverified accounts have claimed that 300-foot-tall leviathans were cut back then. It’s a long-lived species, with 400 years considered a rough maximum. Working for a tree service in the Adirondacks in the early ‘90s, I once tallied 450 rings on a storm-thrown specimen.

The white pine is the official tree of Maine and Michigan, with the current U.S. champion standing at 180 feet, 10 inches in Cook Forest State Park in Pennsylvania. Sadly, one of New York State’s tallest white pines, which I visited several times, toppled in 2021. At 160 feet, 10 inches, it was in a stand of old-growth habitat near Paul Smith’s College. In today’s second- and third-growth forests, the average mature white pine is often between 100 and 130 feet tall, with diameters of 25-35 inches.

In terms of identification, it’s the only native pine out East that bears needles in bundles, or fascicles, of five: one for each letter in W-H-I-T-E. (Just to be clear, the letters are not actually written on the needles.) White pine branches tend to swoop gracefully upwards toward their ends, and the tree produces attractive, 8- to 16-inch-long cones with resin-tipped scales. White pine is renowned for its wide and clear (knot-free), straw-colored lumber used for flooring, paneling, and sheathing, as well as for structural members. Much of New England was built on white pine, and in some old homes, original pine floorboards 20+ inches wide can still be found.

As impressive as its lumber is, white pine’s most precious gifts are intangible. In his book Forgotten Founders, Bruce E. Johansen documents the link between the modern Western understanding of democracy, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, whose symbol is the white pine.

According to Haudenosaunee oral history, more than 1000 years ago in what’s now upper NY State, as well as parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Ontario, five nation-states were convinced by a prophet known as the Peacemaker (Dekanawidah) that they’d all benefit by joining in a federation. (Some non-Native historians have placed this event as late as 1660, despite the fact that’s nearly 50 years after a seminal Haudenosaunee treaty with the Dutch government.) The Peacemaker held that the white pine, with its five needles joined at the base, would be an apt symbol for the unique democratic federal structure he proposed. At the time, it comprised five nations: the Seneca (Onödowa’ga:’), Oneida (Onyota’a:ka), Onondaga (Onöñda’gega’), Cayuga (Gayogohó:no), and Mohawk (Kanienke’haka).

Each member nation manages its own internal affairs through elected officials, but matters involving one or more nations are resolved at the federal level. The Haudenosaunee federal government is composed of fifty elected chiefs who sit in two legislative houses; the Elder Brothers and Younger Brothers. There is a single elected Executor or Grand Chief (Adodarhoh), who among other things acts as a tie-breaker in the event the legislative bodies disagree after deliberating an issue.

These and other tenets of Haudenosaunee governance are codified in The Great Law of Peace, or Kaianere’kó:wa. It is an oral constitution, and traditional chiefs are expected to know it by heart. I had the good fortune to have attended the first recitation of The Great Law ever done in the English language. It was in 1992 on Six Nations of the Grand River Territory near Brantford, Ontario, and took nine days for Oneida Snipe Clan chief Jake Thomas to recite it.

Though ravaged by colonization, The Great Law is fiercely embraced by a segment of the population today. Only women can vote under this structure, a fact which confounded European men, and was one reason that colonizers worked hard to subvert it and install more pliable, male-only councils. Haudenosaunee women, primarily the elders or clan mothers, still have the sole power to depose a chief who is not acting in the public’s best interest. The clan mothers also can veto any law they deem short-sighted, in this sense collectively acting as a further check against abuse of power.

The white pine is often called “the tree of peace” by the Haudenosaunee. The Peacemaker told the people to bury their weapons of war forever beneath its roots, and oral history notes that after the formation of the Confederacy, generations passed without war. The Great Law allows other nations to apply for membership by tracing the white roots of peace, as they are termed, back to their source.

In 1722, a sixth nation, the Tuscarora (Skarù:ręˀ), did just that when they were admitted to the Confederacy after being driven from their homeland in present-day North Carolina. The structure of The Great Law was not altered, however, and Tuscarora leaders vote by proxy through the Oneida.

For the Haudenosaunee, the white pine remains an enduring representation of their culture. As described in The Great Law, a bald eagle sits at its top, a bundle of five arrows in its talons denoting strength in unity. The purpose of the sharp-sighted bird atop the pine is to watch for perils that could destabilize the government – namely greed and selfishness, as Chief Thomas explained in 1992.

As Donald A. Grinde lays out in his book Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy, key Colonial figures such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and especially Benjamin Franklin, deeply admired The Great Law. As a result, Haudenosaunee chiefs were invited to address the Continental Congress and act as advisers as America’s Founding Fathers were drafting the Constitution. In other words, the US Constitution is directly and deliberately based on The Great Law, the symbol of which is the white pine.

Among the early US flags were a series of Pine Tree flags. And the white pine depicted on the state seal of Vermont has 13 branches, a nod to the importance of The Great Law in the formation of the USA. We took the bald eagle from its perch at the white pine’s summit, and adopted it as America’s official bird – the eagle appears on most currency, in its talons a bundle of 13 arrows symbolizing strength in unity, or E Pluribus Unum.

North American women’s-rights pioneers of the late 1800s, especially Matilda Jocelyn Gage, credit Haudenosaunee women as the inspiration for demanding equal treatment. In her book Women, Church and State, Gage makes this connection explicitly. She writes of being astonished that she could walk alone at night in Seneca villages without fear of sexual assault, a sad reflection on the plight of women in America back then. It is no accident that the Women & Rights National Historical Park is located in Seneca Falls, NY – virtually in the center of Haudenosaunee territory.

Thus, the white pine is fundamentally linked to contemporary women’s rights, as well as to modern democracy. Some pretty amazing “crops” from this conifer, I’d say.

At top: Erik Danielson says he found what is likely the tallest tree in New York, a 172-foot eastern white pine in Bolton. Photo by Jim Odato

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World


14 Responses

  1. Scott Ireland says:

    Excellent article Paul…I wish more people understood the role the Haudenosaunee played in the early days of the US. Their influence is clearly apparent for anyone who looks into it, but this isn’t taught in any schools (that I am aware of) so most Americans don’t want to accept it.

  2. Boreas says:

    If there is indeed an elder statesman for our forest, the white pine would be it. My mind boggles at the thought of the majesty of the pre-Columbian old-growth forest.

  3. Roger Kessel says:

    This article deserves to be extensively shared—very well written and substantively important.

  4. Vanessa B says:

    I live eastern white pines. They and the book Barkskins inspired me to get into tree identification. Thank you for the great article 🙂

    • Scott Ireland says:

      I loved that book, but it was sooo long. But I learned a lot from it, and she is an excellent writer.

  5. David Bradman says:

    Great and important history of our land and gifts of its original people

  6. Rob Bick says:

    Wonderful article. I appreciate the insight and information and love those white pines.

  7. Ruth Gais says:

    Thank you for your love song to the white pine, a love shared by many.

  8. Randy Fredlund says:

    Great article. Could you list your sources regarding the Haudenosaunee Great Law?

  9. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “One credible report pegs a white pine at 247 feet, and unverified accounts have claimed that 300-foot-tall leviathans were cut back then.”

    That 247-footer came from an account In William Fox’s, ‘History of The Lumber Industry in the State of New York,’ an excellent book. He wrote:

    “New York was not only a forest State, but essentially a white-pine State. This valuable species was plentiful throughout the territory. It was conspicuous everywhere by its towering size, although not as abundant as some of the inferior and smaller associated species. In height, diameter, and quality of timber the pines of New York compared favorably with those of any other region on the continent. The height ranged from 130 to 160 feet, with a diameter, breast-high, between 2 and 4 feet. In some localities there were individuals of still greater size. Occasional trees are said to have been 255 feet high and about 80 inches in diameter. There is record of a White Pine cut in the town of Meredith, Delaware County, that measured 247 feet in length as it lay on the ground. Many New York lumbermen still living- recall giant White Pines that measured 7 feet or more across the stumps and over 220 feet in height.”

    I do not intend to bore by so much word for word, but the history is so very interesting to me so there is just a mere parcel of it. Thank you Paul for this story as the white pine is the one tree that stands out more than any other to me. Some of the biggest white pines I have seen are way back in the Moose River Recreation Area. I think of those pines now and again which induces in me a hankering to go back there just be near one. I know an old-timer who has been up on the trail-less Blue Ridge outside of Blue Mountain Lake, who says there are some huge white pines up in those woods.

    To think of all that once was! It’s a shame all of the irreparable damage done since the white man first took this wilderness of a country away from the red man, which continues to this day unabated….. the damage!

    • Boreas says:


      I used to do some Atlas birding in those old-growth areas of MRP. It was wonderful being immersed in those sentinels and imagining what it was like when much of the NE was populated with those mature trees. Hopefully in a thousand years or so, much of that grandeur will return in the Adirondack Park if we can control ourselves. I don’t feel it is likely, as it is going to take more than hope.

  10. Charlie Stehlin says:

    > Imagination is good Boreas. There might come a time when that’s all that’s left for us Americans, such as is currently the case for Afghani women, or Texas LGBTQ’s.

    ” Hopefully in a thousand years or so, much of that grandeur will return in the Adirondack Park if we can control ourselves.”

    > The world is itching to up their nukes Boreas which, sadly, can mean only one thing. “The moments” are increasingly becoming something that are truly valuable or of significant worth!

  11. Erik Danielson says:

    Great review of the cultural significance of white pine. I’ve traveled more often to the adirondacks specifically for its exemplary remaining stands of white pine than for any other reason.

    I have a sad correction: The Longfellow Pine, the 180-foot tall tree mentioned in Pennsylvania, was toppled in a windstorm in 2017. Even at the time, it was not the tallest in the US- the Boogerman Pine in the Great Smoky Mountains (which stood 207 feet tall before its top blew off in the 90s) was, as it still stood over 188 feet tall. As of 2021, a 194-foot tall tree hidden in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge has taken the record.

  12. Wonderful information and history – Thanks for sharing! I am saddened that so few of the majestic old growth giants survive. It is exciting about the new 172 ft discovery by Erik Danielsen at Bolton, NY! – and perhaps in future generations 200 ft groves will again exist if protected. A few years ago, I began looking into digital archives and collecting accounts of the historic tall White Pines, similar to a project I had done on Douglas fir some year prior. Indeed, there are quite a number of reports in county histories, Govt surveys, forestry books, and lumber reports in news papers regarding fallen 200 feet and greater White Pines. The 247 ft fallen tree I believe was measured by Mr Samuel Law, who founded the town of Meredith, according to Dr Timothy Dwight who visited him in 1804. Indeed, I too found that some stories do go as high as an astounding 300 feet! In the 1876 Centennial Exhibition at Philidelphia there was a section of a White Pine cut near Ottawa, the butt diameter cookie 8 feet 5 inches diameter had an inscription which read that the tree was 303 ft. high and 664 rings old. This would make it the tallest and oldest White Pine if those details are even approximately true! At Rutland, New York, in the shelter of the hills south of the Pine Plains at the Black river, Dr. Franklin Benjamin Hough who was first chief of the US forestry Division, wrote in 1878 that a White Pine once grew that had attained the height of 288-3/4 feet! The exactness of this figure suggests Dr Hough had recorded a measurement of length – and not simply a crude estimation of standing height by triangulation. Whatever the case, other numerous fallen tree lengths in the 200-250 feet range exist, especially concentrated in Western New York, places like Chautauqua and Conewango valley.

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