Submitted by Perry A. Thompson, Jr.
The “Live Oakers” were skilled master ship carpenters who traveled in groups, bringing their families along and living in selected areas of live oak growth, hewing the live oak to specifications for the ships framing. They lived for a year or so, then moved on to another location, continuing the backbreaking work of harvesting the mighty live oak. The “live oakers” sold their hewed timbers to the European shipbuilders as well as to the West Indies, and to Colonial American shipyards, even before the Revolutionary War. Naval Act of 1794, created the United States Navy. Work began on six original frigates authorized as part of this Act. The six were the USS United States, USS President, USS Constellation, USS Chesapeake, USS Congress and USS Constitution (Old Ironsides launched in 1797). These new ships were built with live oak frames.
The live oak (Quercus virginiana) has a leathery trunk and crooked branches that are dark reddish brown and can grow 40 to 50 feet tall. Often covered with Spanish moss, it is one of the most majestic trees of southern coastal region of the U.S. The trees usually dominate edges of salt marshes and other well drained coastal areas. The heaviest of all oaks, a cubic foot may weigh 75 pounds. Live oak is resistant to disease and decay which made it ideal for shipbuilding.
The practice of using live oak in shipbuilding was well established in America by 1700. Early famous live oak vessels include the Hancock, an American revolutionary privateer, and the USS Constitution, built in Boston in 1797. The USS Constitution was part of the US fleet involved in the War of 1812 where it proved the strength of the live oak hull. On the afternoon of August 19th 1812 and about 750 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, The USS Constitution was in a heated battle with the British frigate Guerriere. Barely fifty yards apart; each ship fired its twenty-two cannons point-blank into its opponent. The barrage from the British frigate seemed to be having little effect, however, as its cannon balls bounced off the Constitution’s rugged oak sides, giving The Constitution’s its famous nickname of “Old Ironsides”.
After Katrina, Pat Keene, of Pascagoula, sent his fallen live oak to the Restoration Project of the “Old Ironsides”, the USS Constitution.
With battle successes at sea and a booming shipbuilding industry, the United States Government was adamant about ensuring a future supply of live oak and reserved thousands of acres of southern woodlands to protect the tree from timber interests. This included President John Quincy Adams authorizing the establishment of the first, and only, federal tree farm in what’s now Gulf Breeze, Florida, beginning operations in 1829. Superintendent Henry Marie Brackenridge, who lived on the tree farm, experimented with cultivating the live oak tree. He was perhaps our country’s first federal forester.
With the development of the ironclad warship during the mid-19th century, the live oak tree lost its importance to shipbuilding and national defense but still had an extremely critical place in history.
Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships, by Virginia Steele Wood, who was the Library of Congress Naval & Maritime History Reference Librarian for 32 years. Her publications include the award-winning, Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships. She has served on the Secretary of the Navy’s Advisory Subcommittee on Naval History, and is a member of the Board of Directors, Naval Historical Foundation.