Live Oak — The Foundation of Shipbuilding in America

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.