The Rise and Fall of America’s Forests

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"Colby's maps of the timber lands of Maine. No. 6. (1885)." Courtesy the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

The end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 marked the beginning of a new era. American colonists, having proved their strength against England, were determined to expand and increase their national wealth. As part of their push west, business prospectors and investors began to explore the American continent with an eye towards harnessing its natural treasures. The landscape, virtually overflowing with wild animals, mines and mineral deposits, countless fresh water bodies, vast expanses of forests, and potential farmland, was quickly surveyed and mapped. Investors saw these natural resources as theirs for the taking, ready to be seized, developed, and exploited for profit.

American life was literally built on timber. Its utility—for construction, heating, furniture, tools, and other everyday contrivances—made it particularly attractive to investors as the West opened up in the nineteenth century. Maps of the era reveal this fixation on identifying timber-rich lands that could be logged to fill the ever-growing need for wood by the rapidly multiplying American states.

The acquisition of land that would become the United States (including the Louisiana Purchase), along with the settler population’s increasing comfort with the continent’s geography and native populations, opened up vast tracts of land previously unimaginable to lumber companies and their employees. From the lakes region in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, to the frontier in the Mountain West, lumber appeared limitless. Settlers saw large forests as even larger dollar signs, and, like other natural resources, maps were created to show investors where their money was going and from whence their profits came.

The presence of lumberyards in major towns throughout the country indicated the widespread domestic need for wood. Local use was not the end of the story however. By the early-twentieth century, the U.S. lumber exports were supplying large markets throughout the western world, in large part due to careful mapping, burgeoning financial investment, and the growth of national infrastructure.