by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 7, 2013.
Lumber was so important to Exeter’s early residents that it was used in place of money. It was common for debts to be paid in barrel staves. So it’s no wonder that people considered trees the most valuable asset in town, considering they grew here for free and were, in the words of one historical society volunteer, “like thousand dollar bills sprouting from the ground.”
To the British government, New England’s towering pine trees were perfect for masts on his majesty’s naval vessels. In 1705, an Act was passed reserving the largest trees for the King’s Navy. A Surveyor General was appointed to locate any trees measuring larger than 24 inches at one foot from the base. These trees were then marked with three strokes of a hatchet that produced a pattern called the broad arrow. Locals were not allowed to cut these huge trees, the work was done by a local contractor who would find a crew to cut the tree, trim it and haul it to the nearest port. The contractor was also in charge of producing or improving long straight roadways to transport the trees. Exeter, like many towns, had a road that was called the “Mast Way” (later called “Lane’s End” and “Katy’s Lane,” today the old Mast Way is Park Street).
New Englanders resented the act and most would at some point just get fed up and cut the tree down. The boards cut from it would be milled down to less than 24” in width; the owner made a small fortune and no one was the wiser. At least, that’s how things went for nearly 40 years. No one asked a lot of questions.
But there’s always that one guy – probably the same one who used to ask the teacher if there was any homework – who couldn’t shake the feeling that someone somewhere was getting away with something. That man, in 1734, was the Lieutenant Governor David Dunbar. Dunbar was also the Surveyor General and he was convinced (probably rightly) that the people of Exeter were cheating on the 24 inch rule. He trudged out to the Copyhold Saw-mill in a part of Exeter that would later become Brentwood. While he was on the road, the local lumbermen caught wind of his plans and greeted him with shouts and gunfire to scare him off. Dunbar made a hasty retreat, fearing for his life.
More convinced than ever, he returned to Portsmouth and hired a motley gang of ten men to sail up the Squamscott to do his dirty work. They arrived on the evening of April 23rd, checked into Simon Gilman’s tavern on Water Street and began drinking the night away. Loosened up with ale, the men bragged about their errand. Gilman then told them that the local men had taken up a collection and hired some Indians to murder Dunbar and two of his associates as soon as they left in the morning for the Black Rocks mill. Gilman was bluffing, but they didn’t know that.
The only one to escape entirely was a man named ‘Negro Peter’ who said he was forewarned and kept out of the way. The Surveyor General’s men never made it to the Copyhold mill or the Black Rocks mill further up the river in what is Fremont today. The accounts of the Mast Tree Riot may be somewhat exaggerated – most likely so – but who could blame the men who wanted to make it abundantly clear that they had reason to avoid setting foot in Exeter ever again. Dunbar must have been furious, but he also was well aware of the neighborliness of annoyed Exeter lumbermen.