Of these many uses of wood, fuel was by far the most important. Fully half, and probably much more, of all the wood ever actually used—as opposed to simply wasted: destroyed as a side-effect of forest clearing for other purposes—was burned as fuel, either directly for heating and cooking, or indirectly as charcoal to provide the high temperatures required for metal working and for brick, pottery, tile, and glass making. There was no economical alternative: wood was abundant and readily available while coal, though a superior fuel, was available only in the very limited amounts provided by surface outcroppings, and for all practical purposes oil and gas were to be a 19th century discovery. Like air and water, food and clothing, wood was the very stuff of life.
Wood is, as we have learned to say now that we are becoming aware of the larger ecological value of the world’s forests, dead trees. Its source is live trees, and these, in great dense stands, constitute the forests that once covered the greater part of the habitable earth. They were cut or otherwise cleared—usually by burning—not only for their many uses as wood but also because the forest is antithetical to the intense cultivation of domesticated grains, which requires open skies. The bucolic vista of sunlight dappled fields is a human creation, produced at the expense of forest cover. If much of Manhattan above the northern limit of the town in the 18th and 19th centuries was rural in character, it was because this great transformation, from forest to fields, had already been accomplished, mostly by the first few generations of European settlers. The supply of wood and wood products from the island north of the town was as much a by-product of this need for clearing as it was an effort to meet the town’s demands.
It is safe to say that nearly 100% of the energy requirements—heating, cooking, and basic manufactures—of 17th and early 18th century Nieuw Amsterdam and New York were met by fuelwood, the exceptions being a few wind, horse, and water mills, one of them a saw-mill up near today’s East 75th Street. Houses —- even the chimneys -— were built mostly of wood, as were ships and fences. Demand for wood and wood products was so great that within just a few years of its founding, Nieuw Amsterdam was importing wood from elsewhere in the region, and traffic in wood was becoming an industry and a branch of commerce in its own right.
The Council’s regulatory interventions should not be taken to mean that the supply of wood from the island north of town was exhausted, only that its supply was no longer simply a private affair or a purely local concern. Lumber is said to have been rafted to the town from very early on in the Dutch adventure here. A cord of wood weighs as much two tons or more, and rafting wood in from New Jersey and Long Island would have been cheaper than carting it any distance on the island, with the result that the rate of clearing would get slower the further north it got. (The occasional evidence of 18th century drawings suggests that this was indeed the case, e.g., a view of Harlaem in 1765 shows a thoroughly wooded background to the village, though one must also make allowance for artistic license.) But this tells us little if anything about how long the process of deforestation went on before it was effectively complete, i.e., when there was nothing more to be gained from going any further with it.
Aggregate demand for fuelwood for domestic use is in the first place a function of population, for which we have data for the years 1624, 1627, 1643, 1664, 1698, 1703, 1712, 1723, 1731, 1737, 1746, 1749, 1756, and 1771. I interpolate linearly to get the missing years; cumulative lived years is their running total. Williams cites per capita consumption figures ranging from a low of 0.8 cords per person per year to a high of 4.5. I use the mean of these figures: 3.7 cords per person per year. Annual aggregate demand is then just the population estimate for each year multiplied by the per capita mean. Williams’ figures for forest yield are equally wide-ranging; I follow his suggestion of 20 cords per acre as a “medium” yield. Sanderson estimates 10,331 acres of forest on the island of Manhattan around 1600; somewhat arbitrarily, I use 80% of that figure to define “effectively complete” deforestation, the remaining 20% being more than enough to leave the island north of today’s 155th Street largely untouched.
• halving the assumption for per capita per year consumption of fuelwood for domestic use from 3.7 to 1.85 cords postpones the 80% deforestation year by about a dozen years, to 1685–1686;
• doubling the forest yield from 20 to 40 cords of wood per acre produces the same result; and, more importantly,
• taking both together postpones the 80% deforestation year by another two decades, to around 1706–1707.
Demand factors other than fuelwood for domestic use would tend to speed up deforestation of the island, even as the economics of transportation would tend to slow it down. Williams estimates that a furnace producing 1,000 tons of pig iron annually could consume over 300 acres of forest. The temperatures required for brick and tile kilns and for glass-making are broadly comparable and at these rates even a few such enterprises would be significant for local deforestation, whether on Manhattan itself or elsewhere in the immediate area. Ten such enterprises would go through over 30,000 acres of forest in a decade: three times the extent of the original Manhattan forest.
Relative to the demand for fuelwood, demand for wood for buildings, ships, and fences was minor enough to safely ignore, at least for these early years. As late as 1744 there were only 1,141 buildings in the city. Braudel’s figure of five big trees to construct an in-town house in Europe suggests that no more than about 6,000 big trees were used for this purpose by 1744. On the plausible assumption of 100 such trees per acre of forest, this equates to no more than about 60 acres. Even doubling Braudel’s figure from five trees to ten would raise the total to only 120 acres of forest, a little more than 1% of the forest acreage at the start of settlement. The number of ships built in Nieuw Amsterdam / New York in these years was still too small to affect the deforestation rate appreciably, and much the same can surely be said about fencing.
There remains the question of labor productivity and the feasibility of accomplishing the deforestation of most of the island within the span of 50–80 years suggested by our calculations. Williams cites figures that range from an acre a month to an —- in his view unlikely -— high of an acre a day, but supports the view that “a healthy man with an ax” could clear an acre of forest in a month. The arithmetic alone implies 8,000 ax-man months or 667 ax-man years to clear 80% of 10,000 acres of forest, i.e., about 13 ax-man years per year to get the job done in 50 years or eight ax-man years per year to get it done in 80. These are modest numbers indeed and would be even if they proved to be too low by as much as a factor of four. So labor would not have been a gating factor, and in any event it seems likely that much of the actual work of clearing was done by slaves, first “imported” to Nieuw Amsterdam in 1626.
Deforestation was only the first of a number of major transformations, both physical and abstract, that have been wrought upon Manhattan in the course of New York’s 400-year history: others include the conveyance of the island into the conceptual space of European property law, the expansion of its dry land area by shoreline landfills and swamp drainings, the levelling—albeit often over-estimated—of its naturally hilly terrain, the subordination of two-thirds of the island to the speculative real estate logic of the grid plan of 1811, the replacement of its originally pervious surface—its soil—with an impervious surface of brick and stone, concrete and asphalt, and the physical connection of Manhattan to other islands of the New York archipelago and to the North American mainland via bridges and tunnels.
These transformations overlapped one another substantially in time and are causally related to one another in seemingly infinitely—and often frustratingly—complex ways. Nevertheless, the primary physical transformation—primary both as the first and as the foundation for all the rest—was deforestation: the clearing of Manhattan’s forest. It was on this basis, largely achieved in the first century of the fledgling city’s existence, that subsequent generations of New Yorkers accomplished the most profound of transformation of all: the creation of the greatest—the richest, the most powerful, the most civilized—city on earth.
Richard Howe is a frequent contributor to the Blotter, and is writing a history of New York as a built environment. He runs the photographic study New York in Plain Sight: The Manhattan Street Corners.
The late Michael Williams’ great Deforestation of the Earth: from Prehistory to Global Crisis (2002) and his equally great Americans and their Forests: A Historical Geography (1989) are an introduction to the subject that is in equal measure encyclopaedic and entertaining.
Eric Sanderson’s Mannahatta is an endlessly fascinating reconstruction of the ecology of the island as well as a rich source of data on all its aspects prior to the European settlement.
Ira Rosenwaike’s Population History of New York City (1972) collects and analyzes a remarkable range of statistics from the city’s earliest years on through to 1970.
The Union History Company’s long out of print History of Architecture and the Building Trades of Greater New York (1899) remains an astonishing source of data on just about every aspect of its subject, including the uses of wood and the commerce in it in New York, as well as statistics on the numbers of buildings for various years, starting in the 17th century.
Max Page’s chapter on the “Uses of the Ax” in The Creative Destruction of Manhattan 1900–1940 (1999) takes the story of Manhattan’s deforestation well into the 20th century.
Amy Johnson’s fascinating essay on “The Saw Kill and the Making of Dutch-Colonial Manhattan” can be found on the Gotham History Blotter at http://gothamcenter.org/blotter/?p=280.
I. N. Phelps Stokes’ Iconography of Manhattan Island (1915–1928) remains, as usual, indispensable for just about everything.