MOHAWK - Discovering the Valley of the Crystals Copyright 2002
Chapter 9 - The Yankee Invasion
They Burned The Woods and Sold the Ashes
A remarkable land-use industry developed in upstate New York in the late 1700s and continued well into the 1800s. The raw materials for this industry were trees, millions and millions of trees. The product was potash, millions of tons of potash. The impact this industry had on the forests and the finances of early settlers was so enormous, it seems impossible it was all but lost to history.
Following the Revolutionary War, thousands of Yankees migrated to the upper Mohawk Valley. They found a nearly trackless wilderness. To them the endless forest was the "enemy." They were wheat and rye farmers, and except for home and hearth, had little use for the trees that covered their land. Each tree had to be cut with an axe. Forest giants were felled and rolled so they lay one atop the other; tops and branches were cut and piled around the logs, and after a period of drying, burned until just stumps and ashes remained.
Today large elm trees are scarce, but 200 years ago they were plentiful and profitable. They produced the best ash, yielding as much as 200 pounds of black salts from a single tree, providing enough money to pay for two acres of land.
In the beginning most of the ashes were discarded or mixed with the soil; a little was mixed with animal fat and water to make soap. The potash industry changed all that and became one of the most devastating, win-win situations in history. Devastating because it destroyed millions of acres of forest in less than 25 years. Win-win because the previously discarded forest-ashes became the first cash crop and paid for many of the early farms in upstate New York.
"... a man who is careful with his ashes, and profits by the advantage which new cleared lands afford, that of raising his first crop without the expence of either plowing or weeding, is rather a gainer by the wood which he has cut down."
"... it is a general observation that a man's profit are never greater than at the time of clearing his lands."Judge William Cooper
A Guide in The Wilderness - 1810
How'd They Do That?
The process of creating potash from forest-ash was quite simple. Dry ashes (a rain-shower could ruin everything) were gathered from fresh burnings, put in a wooden vat, water was poured into the top of the vat, and liquid ashes drained off the bottom. This gray-black liquid was boiled in a huge iron kettle, or pot, over an open fire until all the moisture was gone. The resulting block of cooked "pot-ash" which contained particles of carbon was called "black salts".
Black salts were hauled to an ashery for further processing in large ovens or kilns where high temperatures burned off the carbon and created "pearl ash". Pearl ash was also produced by maintaining a hardwood fire under a potash kettle until the black salts liquefied. This refined potash was sold to England in great quantities.
".... potash was eagerly sought after and held a large place in world commerce. It was used in glass and soap making and in dyeing, but most of all in the scouring of wool, meaning thereby, cleansing the wool of the yolk, the natural gummy secretions which ordinarily account for more than half the weight of the fleece as shorn. England had long been the capital of the textile trade and the preparation of wool called for large amounts of potash. Before the potash mines of Germany opened in the 1850's, the commercial supply of this indispensable commodity was derived from leaching wooded ashes, mainly in the United States, Canada and Russia."The Golden Age of Homespun
Potash was a major crop in the Mohawk Valley. One of the first asheries in the newly settled lands was at Fortunes Mills (Old City) in West Canada Valley, but by 1800 there were asheries in almost every village in the upper valley. Boats on the Mohawk River and later the Erie Canal carried potash to ports in New York and Montreal for shipment to England.
A bushel of dry ashes could bring as much as 80 cents; a hundred pounds of black salts $3.00. Considering $3.00 could buy an acre of land at that time, it was a significant amount.
"The first sale from his (Thomas Manley) land was a jag (small wagon load) of ashes which he drew with his oxen and sled to the "Old City" clothing mill in Fairfield, and exchanged for flannel to make his wife a cloak."Norway Tidings March 1887
"Potash products found a ready cash sale. The cremation of the forest into ashes not only kept the wolf from the door of the pioneer cabin, but enabled many to pay the purchase price of lands."
"By night the fires, and by day the smoke could be seen from a hundred choppings."Norway Tidings April 1887
Hardwood trees were felled and rolled so they lay one atop the other; tops and branches were cut and piled around the logs, and after a period of drying, burned
until just stumps and ashes remained.
Water-elm produced the best ash, yielding as much as 200 pounds of black salts from a single tree. Black ash, maple, basswood, hickory and beech also yielded good amounts and quality of ash, but "... evergreens were so poor in potash that they were not deemed worth cutting and burning." ---- thus saving millions of acres of evergreen forests to be harvested years later.
Except for a temporary halt during the War of 1812, the making of potash was a major industry in New York for more than 50 years. The first state census lists 738 asheries, processing over a million dollars of potash in 1845. While the number of asheries and the vast amount of money at that time is impressive, it does not represent the full extent of the potash industry that started in the 1780s when New England settlers first came to New York State. By the time of that first census, the hardwood forests in central New York were cleared and the making of potash almost non-existent.
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