The Tree Flag (or Appeal to Heaven Flag) was one of the flags used during the American Revolution. The flag, featuring a pine tree with the motto "An Appeal to God" or, more usually, "An Appeal to Heaven", was used originally by a squadron of six cruisers commissioned under George Washington's authority as commander in chief of the Continental Army in October 1775. It was also used by Massachusetts state navy vessels in addition to privateers sailing from Massachusetts.[1]

Pine Tree Flag
Pine Tree Flag
A modern redrawn version of the flag
AdoptedOctober 20, 1775
DesignA pine tree with the words "AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN" written above it, with a white field behind it.
Designed byJoseph Reed


An American school textbook depicting the flag alongside the Gadsden Flag, the Grand Union Flag, a colonial New England flag, the Bunker Hill flag, and the Flag of the United States.
The pine tree flag with the motto "An Appeal to Heaven".
A modern rendition of the original 1901 Maine Flag.

The design of the flag came from General Washington's secretary, Colonel Joseph Reed. In a letter dated October 20, 1775, Colonel Reed suggested a "flag with a white ground and a tree in the middle, the motto AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN" be used for the ships Washington commissioned.[2]

The following summer, on July 26, 1776, the Massachusetts General Court established the flag of the state navy with a resolution that stated in part: "...that the Colours be a white Flag, with a green Pine Tree, and an Inscription, 'Appeal to Heaven'."[2]

Pine tree symbolismEdit

The pine tree had long been a New England symbol being depicted on the Flag of New England flown by colonial merchant ships dating back to 1686. The pine tree appeared even earlier on coinage produced by the Massachusetts Bay colony (the "Pine Tree Shilling") from 1652 to 1682, a period of relative independence for New England during the English Commonwealth.[3] Leading up to the Revolutionary War the pine tree became a symbol of Colonial ire and resistance as well as multi-tribal support of Independence.

The white pine found in New England, specifically the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) with heights exceeding 150 feet, was highly desirable for constructing masts in shipbuilding. Twenty years after arrival in the new world, the Pilgrims harvested and exported these pines as far as Madagascar. Due to lack of supply of suitable lumber on the island, England reserved 24 inch (61 cm) diameter trees under the Mast Preservation Clause in the Massachusetts Charter in 1691. The trees were identified by a Surveyor of the King’s Woods (a position of preferment) who would, in turn, appoint deputies to survey and place the broad arrow symbol on the tree from three hatchet slashings denoting property of the Crown.

The broad arrow statutes were not immediately enforced, due to England having access to other sources of timber in the Baltic. However, when this source diminished, additional broad arrow policies acts were passed and enforcement increased in North America.

The statutes required colonists prior to harvesting trees from their property to have a King's Surveyor mark the larger diameter trees with the broad arrow and then purchase a royal license to harvest the trees not marked with the broad arrow. The colonists resented the strictures on the timber used for their needs and livelihoods. Prohibitions were disregarded and they practiced "Swamp Law", where the pines were harvested according to their needs regardless of statutes.[4]

In New Hampshire enforcement led to the Pine Tree Riot in 1772, where a statute had been in effect since 1722 protecting 12-inch diameter trees. After being fined and refusing to pay for possessing trees marked with the broad arrow, a New Hampshire mill owner leading other mill owners and townsmen assaulted the Sheriff and his Deputy sent to arrest him by giving him one lash with a tree switch for every tree which the mill owners were fined, cutting the ears, manes, and tails off their horses, and forced them out of town through a jeering crowd. This was one of the first acts of forceful protest against British policies. It occurred almost two years prior to the more well-known Boston Tea Party protest and three years before open hostilities began at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.[5]

Months prior to Colonel Reed's suggestion for using the pine, the pine was used on the flag that the Colonists flew at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. The historically accepted flag has a red field with the green pine tree in the upper left corner as depicted in John Trumbull's The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17, 1775 painting. Provided Colonel Reed was aware of the Bunker Hill flag, there was a precedent to incorporate the pine in another Colonial martial flag.

Given the pine tree's significance to the Colonists and since the flag was to fly over Colonial warships, the pine offered an appropriate and ironic symbol due to it flying atop the very structure the British had sought to harvest the white pine for.

Well into the 20th century, the pine tree was a symbol of New England. The state of Maine adopted the 1901 Maine Flag which prominently featured a pine tree alongside a blue star.

"Appeal To Heaven"Edit

The phrase is a particular expression of the right of revolution used by British philosopher John Locke in Second Treatise on Civil Government which was published in 1690 as part of Two Treatises of Government refuting the theory of the divine right of kings.

Locke's works were well-known and frequently quoted by colonial leaders, being the most quoted authority on the government in the 1760-1776 period prior to American independence. Thomas Jefferson was accused of plagiarizing Locke in certain sections of the Declaration of Independence by fellow Virginian delegate Richard Henry Lee.[6]

Prior to Colonel Reed's suggestion and Massachusetts General Court establishing the Pine Tree flag as the standard of the Massachusetts navy, "an appeal to Heaven" or similar expressions had been invoked by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in several resolutions, Patrick Henry in his Liberty or Death speech, and the Second Continental Congress in the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. Subsequently, it was used again by the Second Continental Congress in the Declaration of Independence.

In popular cultureEdit

  • The Pine Tree flag is shown in the opening credits of all seven episodes of the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams and is shown being carried by colonial forces in "Part I: Join or Die".
  • The Pine Tree flag appears with several other Revolutionary War flags on the desk of Ron Swanson, a character on the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Naval History Center FAQ. Retrieved from Archived 2012-10-04 at the Library of Congress Web Archives.
  2. ^ a b Wyatt, Rick (2002). Washington's Cruisers Flag (U.S.). Retrieved from
  3. ^ "Massachusetts Pine Tree Shilling, "1652"". Legendary Coins & Currency. Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Retrieved 28 July 2019.
  4. ^'s%20Mark%20Why%20The%20Name%20King's%20Mark.htm
  5. ^
  6. ^

External linksEdit

  Media related to Flags with pines at Wikimedia Commons