The Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) received its somewhat erroneous nomenclature from William Strachey, a member of the Third Supply mission to Jamestown. Before encountering this piece of local flora however, the mission’s ship, Sea Venture, wrecked on the coast of Bermuda in 1609 and Strachey’s chronicle of the event is widely believed to have inspired Shakespeare’s the Tempest. In addition to writing during his yearlong marooning, he helped the remaining crew and passengers to build two boats that eventually enabled them to complete their journey to Virginia.
It was here that Strachey first came across Robinia pseudoacacia and its oddly shaped pea pods that coil not dissimilarly to the dried exoskeletons shed by locusts, thus his description in The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania (1610): “a kind of low tree which beares [sic] a cod like to the peas, but nothing so big: we take yt [sic] to be locust.”
The tree, as it turns out, is quite similar to Ceratonia siliqua, or carob tree, also known as St. John’s bread from Arabic خَرُّوبٌ kharrūb and Hebrew חרוב, which is native to the Mediterranean region. It was the pods of this tree – similarly shaped to those of its American cousin – that are theorized to have sustained John the Baptist in the wilderness rather than the insect.
At any rate, it wasn’t spirituality that the Black Locust of America most readily nurtured, but rather war. Though of course that is hardly the tree’s fault.
The Indigenous Peoples Strachey encountered had long been using Black Locust as materials for their bows. As it turns out, the tree is incredibly strong and flexible, ideal for whittling implements that rely precisely upon these two attributes. So valuable was it that it’s likely the Algonquin peoples took the tree from its native mountainous habitat and planted it in the coastal plains for easier access.
Wasting no time whatsoever in their (our) bellicose endeavors, European settlers soon found another use of the wood of Black Locust: treenails. Ugh, what a let down you may be thinking. Who cares about treenails?! Boat builders, that’s who.
You see, a treenail is the thing that fastens each piece of wood together in a ship. They are the sinews of a ship, so to speak. Given its strength, flexibility, and resistance to rot, Black Locust is the ideal tree for the job.
During the War of 1812, aka the Second War of Independence, Black Locust became a particularly important tree in America’s arsenal. For years, the British had America on the ropes, blockading the Eastern Seaboard and choking off trade. In 1814, British forces nearly burned Washington DC to the ground. However, the British sought not only to control the coast, but also the center of the country and moved the theater of war to the Great Lakes. Herein was their undoing.
In Vergennes, Vermont, an industrial town 7 miles upstream from Lake Champlain, Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough was busy doing the impossible: building an American Navy from scratch. Between December 21, 1813 and May 14, 1814 Macdonough oversaw the creation of an armada. The Saratoga, a 26 gun ship was built in an astonishing 40 days.
His secret weapon? Black Locust treenails.
After the British tried to destroy the fleet at the mouth of the river, Macdonough and his men sailed out to the lake to patrol for the summer. Then, on September 11, 1814 the two forces met once more in what was to be the decisive battle in the war. For two hours and twenty minutes cannons roared across the waters. But more often than not, the British fodder bounced right off the sides of the American ships, owing in large part to the strength and flexibility of their Black Locust treenails.
When all was said and done and the British had to return home once more in disgrace, they blamed their loss on the use of Black Locust in the American ships, some even calling it the “locust fleet.”
These days you can find Black Locusts drinking with the Lower East Side’s last gutter punks and sprouting up in the parking lots of Maspeth, Queens.