The Live Oak Tree: A Naval Icon

Spanish moss hangs from a stand of Live Oak Trees
A stand of live oaks.

The live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) is symbol of beauty and endurance along the northern Gulf of Mexico’s coast. The wood of the live oak trees is very dense, strong, and among the heaviest of American woods. Live oak lumber has a particular grain (texture) which creates enormous strength for supporting weight and pressure. This strength made the wood ideal for the interior hulls of ships, especially warships. Live oak lumber was used to form the main curved structural supports of ship hulls and decking such as “L” shaped “knee braces.” These knee braces were also used to support the decks in many tall wooden ships.

The U.S.S. Constitution’s inner hull (1795) was built from live oak lumber. The strength of the Constitution’s live oak structural components was put to the test in battle against the H.M.S. Guerriere during the War of 1812. A U.S. victory in this duel led to the vessel’s nickname “Old Ironsides”. Naval use of live oak trees in the building of warships had proven itself in combat. The naval Live Oak Tree Reservation Program started under President John Quincy Adams and his Secretary of the Navy Samuel S. Southland. In 1828, the first national tree farm, called Naval Live Oak Reservation, was established on a peninsula between Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound. By 1831, the United States had a virtual monopoly on the supply of live oak trees. Most large groves were controlled by the federal government for the building and maintaining of navy warships. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of the Navy informed the United States House of Representatives:

“The live oak is a supply “of the best quality,” because it is superior in strength, resistance, and hardness, to the celebrated British oak which forms “the wooden walls” (Royal Navy) of England.”

The American Civil War marked the fast approaching end of U.S. wooden warships. Steam was replacing sails, and metal replacing wood. This precipitated the end of many federal Live Oak Reservations. These reservations were often returned to the public for parks or opened for agriculture and settlement. In 1906, the Biloxi Naval Live Oak Reservation in Mississippi was given to the City of Biloxi as a recreational park. The land today makes up part of Keesler Air Force Base, the Biloxi National Cemetery and Veteran’s Administration Hospital Complex. Naval Live Oaks in Gulf Breeze, Florida serves as an icon of the United States’ historic naval shipbuilding tradition.



Snell, C. W. (1983). Special History Study, A History of the Naval Live Oaks Reservation Program, 1794-1880: A Forgotten Chapter in the History of American Conservation. Denver: Gulf Islands National Seashore, National Park Service.

USS Constitution. (2017, February 03). Retrieved from Boston National Historical Park:


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Last updated: April 13, 2018

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