The U.S. Forest Service partners of the Chesapeake Bay Program organized an excellent conference last November on the fragmentation of the basin’s woodlands. The severing of our forests into ever smaller, often disconnected, parcels is a serious concern as it puts people in conflict with forests and jeopardizes the habitat for scores of woodland species that need the isolation of sizeable woodland tracts. Fragmentation also divides woodland ownership into small units that make it uneconomical to harvest for timber.

There are other risks as well. One of the planned speakers for the conference was Jim Garner, head of Virginia’s Department of Forestry. Deputy State Forester Bettina Ring apologized for his absence, stating that he was “back home fighting fires”— literally. The news that evening showed thousands of acres of the commonwealth’s woodland in flames: swaths of fire running up forested slopes, the result of two years of drought and a carpet of tinder-dry leaves just then falling from the canopy.

Many of the fires, commentators said, were deliberately set by vandals. Humans and fire rarely form a successful mix in woodlands close to people and property.

Fire has played a role in the Chesapeake ecosystem for thousands of years. Paleo-ecologist Grace Brush has examined sediment cores from the floor of the Bay and estimated that material percolating out of the basin’s largely intact forests added only 0.05 to 0.10 mm of new sediment a year.

However, in a region of her cores dating A.D. 1130–1280, sedimentation rates dramatically increase. The cores also contain unusual amounts of charcoal, which can be accurately dated and is evidence of a spate of forest fires during a period when the climate was warm and dry. These fires stripped vegetation from large areas of the Eastern Shore, resulting in erosion and sedimentation. They also produced fluxes of natural soil metals from the land that would not be equaled until modern times, as urbanization and agriculture deeply disrupt the earth.

Native Americans, from their earliest days as hunter-gatherers, set fires to drive game into situations where they could be killed in large numbers. Repeated fires opened the landscape and, consciously or otherwise,  managed” and shaped the ecosystem over thousands of years.

Fire was a daily necessity for the late woodland period Indians, who used it to smoke and dry fish and meats for preservation or to boil or tenderize long-desiccated foods. It was also used for the relatively low temperature or “bisque” firing of their cookware, and to straighten arrow shafts so they would fly true. A fire provided constant heat inside lodges during raw Chesapeake winters and the smoke discouraged rodents from pilfering supplies and baskets of corn hung from the bowed sapling rafters. Fire enabled these women and men to survive and carry on a largely sustainable lifestyle prior to European intervention.

Native Americans had no matches; their source of ignition was a fire “drill.” This tool was a blunt or rounded stick around which was wound a single turn of sinew or rawhide cord, itself strung loosely on a “bow,” which was drawn to and fro using the right hand, like a drive belt capable of rapidly spinning the stick. The tip of the stick was placed in a depression on a split piece of relatively soft wood — like pine — and the top end cradled by a similar depression in a chunk of resilient wood which, held in the left hand, is used to firmly press down on the stick to increase its friction as it is rapidly spun.

Carried on with maximum energy for three to seven minutes, this generated enough heat to char the wood and eventually shed small glowing embers into adjacent tinder, likely a ball of fibers shredded from the bark of the field cedar (Juniperus virginiana). It was then blown upon until it produced a flame. This was hard work and Native Americans restarted fires as infrequently as possible, and would sometimes transport it from place to place as a smoldering spark creeping its way through fibers in a wound ball of tinder that was carried in a deer-hide pouch.

Think of what a miracle it must have seemed when European colonists arrived and made fire in what seemed like a few moments with steel and flint. (Although flint and allied minerals were well-known to Native Americans, without steel, they could not use it to make fire.)

Flint is a generic term for a very hard — almost glassy – rock, rich in silica. It is so hard that when steel in its simplest alloy — a blend of iron and a small amount of carbon — is struck against it, small bits of the metal are torn away, and like sparks from a grindstone, the metal is for an instant airborne and burning.

The trick is to capture and nurture this spark. Seventeenth century colonists accomplished this using little patches of carbonized fabric.

These were made by placing scraps of cloth in a small metal container, literally roasting it in a hot fire and allowing it to cool while closed. The container must be almost airtight, but with just enough leakage to allow combustible gases to be driven off. No oxygen can enter or it will consume the carbon fibers of the fabric, leaving only ash. If the carbonization is successful, the result will be small, woven patches of intact, frail, moderately flexible carbon.

Hot sparks landing on this surface can ignite it with the help of light blowing. Placed on leaves, tinder or paper, it is easily encouraged into flames.

Unless there was a hearth or embers nearby, this process was followed every time a colonist wanted to kindle a new fire … even just to light a tobacco pipe. Once this is part of one’s lifestyle, an expert can perform this ritual in little more time than a fumbling modern person takes to extract, hold, strike and apply a conventional match.

How lightly I say “conventional match.” Significantly into the 19th century, making fire still required that flint, steel, carbonized fabric and some tinder all be dry and at hand. “Tinder dry” was a meaningful term to both native and colonist Americans. Matches, as we know them, did not exist at that time, when a “match” was a slowly smoldering fuse with which a source of ignition could be carried.

Glowing match, in fact, fired the early Chesapeake colonist’s “matchlock” firearms, when pulling a trigger tipped it into waiting gunpowder. Matchlocks were the most common firearm in the early years of settlement. There were also a few “snaphaunces,” later called “flintlocks,” which also produced a good, hot spark. One could use one’s firearm and a bit of powder to start a fire, and it

wasn’t long before someone came up with a little flintlock device, flashpan and tinder that was used solely to light a fire. They were a specialty item and, near as I can determine, were never widely used.

Today’s modern matches have their roots in the discovery of phosphorus. (We tend to think of phosphorus as one of the two nutrients contaminating the Bay, but that’s in its phosphate fertilizer form, P2O5.) Phosphorus, one of the basic elements, is a white, waxy solid that’s so unstable it will spontaneously burst into flames when exposed to oxygen in air. Because of this, chemists didn’t even discover elemental phosphorus until 1669.

In 1680, English physicist Robert Boyle, in an experiment, coated some paper with phosphorus and an accompanying sliver of wood with sulfur. Rubbing them together produced a flame, but with phosphorus so unstable, this source of ignition was no more than a curiosity.

Long after Boyle, during the Napoleonic Wars, England tried out a new incendiary weapon the “Congreve Rocket,” named for its inventer, Sir William Congreve. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington said of these that he was afraid they would burn innocent villages and he could think of no other use for them. A bunch of them, notwithstanding, were sent to the Chesapeake during the War of 1812 and employed here in three naval engagements against U.S. sailors. Though wildly inaccurate, Congreve rockets could fly 3,000 yards, outranging naval guns of the time. An occasional hit — like a Congreve going right through one poor sailor at the battle of St. Leonard Creek — created a legend sufficient enough to terrify the enemy.

In 1814, Sir William Congreve published his treatise “Details of the Rocket System,” describing how the projectile and its propelling charge were attached to a shaft that would give it directional stability in flight and how they were to be fused. In 1827, Englishman John Walker coated the end of a stick with a paste of antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum and starch. When these dried, he could strike them anywhere and produce a flame.

Although the connection is not clear, he called his device “Congreves,” but failed to secure a patent on them. The idea was picked up by a Samuel Jones, who decided to market them.

Apparently because of the evil sulfide smell they emitted when lit, Jones called his version the “Lucifer.” They were popular with smokers and while technology changed, the name, Lucifer, lingered through World War I, and became part of the theme song, until at least the 1960s, for John A. Gambling, one of radio’s first morning talk show hosts.

“Pack up your troubles in an old kit-bag

and smile, smile, smile,

While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag (cigarette)

smile boys all the while!”

What’s the use of worrying?

It never was worth while

So, pack up your troubles in an old kit-bag

and smile, smile, smile!”

French chemist Charles Sauria created a match in 1830 which did not smell objectionably using white phosphorus,which, in addition to its instability, is poisonous and seriously sickened people using these toxic matches. Other chemists found that if one put “white” phosphorus in a sealed tube and heated it — in the absence of oxygen — it is transformed into a “red” form that is nonpoisonous and less flammable.

Henley’s Formulas, in 1907 and 1927 published at least seven formulations for matches, each of which contains either chlorate or red phosphorus.

These “strike anywhere” matches, which generations previous to ours grew up with, had a particular hazard: Rodents would smell the sulfurous compounds, and mistaking them for food, chew on the abrasive match heads, causing them to ignite. If stored in a wall cabinet, luggage or wood box this could cause a disastrous fire, not to mention a very unhappy mouse or squirrel!

Wooden matches, like any piece of wood, remain glowing after they’ve burned and are hot enough to kindle another fire if carelessly discarded. Match manufacturers, as early as the early 20th century, were aware of this. Finished match sticks, therefore, were soaked in a retardant solution like ammonium sulfate, and dried before being dipped in the paste that would constitute their heads. This shortened the time a discarded match would glow after it was lit.

A Swedish scientist named Lundstrom had the further idea, in 1855, of putting red phosphorus — the ignition source — on the outside of the box, away from the combustible match heads and sticks. The phosphorus was mixed with an abrasive, either finely ground sand or crushed glass, to provide friction for this “friction match.” With this innovation, the “safety match” was born.

Book matches, long a part of modern U.S. life, were invented in 1889 by Joshua Pusey. He patented what he decided to call “flexibles,” with a striking surface inside the “book.” The Diamond Match Company challenged this patent because they’d had a similar idea but with the striker on the outside of the pack. Pusey’s patent withstood the challenge and Diamond later bought the rights from him for $4,000 (a tidy sum in 1895), and offered him a job.

Be aware of this history the next time you strike a match, or flick the “flint and steel” on your pocket butane lighter. The piezoelectric sparker for your gas grill is another story that we won’t get into here but you could probably could make a pretty cool Congreve rocket out of that propane tank … for only $22.95! Just don’t fire it anywhere near State Forester Jim Garner or Virginia’s valuable woodlands. And, be careful with matches.

“Prologue” acknowledges Aaron Meisinger, Jan Dabkowski and Steven Butler, on the Interpretive Staff of Historic St. Mary’s City, MD for their instruction in Native American and Colonial firemaking. I am also grateful to author/historian Donald Grady Shomette for our conversation about William Congreve.