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The Men Who Made Canoes

July 2024
9min read

The interests that impel a man to dig into the shadowed corners of the past can be obscure, and what he finds there may not always seem worth the effort. Yet light can come from unlikely places, especially when it falls on a primitive society that kept no records and never bothered to try to explain itself. Simply to know how stone-age people made the things they used can put those people in a new perspective. Suddenly in place of an untutored savage we can see a man, with emotions and intelligence like our own, painfully doing his best to cope with a hostile world. Seeing him so, we see our kinship with him, and history’s mysterious continuity begins to mean more.

Thus: In 1887 a young Ohioan named Edwin Tappan Adney went to the New Brunswick woods on vacation and discovered that what he wanted more than anything else was to learn all that could be learned about that most characteristic of all Indian artifacts, the birch-bark canoe. How did the Indians devise this craft? How did they make it, back in the days before the white man’s ideas and techniques ever reached them? How did they get and transmit their skills? What, in short, has the birch-bark canoe to tell us about the people who invented and perfected it?

Adney spent most of his remaining sixty years finding out. He moved to Canada and became a Canadian citizen, learned to speak a number of Indian tongues, visited canoe-making peoples all across the north country, made sketches and notes, built canoes himself the way the Indians did, and became probably the greatest authority on this subject that ever lived. He never completed his studies, but he left a huge mass of papers, models, and sketches, and fortunately all of this material was finally deposited with the Mariners Museum at Newport News, Virginia. The museum authorities then did the best thing imaginable and called in Howard I. Chapelle, curator of transportation at the Smithsonian, and Chapelle put together a book, using Adney’s fabulous research material and his own vast knowledge of ship design. The result: The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America , which sounds as if it might be dry as dust but which instead is wholly fascinating.

To begin with, the birch-bark canoe itself was fabulous. It was light, fast, fragile but easily repaired, as odorous of the north woods as a bed made of balsam boughs; it could float in the shallowest water but it could carry a heavy load, it could be picked up and carried from one waterway to another without wearing anybody out, it served both the lone hunter and the prowling war party, it managed to be delicate and tough at the same time, and it passed into romance before Americans even began to suspect that the north country was romantic.

It was also an extremely sophisticated creation. The red man who invented and used it was no fumbling troglodyte. He knew precisely what he was about and he devised a unique way to make boats, perfectly adapted to the materials he had to use.

Except for the log dugout (and its modern analogue, the one-piece craft cast in plastic), virtually every other boat ever built was constructed around a rigid framework. First there had to be a keel, with stem and stern pieces, and then there would be ribs, held firmly together with longitudinal stringers, knees, beams, and all the rest—a literal skeleton, taking shape piece by piece, with the outer covering going on last of all. Take away the covering—the skin, the carefully fitted planking, or what not—and the skeleton remained, ready to be given a new covering if that was desired. From rowboat on up to Atlantic liner, the skeleton was what mattered.

The Indian simply did not do it that way. He never made a keel, and what skeleton the canoe had came last. Essentially the canoe was an envelope of birch bark stitched to the gunwales, with ribs and sheathing added simply to keep the bark taut and to prevent the occupant from accidentally putting his foot or his bottom through the outer skin. The skeleton was held in place by the bark; strip the bark off a canoe and everything but the gunwales would fly apart.

It would seem to be impossible to make a satisfactory boat that way, but the Indian succeeded, creating something that was graceful, beautiful, and completely suited to its uses. The canoe was not in the least like the early Briton’s coracle or the buffalo-hide bullboat of the western plains—a clumsy butter dish whose occupant was just one degree better off than he would have been if he had straddled a log and paddled with his hands. The canoe was a craft whose design no naval architect has ever been able to improve materially, and when the first white men got to America they took to it with enthusiasm, and they used it without change for centuries. Today’s canoe is made of materials the Indian never heard of, but its basic pattern has not been altered very much. The Indian could neither draw a plan nor write specifications, but he needed no lessons from anybody.

He took his materials where he found them, which limited the area in which the authentic canoe was used: if the right trees were not handy, there could be no canoes. The essential, of course, was birch bark: the bark, that is, of the white or paper birch, the beautiful tree that gets into all of the summer resort photographs and sketches. With this, the Indian had to have white cedar for the ribs, sheathing, and usually for the gunwales; maple for the thwarts; roots of black spruce, white cedar, tamarack, or jack pine for stitchings and lashings; and spruce gum melted down with animal fat to make the seams watertight. Some tribes not blessed with many birches made do with other barks, but nothing but birch bark was really satisfactory, and they usually got their canoes by trading with more northern tribes; otherwise, they used dugouts. The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America , by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle. The Smithsonian Institution. 242 pp. Illustrated. $3.25.

The Indian had to work hard to make a canoe, because the tools he used were abominable. For an axe he had nothing but a blade of chipped stone lashed to a wooden handle; he used stone knives, wedges of stone or wood, and wooden mauls to drive them; awls and drills he made from bone or whatever else was handy. Sometimes he used the paired incisor teeth of the beaver for a chisel, with the skull for a handlethe beaver having previously, of course, been dispossessed. To cut down a tree—and a birch big enough to provide usable sheets of bark could be pretty big—and then to remove the bark and to split out, dress, and smooth the timbers for gunwales, ribs, thwarts, and interior sheathing, must have been unutterably wearisome.

If he had a large birch and proposed to make a small canoe, the Indian could sometimes get one sheet of bark big enough to serve his purposes. Otherwise he had to get a number of separate sheets; and in either case he usually soaked the bark in water until he was ready to use it, in order to keep it pliable. (He also soaked the snaky roots that would be used for stitching and lashing, for the same reason.) It was best, by the way, to get the bark after a long winter thaw, or early in the spring when the sap had begun to flow, because it had more elasticity then.

Once he had his materials in hand, the builder got to work. His building yard was a smooth bit of ground near the water, preferably shaded so that the hot sun would not dry out the bark too fast, and near a good camping site because the Indian was going to be there for many days and had to have a convenient place to sleep and eat. Usually he made his gunwales first, splitting out the long pieces of wood, tapering them and rounding the edges, usually laminating them in the middle for greater strength, lashing the ends together, and springing the gunwales apart for the required breadth by making the thwarts and mortising them in place.

All of this done, the Indian laid his joined gunwales on the building bed and drove strong stakes into the ground all around, from end to end, accurately outlining the boat’s final shape. Stakes and gunwales were then removed, the bark was laid on the bed, and the gunwales were laid on top of it, weighted down with stones, to serve temporarily as a frame that would give the birch-bark envelope its proper shape. The edges of the bark were slashed here and there and the bark was bent upward, at which point the stakes were put back into their original holes. Then gores were cut in the bark, any additional strips or panels of bark that might be needed were added, and the bark was carefully stitched together. Then the gunwales were taken out, sheered up at the proper height, and the upper edge of the envelope was stitched and lashed to the gunwales, and the stakes were removed.

Now the result began to look like a canoe, except that it was flat-bottomed and wall-sided, with angles where there ought to be curves. The seams were gummed on the inside, stem and stern pieces were fitted, and long strips of thin, white cedar sheathing were laid along the bottom and sides, held in place by temporary ribs while the permanent ribs were prepared. There might be fifty permanent ribs, thin, wide cedar battens that were treated with boiling water until they became malleable and then were bent into shape and allowed to dry. The temporary ribs were removed and the permanent ones were inserted, mortised into the gunwales, and given a snug force-fit, pinning the sheathing into shape and giving the hull its final form, with rounding bilges and a smooth, moderate curvature across the bottom.

While this was being done the Indian had to keep the bark and stitching wet so that the skin would bend and not crack under the strain; he also had to know just how much strain the bark would take without bursting, and he had to know—by sighting along the hull or by running his hands over it—when the curves were right, when the craft was symmetrical, when, in short, the thing was properly shipshape, with no uncalled-for bulges in the hull and with a graceful sheer line. After he was satisfied, he fastened thin strips of cedar on top of the gunwales for added strength and neatness, turned the canoe upside down, and gummed the seams on the outside to make them fully watertight—and then, once he had made some paddles, the canoe was ready for use.

The design followed partly the builder’s own preference, partly the use to which the canoe was to be put. On open water, low ends were good, to avoid wind resistance; to run the rapids, high ends would keep waves from breaking in over the bow. If there was to be a good deal of portaging, high ends were useful: at night, the canoe turned bottom-up would lie far enough off the ground to provide the bearer with shelter. A canoe built for salt water might have a hogged sheer—that is, its sides would be higher amidships than at the ends, so that the occupant could draw a heavy weight in over the sides, a net full of fish or a harpooned seal, without being swamped by a rush of water over low gunwales. Tribal fashions varied, too. Some Indians liked canoes with a sharp V-bottom and flaring topsides, and others preferred a bottom almost flat with a good deal of tumble home above the bilges. But all of them knew exactly what they were doing.

Proof of this can be seen in the way the French put the canoe to work. The famous fur trade, carried on for two centuries or more, could not have existed without the birch-bark canoe. The French gave the Indian modern tools and put him to work, and he turned out cargo-carrying craft thirty-six feet long and capable of bearing from two to three tons of freight besides the crew, but light enough to be portaged by four men. Using these, the fur companies opened the north country, virtually exterminated the beaver, turned tribal cultures inside out, and during generation after generation carried on one of the most picturesque and romantic trades the North American continent ever saw.

It was romantic from a distance; at close range it was a man-killer. The men who paddled these canoes were overworked, badly fed, and pitilessly exploited. At the portages, which were numerous, a good man was supposed to lug at least 180 pounds of freight (twice that much, very often) up hill and down dale, and the packer’s working life was very short. The fur brigades put a splash of color on the landscape from Montreal to Saskatchewan, but the individual members of these brigades paid a high price for it.

Originally the Indian did little to decorate his canoe, except that he might make a little design representing his personal mark, or signature, somewhere near the bow or stern by scraping away the outer layer of bark according to a set pattern. Some tribes liked to use porcupine-quill designs here and there, and some ran decorations along the sides just below the gunwales. A war canoe, usually carrying four warriors off on a raid, might have each man’s personal mark somewhere on its sides; if it carried a chief, only the chief’s mark would be applied.

Nothing else that the Indian made called for as much work and care as the birch-bark canoe, and in consequence it was something he valued highly. A touching illustration of this fact is provided by a discovery made about a century ago on the east coast of Newfoundland, when an Indian burial cave was found. In this cave a small boy had been buried, and his parents did their best to send their love off with him when he departed. In the cave, beside his body, there was a wooden image of the boy, toy bows and arrows, little packages of food—and a model canoe, three feet long, as carefully made as any canoe might be. Thus equipped, the youngster was left to make his last journey.

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