History of Campbell County, Tennessee
 

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CANOE CONSTRUCTION AND USAGE

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

     The canoe of the past is similar to the ones of the present, with one exception; the early Native Americans constructed theirs, basically, of birch wood. These creations were considered the workhorse of the past, and it is not known exactly when this type was first used. Dugout canoes were common, but because of their extreme weight, they were too heavy to carry loaded with goods. Traveling through the interior required a lightweight craft that could be transported across frequent portages (a section of land between two bodies of water) and still deal with a heavy load of goods. The fur trade required the lighter weight birch canoe.

     The Indians felled trees before the introduction of the iron tomahawk by fire. They built a fire against the trunk of a standing tree and kept it burning until the tree fell, and this method the missionary found still in use among the older men and those who did not own a hatchet. Trees were felled both for firewood and for canoes. The canoes had formerly been hollowed out of a whole tree trunk by burning. Wood for fuel and for other purposes was burned into pieces of such length as to be easily carried home. They used much wood for fuel and wished their food well cooked. When they have lived long in one place, it at last becomes troublesome to secure wood for fuel because all the wood in the neighborhood had been used. This causes them to leave the place and plan a new village for the sake of the wood and other conveniences.

     The Algonquin Indians commenced using birch bark canoes patterned after those designed by the Ojibwa Tribe just about the time the fur trade began its expansion. The trade routes reported a major expansion of trade directly due to the birch bark canoes.

     Early English information from the Chesapeake district states that canoes 40-50 feet long were able to transport one passenger per foot of length. In a report from John Smith it was declared that some canoes in the same area were 3-4 feet deep. With these dimensions recited, even a small dugout canoe was enormous; it was a massive looking device when loaded.

     It was recorded that with the impressive and expansive canoe, it took one person and three Indians to get underway in a 22 -foot canoe. The boat was deemed very heavy for its size. Paddling was a chore for most on board. Most would have to "pole" in shallow water, or in still deeper water, had to "row" with wooded oars that were constructed like scoops in order to make progress against the wind or current.

     These canoes were used to carry a small party of fighting men. Camouflaging of the canoes was complicated. It is recorded that during Lane's line of attack against the Roanoke Indians and their allies in late spring of 1586; this shortcoming came to light.

     Before attacking the town of Dasamonguepeuk, Lane sent a group along the west side of Roanoke Island to gather all the canoes as the sun set. Therefore they cut off the Indians who had previously landed on the island from those on the mainland. He had completely lost the element of surprise; however, Lane was able to divide the force gathering against him. He ultimately entered the town and killed the Roanoke king, Wingina.

     The canoe, no matter what size, had a unique drawback, weakness of the structure. They were of a narrow assemblage with a length to beam ratio of 8:1, which was common. These canoes drew little water and had round bottoms and no keel. Climbing aboard a canoe was an unstable act for someone not used to its abnormality. Propelling of a canoe full of passengers and their attire without turning it over was quite an achievement. However, the canoe was the most reliable form of water transportation known at that time. With a full balance of men paddling, a canoe could outrun an English boat of equal size under oars. Also, because of their narrow beam and shallow draft, canoes could easily skim through the waters closed to many of the small craft used by the English.

     The coastal Indians were unhurried in their efforts to assume the white settlers planked boats simply because dugout canoes were so sturdy and dependable. The colonists rapidly approved and utilized the use of the Indian canoes; eventually, they modified it to the art of sailing. Sometime later, the Indians adopted some of the white man's improvements to the dugout, such as flatter bottoms and pointed ends, but not the sail. According to one writer, a Mr. Lawson, the cypress canoe would outlast four boats. The same writer writes that canoes were used " chiefly to pass over the Rivers, Creeks, and Bays; and transport Goods and Lumber from one River to another."

     Lawson also writes that a single-log could carry thirty barrels. However, three-piece canoes, "split down the Bottom, and a piece added thereto," could carry eighty.

     Canoes dug from two logs were somewhat common in Virginia by 1686. An improvement was the catamaran-like tobacco canoe, which consisted of two single-log canoes attached as one piece for carrying hogsheads of the tobacco leaf to market.

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