The Men Who Made Canoes

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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.