Thursday, February 5, 2009

LaSalle's Elm-Bark Canoe

Here is an extract from my August 1997 article in "Wooden Canoe" magazine:
                       LASALLE'S ELM-BARK CANOE
         The intrepid LaSalle built an Iroquois-style canoe, but was it worth it?
Robert Cavalier, Sieur de LaSalle, was a French explorer and entrepreneur who built the first sailing ship on the Upper Great Lakes. This ship, which he named the Griffon, had the ability to carry large cargoes of trade goods and furs, and was the key to LaSalle's grand plan to develop a French commercial empire in the North American interior.
In the spring of 1679 LaSalle set sail from the Niagara River on a journey which took him through Lake Erie, the Detroit River, Lakes St. Clair and Huron, the Straits of Mackinac and finally across Lake Michigan to Green Bay. There he traded for a load of furs and the Griffon, without LaSalle on board, set out for the return voyage to Niagara.
LaSalle then set off on a canoe voyage south around Lake Michigan until he reached the mouth of what he called the River of the Miamis (at the site of present day St. Joesph, Michigan), where he built a fort. Then he and fourteen men traveled the St. Joseph-Kankakee river route to the Illinois River, where at the site of present-day Peoria he erected another fort, Crevecoeur.
In late March, 1680, LaSalle returned to Ft. Miami to learn that his ship had disappeared---and with it, most of his assets and his hope for future fortune. He decided to hurry back to Niagara and Montreal in an attempt to recoup his losses. On March 25, 1680 he left Ft. Miami with four Frenchmen and a Mohegan Indian hunter, determined to walk across the wilderness of what is now Michigan's Lower Peninsula, something never before attempted by Europeans.
After days of bushwhacking through briars and brambles, walking across prairies, wading through seemingly endless marshes, and escaping two Indian ambushes, the party reached the Huron River, a tributary of Lake Erie, at a point somewhere upstream of present-day Ann Arbor. Since two of his men were too sick to walk, LaSalle decided to build a canoe to go down the river.
The following description of the construction of the canoe is in his own words:
"I found a stream and had a sort of elm cut down which the Iroquois call Arondugalte, the bark of which can be stripped off at all times though with more difficulty at this season, when it must be continually moistened with boiling water and great care must be taken not to break it. The end of the bark is placed inside; the two ends are sewn together, and all along the sides poles are fixed half as thick as one's arm, which are connected by
cross pieces, fastened to them at regular intervals which serve as seats or for the head of the canoe. The bottom part of the bark is strengthened by small floor pieces made of sticks running from one side piece to the other, and if there are any cracks they are filled up with peelings of thin bark which serves as pitch."
Why did LaSalle use elm rather than birch bark? The place where the canoe had to be built was south of the area where the paper birch (betula paperifera) grew. Furthermore, even if paper birch trees were available, they might not have been used due to the time and complexity involved in building a birch-bark canoe.
Since LaSalle had spent time in Iroquois territory, and since he referred to the particular species of elm that he used by its Iroquois name, it can be assumed that he patterned the canoe on the Iroquois model and used their construction method.

Illustration from Morgan's "League of the Iroquois" 
NEXT: What the experts say.

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