Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Whitewood Dugout Canoes V - A ride with Indians and dugout construction

What was it like to ride in a dugout canoe? British author Frederick Marryat wrote a two-volume account of his travels, "A Diary in America with Remarks on Its Institutions", which was published in 1839. In it he tells of his ride in a dugout canoe paddled by two "Menonnomie" Indians:
 "I got into the canoe with them ...The canoe would exactly hold three, and no more; but we paddled swiftly down the stream...Independently of the canoe being so small, she had lost a large part of her stern, so that at the least ripple of water she took it in, and threatened us with a swim; and she was so very narrow, that the least motion would have destroyed her equilibrium and upset her. One Indian sat in the bow, the other in the stern, whilst I was doubled up in the middle. We had given the Indians some bread and pork, and after paddling about a half an hour, they stopped to eat. Now the Indian in the bow had the pork, while the one in the stern had the bread; any attempted move, so as to hand the eatables to each othermust have upset us, so this was their plan of communication: the one in the bow cut off a slice of pork, and putting it into the lid of a sauce pan which he had with him, and floating it along side the canoe, gave it sufficient momentum to make it swim to the stern, where the other took possession of it, He in the stern then cut off a piece of bread, and sent it back in return by the same conveyance. I had a flask of whiskey, but they would not trust that by the same perilous little conveyance; so I had to lean forward very steadily, and hand it to the foremost, and when he returned it to me, to lean backwards to give it to the other, with whom it remained till we landed for I could not regain it. 
How were the dugouts built? Here are three accounts describing the process:

In a 1710 letter Jacques Raudot, then Intendent of New France, tells how the Indians used fire:
"The black poplar (Tuliptree)is also a tree of this country. It grows very tall and big and serves theses savages in making large canoes for navigating on their rivers and lakes. Formerly it was an endless task for them to make these canoes; not having iron, it was necessary to set fire to the foot of a tree, to fall it and scrape it with their stone axes, and to remove the charcoal which remained on, in order that the fire penetrate to the center. After felling it they cut it the same way to the length that they wish and also to hollow it out with fire."
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, in his monumental six volume "History of the Indian Tribes of the United States", published in 1852, described how the Indians of the Great Lakes used fire and stone tools:
"The ancient Indians, prior to the era of the discovery of America, had indeed no use for an axe, in the sense in which we apply the term now-a-days. Fire was the great agent they employed in felling trees and reducing their trunks to proper lengths. There was no cutting of trees. No stone axe, which we have ever examined, possesses the hardness or sharpness essential to cut the fibers of an oak, a pine, an elm or any other species of American tree whatever.
When the wants of an Indian hunter had determined him to fell a tree, in order to make a log canoe...he erected a fire around it close to the ground. When the fire had burned in so as to produce a coal that might impede its further progress, a stone instrument of a peculiar construction, with a handle to keep a person from the heat, was employed to pick away the coal, and keep the surface fresh. This is the instrument called by them Agakwut.
The mode of using this ancient axe, which would be more appropriately classed as a pick, was by twisting around it...a simple wythe, forming a handle, which could be firmly tied together, and which would enable the user to strike a firm inward blow. This handle was not at right angles to the axe.
He states about small specimens of this tool which were found...these small axes were adapted to the strength of boys and children, whose labors in the process of fire-fretting were always welcome and important...particularly when we reflect that this labor was generally done by females.
Eric Sloan, the late Connecticut writer and artist whose works celebrate Americana, stated in his book "A Museum of American Tools": The word canoe (canow and canoo in the 1600s) described a hollowed out log. Until the Indians saw the English hand adze, they used fire to burn out the hollow portion and flint knives and shells to scrape out the burned wood. They then devised their own adze, using flint instead of metal for the blade.. .
NEXT: Answers to the doubters.

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