Thursday, February 26, 2009

Whitewood Dugout Canoes VII

Many years ago while rummaging around in the stacks of the Library of Michigan, in their clipping files I found an article "Dugout Canoes in Michigan" by one Robert Galbreath. It is from some publication by the Cranbrook Institute of Science, name and publication date not shown on the clipping. Since I have run out of my own stuff on whitewood dugout canoes and several of you have Emailed comments on dugouts, I will pass on Galbreath's words:
"In Michigan, as elsewhere in Pre-Columbian America, efficient transportation was a primary concern of the Indian. Densely forested, as was most of the Great Lakes area, and interrupted by lakes, swamps and streams, it was neither possible to travel rapidly nor feasible to transport supplies overland in large quantities. Thus the Indian turned to the streams, rivers, and lakes which provided a vast network of water highways. To exploit this system, the Indian developed one of the most efficient watercraft known to man---the birchbark canoe. It was light, maneuverable, and could float in six inches of water. The canoe birch, however, was not common in the entire region, and in southern Michigan suitable trees did not occur. Elm, though, was commonly used in the construction of bark canoes. For longer-lived vessels, the Michigan Indians constructed dugouts of white cedar or white pine. Compared to the bark canoe, they were clumsy craft, difficult to carry on portages, and required longer to construct. Dugouts, however, did not puncture as easily as bark vessels and were suited to permanent camp sites.
Many of the early Spanish explorers of the Southeast, including Cabez de Vaca and the DeSoto chroniclers, note the use of dugouts, as did Roger Williams in New England and Captain John Smith in Virginia. Dugouts were used in the Hudson River valley and the coastal regions of New York, the Paciifc Northwest and Alaska.
Bela Hubbard, in the early 19th century, noted that the Indian tribes in our area (Chippewas, Ottawas, Pottawatomies, and Sacs) made use of dugouts. Around early Detroit both elm bark and dugout canoes were to be seen, but the birchbark canoe was largely confined to Canadian Indians.
Throughout the wide range of dugouts in North America, the method of their construction apparently varied little. Thomas Harriot, in his Narrative of the First English Plantation of Virginia; described how the Indians of Virginia fashioned their canoes. After selecting a tree of sufficient size, it was felled with fire, carefully controlled so as not to burn more than a small area of the trunk. Limbs and foliage were likewise burned away, and the log then placed on a platform of convenient working height. The outer bark was scraped off with shells. Finally, the interior of the log was carefully burned, and the charred wood scraped away until the log was sufficiently hollowed. Indians of the Great Lakes doubtless used similar methods. With the advent of the white man, fire, shell and stone were abandoned in canoe construction in favor of iron tools.
When the dugouts were not in use, they were liable to crack and shrink if left to dry in the sun. To prevent this, it was customary to submerge them in water or bury them in wet sand. It is no doubt due to this fact that many dugouts have survived in Michigan"
He then goes on to describe four dugouts that Cranbrook had in its collections:
White cedar. 17 ft 6 in. Found in Bailey Rapids, Manistee County
White pine. 12 ft 1 in. Found in Maple River, Emmet County
White pine. 12 ft. Found in Cedar Lake, Oakland County
White cedar. 12 ft. From Peshawbestown, Leelanau County.
Note: the photo above is not a depiction of the canoes in this list - just an interesting shot of dugouts. 

NEXT: One last message on dugouts. 


Anonymous said...

I'm thrilled to have found your blog and will follow with eagerness! My husband is also going to love your series on the canoes. I'll show him tonight. My father is 87 and writes a blog too about his memories of his life. He's at "Ernie's Journeys" at He's hospitalized right now but he'll be reading your blog when he's home.
Becky Jamison

Miranda Grol said...


I came across your blog about canoes while doing canoe research of my own on a very old canoe we have in storage at our museum. I was wondering if would be able to get into contact with you so that I could send you some images. We are hoping to have the canoe conserved and placed on diplay in our gallery.