Friday, February 20, 2009

Whitewood Dugout Canoes

Here is a study of Michigan's "whitewood" dugout canoes that resulted from my participation in Grand River Expedition 2000 ( I hope there will be a Grand River Expedition 2010). An article based on this study appeared in Issue 93 June 1999 of "Wooden Canoe."


While researching to compile a guidebook to the geology, geography and history of Michigan's longest river, the Grand, I kept running into references to the use of "whitewood" dugout canoes or pirogues by Indians and pioneers in lower Michigan in the early 1800s. Eventually, like a hound dog on a raccoon's trail which is diverted when a rabbit crosses the track, I put the guidebook project on temporary hold in order to pursue the intriguing dugout story.


The pioneers' "whitewood" tree is what modern field guides identify as the Tuliptree or Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron tuliperifera), the tallest Eastern forest tree. As is the case with many tree species it is or was known by various names at various times or in different regions of the country. In addition to being called Yellow poplar, it was in some places called Blue Poplar, Hickory Poplar, Sap Poplar, Tulip Poplar and White Poplar.

The earliest reference to this tree that I have found was a 1710 letter in French in which it was called Black Poplar. These poplar names are really not appropriate since the Tuliptree is not of the poplar family, but is actually a member of the magnolia family. Other names include Saddle Tree or Saddle Leaf. The Onondaga Indian name was Ko-yen-ta-ka-ah-ta (white tree). Most appropriate to this article is the Tennessee name, Canoe Wood. The Tuliptree is the Official State Tree of Indiana and the unofficial State Tree of Kentucky and North Carolina.

The Michigan references I have found all use the term "whitewood". The wood of the Tuliptree is straight-grained, fine, soft, free from knots, resistant to splitting, and easily worked. Tuliptrees are tall with straight, clear trunks, frequently reaching 100 feet or more with diameters of four to six feet.

In its September 1904 issue, Outing Magazine had an article "Aboriginal American Canoes" in which it was stated that the Indian dugout builder "...demanded Trees with long, uniform trunks, without knots, and soft enough to be cut down and hollowed out with stone axes." Plainly, the Tuliptree fits this aboriginal specification.

The whitewood name refers to its white, clear sapwood. The yellow poplar name probably comes from the fact that its heartwood is usually light yellow.


In the Great Lake states, the southern limit of the Paper Birch (Betula paperifera) approximately coincides with the northern limit of the Tuliptree. This is a natural circumstance that obviously influenced the type of canoe made and used by indigenous peoples. for example, in a 1777 letter from Michilimackinac a French trader complained that the Pottawatomie Indians who occupied what is now southern Michigan and northern Indiana were "...totally ignorant of bark canoes."

The Pottawatomie's apparently didn't find that to be a handicap. They were proficient in the construction and navigation of dugout canoes, or pirogues as they were called in areas of French influence. They used dugouts going either upstream or downstream on area rivers and regularly paddled them long distances on Lake Michigan. An early day expert on the history of the St. Joseph River described Pottawatomie "canoes dug out of large white wood trees, which were very plentiful in this territory then, this being their means of travel down the river from the south in the spring on their way to the Straits of Mackinac and back up the river in the fall."

NEXT: Chippewa dugouts.

1 comment:

Amy said...

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