Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Dugout Canoes

Historic facts about an ancient means of transportation

Dugout canoe underway
A barely started dugout canoe being
carved as a youth project with supervision
and participation by Haida carver Saaduuts.
Center for Wooden Boats, Seattle, Washington.
Photo by Joe Mabel.
Dugout canoes were once an important vehicle on the nation's waterways. They were made from the trees that were available on the riverbank.

The ends of the log were shaped into a point and the bottom of the log was somewhat flattened to make the water glide around it easily and to make the log stable in the water. The top and heart of the log were carved out to make a place to sit and carry cargo.

In Kentucky, a dugout maker would have looked for a long, straight cottonwood, tulip poplar, or soft maple (red or silver maple) growing close to the water. Their wood was soft and easy to "dig out."

Jeremy Belknap, a New Hampshire minister who published a history in the late 1700's, recorded that native Americans of that area often used pine or chestnut and a single man could make a dugout canoe in ten to twelve days.

Native Americans on the west coast used dugout canoes in the ocean for whaling and hunting. A large red cedar was preferred.

The oldest dugout that has been discovered in the southeastern U.S. is believed to have been made by the Algonquian Indians. It was made of a bald cypress log, and radiocarbon dating indicates that it's around 4400 years old. It was found in Lake Phelps, a large natural lake in North Carolina. Thirty prehistoric dugout canoes have been found sunk in this lake!

An interesting article in the "Discovering Lewis and Clark" website describes efforts to learn more about the dugout canoes that Lewis and Clark used in their historic exploration of the Louisiana Purchase.

William W. Bevis, the author of the Lewis-and-Clark dugout article, became experienced with dugouts on the rivers of Borneo. It seems that much of what we once knew in this country about making a river-worthy vessel from a log has been forgotten.

Bevis says that dugouts are much more stable in the water than you might imagine. The weight, bottom-heavy shape and low profile of a dugout help it perform well in a river. (A 30-foot dugout can weigh a ton or more!)

The Lewis and Clark expedition made most of its journey across the continent by water. Their diaries indicate that along the way, they made 15 dugouts. The trees they used included cottonwoods and ponderosa pines.

If you want to make your own dugout, Mother Earth News has an article that might be helpful: The Making of a Cedar Dugout Canoe. The Missouri Department of Conservation offers some advice as well: Digging into Dugout History.

"The manner of makinge their boates" by Theodor de Bry after a John White
watercolor. Native Americans make a dugout canoe with seashell scrapers. 1590.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

1 comments -- please add yours:

historywriter said...

So you know about the wonderful canoes made by Coast Salish and Alaska Indians? In my corner of WA state, there has been a revival of canoemaking from cedar trees. Every summer, tribal communities participate in a "paddle" to various communities in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea which comprises the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island. Watching these canoes coming in is truly thrilling.

I'm bookmarking your wonderful site. Will be useful for my research. I've written about the CCC for Historylink and a novel, TREE SOLDIER. Have you done trees of the west?

Click any label...

advice (45) alder trees (1) Arbor Day (1) ash trees (11) Atlantic white cedar (1) atmosphere (2) autumn (1) bald cypress trees (8) bark (8) bayberry trees (1) beech trees (8) big trees (11) birch trees (2) black cherry trees (1) black locust trees (2) black walnut trees (7) Bradford pear trees (2) buckeye trees (2) butternut trees (1) catalpa trees (4) cherry trees (2) chestnut trees (1) Christmas trees (1) copyright (1) corkwood (1) crabapple trees (1) dogwood trees (6) drought (2) Eastern redbud trees (5) Eastern redcedar (5) ecosystem (6) education (5) elm trees (4) emerald ash borer (11) Empress tree (2) fast growing trees (7) festivals and carnivals (2) fir trees (1) firewood (6) foliage (11) forest (14) forest fires (1) forestry (7) freebies (2) ginkgo trees (1) hackberry trees (4) hawthorn trees (3) hemlock trees (1) hickory trees (11) historic trees (9) history (42) holly trees (1) honeylocust trees (2) hophornbean trees (1) hoptree (1) hornbeam trees (2) internet (3) invasive (13) juniper trees (5) Kentucky coffeetree (2) landscaping (3) larch trees (1) linden trees (1) logging (4) maple trees (10) mimosa trees (3) mistakes (14) narrow trees (1) native fruit (9) native trees (16) oak trees (38) old growth forests (5) ornamental trees (6) osage orange (5) pawpaw trees (1) pecan trees (1) persimmon tree (3) pine trees (9) poems (5) poison-sumac (1) poplar trees (10) prehistoric trees (3) quizzes etc. (1) rhododendron trees (1) sassafras trees (3) serviceberry trees (2) Silver maple trees (2) small trees (4) spring (7) spruce trees (4) statistics (2) sumac trees (4) sweetgum trees (4) sycamore trees (10) tall trees (5) tree cavities (1) tree identification (8) Tree of heaven (2) tree planting (11) tree problems (40) tree removal (2) tree roots (5) trees for problem spots (7) tuliptrees (tulip poplar) (2) urban forest (7) viburnum trees (1) wetlands (5) wild plum trees (4) wildlife trees (27) willow trees (6) witchhazel trees (1) woodworking (2) yellowwood trees (1) yew trees (1)

Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Photos and text copyright © 2006-2013 by Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Do not republish without written permission. My e-mail address is