Historic facts about an ancient means of transportation
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.)