Before European contact, the only way the indigenous peoples of North America could travel was either on foot or in canoes. The waterways of North America became the highways of today. Canoes were made from bark, animal skins or wood. By far the sturdiest construction, and the most time consuming, if not the most difficult, for American Indians, was the dugout canoe.
Making a dugout canoe was a gigantic task requiring considerable organization and planning. A hardwood tree had to be selected that was large and straight enough to accommodate the transportation of several individuals. This meant a tree that weighed several tons had to be felled using only stone tools. This method was, however, quite impractical.
Instead, Native Americans used fire as their tool of choice when bringing down a massive tree. The tree’s circumference was first coated with a mixture of mud and straw at a height that allowed the makers to work on the trunk and acted as a firebreak so the whole tree would not burn. Once the fire was set and allowed to char the trunk, stone tools were used to chop and scrap away the burned portions. As the burning, chopping and scraping continued, the tree eventually reached a point where it could no longer support its own weight and fell to the ground.
At this point the canoe makers extinguished the fire and concentrated on removing the tree’s bark. They had to move quickly as the bark could fuse to the trunk with the rising of the tree’s sap, making its removal much more difficult and time consuming. Ideally, the bark could be removed in one piece and used for other purposes, perhaps as a bark canoe or lodge covering.
After removing the bark, the trunk was cut into a piece several feet in length and the ends chopped down into points making it maneuverable in either direction. A fire was started on the top of the log, and as it burned, the canoe makers would use stone hand tools to hollow out a depression in the log where people, goods and weapons could be transported with ease.
The bottom of the canoe was burnt in the same method in order to have a flat bottom that would enable the craft to carry large loads yet glide through the water. The final procedure was to coat the entire boat with animal grease to prevent drying and cracking and to make it waterproof.
To witness first-hand the beauty and craft employed in making this fabulous watercraft, come see Dugout Canoes: Paddling through the Americas at The North Carolina Arboretum. This exhibit will be on display in the Baker Exhibit Center Saturday, January 28, through Tuesday, May 2.