Indian Canoes of Eastern North Carolina

Eastern North Carolina contains thousands of square miles of shallow lakes, sluggish creeks, broad rivers, and brackish sounds, one of which is thirty miles across. The resident Indians depended on these waters for much of the protein in their diet. They speared fish, built and maintained fish weirs, and visited outlying places like Roanoke Island to live off shellfish while their crops ripened. Although largely self-sufficient, they engaged in some trading within the region, and conducted brisk commerce with tribes having ready access to stone. The coastal Indians' societies comprised towns, chiefdoms, confederations, empires, and alliances, some of considerable size. Rivers and other bodies of water united Indian polities more often than they served as boundaries. (The Roanoke tribe occupied both sides of Croatan Sound; the Secotan, both sides of the Pamlico River.) The three major ethnic groups-Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan-engaged in continual internal and external raiding and occasional full scale warfare. Until this century, much of the land in the region was dense swamp and forest full of large predators and poisonous snakes. Water transportation was therefore essential to the Indians' long-established way of life.

Throughout eastern North Carolina the natives used only one kind of watercraft, the canoe. (Canoe is a Carib or Arawakan word that had no local currency until English settlers introduced it.) This was not the light, delicate, easily portaged birch-bark canoe used farther north and made widely known by fiction and film. It was the much heavier and sturdier blunt-ended wooden dugout, made in different sizes for various tasks. The 2,700-year-old specimen recovered from Lake Phelps (Washington County, North Carolina) and displayed in the Cultural Resources building in Raleigh may only hint at the antiquity of the design.

In his report of the 1584 reconnaissance of what is now coastal North Carolina, Arthur Barlowe described the process of making dugout canoes:

"Their boates are made of one tree, either of Pine, or of Pitch trees: a wood not commonly knowen to our people, nor found growing in England. They have no edge tooles to make them withall...they burne downe some great tree, or take such as are winde fallen, and putting myrrhe [sic], and rosen upon one side thereof, they sette fire into it, and when it hath burnt it hollowe, they cutte out the coale with their shels, and ever where they would burne it deeper or wider, they laye on their hummes, which burneth away the timber, and by this meanes they fashion very fine boates, and such as will transport twentie men."

Since Barlowe knew no native language at the time of his visit, he could not easily have learned of this procedure second-hand. He must have seen some or all of it. Whether because of his lack of understanding of Algonquian, or simply the brevity of his visit, Barlowe's description of the process of canoe construction is not entirely consistent with later observations. Thomas Harriot, who spent eleven months in the region with the Ralph Lane colony (1585-1586), described Indian boatbuilding at greater length. According to Harriot, the Indians living near Roanoke Island commonly made their boats, not of pine as Barlowe reported, but of "Rakiock, a kinde of...sweet wood...the timber being great, tal, streight, soft, light, & yet tough enough I thinke (besides other uses) to be fit also for masts of ships." The species Harriot meant is in doubt. In The Roanoke Voyages (London, 1955), David Quinn tentatively identifies rakiock as either the tulip tree, easily worked but quick to rot and become waterlogged, or the more durable white cypress. Atlantic white cedar, locally called juniper, is another possible candidate. It is not only light and easy to work, but also remarkable rot resistant. (White cedar is scarce now, but local boatbuilders still prefer it.) The Indians of the Chesapeake Bay, lacking the variety of soft woods available in eastern North Carolina, reportedly preferred poplar, gum, and black walnut. Regardless of their preferences, the inhabitants of both regions probably used any tree of the requisite size that circumstances dictated.

Harriot had a sharper eye than Barlowe for certain details and so made Indian canoe-making sound less haphazard. Although Harriot makes no reference to the inflammable gums, probably from pine trees, that Barlowe mentioned, they would have been useful in the controlled burning of green wood. The use of wet clay to protect parts not to be burned has been documented elsewhere and seems entirely likely here. De Bry's engraving shows an Indian workman fanning a fire inside an unfinished canoe.

The sizes of the finished canoes varied greatly. Harriot mentioned some "so great...that they have carried well xx. men at once, besides much baggage..." The canoes in White's drawings and De Bry's engravings look much smaller, but still seem undermanned. De Bry's engraving of Indians fishing, for example, depicts a lone oarsman at the bow of a canoe perhaps 18-20 feet long, partially laden with fish. The vessel contains two passengers tending a fire used to attract fish (firelighting was common) and a third working a dip-net in the stern. Early English reports from the Chesapeake mention canoes 40-50 feet long able to carry about one passenger per foot of length. John Smith reported some in the Chesapeake are 3-4 feet deep. Even a small dugout canoe was massive, more so when loaded. One seventeenth-century visitor to Virginia reported that he and three Indians were required just to launch a 22-foot canoe, "which was very heavy for its proportions." Most of those on board a canoe would have had to pole in shallow water or, in deeper water, row with wooden " scoopes" in order to make headway over any distance against wind or current.

Canoes sufficient to carry even a small contingent of fighting men were large and heavy. Consequently, camouflaging them was difficult. This drawback played a major role in Lane's strategy to defeat the Roanoke Indians and their allies in the late spring of 1586. Before attacking the town of Dasamonguepeuk, Lane sent a party along the west side of Roanoke Island "to gather up all the Canoas in the setting of the sunne," thereby cutting off the Indians who had already landed on the island from those on the mainland. Though he had lost the element of surprise, Lane succeeded in dividing the force massing against him. He crossed the sound, entered the town by guile, and killed the Roanoke king, Wingina.

In every size, canoes suffered another distinct disadvantage: instability. They were narrow; a length-to-beam ration of 8:1 was common. They drew little water and had round bottoms and no keel. Simply getting aboard a canoe could by a trial for someone unused to its peculiarities. Propelling a canoe full of passengers and gear without upsetting it was harder; fishing and fighting on such an unsteady platform were harder still. Canoes were nonetheless able boats. With a full complement paddling, a canoe could overtake or pull away from an English boat of comparable size under oars. Additionally, because of their narrow beam and shallow draft, canoes could easily ply waters closed to many of the small crafts used by the English.

Dugout canoes were so stout and dependable that the coastal Indians were slow to adopt white settlers' planked boats and beasts of burden. The colonists however, quickly adopted the canoe and adapted it to sail. Eventually, the Indians copied some to the settlers' improvements to the dugout, such as flatter bottoms and pointed ends, but not the sail. Writing in the early eighteenth century, John Lawson noted that a cypress canoe would "outlast four Boats." According to Lawson, canoes were used "chiefly to pass over the Rivers, Creeks, and Bays; and to transport Goods and Lumber from one River to another," and sometimes to carry pork and other commodities out the inlets to Virginia.

Some single-log canoes, Lawson said, could carry thirty barrels. But three-piece canoes, "split down the Bottom, and a piece added thereto," could carry eighty. Canoes of more than one log were commonplace in Virginia by 1686, when a French traveler remarked on them, and probably in northeastern North Carolina as well. A related innovation was the catamaran-like tobacco canoe, two single-log canoes decked or simply lashed together for carrying hogsheads of the valuable leaf to market.

Over the centuries canoes slowly disappeared from North Carolina waters. But on the Chesapeake, multiple-log canoes evolved from the inelegant tenders of tidewater plantations and fisheries into sleek racing canoes and distinctive working bugeyes. Eventually the Chesapeake sailing canoes and their descendants influenced the design of the official North Carolina State boat, the shad boat. Appropriately, this roundbottomed carvel-built craft originated on Roanoke Island.

Text is based on "Indian Canoes in Coastal North Carolina 400 Years Ago," by David Stick;
edited and expanded by lebame houston and Wynne Dough.

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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