Canoes are always associated with fun and leisure, but it has not always been that way. Originally canoes were made from materials that were close to the waterways that they traveled on. This meant mostly tree bark or animal skins and wood that could be gathered from around the lakes, rivers and beaches that surrounded the waters.

Today canoes are fashioned from modern materials such as aluminum, fiberglass, Kevlar and Royalex that have been proven as good canoe construction materials since WWII. The actual design of the canoes goes back thousands of years to the North American Inuits and has changed little.

The First Designs

Cheshire Cat Carved Dugout Box

The first Inuit canoes were based on two design patterns, in the northeast the crafts were mostly a type of birch/bark affair. It was basically a wooden frame surrounded by bark that was all held together with roots and sealed with a rudimentary but effective pitch.

Further down south on the continent near the Gulf of Mexico, the canoe was a more solid dugout that was hewn out of a tree. This was done by a combination of fire and crude tools and the craft was sharpened at both ends. Both designs were created out of necessity rather than choice, it was the materials on the construction site that dictated the design. In the north the paper birch forests were excellent at providing the raw materials whilst in the south the more substantial solid woods of cedar, cypress and redwood were abundant.

Even when the settlers from France, Holland and England arrived on the continent the design and construction of the canoes had evolved so well they could not improve upon it. The fur traders used the canoe as the transportation mode of choice to haul their freight.

Both types of design ruled the North American waters for hundreds of years right up to when steam powered, and larger boats were invented.

From Work to Play

The Civil War was a landmark in the history of the canoe, not because of anything to do with the actual war apart from new inventions that originated out of necessity during that period.

The canoe was replaced as America’s workplace mule by another modern invention that was faster and bigger. It became a leisure craft and a way to escape the new industrialized world that dominated people’s lives.

New recreational magazines started popping up all over the continent describing fishing and hunting places in what was left of the undeveloped American country. They romanced upon the solitude and quietness of getting back to the wilderness in an open canoe. The articles sold the back-to-nature advantages and getting away from the crowded cities on the quiet waterways of the continent.

At the same time materials for constructing canoes changed due to scarcity of the traditional birch tree and other woods. Canoes were now being fashioned upside down with strips of wood being layered over molds rather than solid pieces of wood.

In part two of the history of the canoe we are going to follow the development of the canoe through the years and the new uses that it was being used for.