This birchbark canoe is at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. Photo by Billy Hathorn, Wikipedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

During grad school days, my research was on a Revolutionary War trading post or Truckhouse we excavated on the Penobscot River in present-day Veazie. Jonathan Lowder, the truckmaster who ran it, often traveled downriver to Fort Pownal or over to Castine or upriver to Old Town on Truckhouse business to deal with the Penobscot Indians.
This got me thinking about just how he did that, long before roads were around or horses widely available. No doubt it was by water. What I found was that the canoe was his and many others’ main form of transportation in those days. The idea of canoeing from Fort Point to Bangor, or Castine to Old Town might at first glance appear easy and no problem, but there are some considerations to think about, such as the waters being traversed, the time of year for the attempt, the distances involved, the river currents and variable weather conditions. The canoe needed to be sturdy and capable for such trips.
It was the birchbark canoe, considered the most effective and efficient kind of water locomotion used in the region. American painter and traveler George Catlin considered the bark canoe “the most beautiful and light model of all the watercrafts that ever were invented.” Tough, popular, durable, efficient and cost-effective, birchbark canoes remind me of Henry Ford’s Model T. Researching birchbarks and their construction, use and maintenance, I discovered a different aspect of New England and Maine maritime history, one just as profound and impactful as the wooden-hulled ships that went to sea.
French explorer and Quebec founder Samuel Champlain became a big-time proponent of the birch-bark canoe. He quickly realized its potential, even though many of his fellow settlers saw how the Native Americans sat on their heels while piloting the craft and thought it way too easy to turn over. But Champlain and others saw that canoes could go where deeper draught boats could not; they could be wide and long enough to haul cargo, yet light enough to carry over portages. A French missionary agreed, noting that when a cataract or waterfall appeared, all you had to do was load the canoe and baggage upon your shoulders and go overland until the navigation was good again.
Maine and New England’s streams, lakes and rivers thus offered a veritable unlimited highway for travel, communication and commerce with the birchbark canoe. If they were damaged, birchbarks could be easily repaired. Native Americans and early colonists often carried a gum pot in the canoe bow for any leaks which might develop. If need be, birchbark canoes could be built in a fairly short amount of time, especially by those with the knowledge and skills.

This Penobscot birchbark canoe was built for Charles Strickland in 1888 by Penobscot Indians, and used in the river drives.

From his Truckhouse at Veazie, Lowder traveled up the Penobscot to Sunkhaze and then worked his way downeast to another Massachusetts-run Truckhouse at Machias. I have often poured over my Maine Gazetteer and called up Google Earth trying to figure out the probable routes he may have taken. I have visions of someday attempting such a trip in kayaks or canoes, trying to replicate what he did back in the 1770s, just to see what it may have been like.
But why was birchbark the go-to material for these hardy vessels? That is another interesting aspect to this story. I learned that birchbark is impervious to water and very durable, due to a resin called botulin. Birchbark canoes could also be quite long-lasting, if properly cared for. The Bangor Historical Society, the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor and the University of Maine Hudson Museum all have birchbark canoes in their collections that date back to the early 19th century. They look like they could be plopped right into the water today. Building these canoes became an art form and highly specialized procedure, which tended to be forgotten or not passed down as fewer makers replaced the older generations. This is its own tragedy, the process, knowledge, skills and traditions of such an art being lost.
In birchbark canoe construction, I found that one of the first steps was to locate the following trees: a large white birch (Betula papyrifera), an eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), and a black spruce (Picea mariana). Even in the Maine woods, finding a large suitable white birch is not as easy as it sounds. Native Americans tended to look for and find a suitable candidate during the month of August. They would pick one with the more solid looking bark with a silver tinge. For a 12-foot canoe, a tree needed to have about 20 feet of exposed trunk, usually about 16 inches in diameter. Before the tree came down, you needed to make a bed, so it did not hit the ground damaging the bark. Or you could just remove the bark with a longitudinal cut, which allows the bark to be easily peeled on warm days. The interior bark is called the cambium, this is the pulpy layer that keeps the tree alive after the outer bark has been harvested. Canoe construction usually happened in the shade, to keep pieces from drying out. Structural parts of the canoe were made from white cedar such as gunwales, ribs and sheathing. Forty-four individual ribs were fashioned; canoe makers always made extras since many tended to break while being bent into shape. They were soaked in water to soften them into bending, but occasional breakage still occurred. Thwarts were typically made of ash. Lashing, used to sew up seams and affix pieces, was made from Black Spruce.
Canoe makers were meticulous and methodical, much like the small wooden boat builders I had conversed with. It was a project filled with skill, tradition and pride. Canoe makers used a building frame as a guide to shape the wood around this template. They would align the inwale assembly to correct height, then put the outwales directly outboard from the inwales. Any excess bark was trimmed. Gunwales were then clamped together, with spruce root lashing used to sew it together. The gunwale line is known as the sheer. With the shape of the canoe pretty much set, the building frame was removed. The ends of ash or maple thwarts were then affixed with lashing. Once the thwarts were in, the canoe was then flipped upside down so its bow could be properly lashed with one long, solid piece of spruce root. Bending the ribs into shape and putting them in place was a challenge, even though they had been soaking in water for days. Thicker and wider ones were set nearer the center thwart. Ribs were bent across the maker’s knee in pairs, to provide consistency and support each other. Then they were set out in the sun to help dry into shape. Bark sheathing pieces were then used to line the inner hull. Braces were put across the top to hold the gunwales together. The ribs were then carefully hammered into place, slowly and methodically. Since they exerted such tremendous pressure, this process had to be done carefully and with acceptance that many would break. But it was necessary, since that is what made the birchbark canoe so strong and solid. Finishing work included capping the gunwales and using a sealing compound of gum at the bow and at the cuts in the bark called gores. This prevented the cuts from crimping. The smallest birchbark canoes tended to be in the 8-foot range in length, most were 12 to 18 feet long. Their flat bottoms meant an extreme shallow draught, good for streams and ponds, where poling meant further progress before canoe hauling at portages began.

Pictured is a birchbark canoe in storage at the Hudson Museum, University of Maine.

Abenaki influences on the birchbark canoe included a bow shaped like a reverse “C.” There was also a thin headboard, which curved towards the bow. I spoke with a friend who had built his own canoe and learned it had been an interesting although not easy project. It took him about a year to build in his basement, it came out at 16 feet and weighed about 65 pounds, light enough for potential portages through the woods to the next body of water.

Winslow Homer’s 1897 watercolor is titled “End of the Portage.” Brooklyn Museum, Image in Public Domain

I am trying to picture paddling a canoe up the Penobscot River in early March with a stiff northerly wind in my teeth, chunks of ice in the river and a slate gray sky threatening sleet or snow. What amazes me is that Native Americans and early colonists did it. And did it regularly.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” available through Historypress.com.