"BARK CANOE"


The term "bark canoe" always seems to conjure up the picture of the picturesque birch bark canoe, but the Shawnee rarely, if ever, used birch, which was not indigenous to the Ohio country. Several different types of trees were used for the making of the standard bark canoe, but the most favored was elm, since it was very flexible and easy to work with.

Two experienced Shawnee men could make a bark canoe suitable for crossing the Ohio River in about two hours. An elm with a good straight trunk would be chosen that was a foot and a half to two feet in diameter. Using tomahawk's, a line would be cut through the bark all the way around the tree just above ground level. Another line would be cut straight up the trunk for ten to twelve feet, one of the Shawnees standing on the shoulders of the other when it became too high to work otherwise. Then the man on top would cut a line around the tree similar to the one at the base. Elm bark separates from the tree quite easily and they would pry it back, using the tomahawks as levers, until the bark came off in a single tube.

One end of the tube would be flattened together so the cut lines met exactly and then, using sharpened pegs, holes would be punched two or three inches apart about an inch or so inward from the ends of the tubulat bark. The same thing would be done to the other end. Then long strands of tough wild grapevine would be used to lace each end very tightly. Finally sections of sturdy branches would be cut just long enough to act as crossbars to prop the long cut apart to its fullest extent. Sometimes (not always) these crossbars would be snugged in place with pieces of grapevine through peg-holes. The result was a square-ended canoe that was not much for looks and could not make much speed, but which could very nicely carry a couple of men and their gear across the broad river.

Paddles were made from tough stiff sections of oak bark. Such bark canoes always leaked at both ends, but not as much as might be expected, and if the load weight, including the paddlers, was positioned close enough to the center, the canoe would bow downward in the middle, lifting the ends high enough that they would barely come in contact with the water.

When finished using such a canoe, the Shawnee usually found a secluded backwater up a creek, filled the canoe with water and then put large rocks in it to sink it for possible use another time. The elm bark resisted rotting for a considerable time and a canoe sunk in this manner in spring could be raised and used as late as the following fall, though they almost never survived undamaged through a winter.

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