Timothy J. Kent
Historical Author, Paddler, and Reenactor







Canoe Manufacturing Materials

The map in Figure 45 shows the growth range of the paper or white birch. The use of birchbark voyaging canoes was by no means limited to the regions in which birches grew to a suitable size to produce canoe bark. From prehistoric times on, native groups within the birch range traded bark, and in some cases finished canoes, to other groups outside of the birch range, both to the north and to the south.

Rather than trading for rolls of birchbark or finished craft, some groups such as the Iroquois acquired the canoes in the course of raids on the people who made them. The builders upon whom they preyed included the Algonkins, the Great Lakes Indians, and those groups who settled with the French in the St. Lawrence valley.

Since travelers in birchbark canoes carried spare rolls of repair bark, lashing roots, and sealant pitch, they were not limited to the birch region by a lack of repair materials in case of damage. Numerous French expeditions traveled great distances beyond the birch region, using birchbark canoes.

These include the voyage of Jolliet and Marquette from Michilimackinac to the lower reaches of the Mississippi River in 1673, LaSalle's expedition from the Great Lakes to the mouth of the Mississippi in 1683, the journey of the missionary party of St. Cosme from Michilimackinac to establish missions among the Arkansas Indians in 1698, and the delivery of furs by Tonty's party in 1700 from the Illinois country to the port on the Gulf of Mexico, to name a few.

Birchbark can be harvested in rolls and stored for years before it is used. It only requires a thorough soaking before it is ready to be fashioned into canoes or other items. Great numbers of rolls were gathered and stored at the major canoe production yards, as well as in thestorage facilities of outfitters and the government. These rolls were used for manufacturing and repairing canoes, as well as for repair kit material to be sent with each departing craft. Such spare rolls are commonly seen in early photographs and period artworks which show voyaging canoes en route.

The inventories of the Fort William canoe yard reveal major stockpiles of canoe bark. In 1816, the supply on hand consisted of 3,484 rolls, while that of 1820 contained 3,294 rolls. In 1821, the enumerator at the fort counted 986 rolls of bark for canoe bottoms and 1,730 rolls for canoe sides ("bottom bark" and "side bark").

natural range of birchbark
Figure 45. Natural range of paper or white birch. Redrawn after Brisbin and Sonderman.

Besides birchbark, supplies of suitable canoe wood were also crucial. The best wood for most of the elements of the canoes was northern white cedar. This was due to its traits of light weight, durability and strength, ease of working and splitting, and decay resistance.

The growth range of northern white cedar is shown in Figure 46. In areas outside of the range of this tree, native canoe builders substituted less desirable woods, traded for cedar with groups living within the range, or traveled to harvest a supply of the wood themselves.

natural range of white cedar
Figure 46. Natural range of northern white cedar. Redrawn after Johnston and Hyvarinen.

Examples are cited in chapter one of cases in which cedar for canoes (and possibly finished canoe elements) was imported by ship and canoe into the far northern and western regions during the fur trade era. Alexander Henry the Younger shed light on the subject of appropriate canoe wood and its importation in his diary entry of August 22, 1808. His party stopped at the Cedar Lake section of the lower Saskatchewan River (just above its mouth at Lake Winnipeg) while enroute to the far northwest. "When we came to the cluster of islands we put ashore on one of them to procure cedar to repair our canoes next spring, as no wood of that kind is found beyond the lake. Pine is therefore used in making and repairing canoes in the N. department, but it makes them very weighty."

When Henry Hind explored the Saskatchewan River in 1858, he referred in his narrative to this same section of the river as "Cedar Lake, so called from the occasional groves of cedar--a tree rarely seen in Rupert's Land--growing on its shores, particularly at its western extremity." The "Rupert's Land" to which he referred was the H.B.C. territories of the interior. The northwestern limits of the white cedar
growth range, to which the above two accounts refer, is clearly visible on the range map as an isolated area around the lower end of the Saskatchewan River just west of Lake Winnipeg.

The above references explain the importance of the rebuilding and repairing of voyaging canoes which took place in the Athabasca district at Fort Chipewyan and up the Peace River from the fort. These refurbished craft were those that had been built further to the south, with wooden elements of cedar.

Wooden elements were sometimes salvaged from canoes which could not be refurbished; this took place even in regions in which cedar was readily available. The salvage procedure saved a great deal of labor, and reduced the rate of depletion of the wood sources near the building yards. The 1816 inventory of Fort William listed "25 North canoes not repairable;" these would serve as a ready supply of salvageable wooden elements. The reuse of wooden elements was practiced in the St. Lawrence yards as well. Proof of this is found in a 1765 contract between the Trois-Rivières builder Jacques Leclair dit Blondin and his customer Aaron Hart. Blondin agreed to construct for the merchant an eight-place canoe "built entirely from new materials."

Wooden elements of canoes were typically fashioned over the winter months at the production yards, in preparation for the spring and summer assembly work. This has been discussed in reference to the seasonal schedule of the builders at Fort William and the Rainy Lake post. The inventories of the canoe yard at Fort William shed light on the great numbers of canoe elements which were stockpiled there (Figure 47). In addition to these canoe elements, great numbers of finished craft were also in stock at the time of the enumerations.

Canoe elements table
Figure 47. Canoe elements as listed in the inventories of the Fort William canoe yard.

Identification of the wood types which were utilized in the construction of the four surviving full size canoes included in this study reveals that northern white cedar was the primary wood that was used. All of the wooden elements of the Ojibwa canoe were fashioned from this wood. In addition, nearly all of the elements in the other three craft were also made from this same cedar. Here follows a discussion of the elements in the latter three canoes which were fashioned from other woods besides northern white cedar.

The thwarts were often made of a stronger, more durable wood, as were also the gunwale elements in some cases. The builders of the Sault canoe used either spruce or eastern larch/tamarack (more likely the latter) to carve the thwarts. The thwarts of the Quebec canoe were made of ash, as were also the gunwale pegs. The craftsmen who built the Royal canoe used eastern larch/tamarack for the thwarts, and spruce for the inwales, outwales, and probably the gunwale caps. Louis Christopherson was the builder from the H.B.C. posts of the upper Ottawa whom Adney interviewed in 1925. He indicated that the native builders at his posts typically used spruce or tamarack for thwarts, and that when the supply of cedar was depleted near the posts, the builders turned to sawn spruce for the gunwale elements.

From the perspective of canoe materials gathering, it is of interest to note the overlay of the growth regions of white birch (for bark), northern white cedar (for wood and sometimes roots), and black spruce (for wood, roots, and pitch); the southern boundaries of the three species are all rather parallel. Also significant for canoe construction are the types of trees which are commonly associated with the areas of northern white cedar. These include eastern larch/tamarack (for wood and roots), spruce (black, white, and red, for wood and roots), and black ash (for wood) on wetter soils, especially in swamps; and eastern white pine (for pitch) on the better drained soils. Hard (sugar or black) maple was sometimes also used to fashion thwarts; its growth range extends as far northward as the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec and the northern shore of Lake Superior. Thwarts were sometimes also carved from birch, as reported by both Guy and Gidmark.

Large amounts of lashing roots were also gathered for storage at Fort William, similar to the stocks of bark and completed wooden elements. The inventory of 1816 lists "994 rolls wattape," while that of 1821 lists "372 bundles wattap."

Black spruce was the favored type of root for canoe lashings in most locales in which it was readily available. Its growth range is shown in Figure 48.

Microscopic analysis of root material from each of the four surviving full size canoes indicates that the builders used either spruce or eastern larch/tamarack roots for all of the stitches and lashings. With only root wood to analyze, without any accompanying trunk wood, it is often impossible to differentiate between these two tree types. Even when identifying trunk wood, the task of distinguishing between these two wood types is one of the most difficult when working with limited samples. All other types of canoe roots, such as jack pine and northern white cedar, were definitely ruled out as possibilities in these four
craft by the analysis of the root samples.

natural range of black spruce
Figure 48. Natural range of black spruce. Redrawn after Ostrander.

The cordage which was traditionally used to spirally wrap the laminated bent stempieces and inwale tips, and to make the interior lashings of the end frame units, was made from either basswood or cedar inner bark. Cedar bark strips were used to lash the ends of the inwales together in the Quebec canoe, while basswood cordage appears to have been utilized by Assiginack in his canoe model. Commercial cord or string was much used in canoe building after it became available in the trade; it is found in the full size Royal and Ojibwa canoes and in the Catlin model canoe.

The traditional primary sealant for seams and repairs on birchbark canoes was a mixture of spruce or pine pitch, animal fat, and usually pulverized charcoal. The fat tempered the pitch or gum, reducing its inherent brittleness. When George Simpson departed with his party up the Peace River from Fort Chipewyan in 1828, en route to the Pacific, he recorded in his accounts: "Note of the sundries received at Fort Chipwyan (sic): 40 lbs Gum, 20lbs Grease for ditto [for mixing with pitch]."

Sometimes the cracking of the gum in cold weather led to experiments with other variations, with limited results. In 1803, Peter Fidler in the Athabasca country rubbed the seams of his canoe with straight fat, without any pitch mixed with it. This substance did not crack, as the usual mixture of fat and pitch often did, but it rubbed off easily, proving to be impractical.

A discussion is found in the repairs chapter of the several types of inner tree bark which were pulverized and mixed with water to form a sealant paste for canoes. These materials were sometimes used as a substitute for or in conjunction with the standard gum sealant.

The gum store at Fort William, which stood near the canoe building shed, in 1820 contained 20 barrels of gum totaling 4,356 pounds (averaging 218 pounds per barrel), and 4.5 barrels of pitch. The "gum" barrels presumably held the prepared mixture of pitch and fat (and possibly also pulverized charcoal), ready for application onto the canoes, compared to the straight pitch content of the latter few barrels.

The same inventory of 1820 also reveals that the shed contained three barrels of tar, each one valued slightly less than those filled with pitch. Tar was produced by the distillation of wood, coal, peat, or shale. It was used at the fort in the boat yard, to seal the planking of wooden boats. No documentation has yet been found which indicates that tar was ever applied as a sealant to canoes during the fur trade era, at either Fort William or elsewhere. However, the documented presence of tar adjacent to the most productive canoe yard in the interior at that time poses the question of its possible usage. Relevant to this issue is the observation that tar repairs were applied at some time to areas of damage on the surviving Royal, Ojibwa, and Sault canoes. Such applications of tar have usually been considered to date from the modern era, rather than from the era of usage of the canoes.

A petroleum version of "tar" was indeed applied as a sealant on some bark canoes in the far north, by those who had access to the oil sands of the Athabasca River. About twenty miles below the junction of the Clearwater River, a huge reservoir of petroleum rises to the surface in that area, visible along the high cliffs of sand which line the banks of the Athabasca River. When Alexander Mackenzie made his journey of exploration down that waterway en route to the Arctic Ocean in 1789, he halted there and observed "some bitumenous fountains into which a pole twenty feet long may be inserted without the least resistance. The butimen is in a fluid state, and when mixed with gum...serves to gum the canoes. In its heated state it emits a smell like that of sea-coal."

In traditional canoe construction, the interior surface of the seams and the exterior surface of the lower cutwater edges often received a thin strip of birchbark, in addition to the melted gum. No evidence of this practice is found on the surviving eight canoes included in this study. However, on the Royal canoe, both the interior side of the seams and the exterior side of the lower cutwater edges are sealed with a pitch-glued strip of fine-weave fabric, in place of the traditional bark strip. This feature is also found on the exterior side of the lower cutwater edges of the Sault canoe. These uses of fabric strips may at first seem to be substitutions dating from rather late in the fur trade era. But in 1777, the Great Lakes trader John Long described a canoe repair technique for larger holes in which the "aperture...is covered by a linen rag, and the edges firmly cemented with gum." If pitched linen fabric strips were being used at that early date to repair damage, it is highly likely that such pitched fabric strips were also being used by that time in some instances for seam sealing during manufacture as well."

Insects and Antidotes

"Voyageurs were required to endure more than grueling and often dangerous work. During their offshore "pipes" and two short onshore meal breaks each day, they were not much bothered by mosquitos and black flies. However, when they landed for a well-earned sleep of four or five hours in the evening, these insects sometimes made sleep impossible. Often the men applied the native antidote of bear oil (rendered liquid fat). Peter Grant, a trader in the Lake Superior region, noted in about 1804 that "the oil...is useful to annoint their hair and to rub their bodies, in order to defend them from musketoes."

On other occasions, the voyageurs built smudges (smoky fires) and protective shelters, such as those observed by the French officer Lahontan in 1684 while traveling up the St. Lawrence to Fort Frontenac:
"The Maringouins, which we call Midges, are unsufferably troublesom (sic) in all the Countries of Canada. We were haunted with such clouds of 'em, that we though to be eat up; and smoaking [smoky fires] being the only Artifice that would keep 'em off, the Remedy was worse that the Disease. In the Night-time the People shelter themselves from 'em in Bowers or Arbours, made after the following manner. They drive into the Ground Stakes or little branches of Trees, at a certain distance one from another, so as to form a semi-circular Figure; in which they put a Quilt and Bedcloaths, covering it above with a large Sheet that falls down to the Ground on all sides, and so hinders the Insects to enter."

On certain nights, the only effective remedy for the men was submerging themselves in the water, rather than sleeping. In June of 1820, the Franklin expedition traveled northward from Cumberland House up the Sturgeon-Weir River. After a strenuous 19 hour day, they arrived at Wood Lake. Robert Hood's journal recorded these events:
"We wandered in search of a landing place till 10 p.m., when we were forced to take shelter from an impending storm on a small island, where we wedged ourselves between the trees. But though we secured the canoes, we incurred a personal evil of much greater magnitude in the torments inflicted by the mosquitoes, a plague which had grown upon us since our departure from Cumberland House, and which infested us during the whole summer. We found no relief from their attacks, by exposing ourselves to the utmost violence of the wind and rain. Our last resource was to plunge ourselves in the water, and from this uncomfortable situation we gladly escaped at daylight, and hoisted our sails."

Accounts of the mid and latter 19th century contain references to mosquito netting. The party of scientists who traveled in Governor Simpson's canoe in 1860 used such netting on their faces, as well as smudges; in this instance, these defenses were not entirely effective. A voyageur with a brigade in the region of the upper Ottawa in 1879 noted that "each man carries his own blanket and fly screen." His crew also added smoke as a repellant: "As to the fly and mosquito threat in the bush and along the Montreal River in the evening, I can only say that we made smudges with moss and rotten wood all over the camping ground."