When they arrived in the North America, Europeans brought the concept of ocean-going sailing ships, firearms, advanced metals technologies and other such modern accouterments to the battle to seize the New World, where the earliest of them expected to meet representatives of the Chinese Empire. Instead, they were greeted by hardy Native American tribesmen.
For their part, Native Americans brought superior sanitation, agricultural innovation, and a few other superiorities to the contest. One of those superiorities was the birch bark canoe, a Native American invention that, ironically, led to the destruction of its inventors’ cultures.
By the time they finally gained a permanent foothold in the New World from 1492 on, the Europeans had moved ahead of the rest of the world in the use of maritime technology. Northern European sailing ships had evolved from various ancestors ranging from Roman “round ships” to the long ships of the feared Vikings, who themselves were little more than sea-going banditti, albeit banditti who were the first to briefly colonize the New World.
But in the design and development of light craft to navigate inland waters, the Europeans depended on boats built with the same basic technological elements as their sea-going ships. When it came to practical craft to explore North America’s intricate networks of streams, rivers and lakes, they were behind the technological curve—though they didn’t realize it at first.
When the first French explorers penetrated the St. Lawrence River system in the late 1500s they were astonished to find that Native Americans used boats made of little more than bark to travel everything from the smallest streams to the greatest of the Great Lakes.
Unfortunately, no one knows who the brilliant Native American inventor was who finally hit upon the idea of using birch bark as the hull sheathing for a canoe. The design was probably derived from the kayaks of the Inuits of the far northern latitudes who fearlessly sailed their hide covered boats across hundreds of miles of open ocean.
Sometime before 1500 A.D., an enterprising Native American (or group of tribesmen) built a frame of split cedar or spruce and covered it with large sheets of bark carefully pealed from paper birch trees.
Eventually, the classic birch bark canoe was standardized by its greatest builders and users, the Chippewa, who called themselves Ojibwa. Chippewa canoes were built in a variety of sizes and were traded to the Ottawa, who established a great inland North American trade empire well before the Europeans arrived.
Canoes were begun by making a frame of split cedar or spruce. Then, sheets of birch bark were soaked in hot water and fitted over the frame, with the white outside of the bark inside the canoe and the tan inner bark on the outside to take advantage of the bark’s natural curl. The sheets were secured to the frame and to each other with pliable splits of spruce root called watap. The seams between bark sheets were sealed with a mix of spruce gum and charcoal.
So when the French arrived, they found an extensive system of inland trade routes waiting for them, plus the technology to exploit it. Depending on how you look at it, Samuel de Champlain’s actions in helping an Algonquian tribe attack their Iroquois neighbors was either a disaster (because he initiated 200 years of Iroquois hatred for the French) or very fortuitous (because he made instant friends of the Ottawa and the rest of the Algonquian tribes who had long lived under the thumbs of the well-organized and efficiently ferocious Iroquois).
The French quickly assimilated Ojibwa canoe technology and in time, roughly standardized canoes into three sizes, the canot, any canoe up to about 20 feet in length or so; the canot du nord (north canoe), craft of about 25 feet in length; and the canot de maitre (master canoe, also called the Montreal canoe), vessels of 35-40 feet in length.
The smaller canoes were used on small and shallow inland rivers and creeks, although they were also sometimes favored as express canoes. North canoes (cargo capacity of about three tons) were primarily freight haulers on medium rivers, while the giant Montreal canoes (cargo capacity of about six tons) were used to transport freight on the largest rivers and the Great Lakes.
Although of elegant design, birch bark canoes were not without their drawbacks, of course. Bark canoes can be easily hulled in rocky rapids, and so are not really practical for use in areas where birch bark to make repairs is not readily available—as American fur trader Peter Pond found out.
While on a trading expedition up the Missouri River well beyond the paper birch range in the late 1700s, Pond’s camp was struck by a storm. As he later reported in his own inimitable style (he never met a word he couldn’t misspell): “the wind toock the Canew up in the Air Leat hir fall on the frosen flat & broke Hir in Peceis. I was then in a Sad Sittuation.” As a result of the accident, Pond and his companions had to walk back to the nearest fort, a trip of several weeks.
As a result of these shortcomings, it didn’t take long for traders to exchange their bark canoes for something a little more sensible when they started trading extensively up the Missouri, not to mention elsewhere south of the paper birch’s range. Here in Illinois, birch bark canoes were often used by explorers, missionaries, and traders early in the European period, but were soon replaced by dugouts, batteaux, large (flat bottomed boats propelled by oars), York Boats, and Mackinac Boats.
It’s not often a people hand their conquerors the seeds of their own destruction, but that’s what Native Americans did when they introduced Europeans to birch bark canoe technology. Without the versatile craft, the exploration and exploitation of the interior of North America surrounding the Great Lakes probably would have taken a very different course.