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Native American Dugout Canoes

Dugout canoe

Eastman painting 1 Eastman painting 2

Several kinds of canoes were made by the Plains Indians, including: the birch bark canoe; buffalo skin boats known as "bull boats"; and the dugout canoe. The dugout was used where birch bark was unavailable. The tree was selected with care, the trunk burned or cut to a length of twelve to sixteen feet, roughly shaped, then hollowed out.

The creation of canoes and other sailing crafts by hollowing out tree trunks goes back at least 10,000 years. Early indigenous peoples used controlled fires to hollow out the logs, followed by scraping with primitive stone tools such as bone knives and sharp clam-shells, giving the canoes a flat bottom with straight sides. After the Introduction of modern iron tools, the dugout became common throughout Indian country, while the forest Indian clung to the bark canoe. For at least a thousand years, the Oneoto and Dakota Indian tribes of the Minnesota River Valley, constructed dugout canoes from large basswood, cottonwood or soft maple tree trunks, for travel on the rivers and lakes in the river valley.

The sketches, above right, depict dugout canoes below Fort Snelling that were painted by Seth Eastman, career Army officer and artist appreciated for his ethnographic detail of Indian life and culture in the 1840s.

Information taken from "How to Make and Handle Indian Canoes" by Charles A. Eastman, Dakota Scholar and Writer.

Bloomington Canoe, circa 1600

Bloomington dugout canoe

During dry years of the 1960s, dugout canoes and canoe remnants were regularly discovered In the Minnesota River Valley and along the rivers and lakes in Southern Minnesota. This Bloomington canoe, circa 1600, was discovered on the George Hopkins river bluff property in 1967. After being authenticated by the Minnesota Historical Society, it was preserved and exhibited by the Bloomington Historical Society at the Bloomington Old Town Hall.

How Dugout Canoes Were Made

Selecting the log.

Selecting the Log

A basswood, cottonwood or soft maple tree was selected and felled, by burning in ancient times or with iron tools, such as hatchets, in later periods.


Hollowing the log

Hollowing the Log

Ancient indigenous peoples utilized primitive stone tools, bone knives and sharp clam-shells to hollow and shape the dugout canoe. Modem tools were used later as iron became available, including pickaxes, chisels and knives. Cross-wise cuts are made inside the trunk about a foot apart, splitting the wood lengthwise until hollowed out.


Burning the log

Burning the Log

Carefully controlled fires were used to hollow the logs. The fires were extinguished at intervals to scrape out the burned wood with a shell or stone tool. Burning seasoned the canoe.


Finishing the log

Finishing the Dugout

After the dugout canoe was left to season sufficiently long, through drying and oiling, the canoe was ready to launch. The dugout required expertise to handle inasmuch as it retained the characteristics of a log. Explorers, trappers and hunters readily adopted the convenient dugout.

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