When Were Canoes Invented?

Last Updated: 27.05.20


Rowing in a canoe is a great way to blow off steam and you should make sure to check it out. While nobody can point out exactly when the first canoe was crafted, it is a well-known fact that Native Americans were already using them when Europeans first stepped foot on the continent.


It was a long time ago

For anybody out there who does not know what a canoe is, it is a light and narrow boat pointed at both ends and open on the top which is usually propelled with one or more paddles.

No one is completely sure when the process of canoeing first started because it appears canoes have been around for thousands of years. Several years ago, archeologists even discovered the remains of a dugout canoe among some ancient ruins which people believe to be around 8000 years old.

Even though today we consider canoeing a sport, this was not always the case. First and foremost, this was an often-used form of transportation and clues from the history of Indian canoes go a long way toward helping us understand how we got to where we are today.

It is a well-known fact that in North America, the very first canoes were used by the indigenous people who called the Caribbean their home to travel between their islands whenever the need arose.



Europeans barging in

Throughout history and even as late as the last century, the canoe’s shape and design have evolved and changed, from the simple ones made of logs to those made of birch bark which were used by Native Americans, explorers, missionaries, and even trappers.

This form of transportation was perfect for navigating the North American Waterways because it could haul huge lots of cargo while still being good enough to handle all sorts of weather conditions such as open lakes, coastal waters, quick rivers, and so on.

When the Europeans first came to America, they obviously found canoes very helpful and quickly started learning how to use them and incorporating them into their lifestyle there. In fact, we have sources telling us that they were amazed by the advanced engineering skills that the Native Americans used to design their boats.

Instead of simple, hollowed-out logs, these canoes were framed and constructed of multiple types of wood which was held together with the aid of a glue made from trees. 

In 1603, a man named Samuel de Champlain was the first explorer to write a comprehensive account of the dimension of Native American canoes. Based on his account, these measured up to 23 feet, to a 50-inch beam, and were able to carry as much as 1,000 pounds of cargo during one ride.

The French, in particular, used the canoe to establish a small empire in fur trade and further explore some areas which are pretty popular nowadays, mainly Canada and mainland United States.


The origin of the name

People came up with two theories regarding the origin of the word ‘canoe’. Some of them claim that the word is, at its roots, of Arawakan origin. Even though it was originally spelled ‘canoa’, it was later Anglicized as ‘canoe’.

Another popular theory suggests that the term is derived from the native word ‘kenu’ or ‘kanu’, which loosely translated means something in the form of ‘dugout’. 


Fascinating facts about canoes

The fact that archaeologists discovered the more-than-8000 years old canoe really puts the entire domain at a loss when it comes to identifying the date when all of this started. Since nobody can say exactly when the first canoe was built, the belief that they were first developed by Native Americans may someday prove to be a wrong theory.

Before canoes evolved as the next big thing when it came to Europeans exploring the new land, they were mainly used as a means of transportation to get the natives from one island to the next and were generally made from bark and tree trunks. While still being vulnerable to damage from rocks or other materials, they were also quite easy to repair.

As we said, the French used canoes to establish a worldwide industry dealing in the acquisition and sale of animal fur. In fact, these boats became so important for them that a French missionary once said that ‘The convenience of these canoes is great in these waters, full of cataracts or waterfalls, and rapids through which it is impossible to take any boat…’.


Canoes and kayaks

Since canoes are most often used in water sports today, a confusion has appeared regarding the difference between them and kayaks. Along with having two entirely different histories, there are a number of structural differences between the two.

The most eminent one is the fact that while canoes are open top boats, kayaks are closed top boats so it should not be very hard to distinguish one from the other.



Some more history

Before Europeans arrived, Native Americans used two main designs for water transportation. In the northeast and upper Midwest, the primary craft was the birch bark canoe. This type of boat was built right-side-up and had a wooden skeleton surrounded by bark that was lashed together with roots, planked, ribbed, and sealed by using pitch.

In the meantime, in the south, starting from the Gulf of Mexico and west to the Pacific Ocean, the dugout canoe was king. If you’re confused by the name, it was actually just that: a log partially hollowed with the use of tools and fire, later expanded with hot water and sharpened at the ends.

Both of them were born of environment conditions because in the north and east the paper birch forests supplied the raw material while the south and west had to rely on cypress, redwood, cedar, and other species.

Another great thing is that both of them, especially the bark canoes, were able to support some tweaking and improvements, whether practical, spiritual, or artistic. Prior to the Europeans coming over and settling here, the trademark canoe shape was so good that even French, English, and Dutch explorers could not find a way to improve upon it.

In fact, the most successful traders co-opted the vehicle as their own personal freight hauler. This way, both canoes were able to rule the waves for hundreds of years through the resettlement of the continent, before steam-powered boats and trains managed to kick them to the curve.


How it changed

Shortly after the Civil War was over, the canoe found a new purpose not as a workboat but rather as a way to escape from work. Increased leisure time and the professionalization of traditional past time such as hunting and fishing gave this ancient boat new duties.

Magazines started popping up describing the best ways and places to chase fish or game or simply row to get away from the chaos of modern, industrial cities. There was also an element of nostalgia in all this canoe literature, even as all the writers admired the solitude and the restfulness of quiet days on the water.

Furthermore, manufacturing advances and even a scarcity of right-sized birch trees led to new ideas and the development of new canoes built upside-down from strips of wood over molds, rather than the traditional choice of right-side up from the bark.

Upstate New York and Maine, recognizable for their miles of navigable streams, became the centers of American innovation with the new methods available. Builders worked to share the new models with the general public, especially when it came to hunters, anglers, and adventurers.

Even though they were first sold as a way to escape the pressure of the city, the manufacturing process of the canoe managed to mirror the American industry pretty closely. After the major economic collapse of 1893, producers were able to develop a cheaper building technique – wood overlaid with canvas and coated with special waterproof sauce – which really lowered the prices.

Canoes were also not only about getting away from the social pressure but also the newest dating place. At the turn of the century, there was a remarkable number of young men and women paddling together on the Potomac, for instance.

Therefore, this kicked off a process called ‘canoedling’ where the opportunities for intimacy were taken full advantage of, much to the dismay of preachers. This led to a series of arrests and punishments – a young man being famously fined $20 for kissing his sweetie in a canoe up on the Charles River.



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