What Did Lewis Want?

Chapter 2 of 8

Topical Summary: Lewis' letter: "canoes of bark or raw-hides"—Dugouts versus birch bark—Lewis reading Mackenzie—Fort Mandan and the loads—Frame boat plan—The weight of canoes in 1800—Canoeing example: Ordway in the Snake rapid—"Finishing" canoes.

In one of the earliest documents of the expedition, known to every historian of Lewis and Clark, Lewis, having accepted Jefferson's request that he lead an expedition up the Missouri to the Pacific, wrote to Clark asking him to join him as co-captain. In that letter of June 19, 1803, Lewis said:

[M]y plan . . . is to descend the Ohio in a keeled boat of about ten tons burthen, from Pittsburgh to it's mouth, thence up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Missourie, and up that river as far as it's navigation is practicable with a boat of this description, there to prepare canoes of bark or raw-hides, and proceed to it's source.1

From this passage we know two things: First, that a big, heavily laden (ten tons) boat would go up the Missouri as far as possible. Second, that Lewis intended to build canoes of bark or rawhide, not dugouts. In 1800, bark canoes were the lightest possible boats, but fragile, compared to the heavier but more durable dugouts. Hence for long cross-country travel in Canada, paddling lakes and mainly low volume (west of the St. Lawrence) but often fast and rocky rivers forcing many portages, the Hudson's Bay company pioneered the construction of large volume (33 feet and over, and very wide) birch bark canoes based on Canadian Indian designs. For durable use near home, and for rougher or rockier rivers, many settlers preferred dugouts. Before the voyageurs, Indians of riverine tribes had made and used both dugouts and bark canoes. Hide boats could be a little heavier than bark, but in using the same frame and skin construction, were also lighter than dugouts. Naturally, as Lewis read in Mackenzie, hides were preferred farther north, above the birch line, where animals were more plentiful than trees; various Inuit peoples made extraordinary hide kayaks with sewn and caulked seams.

". . . there to prepare canoes of bark or raw-hides."

There is no doubt that at the time of his letter, Lewis intended to make the lightest boats possible to ascend the Missouri to its source. He and Jefferson had "devoured"Mackenzie's book in August, 1802.2 Therefore Lewis had read many tales of the birch bark canoe Mackenzie's party made at Lake Athabasca, paddled upstream and carried over the Continental Divide, wrecked and repaired, and finally smashed on the Frazer River, "the wreck becoming flat on the water we all jumped out," said the dour Scot.3 Mackenzie salvaged fragments and they built another canoe, later wrecked that, cut fresh birch bark and built yet another that took them to the Frazer rapids where they cached it for the return trip. Through Mackenzie, Lewis was thoroughly familiar with the expedition possibilities of bark canoes. Lewis and Jefferson (always the innovator) apparently talked with excitement about Lewis's plans for "a collapsible iron frame boat, "that could be carried up the Missouri, "and put together at the far end with animal skins to cover it," a design described and used by William Bartram, whose book was in Jefferson's library.4 Lewis had the metal frame made at Harper's Ferry. He may have hoped to carry the frame over the divide for the trip to the sea, as Mackenzie had carried a bark canoe over the easy (elevation about 3000') divide in the Canadian Rockies.

Mackenzie had described, near the Arctic Ocean, an Indian canoe skeleton: "as no part of the skins that must have covered the canoe was remaining,"one could see the "frame of a small canoe . . . whalebone, sewed in some parts, and tied in others."5 The feasibility of the frame and hide boat, as well as the birch or hide canoes, Lewis might have drawn from Mackenzie. Large volume and light weight: Bartram and Mackenzie had explored and recorded those needs. Lewis may have thought his collapsible frame boat would up the ante, improving on Mackenzie: carry only the frame over the divide, then add new hides. As Clay Jenkinson has pointed out, Lewis was a competitive adventurer.6

Mackenzie's effect on Jefferson's territorial ambitions has been well noted, from John Logan Allen to Ambrose. However, Mackenzie's canoeing details in relation to Lewis have not been examined. After Mackenzie's published journal of his two voyages, first to the Arctic ocean, then to the Pacific, arrived at Jefferson's residence (where Lewis was living) in the summer of 1802, the President decided that the race for the west was on: a race for transcontinental trade, for Asian markets, for the fur trade, and for finding our border with Canada. The legal boundary had already been determined: the 49th parallel (actually 49°37') from Lake of the Woods west. But where on earth was that line? What kind of country did it bisect? What rivers rose on one side of the line only to flow, oblivious to the wishes of the king, to another realm?

Within months, Jefferson had asked Lewis to lead an expedition up the Missouri to find an American route to the west. Lewis had ten months with Jefferson to devour and digest Mackenzie before he wrote his famous invitation to Clark, revealing his plan to make "bark or raw-hide" boats upriver wherever they would abandon the barge.

The overall importance of Mackenzie is hard to exaggerate:

1) Mackenzie was the first European explorer to reach the Pacific overland, leaving a thorough record of canoeing upriver, crossing the divide, canoeing down, and returning in 1793; he did all this by way of the Midwest and over the Rocky Mountains about 300-600 miles north of where the Missouri would lead Lewis, and his journals, published in 1801, arrived at the president's house in 1802, the year before Jefferson completed the Louisiana purchase and turned attention to western exploration. Lewis wrote his letter to Clark in 1803.

2) Mackenzie was smart, resourceful, a good leader if severe, an excellent observer, and a fine writer. The book was written in collaboration with William Combe, Mackenzie's editor in London, but given the sharp distinctions made in the observations, not just in the style, one suspects that there were two fine minds at work.

3) We know that Lewis and Jefferson read and valued Mackenzie's book, and that Lewis included it in his precious expedition library (every pound counted).

What has not been noted is the amount of canoeing knowledge and practical canoeing advice Lewis could have gleaned from Mackenzie. First, west of the Great Lakes, Mackenzie described a land of water, of lakes and connecting streams: "In short, the country is so broken by lakes and rivers, that people may find their ways in canoes in any direction they please."7

That was near Lake of the Woods on the U.S.–Canadian border.8 Jefferson certainly would have read those passages carefully. The Indians nearby made numerous birch canoes, and thus Lewis might reasonably have expected similar "canoe birch" trees 400 miles southwest at the Mandan villages, especially since traders knew that birch grew southward nearly to the bottom of Lake Michigan, and westward past Minnesota.

But if there was water and birch, those Canadian rivers were also fast and rocky, demanding endless portaging of gear and boats, many times a day. One portage was the length of a canoe: thirty-five feet. Canoeists can appreciate the frustration of getting into the frigid water, unpacking over 3,000 pounds of gear, carrying it ten yards, and repacking. Lewis read in Mackenzie of 90 pound bundles wrapped separately in oilskin, for efficient portaging. That was the minimal load per person. On the bright side, Lewis and Jefferson must have been encouraged to read that the Saskatchawan River "may be considered as navigable from here [Cedar Lake] to its source in the Rocky Mountains."9 Perhaps the Missouri also would be navigable to the mountains.

While Lewis probably knew that the lower Missouri was a big plains river, different from the streams of the Canadian limestone and shield country, he knew little about upriver Missouri conditions, and nothing about conditions above the Yellowstone, and he certainly, given Mackenzie's account, would have prepared for numerous portages. Light canoes. Packages suitable for portaging. On the divide between Hudson's Bay and the Slave Lake and Arctic Ocean, Lewis read that the portage went over eight hills "almost perpendicular" in a 1,000 foot ascent. Some men carried 2-3 loads (180 or 270 pounds each) at a time. The summit, said Mackenzie, "commands a most extensive, romantic, and ravishing prospect."10 In an interesting article on the invention of the Romantic West, John L. Allen noted that Lewis left Jefferson's house as an Enlightenment explorer, and returned as a Romantic observer.11 Certainly, the new romance of the West was in the air. Mackenzie's sensibility, as well as his exploration, may have shaped Lewis's ambitions.

Most dramatically for me, and perhaps for Lewis, was the fragility of the birch boats, and the endless stopping to pitch and patch. You cannot read Mackenzie's book without thinking, "Thank God for Royalex." Or kevlar, or fiberglass, or even canvas. It was absolutely necessary to carry extra bark and pitch, and many times during the day, as well as almost every night in camp, they would build a fire to soften pitch to repair birch boats. Farther north there was only spruce bark and pitch, and the problems were worse. Near the Athabasca river, Mackenzie was delighted to find the "bitumen"12 is in a fluid state, and when mixed with gum, or the resinous substance collected from the spruce fir, serves to gum the canoes. In its heated state it emits a smell like that of sea-coal."13 "Sea-coal" is coal that has washed ashore, as in northern England and Scotland. Did Mackenzie discover tar-sands oil?

Not quite, apparently, but he may have been third in line.

Although the oil sands of Alberta have only been developed commercially since the late 1960s, their documented history dates back nearly three centuries to 1717, when Waupisoo of the Cree people brought samples of the oil sands to the Hudson's Bay Company trading post at Fort Churchill, Decades later, Peter Pond documented the oil sands at the confluence of the Clearwater River and the Athabasca, and in 1790 the oil sands region was visited and described by the European explorer, Sir Alexander Mackenzie.14

In short, from Mackenzie, Lewis had a realistic impression of the huge loads necessary for a western journey, the difficulty of rapids and portages and cold weather, the fragility of the birch canoes, the need to pitch them constantly, and the need to carry them. It is nowhere in the journals, but at some point in the journey west, maybe in St. Louis, or meeting descending voyageurs, Lewis must have learned that at the Mandan villages there would be no birch, and no pitch pines, and no spruce, and therefore, no "canoes of bark or raw-hides."

Light Boats

Lewis had planned the lightest, largest boats possible. But at Fort Mandan, where he would send the barge back to St. Louis and build canoes to take the load, there was no birch. We have no record of why he did not use skins—"raw-hides"—but coming upriver he had seen many single-skin "bullboats" (small, round, unwieldy, made for crossing the river or floating down only), and he had read in Mackenzie of the seam problems of multiple-skin boats. There were no pitch pines around the Mandan Villages to caulk either "bark or raw-hide," and the same lack of pitch would later "sink" his frame and hide "experiment" boat above the Great Falls. There, hoping to invent a pitch substitute, he assembled his frame boat simply because its displacement in relation to weight would carry so much gear. Without pitch, the hide boat leaked, badly. The iron frame was buried, and has never been found.

So at the Mandan villages, the lightest boats would have to be cottonwood dugouts, not bark or hides with pitched seams. Lewis must have thought immediately, how light can we make them? The thinnest dugout would be stronger than birch—just heavier and harder to repair.

Making light boats conforms to canoeing logic. The task was to haul supplies upstream. Richard Boss estimated that the total load to go upstream from Fort Mandan was 20 tons. No matter what the actual tonnage, we know that they had trouble estimating their boats' capacities. They made four dugouts at first, and after placing the first dugout in the water they decided they had to make two more, and finally, had to take both pirogues also. Although the dugouts were of different sizes and capacities, and the pirogues could take much larger loads, Boss estimated that each canoe had to take about 2,000–4,000 pounds.

Here is the math, based on a series of rough estimates by Boss: about 29 tons of baggage arrived at Fort Mandan, about 20 tons (40,000 pounds) went upstream from there. The two pirogues might have carried about half (10,000 pounds each), and six canoes would divide the rest (20,000 pounds): that's 1.66 tons per canoe, or 3,320 pounds per canoe. All the dugouts were different sizes, so in this article, we will assume an average of about 3,000 pounds of baggage per canoe.

By today's standards, those were extraordinarily heavy loads. A modern two-man canoe is typically 18 feet long. Four hundred pounds of baggage, plus two men at 180 pounds each would come to 760 pounds, a very heavy load for an 18' modern canoe. Now double the modern canoe length to 36', and therefore double the load to 1,520 pounds in a modern 36' canoe, including the crew. But that's barely half of Boss's estimate of 3,000 pounds of baggage per canoe, a huge load, about twice what we would consider "overloaded." It's true that 24"–26" in depth would make high sides compared to modern boats. However, even if Boss overestimated the loads, those dugouts had to be extraordinarily heavy, especially for handling wind and waves on the Missouri in spring. The very first day out, one canoe took in water and was partly swamped, ruining some cargo.

Figure 12

Algonquin Birch Bark Canoe

algonquin indian birch bark canoe

© Canadian Canoe Museum, Photo by Michael Cullen

However, even if Boss's weight figures are accurate, Lewis and Clark' expectations could have been reasonable. Remember, Lewis had planned on canoes of "bark or raw-hides." The canoe in Fig. 12, described by John Jennings, is a traditional Algonquin birch canoe, 26' long and 5' wide—shorter than the biggest Clark canoes, but almost twice as wide at the middle.

Let's assume the volume of this canoe and of a Clark 33' canoe is roughly the same, especially since we cannot know the taper at each end of the dugouts compared to the Algonquin canoe. Such birch canoes were used by voyageurs, and Jennings said they could carry "thirty-five packs of trade goods, supplies or furs weighing as much as three thousand pounds." That's Boss's allotment per canoe. The Algonquin canoe itself weighs only 280 pounds, "and was portaged upright by two men." So if they had found birch near Fort Mandan, Boss's load estimates could be right, and the expedition still could have had a serviceable, lightweight fleet. The journals never mention it, but when Lewis and Clark retained the French engages and Cruzatte, among many considerations, they probably were seeking expertise in making birch canoes.

Now consider the relation of canoe weight to load. The Johnston 33' replica canoe weighs 2,400 pounds. But if that canoe can be "dug thin" to 400 pounds, with the same displacement, it can take 2,000 pounds more baggage, two-thirds of a full load. So in the river tests, with six men in a 2,400 pound boat, we may have been paddling the rough equivalent of a loaded Lewis and Clark canoe. Shaving a canoe as thin as possible would have had a dramatic effect on its load bearing potential, and that's why Lewis immediately placed the first canoe in the water to ascertain what weight it would carry. Any canoeist will appreciate the task of hauling those vessels up the Missouri in high water.

The immense loads, straining the capacity of each boat, would act as ballast, making even a light boat very stable. However, the expedition had terrible problems with wind and waves wetting the cargo, because the loaded canoes rode so low in the water. Going upstream, hitting rocks is not a problem, though dragging over them is, so (as Mackenzie had proved) a bark boat light enough to portage would be useful in ascending, whether they were "canoeing" upriver—or up eddies or crossing the river—or hauling with a rope, or poling, or sailing. The ratio of the weight of the boat (as light as possible) to its displacement (as large as possible) would determine how much it could carry.

We can, therefore, trace clearly Lewis's continuing interest in lightweight, load bearing vessels: from his earliest letter to Clark proposing canoes of bark or hide, and his excited designing of the frame boat before he had ever seen the Missouri; to the middle of the Missouri, and his eagerness to have the Mandan canoes "placed in the water" to ascertain buoyancy; and then, above the Great Falls, his unchanged hope for the frame and hide boat: "She will be very light, more so than any vessel of her size that I ever saw".15 And two days later, "She is not yet dry and eight men can carry her with the greatest ease; she is strong and will carry at least 8,000 pounds."16 Compare to Mackenzie, admiring his new 25' birch canoe made for the second expedition: "canoe put in water . . . so light, that two men could carry her on a good road three or four miles without resting."17 That is, before, during, and after a thousand miles of Missouri River experience, Lewis' needs were unchanged: boats with the lightest weight and greatest displacement possible.

How heavy is that boat?

I have combed the journals for clues to the actual weight of the dugouts; many instances suggest to me a boat lighter, usually much lighter, than a thousand pounds, and nothing suggests heavier. We do know the weight of French birch bark canoes made for the fur trade at Trois Rivieres on the St. Lawrence River before 1760. The fur trade demanded extensive travel and portaging; these were tough boats of the highest quality, familiar to Mackenzie, and probably heavy for birch boats: a canoe "du maître" was thirty-three feet long, five inches width (very wide), and two and a half feet in height (thirty inches is a very deep canoe depth), and it weighed 500-600 pounds. The smaller canoe "du nord" was about twenty-five feet long and weighed about 300 pounds.18 We could estimate that an 18' foot birch boat of that substantial design (but ¾ the length) would be about 240 pounds. We have anecdotal reports of lightweight birch boats of 14' weighing under fifty pounds (similar to Kevlar). Mackenzie speaks of Indian solo birch canoes near Great Slave Lake: one man carries a canoe "without difficulty."19 Maybe 40-100 pounds? Two men was a maximum load in those small canoes. Also, farther north near Bear Lake, Mackenzie, the Canadian fur trade veteran, observes a small Indian canoe: "the workmanship . . . excelled any that I had yet seen."20 Primitive boats? I wonder if Lewis, reading that remark, was also surprised.

Knowing that dugouts are usually heavier than birch, and using birch weights as a baseline, we can surmise that a lightly carved 18' cottonwood dugout might be 200-400 pounds at most, and a 36' dugout about 200-800 pounds.

Could a 33' dugout weigh less than 200 pounds? I doubt it, though after lifting the Spalding canoe (30'), I wasn't sure. So I looked at the biggest canoes in the Wenonah canoe catalogue. That Minnesota company has a full line of lake country expedition canoes. I checked the ratio of Kevlar (light) to Royalex (heavy) boats in exactly the same models, and then extrapolated from the largest Wenonah model weights to the size of a Lewis and Clark 33' canoe, which they do not manufacture. It seems that a 33', 36" wide modern canoe in Royalex would weigh about 160 pounds. It's hard to imagine a log canoe dug so thin that it competes with Royalex; I know one 20' dugout, 1" inch at the sides, 3" at the bottom, that weighs 220 pounds. So, I am arbitrarily setting 200 pounds as the minimum possible weight for a 33' dugout. Naturally, very few people want to carve dugouts that thin, since they have to be left in the water, crack easily, and have a shelf life of one year or two.

This range, 200-800 pounds, suits the many instances of canoeing we will examine later. In addition, it appears (though it is not certain) that four men sometimes carried a big canoe, and two hundred pounds per man is a reasonable upper limit with good footing. Canoes can be rocked up on the knee to be lifted—one man can raise a 100-pound canoe over his head and onto the shoulders without undue strain. Therefore, I suspect that, empty, the 33', 2,400-pound replica dugout that we tested, might have approximated the weight of a Lewis and Clark 33' dugout moderately loaded.

For instance: In a portage of the Narrows in the lower Columbia, Lewis and Clark and the men were dragging their empty dugouts over rocks eight feet high, using poles as bridges. Were those 2,000 pound boats? I doubt it. On the river, two men (and sometimes one) often paddled a small canoe downriver, and returned upriver. Once above the Great Falls, they came upstream loaded with buffalo hides. That suggests fairly light canoes. In one dangerous incident returning down the Missouri, Ordway paddled the canoe alone, from the bow, when Willard had been knocked out of the boat by an overhanging limb, in the dark. Ordway paddled solo to the shore from the bow (quite difficult), and then out into the current again and "took him in as he Swam through Safe."21 Solo canoeing in such instances, including upriver, or loaded, or in emergency rescue, suggests canoes not that terribly different from our own. Empty, my 17' decked, fiberglass canoe is 110 pounds, and loaded for three weeks on the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories, was 450 pounds.

Basically, the 200–800 pound range for an empty Lewis-and-Clark dugout would resemble modern canoes of eighteen or thirty-three feet fully loaded with lightweight, modern loads. Modern canoeists can easily remember or imagine solo paddling such a loaded 17' canoe (4–500 pounds total, canoe plus modern load) near camp—maybe ferrying alone across the river—heavy, slow, but manageable.

Common sense dictates boats thick enough not to delay the expedition with repairs, but as light as possible for portages and the work of carrying loads.

Canoeing: Trouble on the Snake

We have considered that the canoes of the period could have been much closer to modern standards than is commonly assumed. What about the canoeing?

Let's take one paddling example to discuss their canoeing skill and illustrate what happens when we bring canoeing awareness to bear on the journals of Lewis and Clark. In the Snake River, a few days before the Columbia portage cited above, on October 13-16, 1805, they encountered a series of very difficult rapids (now all changed by dams into regulated or slack water). It's not easy to trace the details, since four different journalists are writing about two or three similar events, and some are dating by incident, some by journal entry; in addition, some have "raw" journal entries followed by "fair" copies of the same incident sometimes improved by Biddle in consultation with Clark in 1810. I will use only the raw copy. Some men were directly involved in the boat in question; others were not. In this case, I agree with Huser that we are talking about the second rapid on October 14, 1805, when the last canoe in the group hung up on a rock at the top of a dangerous rapid, and turned sideways, taking water and spilling cargo.

Gass wrote:

[A] canoe hit a rock, and a part of her sunk, and a number of the things floated out. With the assistance of the other canoes all the men got safe to shore; but the baggage was wet.

Some men walked certain rapids and we don't know who was in this boat besides Ordway; all the men had leather clothes and no lifejackets; river rescue by downstream, loaded boats is very tricky: the rescue crew is paddling upstream or pulling eddies to wait for floating men to come down, then getting them secure (holding gunwales?) and not squashing them against rocks as the canoe is paddled across the current to shore. A "swim" in a major rapid with heavy clothes and no life vest is life threatening, to this day.

Whitehouse wrote:

Then came to a rockey rapid at the head of an island in which one of the canoes under charge of Sergt. ordway ran fast on a Solid rock and Swung across the rock. they got out on the rock and attempted to shove the canoe off the rock, but could not Start hir for Some time. the waves dashed over hir bow So that when we got hir loose from the rock She filled full of water and considerable of the baggage and bedding washed out. one of the canoes below unloaded and went to their assistance. took out Some of the loading. the canoe then broke away from them and left 4 men Standing on the rock. the water half leg deep over the smooth rock & rappid. a canoe Shortly went and took them off the roc.

That remarkably thorough description is corroborated and augmented by Ordway, the steersman. Ordway wrote:

Then came to another bad rapid at the head of an Island. The canoe I had charge of ran fast on a rock in the middle of the river and turned across the rock. We attempeted to get hir off but the waves dashed over hir So that She filled with water. We held hir untill one of the other canoes was unloaded and came to our assistance considerable of the baggage washed overboard, but the most of it was taken up below when the canoe got lightned. She went off of a sudden & left myself and three more Standing on the rock half leg deep in the rapid water until a canoe came to our assistance.

Clark describes the scene too, but with less detail, and mistakenly says the canoe was steered by "drewyer" (Drouillard). From this unusual amount of detail—perhaps the most vividly and thoroughly described, dangerous canoe incident on the expedition—and from the unusual agreement on important particulars, we can talk with some certainty about their canoeing.

First, in that series of rapids for several days, the expedition had followed exactly the protocol a modern expedition would follow. They had three Indians with them who knew the rapids and "acted as pilots or guides," descending the rapids first and showing the line. It is not clear how long the Indian guides remained with the party. Gass also says they ran the bad rapids two canoes at a time, as we might do now, so all would not be endangered at once22 When entering the top of a rapids river left, for instance, it helps to know if the exit at the bottom is river right. So the guide goes first. Some of the best boats (in design, or lighter load, or personnel, etc.) might follow next, and it's also nice to have an experienced boat in the rear, to stay above less experienced boats, to "mop up". Ordway—a sergeant, the only other officer besides Gass, Prior, and the two Captains—was highly regarded. On the return trip, he was given command of the party and boats from the Great Falls downstream to the Marias, while Lewis was up the Marias by horse and Clark was on the Yellowstone. It is appropriate that Ordway was in the stern of the last canoe down.

Second, the journalists all describe a canoe hitting a submerged rock, hanging up, then turning sideways, broadside to the current, a most dangerous position; the boat could easily flip over. The rock is knee deep under water, but the boat is stuck, which confirms what we keep hearing: that the boats were very heavily loaded indeed. Maybe they are exaggerating the depth of the water, but 20" (just below the knee) might be close to the entire height of a boat hollowed from a log 36" in diameter with the top third cut off; they were always having trouble with little freeboard. If a canoe could hang up on a rock a "half leg deep" in fast water, that canoe was barely above water at the best of times.

We know further, that the cargo was a considerable part of the boat's weight; when some of the baggage was dumped, the canoe moved off the rock, stranding the four men on the rock, "half leg deep in the rapid water."

Meanwhile, on the shore another canoe "unloaded and went to their assistance." Perhaps the baggage was an appreciable part of their weight too, though also, they probably didn't want to risk the cargo in the rescue, and they needed to make room for four more men.

Now comes the hard canoeing: the rescue would involve an upstream ferry at about 45 degrees into the current. They probably dragged the empty rescue boat quickly upstream to a place (depending on speed of current vs. paddling speed) where they could be sure to make it across to the stranded men.23 (I will link to McIver and Bevis upstream ferry here) As the rescue canoe neared the rock, whether from above or below, it could not stop above it—too dangerous, the same pickle the others were in—and the current to either side of the rock would be too strong for a landing, especially since the rock was submerged; nothing to hold on to. They would pull into the pour-over eddy below the rock, where they could hold in place and load the stranded men. Then they would have to break through the eddy seam, with expert braces on the downstream side, then upstream ferry across to the shore, looking back over their shoulders to avoid other rocks as they crossed, descending the river backwards—the current down, being faster than they could paddle up—even as they paddled as hard as possible in a 45° ferry upstream. This is very tricky stuff in any boat, and would require almost every stroke in the repertoire. It is hard to describe in words, but the video sections on canoeing demonstrate eddy seams, braces, upstream ferries—and you can see an old wood and canvas canoe, and a 2,400-pound log, doing all this.

What does this tell us of the weight of the dugouts? There is no certainty, but as in a hundred other incidents, we can say that the lighter the boat, the easier this rescue, and that it is hard to imagine a boat of over a thousand pounds (plus another thousand pounds of six men) carrying out these maneuvers in a rapid. We may not know the exact weight of the boat, but the canoeing itself was very skillful.

"Finishing" canoes

A few weeks later, on October 26, the canoes have been roughed up by dragging, in shallows and in portages. Gass says that "We hauled up all our canoes to dress and repair them, as they had been injured in passing over the portage." They had noticed pines and oaks on the hills. On the same day, Whitehouse adds: "So we unloaded all the canoes Shaved the bottoms Smooth and pay them over and made them in good repair." It is the only reference in the journals, so far as I could find, to "shaving" the hulls.

The verb "shave" would imply a draw knife, or plane, or rasp—some kind of fine blade. In addition, to "pay over" usually meant caulking with pitch or a substitute of charcoal, tallow, beeswax, bear grease, etc. Bob Chenoweth says the Nez Perce had a finishing paste for their dugouts. We do not know the formula. But the inland Salish used a mixture of bear fat and sap cooked to flowing and rubbed into the dugouts. This sounds similar to McKenzie's treatments of birch canoe seams: whatever fat and sap they could render (sometimes with honey or beeswax), rubbed hot on the seams. One would expect something of this sort on dugouts, to smooth the wood for efficiency in the water, and to seal it so it would not become "waterlogged."

Tom Ronk, of the Discovery Expedition St. Charles, has made 6 dugouts (weighing 2,000–3,000 pounds each) and lined them up the Missouri, Jefferson and Beaverhead rivers, among others. He has used oakum to patch canoes, and John Fisher of the Idaho re-enactors has suggested ground charcoal and ponderosa pitch, possibly plus beeswax to keep it supple. The expedition repairs are treated in the Appendix.

Every time they make canoes, there is some reference to "finishing," usually in camp for several days. Clark said at Fort Mandan that the new canoes were "corked pitched and lined oover" and in the fair copy "lined" becomes tarred "in and on the cracks." But "finishing," in all the journals, is never fully explained. Whitehouse's one remark suggests that shaving the hull smooth was common, even "en route," and that some kind of wax or grease finish, as well as pitch in cracks, might also have been applied. Perhaps that is what Gass meant by "dress." Ordway's account: "we unloaded the canoes and halled them out of the water to smooth their bottoms and repair them" (October 1, 1805). As we shall see, these remarks are consonant with Chittenden's description of standard nineteenth century dugouts on the Missouri.

I have no doubt that the canoes were smooth as well as efficiently shaped. Lewis wanted light boats, and he, Clark and Gass would also have wanted efficient boats. I expect that by the time the Lewis and Clark party got to the Snake, there was nothing primitive about either their canoes or their canoeing.

  • 1. Donald Jackson, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents: 1783–1854 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1978), I:58. Emphasis added.
  • 2. Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 74. Ambrose's dramatic metaphor may well be justified.
  • 3. Alexander Mackenzie, Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793, Vol. I and II. (New York: A. S. Barnes & Company, 1902), II:114.
  • 4. Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind. (Yale University Press, 1959), 54–55.
  • 5. Mackenzie, VOL:PAGE.
  • 6. Clay Jenkinson, The Character of Meriwether Lewis (Bismarck, The Dakota Institute Press, (2011).
  • 7. Mackenzie, II:cvii.
  • 8. See Of National Importance, Drawing the Line
  • 9. Mackenzie, II:cix.
  • 10. Mackenzie, II:cxxxi.
  • 11. Allen.
  • 12. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, such bitumen can be traced to Biblical times: "bitumen: a kind of mineral pitch found in Palestine and Babylon, used as mortar."
  • 13. Mackenzie, I:cxxxii.
  • 14. Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, "History of the Oil Sands," http://www.ramp-alberta.org/resources/development/mining.aspx (accessed 8 September 2014).
  • 15. Moulton, 4:356.
  • 16. Moulton, 4:363.
  • 17. Mackenzie, II:29.
  • 18. Kenneth G Roberts and Philip Shackleton. The Canoe: A History of the Craft from Panama to the Arctic (International Marine Publishing Co. 1983).
  • 19. Mackenzie, II:239.
  • 20. Roberts, II:312.
  • 21. Moulton, 9:345; Huser, 141.
  • 22. see Appendix, Aug. 12, 1805, Gass, Ordway, and Whitehouse.
  • 23. See Building and Paddling Dugout Canoes, Pictorial Essay, Upstream Ferry.