Summary and Conclusions

Chapter 8 of 8

Topical Summary: Tentative conclusions—Caveats—Continuing puzzles—Recommendations for re-enactors and museums.

Back to the Beginning

Let's start over. On February 28, 1805, Clark sent out 16 men to make four dugout canoes for the journey upriver. They had once hoped to make canoes "of bark or raw-hides," but that was impossible without birch or pitch pines. We know almost nothing of what they actually built. The leaders of the expedition were experienced river men. They knew they had to travel about 1000 miles upstream on a river relatively unknown to them, hauling many tons of supplies, sometimes paddling or rowing but often poling and pulling the boats with ropes. They knew there was a continental divide between them and the Pacific, two thousand miles away1 So they knew they had to go up, up, up–a long and hard pull with perhaps twenty tons of baggage distributed among two pirogues and finally, six dugout canoes.

Although they certainly wanted sturdy boats, hitting rocks is not an important consideration while traveling upstream, and they were a long way–maybe six months–from needing canoes for the downstream journey. By then they would be in the mountains, and around the world most mountains–since they draw down precipitation–have forests, in between the plains below and the windswept peaks above. So they could expect more trees if they needed them, whether in cottonwood flats along the river, or in the distant mountains. They could expect to build different canoes for the downstream leg, and not haul these over a divide (those expectations were correct). The canoes they crafted at Fort Mandan were to get men and gear up the river, a large river, in high water.

They wanted the lightest boats practical with a stable but efficient hull for cutting the water. Every pound saved by shaving down the boat would allow another pound of baggage. They took two weeks to build the boats–plenty of time. As Chittenden observed, a dugout could be carved by four men in four days. A long, skinny boat is faster, but more width favors stability and more cargo. They would have cut the widest cottonwood trees they could find with 24' to 33' of straight trunk and few branches. The bow and stern should be carefully carved, with enough width for stability while lining, yet with a reasonably fine entry line to lessen water resistance. The boats should also have considerable rocker (upturn at ends), especially in the bow, to make them more stable in crosscurrents.

The canoe bottoms are hard to guess. Certainly as wide as possible, and shallow sandbars and stability argue for flatter bottoms; but dugouts are best made with heartwood at the bottom, for weight (ballast), and for a durable, hard base. Mainly, they wanted the greatest volume of displacement possible from each log. That could lead to a more rounded shape, with perhaps a small section of flattened bottom.

They had seen the wind and waves on the lower Missouri. High sides would help keep their cargo dry, but at Fort Mandan they could not make planks ("washstrakes") to build the sides higher. They would have made the lightest, biggest volume, highest sided boats possible given their trees, with an all-purpose river hull. The two smaller "scout" canoes, used for errands as well as hauling, and often paddled by one or two men, would probably have been carved lighter, with more rocker: better for turning and crossing currents, versus tracking.

I have suggested that Lewis, with Mackenzie's preview, had the motive for light boats, that light and finely shaped, finely carved dugouts existed and would have been known to them, that they had the tools and skills to make such boats, and that they had all winter at Wood River, and all the ascent of the Missouri from St. Louis to North Dakota (often meeting descending voyageurs) to talk about that particular river and the requisite canoes, and all winter at Fort Mandan to make final plans. They had the motive (big, light canoes), the means (tools and skill), and the opportunity (knowledge, trees, tools, and time) to make the most functional boats possible for upriver travel, given the available cottonwoods and no pitch. They were smart and skilled, and I have no doubt that their boats were neither heavy nor "primitive" by the standards of 1800.

I have spent time reading and tabulating all the journals and research with a canoeist's eye. I have talked to several archivists (I suspect that useful eighteenth century sources on dugout canoes exist, that we have not discovered). Scholars will want to know, in short, what I have found, and what I have not found; that is, what is proposed, and what is not solved, in this investigation of the dugout canoes.


1. Lewis's intent to make lightweight boats of large capacity is clear and has been overlooked:

  • his letter to Clark on canoes "of bark or raw-hides"
  • designing the frame boat
  • requisitions for a "keeled boat light strong" and a "large light wooden canoe"
  • placing the first Mandan canoe in water to "ascertain what weight they would carry" (Gass)
  • his hopes for the frame boat above the Great Falls: "She will be very light . . . eight men can carry her . . . will carry at least 8,000 pounds."

2. The Lewis and Clark dugout canoes were considerably lighter and more sophisticated than most "replica" canoes, or the canoes that previous scholarship has suggested. Dugouts of the 19th century could weigh well under 400 pounds, have "modern" hulls, and be smoothly finished.

3. The expedition's canoeing knowledge and paddling skills were considerably superior to what scholars have often assumed.


  • Journal omissions and complexities, including multiple journals (by 6 men), and confusion of dates of incidents vs. dates of various journal entries, mean there may be mistakes and omissions in my research. The Appendix lists every useful mention of canoes or canoeing (192 instances) which I have found in the journals. Corrections to this list are welcome.
  • The absence of information proves little. A contemporary novel of a road trip might tell much about a car without mentioning that the windshield wiper's speed and frequency was controlled by turning a knob. So, for instance, I assume that "backpaddling," never mentioned, and therefore sometimes presumed not to have been used, was inevitable among intelligent people repeatedly descending rivers. In general, I assume that people in canoes have used sophisticated techniques, in sophisticated craft, for centuries. Mackenzie (as well as explorers around the world) supports these assumptions.
  • As mentioned above, excellent sources which we have not found (even with the help of the Smithsonian), especially on standard dugout construction in the Missouri River region in 1800, probably exist. Perhaps this inquiry will coax them forth.

Puzzles "Solved"

  • Was a lining sling used under the bow? Probably, No.
  • Was a stern lining rope also used? Probably, at times, Yes.
  • Why were wash-strakes not used? No planks at Fort Mandan.
  • With what did they bail? Pots, "kettles."

Continuing Puzzles

  • How were the thwarts/seats made, and where placed?
  • How were the lining ropes attached?
  • How were the sails rigged (if square or lateen rigged, exactly how)?



They know the limits of their logs, how the canoe will be stored, whether it can stay in the water, how long the canoes will last if carved thin, etc. They should aim for as light a canoe as they can make within those parameters.

However, even if re-enactors must carve thick, heavy canoes, they can avoid fishing scow designs, shape the hull to an efficient entry line, shave and smooth the outside, and "finish" with a paste of grease and pitch.


If the boat will be in a climate controlled environment, and the wood is good, the canoe should be dug to one inch (up to one and a half) at the gunwales and two inches (up to three) at the bottom, and might weigh 200–600 pounds. The depth and width should be as much as you can get from that log. Ideally, with the top third sheared off, the log will have a depth of 26 to 30 inches. Very few trees that large are still available.

If storage is an issue, or if many years of display are anticipated, consider digging thin, but finishing with an oil or spar varnish coat that seals and protects the wood.

  • 1. They had Mackenzie's coordinates for the Pacific at Bella Coola, and a detailed knowledge of the Columbia basin coastline.