The Dugout Canoe

Half-inch scale model of a dugout canoe

. . . as conceived by Richard C. Boss for Fort Clatsop National Memorial.

Dugout Canoe on a display stand

© 1998 VIAs Inc. Jim Wylder photo.

This model is now on loan to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Montana.

Eighty percent of the Corps of Discovery's round-trip journey was by water, in a total of 25 vessels of various types—the custom-built keelboat, two large flat-bottomed rowboats called pirogues, fifteen dugout canoes made from logs, four canoes bought from Indians, one stolen Indian canoe, and two buffalo-skin bullboats. Altogether, the men carved 15 dugout canoes. At Fort Mandan they hewed 6 from Cottonwood logs, which they paddled, poled, and towed up the Missouri to the Great Falls. When Lewis's experimental "iron boat" failed above the falls, they carved two more Cottonwood canoes to take its place. They abandoned one at the confluence of the Jefferson and Wisdom (today the Big Hole) Rivers, and stashed the rest at Fortunate Camp, where they transferred their baggage to horses purchased from the Shoshones.

West of the Rockies they used ponderosa pine logs to craft five new canoes. One of those was wrecked in the Falls of the Columbia, and replaced with one the captains bought from Indians. The Corps left Fort Clatsop on 23 March 1806 in three of their own pine dugouts, four Indian canoes they bought, plus one they found. All were either sold or destroyed by the time they got through the Falls, where they bought horses for the overland journey back to the Nez Perce village where they had left their Shoshone horses. They carved one small ponderosa pine canoe at Camp Chopunnish for commuting back and forth across the Clearwater River, but it broke up on a rock and sank.

Back at Fortunate Camp in early July of 1806, Sergeant Ordway and eleven men retrieved their five Cottonwood dugouts and paddled them down to the Falls of the Missouri. Meanwhile, Clark proceeded overland to the Yellowstone River and made two small dugouts a few miles above today's Billings, which were so unstable he had them battened together, catamaran style.

Generally the dugouts were about thirty feet long and up to three feet wide, with a capacity of between two and three tons, including four to six men, who probably knelt in order to keep the center of gravity low and prevent tipping. Empty, each canoe may have weighed as much as a ton.

Further Reading:

Richard C. Boss, "Keelboat, Pirogue, and Canoe: Vessels Used by the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery," Nautical Research Journal, Vol. 38, No. 2 (June 1993), 68–87.

Arlen Large, "The Rocky Boat Ride of Lewis & Clark," We Proceeded On, Vol. 21, No. 1 (February 1995), 16-23.