Dugout Canoes of Lewis & Clark

by William W. Bevis

Overview

Most of the "replica" Lewis and Clark dugout canoes used by re-enactors and sitting in parks or museums are roughly carved, crudely shaped, and weigh from 800 to 3,000 pounds. Actual nineteenth century dugouts, however, both those few surviving and those known by nineteenth century description, can be smoothly finished, finely shaped, and weigh from under 200 to 800 pounds. When historian Hiram Chittenden (1858–1917), in 1903, characterized nineteenth century cottonwood dugouts on the Missouri, he described a "round log shorn of all roughness and irregularity. . . . a regular canoe model. . . . a shell about two inches thick at the bottom and one at the rim," concluding: "These log canoes made excellent craft, strong, light, and easily managed."

This essay is an attempt to add a canoeist's eye to the scholarship. The "sources" in this case, in addition to the previous scholarship, the replicas, the expedition's journals, and canoe history, include river tests of replicas, and my own canoeing experience. We will examine a number of difficult canoeing situations, especially as the expedition ascended the Missouri Breaks and descended the Snake River. I hope this will shed new light on what kinds of canoes they might have made, and what they did with them on the rivers.

A mythology of "primitive" canoes, heavy and crude, and of primitive canoeing, has gradually taken hold in Lewis and Clark scholarship, and is here revised.

An essay for the general reader on Lewis and Clark's journey, examining their canoeing as well as their canoes. The structure of this essay is narrative. The eight chapters, or web pages, include: