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Arctic Pioneer Craft: Encyclopedia Arctica 9: Transportation and Communications
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Arctic Pioneer Craft

H. I. Chapelle
Cambridge, Maryland

ARCTIC PIONEER CRAFT

The pioneer craft of the North American Arctic are those employ–
ed by the early settlers and traders in the area. By the opening years
of the nineteenth century the white traders had penetrated to the
shores of Hudson Bay and into what is now the Northwest Territory.
Most of these traders had come from the south by means of the rivers
and chains of lakes, usually by means of birch bark canoes.
The birch bark canoe may be said to have been the characteristic
craft of the Canadian fur trader in the seventeenth, eighteenth and
early nineteenth centuries. This type had been developed by the North
American Indian and was employed in almost all areas where the paper
or canoe birch was to be found in sufficient size to be used in canoe–
building. The highest development of the birch bark canoe seems to have
been in eastern Canada on the Great Lakes and in Northern New England, though good types
of birch bark canoes existed as far west as Alaska.
It does not appear that the Indians built very large birch bark canoes
before the arrival of the Whiteman though it is known that there were
dugout canoes of great size in use on the Great Lakes in prehistoric
times and on the Northwest Coast, particularly in British Columbia,
until very recently. Indian migrations and war-parties seem to have
employed fleets of small bark canoes rather than the birch bark "war
canoe" of popular tradition until the early French traders and missionaries
had introduced the five or six fathom "canot de maitre"; a large canoe
of 25- 33 feet in length and capable of carrying from 11/2 to 2 tons of
freight. These large fr [: ee ] ghting canoes apparently developed early in
the eighteenth century and the French colonial government actually had
a building establishment at Trois Rivieres by 1750 that built these canoes for official use. For some years after the British captured French
Canada this establishment continued to build these large canoes. Early
in the nineteenth century the Americans had a similar establishment at
Detroit that built similar canoes for the American government and traders
In addition to the large canoes of the French regime, the traders used
the numerous sizes of canoe that had been found in Indian hands- the
small hunting canoe; from 12 to 18 feet in length, the "Light Canoe"
from 18 to 24 feet in length and very sharp-ended and narrow, and the
small working canoes, in the same lengths but wider and deeper than the
"Light Canoes". The small hunting canoes were built for one or two pad–
dlers and their gear and were employed as their name indicated, for
hunting and fishing. The "Light Canoes" were really enlarged hunting
canoes and were used to carry messengers between the tribes and, in
some cases, to transport warriors when raiding an enemy tribe. The
French used these canoes extensively to carry ambassadors, messengers
and missionaries to the tribes. The "Light Canoe" was commonly propelled
by from two to four paddlers and was built to obtain high speed. Most
tribes used the three categories mentioned; the small hunting canoe
which often was suitable only for a single paddler, a larger working
canoe which in a few tribes was used in family migrations in somewhat
the same fashion that the Eskimo used the umiak, and the "Light Canoe"
for messengers and war-parties. In general, the canoes were designed to
meet the requirements of their use- some were suited for work in open
waters where strong winds might be met and others were built to be used
in rivers and in rapids.
In design, each Indian tribe seems to have followed a traditional
model and to have had individual systems of decoration. Roughly, the
canoe models varied in shape of the ends and in mid-section form.
All sizes were built at lightly as strength would permit and with but very
rare exceptions there was a universal system of framing and construction varying in relatively minor details from tribe to tribe. The most
apparent differences were in the profiles of the bow and stern. Some
tribes used stem and stern profiles which were alike. or as near so as
building methods would permit. Others built their canoes with a bow
profile quite different from that of the stern. There were an almost
endless varieties of stem and stern profiles and decoration. Some tribes
used a stem profile that was almost a half-circle, some had bows that
peaked up and faintly resembled the Viking ships' stems, others had
high curving stems composed of three arcs and a few had ends that some–
what resemble those now used in the canvas-covered canoes of commerce.
At least one tribal group, the Interior Salish, used ram bows which
somewhat resembled those of birch canoes used in Siberia. In the larger types
of birch bark canoes at least, it was more common to have distinct
bow and stern profiles rather than to have both ends alike.
In model, each tribal group followed the dictates of a chosen mid–
section form. The forms of midsection however can be placed in four
basic categories. The most common was a U shape, flattened more or less
on the bottom amd with its upper arms falling inward in some degree–
"tumble-home". The next most used was a dish-shaped section; rather
flat on the bottom with a quick turn at the bilge and outward flaring
topsides. The third and very limited section was flat-bottom and
flaring sides joined by a marked "chine" or angle as in the flat-bottom
kayacks. A few bark canoes show the fourth section, some V in the bottom combined with
rounded sides and tumble-home or with sides flaring outward.
Canoes used on rivers, particularly where rapids were met with, usually
had rocker in the bottom fore-and-aft, those canoes used in open waters
on lakes and large rivers, or in coastal waters, were commonly without
rocker. Most of the coastal bark canoes had low ends; this was generally
true of the canoes used on the large lakes yet it appears that the
canoes found on Lake Superior had rather high and prominent ends and this was the style was adopted by the French in their canots de maitre and later by
the Hudson Bay Company in their large freight canoes. The ends of all
canoes were quite sharp but those built for speed rather than capacity
such as the hunting canoes and the larger "Light Canoes" were naturally
very sharp; in fact many of the Indian canoes built before there was
any white influence were so very sharp and hollow that length gave
little indication of the canoe's real size. Thus, an 18 foot canoe might
be so sharp ended that she could carry only two men while another the
same length could safely carry four.
The sheer of most canoe models was inclined toward straight [: ] ness,
particularly in the mid-third of the length , but the humped-sheer (higher
above the water amidships than at bow and stern, or just inboard of the
bow and stern) was not uncommon. The small hunting canoes often had the
humped-sheer or had a sheer that was an almost continuous curve from
bow and stern profile with the lowest place about amidships.
As might be supposed, birch canoes were built to be propelled by
varying number of paddlers; the largest canoes of the French era had as
many as 24 but 12 to 14 was the more common in the large freight canoes.
The "Light Canoes" had from 3 to 10 paddlers: some only two. Paddles
were of numerous shapes and sizes; the Indians did not use the double
blade of the kayacker. Nearly all Indian paddles had a straight haft
without the cross-handle found in the white man's paddle. Paddles used
in river navigation were often very long and with narrow, long blades,
particularly those paddles used by the bow-paddler and the steersman.
The common rule for paddle length appears to have been a paddle that
would reach to the chin of its user when standing upright. Narrow blades
predominated, most were leaf-shaped some were like a beaver-fail in shape . The paddler in a very small hunt–
ing canoe might sit on the bottom; in this case the paddle was much shorter when used in a larger canoe. Many Indians kneeled on the bottom
of the canoe, resting one hip against the gunwale if the canoe were wide
enough to require it; this caused the canoe to heel and to run somewhat
on her bilge. In large canoes the paddlers usually sat on thwarts or
kneeled on the bottom with their buttocks resting against or on thwarts,
depending upon the depth of the hull.
The proportions of breadth and depth to length varied a great deal
and no fixed rule can be made. Hunting canoes and some of those used
on rivers were quite narrow, the beams ranging from 26 inches to 37
inches in canoes having lengths from 12 to 18 feet. The bulk of the Indian
working canoes were from 30 to 38 inches breadth in lengths from 13 to
22 feet and had depths between 10 and 16 inches; those canoes having
reversed or humped sheers would have a couple of inches more depth than
these limits. An old birch bark canoe from the New England area carried
to London in 1750 was 18 feet long, 2 feet 91/2 inches wide and 18-inches
deep. This canoe had a reverse sheer. A canoe of 1826 from the same
vicinity with a normal sheer measured 18 feet 7 3/4 inches long, 37 inches
beam and 16 inches deep. Another canoe, from Ontario, of about 1870
was 13 feet 1 inch long, 361/4 inches beam and 101/2 inches in depth. One
of the Alaskan hunting canoes was 18 feet 1 inch long, 261/2 inches beam
and 12 inches deep, (this canoe was chine-built and flat bottom).
A canoe from the east side of James Bay was 18 feet 21/2 inches long,
361/2 inches beam and 18 inches deep, with the keel rockered almost
14 inches. A large Hudson Bay Company's freight canoe of 1850 was
35’-9” long, 5’-11” beam and 281/2” deep; having no rocker in the keel. Mac Kenzie used a canoe about 27’ long, 4’-9” beam and 2’-2” depth in his journey (1793)
A canoe of this type was exhibited at the International Exibition of
1851 at London; she had voyaged nearly 3000 miles carrying 20 men and
cargo before having been shipped to London. These large canoes were
variously called; in addition to the French name of "Canots de Maitre",
they were known as "North Canoes", "Montreal Canoes" and"Grand Canots".
As far as is known, none of the Indian birch bark canoes had decks
with but one exception, the Alaskan Tinneh tribal group whose river canoes
were on kayack models with flat bottom, chines and flaring sides. These
canoes resembled some of the open seal-skin covered river canoes of the
Alaskan coast Indians in model and appearance and like them had a short
deck forward, about 5 feet long in an 18 foot boat. The Indians of the
Yukon River valley used this type of canoe and when travelling the man
paddled in a hunting canoe while his squaw, children and possessions
followed in a working canoe of the same general model but larger and nore
burdensome. These canoes have little or no rocker in their bottoms, fore–
and-aft and are very well built.
The birch bark canoe was always built light enough to be carried by
her crew whether one or twenty paddlers were necessary. The boat was
best suited for inland water navigation where portages might be necessary
and this was never lost sight of by the Indians or the traders. As a result,
various aids to the carrying of the canoe were developed; including a yoke
that went over the shoulders of the carriers and on which the gunwales of
the canoe, capsized, rested. Paddles, lashed fore-and-aft to the thwarts
and padded with spare clothing also served this purpose.
The construction of the birch bark canoe of the North American Indians
generally followed the same basic pattern; there was no keel and the gunwales
and some longitudinal inner planking or battens formed the longitudinal
strength members. Except for a few of the Alaskan canoes and the early
Nova Scotia Indian's canoes, the inner planking was made of very thin
and wide battens very closely spaced and sometimes secured by lacing or "sewing" to the frames, which were
wide, thin and also very closely spaced. The upper ends of the frames were
laced to the inner and outer gunwales, the lacing usually passed through
the frames and bark cover. The frames were in one piece, from gunwale to
gunwale and were made of cedar, spruce or ash saplings split into thin battens. The bending was usually done while the frames ware in a green
state by heating each over the fire and then forcing the frame into place;
this was a crude steaming process that was used in wooden ship-building
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries- called "stoving". The gunwales
each consisted of two or three members; an inner gunwale which was strong
and the backbone of the canoe during construction. Outside the frames,
which stood on the outboard face of the gunwales, there was a guard or
outer gunwale; this was thin and light and served to protect the bark
cover. The lacing of the bark skin cover passed over and around these two. On
many tribal types of canoes there was a gunwale cap over this lacing;
the cap was a very thin batten secured with a series of short servings
or lacings along the length of the gunwales. Pegs were added to give
additional rigidy to the gunwale structure; those passed through the
guards and bark cover into the inner gunwale. Some tribes omitted the
rail cap and used only a continuous lacing along the gunwale; others
placed the guards on the outward and upper side of the inner gunwales
so that it served the purposes of guard and cap. The ends of the inner
gunwales were sometimes joined at a block or at the end bulkheads which
some canoes employed to hold the stem and stern posts to shape. Others
merely halved the gunwales together and lached them.
The stem and stern posts were commonly made of bent rods or battens
held in shape by a slight wooden bulkhead to which heel and head of the
posts were secured. In some types this bulkhead was replaced by a thong–
stay serving the same purpose; the treatment of the posts depended to a
great extent upon the profile employed at bow and stern. Very often the
space between the posts and the bulkheads were packed with wood shavings
to hold the shape desired. In some types the posts were laminated by
partly splitting them and then bending to shape, after which the lamina–
tions were secured by lashings around the posts. A few Some types, where the shape of the ends made it feasible, the skin cover was carried up
over the gunwales to form vestiges of decking.
The gunwales were spread to the required shape by a series of
thwarts, the number varying with the size and type of canoe. These
were tennoned into the gunwales and lashed. They were usually given
some shape; often widest at the gunwales. These members were often
made quite wide in the large canoes but were mere rods in some of
the small hunting boats.
The inner planking was really a series of wide battens closely
spaced. In the Alaskan canoes, however, they were replaced by rod
battens kayack fashion. The early Nova Scotia Indians have been said
to have used basket-work, formed by weaving the longitudinal battens
through the frames, in and out. The battens usually stopped well short
of the ends of the boat; only the keelson batten might be lashed to
the posts or secured to the bulkheads. The ends of the gunwales
might be laced to the heads of the posts or to the end bulkheads.
In some types the outer gunwales projected slightly fore and aft of
the heads of the posts forming lifting handles.
The bark cover was made of large sheets of the paper or canoe
birch bark; gored to permit the cover to fit to the shape of the
gunwale and profile of keel. Rarely could one sheet be obtained large
enough to cover a canoe so the cover was usually formed of pieces
secured togther by sewing and with the seams well pitched with spruce
gum. The sewing was done with an awl and the roots of the cedar, white
spruce, tamarack, hemlock, yellow pine or balsam fir. These roots
were soaked in hot water and scraped to remove the bark; large roots
were slit into halves or quarters. This material was known in South–
eastern Canada as "watap". A short bar or rod of hardwood with a hole
in it was used to "heave" the lacings tight in the same manner as
some Eskimo builders employed. Most birch bark canoe builders erected the canoe in an upright position, at least when putting on the bark
cover and so the sewing and lacing was done from outboard and in the
case of the gunwales, over them. The holes for the stitching in the
bark were not closely spaced and sometimes the lacing passed through
these holes twice. However, the stitching in the seams and gores of
the bark cover was quite closely spaced and fine, thin roots were employ–
ed here. The stitch used was an overhand, left-to-right one though some
employed a double thread in a cross-stitch or lacing. Some builders did
not secure the inner plank or battens to the frames but placed them in–
side the bark cover and held them in place by a few frames and temporary
lashings. Then the rest of the frames were forced into place and by
their pressure against the cover wedged the battens into place. In old
canoes, in museums, the drying of the bark cover and frames often allows
the battens or plank to become loose and to become displaced from their
original positions. Large canoes are reported to have had, on occasion
at least, a strong pole lashed longitudinally over the thwarts on the
centerline of the hull which added to the longitudinal strength when
carrying heavy loads in rough water. All seams that had to be watertight
were smeared with warm gum; spruce and pine or hemlock gums having been
most widely used.
There were a great many variations in the technique of birch bark
canoe building and in finishing; each tribe had traditional methods
of construction. The general practice seems to have been to first form
the gunwales and then to set up the bark cover, confining it within a
series of stakes to the general shape of the canoe. Then the gunwales
and stem and stern posts were put into place and secured. The fram e ing
and the longitudinal members were then put inside the cover and lashing
sewing and the paying of the seams followed. The workmanship shown in many bark canoes is remarkably fine.
Some of the tribes, living on the coast or on lakes, may have employed
crude squaresails of skins or bark fabric before the coming of the whites
but the practice cannot have been widespread. Primarily, the birch bark
canoe was, like the kayack, a paddling boat. Its lightness was one of its
most important features and since it could be easily carried on shore it
was often capsized and used in lieu of a tent.
Though the bark canoe was rather fragile and could be easily damaged
in grounding or among snags and rocks it could be readily repaired and
for this the paddlers carried pieces of bark, roots for sewing and lacings
and gum. The light weight of the canoe had another advantage; it allowed
the carrying of heavy loads out of the proportion allowable in heavier
boats of the same size. Its only drawback was found in open water; like
most light open hulls most canoes were difficult to propel [: ] against a heavy
sea and strong wind. This objection limited the development of coastal
bark canoes and the weight of evidence indicates that these canoes were
of less size and capacity than those developed by tribes on inland waters.
By the end of the first half of the nineteenth century attempts were
made to produce wooden canoes on birch bark models that would be stronger
and more lasting even if lightness had to be sacrificed to some extent. A
number of companies were formed, and individual builders established,
who built cedar and basswood canoes, particularly in southern Canada and
in New York State. As such light construction required great building
skill, and as this in turn was rather costly, the use of a canvas cover over
a thin, non-watertight inner planking, became popular. In Canada the all–
wood canoe, as built by one company in [: particular ] , became very popular
and hence the type became known as the "Peterborough" after the name of
this concern. In the east, however, the canvas-covered canoe soon obtained
ascendancy and at present this construction is almost universal. However,
other modes of construction have been, and are being, tried; using paper, veneer or plywood and light metals for the cover of the hull. But the
lightness and ease of repair has made the canvas-covered canoe perhaps
the nearest approach the white man has made to the Indian birch bark
canoe in practical use.
It cannot be said that the models employed in these "civilized" copies of the
birch bark canoe , have been a general improvement over the originals.
This has been the case . , perhaps, because the greater part of the demand
for canoes in the last seventy-five years has been by users who were
inexperienced in small craft, such as the vacationer and water-resort
visitor. Hence most of the white mans' canoes were wider, flatter on
the bottom and harder to paddle than the original Indian types of the
same size. They were also much heavier and more difficult to carry.
The only class of these modern canoes that were employed by trappers
and traders where the "Peterboroughs" and some designs usually classed
as "Guides' Canoes". These were usually marked by sharp ends, rather
rounded bottom and low inconspicious bows and sterns. It is rare to
see a modern canoe with rocker in the bottom fore-and-aft. They may be
divided into two classes of midsections, those with rather wide, flat
bottom and moderate tumble-home in the topsides, used in open water,
and those with a well-rounded bottom in cross-section, often with little
or no tumble-home in the topsides, used on rivers. This paucity of
model merely indicates that the canoe as built by whites has degenerated.
The Hudson Bay Company and others have used large freighting canoes of
the modern type in areas where powerboat transport was impractical.
Though the Indian's canoe had been taken over by the trappers and
traders, they soon added boat types of their own that were suitable for
wilderness transport under stringent conditions. The two earliest of
such types were the "scow" or "flat" and the "Bateau". The latter was,
perhaps the most important and widely used. It was a flat-bottom,
double-ended planked boat. Its use appears to have been introduced by the early French fishermen at the mouth of the St. Lawrence in the early
seventeenth century. The boat was the probable outgrowth of a plank
canoe formed of two side plank and a wide bottom plank. It is known
that early white trappers and traders in New York and in the Maritime
Provinces developed such craft which were possible with the white man's
saws, and saw-pits. These grew into larger and more useful craft; on
one hand this type may have developed into what is now called a "Dory"
and on the other into the "Bateau" of the Lumberman and trappers.
There are numerous descriptions by early travellers of the bateau,
or "battoe"; they were usually built of white pine or spruce, sharp at
both ends, flat-bottom of two or more wide plank and straight sides with
little or very moderate flare. These boats were, in 1740, from 18 to 28
feet long and about 40-44 inches beam at the gunwales. The bottom had
a slight rocker fore-and-aft and the side frames were straight; there
were usually raking bow and sternposts. These boats were first used for
river freighting, particularly among rapids where their greater strength
and resistance to damage from rocks made them superior to the birch bark
canoes. The bateau, however, was very heavy and its transport overland
required carts or much man-power and skids. Hence they seem to have been
employed by traders and trappers only on the larger rivers. The type
was also adapted for the use of the lumbermen and gradually the bateau
became a recognized part of the equipment of the North American lumbermen.
The bateau was so well devised that it has gone through very slight chang
since 1740. Some were built, as early as 1776, with side frames slightly
curved; to give slightly rounded sides; and the side plank in such craft
were sometimes lapstrake of narrow plank. However, the flaring, straight
framed side has always been the most common. The rake of the bow and ster
and the amount of flare of the sides, the rocker in the bottom, and the
dimensions have varied. Where the early bateaux were not over 28 feet
long, 44 inches beam and 18 to 24 inches deep, by 1776 these boats were 30 feet long, 6 feet 6 inches beam and 2 feet 101/2 inches deep. While the
small bateaux were paddled the larger boats, over 24 feet were rowed. The
oars had thole straps or thongs and only one thole pin was used for each
oar. By 1776 these boats rowed with 8 oarsmen and a bow oar and steersman
the latter used a sweep to guide the boat. Such craft carried a sail at
times and some had outside keels to aid in sailing but such craft seem to
have been rare even on the eastern Great Lakes and were, perhaps, limited
to Lake Champlain.
The bateaux of the modern lumberman and which is still used by some
Arctic traders is a boat ranging from small craft boats of 22 feet length. 5 feet
3 inches beam and 22 inches depth, through boats measuring about 25 feet
by 6 feet by 27 inches; 32 feet x 5 feet x 20 inches, 36 feet x 7 feet x
28 inches and on up to craft almost 50 feet long. These boats usually have
a very high bow and are low amidships with a lower, and less raked, sternpost
than at the . Some bateaux have a slight V-bottom, about 11/2 inches of
deadrise amidships dying out at the ends of the hull. The amount of fore–
and aft rocker, and the amount of sheer, varies with the locality of build.
The lumbermen now call the bateaux "Drive Boats" from their common use;
working in the "timber drive" when logs are allowed to drift downstream
in a "drive" to the mills. The bateaux are considered by many rivermen to
be the most suitable boat for carrying heavy loads in rapids where shoal
draft is required. They can be rowed and also can be driven with outboard
engines. They were once used not only on the rivers of Eastern Canada and
lower James Bay but also along the shores of the Great Lakes and, indeed,
some came to be called "Mackinaw" boats because many were built and used
in the lumber and trading work in the vicinity of the Straits of Mackinaw.
The construction of the bateau follows that of a skiff except for the
bottom being planked fore-and-aft. The usual practice is to set up moulds over which the sides are bent; these moulds fix the flare of the sides
and, to a great extent, the amount of rocker and sheer the finished boat
is to have. In the common straight sided boat with caravel plank, the
sides are from 1 to 1¼ inches thick and in two or three strakes. Side
frames formed of knees with the short arms on the bottom and about 1½”
thick are then nailed to the sides at a spacing of approximately 18 inches
on centers. Floor timbers are nailed to the lower arms of the knees and
these are usually about 3 inches deep and 1½ inches thick. Over these
floor timbers the bottom plank is nailed; using three or more strakes
with splines in the seams formed between the strakes. The bottom plank
is never less than 1¼” thick in a small bateau and may be as much as 1½
or 1 3/4 inches thick in large boats. An inside gunwale batten, an outside
guard strip along the gunwale, a "rising stringer" inside on each side the
hull to support the twarts and the placing of the tholes complete the
carpenter work. The boats often have iron bands on the stem and sternposts
and also on the bottom, to protect the boat from blows. The stem and stern–
posts are often quite heavy and may be rabbeted to take the side planks.
Lap-strake bateaux, eithet straight or curved sided, are built in the
same manner and have from three to six strakes to a side. Some have a
plank keelson serving as a floor board on top of the floor timbers to
stiffen the bottom. Most bateaux in recent years are built almost entirely
of spruce; old boats might be of cedar or white pine. Heavy iron ring-bolts
were placed outside the stem and sternposts to be used in towing or tracking
the boat, and for mooring lines. The common bateau, 28 to 36 feet in
length was usually fitted to row four oars on a side; sometimes the oars–
men was "double-banked, two to a thwart and each with his oar, but when
less power was necessary one man with two oars replaced each pair. In
shallow water the bateaux were poled along by their crew. The bateau
was ayrather seaworthy boat and could stand a great deal of sea if properly
loaded but, like all open boats, suffered from windage when moved against strong gales.
The "scow" or "flat" used by the Arctic traders was in no way differen
from the forms used earlier in Europe; some were rectangular in deck plan while
others were built with sprung sides so that they were wider amidships
than at bow and stern. The most common model of scow was much like an
army pontoon; the bottom was flat athwartships and had no or , at best , only
a slight rocker fore and aft until the rake of the ends was reached,
here the bottom curved up sharply to meet the "headlogs" or the shallow
bow and stern transoms. Most of these scows had some sheer and a good deal
of flare; the rake of each of the ends being about one-fifth the total length
of the boat or slightly less. The scows were fitted to be rowed, poled
or tracked and steered with a heavy sweep. The bottom was planked fore–
and aft over frames in most cases but some had double bottoms formed by
an inner skin laid on athwrtships over which a fore-and-aft skin was then
nailed. The scows most popular on the Mackenzie River in the last years
of the nineteenth century were about 38- 50 40 feet long, 7 to 9 feet beam
on the gunwale and at least 2 feet narrower on the bottom; the sides were
lap-strake and they were more or less parallel in plan amidships, but at
bow and stern the beam was sharply decreased. The rake of the bottom at the
ends was rather long and in a curve so that the boats rowed rather well
and carried a heavy load on a small draft. Because of their greater capacity
the scows soon replaced all other types of drive boats where portages
were not required or where the boats were carted overland. The construct–
tion of the scows, except for the ends, followed that of the drive boats.
After 1900 the scows appear to have grown a good deal in size to meet
the needs of greater cargo loads. Some scows were built with the usual
log sides and little or no flare, but the earlier type was considered
superior as long as manual propulsion was required. The scow was some–
times sailed and at least one was fitted with both sails and leeboards
to permit tacking to windward. The scow type is usually a quite satis- -factory sailer in protected waters. For work in wilderness waters, the
scow was usually rather lightly built and designed to permit easy rowing
or poling. When tracked upstream the scows had to have long rakes at
bow and stern to reduce resistance and the manpower required to pull them.
Scows were usually rowed double-banked, but only one man to a thwart,
whaleboat fashion.
Long before white men settled in North America the scow had been
employed as a shoal water carrier; it would be incorrect to credit either
the French or the English as the introducer of the type. However, the
early French traders are known to have used the scow to some extent,
under the name of "Chaland". These have survived in the Quebec lumber–
mans "chaland", a 14 to 18 foot punt used in some localities as a drive
boat. Both the English and the French used scows or "flats" on the lakes
for the transport of heavy goods.
An improved model of scow appeared on the Mackenzie River and its
tributaries; this was a V-bottom or and round-bottom scow having roughly
the same dimensions and operating characteristics as the common scow, but
designed to propel easier by the use of rounded sides and bottom. This
class of boat is known as the "Sturgeon Head" and is in fact a cross
beteen the scow and the well-known round bottom boat once widely used
by the Hudson Bay Company, the "York Boat". Like the latter, the Sturgeon
Head was usually lap-strake planked and framed in the conventional manner
of round bottom boats. A few of the Sturgeon Heads employed rounded sides
and a V-bottom made with slightly curved floor timbers. This type had
a somewhat marked angular bilge or chine. The Sturgeon Head had the
advantages of being more easily rowed and poled than the ordinary scows
yet could carry more on a limited draft of water than the "York Boat".
The greatest part of the Sturgeon Heads were of the round-bottom model
with flat bottom and very flaring sides joined by a well-rounded
bilge. Because of the similarity in shape of all the frames of this type of hull, it is easy to frame and plank compared to other round-bottom
wooden boats. The Sturgeon Head appears to have developed rapidly in the last
[: ] years of the nineteenth century. Hulls of this form had been employ–
ed on American rivers somewhat earlier than in the Arctic areas. The
hull is one that has been readily adapted for use with power and the
scow form has replaced the older sharp bow models in self-propelled
river craft throughout North America.
The fittings of the scows and Sturgeon Heads, when manually propelled,
represent no marked departure from the bateaux fittings. The scows were
commonly fitted with thwarts and a popular length, 40-45 feet overall,
was fitted with double tholes to row three oars on a side, the oarsmen
each rowing a single oar. Steering was done by a very long and heavy
sweep pivoted on the center of the stern. Inboard the ends of the scows
were platforms for the steersman and men poling the boats in shallow
water. Long lines were employed in tracking the boat up stream when
the crews might have to tow the boats along the banks for miles where
the current was too swift to permit rowing or poling.
There were but slight variations in the models of the scows and sturge
-on heads that are sufficient to merit comment. Most of the boats were
alike at both ends; the bow and stern transoms were also alike or nearly
so in depth. The length [: ] of the end rakes was perhaps slightly longer
in the sturgeon heads than in the scows. Some sturgeon heads had wider
and deeper sterns than bows, though this appears to have been rather
unusual. Both scows and sturgeon heads had outside keels of wide thin
plank to protect bottom and bilges from rocks when running rapids or
in grounding on a bank. In all manually propelled scows and sturgeon
heads the sides flared sharply outward to make the bottom, across the
bilges, markedly less than the width across the gunwales. This formed a
relatively narrow bottom that permitted easy rowing yet heavy loads
could be carried without causing excessive draft, as in many of the Eskimo umiaks, where a similar use was made of the advantages of a
narrow bottom combined with very flaring sides. The scows and stur–
geonheads became the standard freighting boat on the Mackenzie and
its tributaries, and by 1904 at the latest they had practically re–
placed the York Boats that had earlier replaced the large canoes.
In this century both the scow and the sturgeonhead have been powered
with steam or gasoline engines, and more recently with diesels, to
create a suitable river vessel for arctic work.
The "York Boat" was one of the best known of the fur-trade
river craft. This type was introduced by the Hudson Bay Company;
the exact date has not been fully established. The uncertainty
is due to the fact that many investigators have apparently confus–
ed the early bateau with York Boats and have perhaps set too early
a date on the introduction of the type. The York Boat was really
an enlarged Orkney Island skiff; she was built by Orkneymen, a class
who had been employed by the Hudson 's Bay Company since the seventeenth
century because of their hardihood. The earliest date of the intro–
duction of the type seems to be about 1795. These boats were original–
ly introduced because the large canoes required constant repair in
hard service on some of the rivers which caused delay and expense.
The systematic use of these boats may have been as early as 1800,
when boats of similar style appear to have been used in Manitoba
between Lake Winnipeg and York Factory. The boats were rather heavy
and so were hard to portage overland until cart roads were built.
By 1820, the York Boat was the standard type of heavy river freight
boat of the Hudson Bay Company in Northwest Canada.
The type became standardized in model very quickly and there
were apparently at least three sizes employed, the "60 piece","100
piece" and"120 piece" boats. A "piece" was 90 pounds weight. The
length of these boats was usually given in "keel length" and the Company's records the smallest was about 24 feet keel length. The
largest and apparently most favored size was about 30 feet long on
the keel, 42 feet long over the stems, 9½ feet beam amidships and
3 feet deep. The boats were usually built with a flat wide keel, about
a foot wide amidships and tapering toward bow and stern. The bottom
of the boat was rather flat, there being little deadrise amidships,
but the ends were rather sharp and the stern was sharper than the bow.
The York Boat resembled a Viking ship somewhat in profile, having
rather prominent stem and sternposts; the bow and stern had much rake.
These craft were lap-strake construction, employing sawn frames,
and were constructed with keels, posts and frames of oak, cedar,
basswood and spruce being used for plank and trim. In early days,
the proportions of the boats varied much; some were 35 feet long and
only about 51/2 feet beam. Three thwarts and a large sternsheet seem to
have been the standard arrangement. The sides had a good deal of flare
and the bilge was rather full and round. The gunwales carried the
beam well forward which made the boats seem [: ] much fuller forward than
they were.
Some boats had the conventional keel construction, narrow and deep,
but it is probable these boats were intended only for lake navigation.
York Boats were fitted to sail and row; they carried a squaresail
bent to a yard which was hoisted on a mast stepped about amidships.
The heel of the mast stepped in a plank keelson which ran nearly the
full length of the boat. There was a ceiling- plank inside the frames
to protect the bottom from damage from loads. The ceiling only extend–
ed over the bottom, not up the sides. The mast was secured to the main
or midship thwart by the cinventional iron clamp. The mast was support–
ed by a forestay set up around the high stemhead and by a backstay
set up to the after thwart- sometimes two backstays were used and then
they set up through holes in the gunwale near the after thwart, clear
of its tholes. There were usually single shrouds on each side which set up through holes in the sheer strake abreast the mast. The run–
ning rigging was very simple, a halyard was used to hoist the sail;
this was a guntackle purchase with the blocks aloft, one at the mast–
head and one on the yard; the fall was sometimes led well aft to
be handled by the helmsman or his mate. The sail was controlled by
single-part braces belayed aft; the sheets were also single. The
height of the mast was a little less than half the length of the boat
and the yard about one and a half times the beam. The sail was a
rectangle in shape with head and foot about the same lengths. When
working under sail the boat was steered by a rudder and tiller; the
rudder was hung on the curved post with rudder braces and pintles in
the same manner as in a whaleboat. In river navigation the boat was
steered by a long heavy sweep pivoted by a large iron pin passed
through a hole in the sweep loom and into the gunwale well to starboard
of the sternpost. Some boats improved on this by placing the pivot–
pin in a cross-timber about 10 inches deep which was secured athwart–
ships just inside the sternpost. This allowed the pivot pin to be
placed farther outboard and the sweep could then be canted more with–
out interfering with the post. The larger York Boats were fitted with
double-tholes for eight oars.
The construction of the York Boat was conventional; the sawn frames
were two natural crooks lapped over the keel, capped by a gunwale
cap or planksheer and spaced about 24 inches on centers. The planking
was the common lap-strake with the sheer strake somewhat thicker than
the rest. All plank fastenings along the laps and in the frames were
"upset" or rivetted. Iron fastenings and hardware were used. The boats
were not long-lived, usually lasting only three to five years due to
the hard usuage they received in their employment. The York Boat was
not a sailing boat and as a rule performed poorly when on the wind
unless fitted with the conventional narrow keel and a shoe. The York Boats were more expensive to build than the bateau and the scow; in
spite of their great popularity in the nineteenth century it is very doubtful
that they were more economical craft. It is probable that there was
some prejudice in favor of them in the Hudson Bay Company; the Scotch
factors naturally favored a Scottish type of boat. None the less, the
York Boat had advantages; it moved rather easily under oars and was
seaworthy enough for the largest lakes.
These are the important pioneer craft of northern Canada; the
canoe, the scow and sturgeonhead, the bateau and the York Boat. The
conditions that preserved all of these but the last into modern times were the lack of
fuel for power craft, the need for navigation of unimproved waterways
and the relative low cost the types represent. Since these conditions
still exist the need for at least part of these types has not ceased
with the growing mechanization of the important arctic waterways.
There were, of course, many other types of boats tried in
Arctic waters; row boats of all descriptions; wherries, skiffs, punts,
yawl-boats dories, gigs and whaleboats. Only the latter had much pop–
ularity. The whaleboat was brought into the Arctic by whaling ships
and by some exploring expeditions and some of these fell into the
hands of traders and Eskimoes who have used them a good deal in
coastal transport. One of the popular boats of this class was the
so-called "gig-whaler"; this type was much used by American expeditions
in the '70's and '80's of the last century. The "gig-whaler" was merely
a light whaleboat built very sharp and with more deadrise than usual
to produce a fast rowing and sailing boat. Many of the whaleboats
had centerboards and carried sail so were very useful in open water.
Some whaleboats were carried up the Mackenzie and a rare example
was to be found on some of the large lakes but on the whole this boat
was a coastal type only. The dory has also been used occasionally;
some individuals preferred it for work on the Arctic beaches as, in competent hands it was not only a good seaboat but its short length
and flat bottom made it useful in working off some of the shallow
and surf-covered beaches.
The powerboat has, to some extent, become a pioneer boat in
recent years but its usefulness is limited to a great extent to those
areas where fuel may be obtained at reasonably spaced bases or posts
and where maintenance facilities are not wholly lacking. No particu–
lar type of launch or boat has had widespread use but it would appear
that, for river work, the shallow draft flat-bottom river launch
employed on the Mississippi might be most useful. For coastal work
a launch should be very seaworthy and strong, yet rather shallow in
draft. The difficulties in obtaining fuel and proper maintenance
make the power boat costly to operate in the Arctic and it is this
that has made the spread of mechanization in Arctic small boats a
slow process. Once off the main and travelled waterways, the old
manually propelled boats are still most useful and practical craft;
they may be propelled manually but most of them are suitable for
use with outboard engines which may be used as long as fuel is
available and then other propulsion methods can be employed.
This makes the pioneer types of considerable interest in small–
capacity operations off the travelled waterways today.
[Figure] [Figure] [Figure] [Figure]
HomeArctic Pioneer Craft : Encyclopedia Arctica 9: Transportation and Communications
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