Birch Bark Canoes

Making a Chippewa (Ojibwe) Birch Bark Canoe

Birch Bark Canoes
Facts, history and information about the life and lifestyles of Native American Indians. Birch Bark Canoes were the main type and mode of transportation used by the Native American tribes who inhabited the Northeast woodlands, and eastern Canada. The design and style of the birch bark canoes were based on the natural resources that were available to the tribes, in this instance the people made use of the numerous birch trees found in the forests and woodlands of their tribal lands. 

The tribes built canoes made from the bark of the birch trees over a wooden frame. These canoes were broad enough to float in shallow streams, strong enough to shoot dangerous rapids, and light enough for one man to easily carry a canoe on his back.

Native American Life - Birch Bark Canoes
The life, history and lifestyle of Native American Indians is a varied and fascinating subject. The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Birch Bark Canoes.

Birch Bark Canoes Fact Sheet

  • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 1: The light, speedy birchbark canoe was perfect for travel along fast streams, rivers and shallow waters, was sturdy enough for rough waters and light enough to carry if necessary
  • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 2: Birch bark is a strong and water-resistant material that can be easily bent, cut and sewn. This made birchbark ideal for making the boats that were so important to the way of life of many Native American tribes.
  • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 3: The names of Northeast woodland tribes who built and travelled in Birchbark canoes included the Abenaki, Chippewa (Ojibwe), Huron, Kickapoo and the Pennacook.
  • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 4: The birchbark canoe was, however, susceptible to damage as they were easily torn open, but they were easily repaired. Native Americans kept a sharp lookout for potential hazards and dangers along the waterways that could damage their boats, such as jagged rocks and branches of fallen trees
  • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 5: The bottom of the birchbark boat could be easily crushed through so the Native American Indians went barefoot, and entered the canoe very carefully
  • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 6: There were many different types and species of birch trees including the Paper Birches (Betula papyrifera), Yellow birches (Betula aleghaniensis, Cherry, Sweet and Black birches (Betula lenta) and the River birches (Betula nigra).
  • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 7: The Paper Birch tree is also known as the Canoe Birch and this was the favored tree used by many Native Americans. The trees can grow to over 80 feet tall and 16 inches in diameter.
  • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 8: The bark would often shed in large paper-like sheets and Native Americans, who hated waste and made excellent use of all natural materials, found they could make numerous items from the bark including clothing, dwellings and, of course, the birch bark canoes
  • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 9: The birch bark canoes were extremely important to the Native Americans. They provided a fast and easy mode of transportation that enabled them to travel long distances on hunting, fishing and trading expeditions. They also enabled Native Americans to gain access to hostile, enemy tribes to launch attacks in considerable numbers.
  • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 10: The birch bark canoes were built in many different sizes. They could be used by a single person but were usually built for 4 - 6 people. Some of the war canoes could take up to 12 Native Indians
    • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 11: The Huron canoes measured about 21 feet long (7 metres) and 3 feet wide (1 metre) and could carry four or five men and about 200 pounds of cargo (91 kilograms). Their ability to travel long distances was seen as great assets by the French who quickly allied with the Huron to gain an advantage in the lucrative beaver fur trade
    • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 12: Portage or portaging refers to the practice of carrying boats over land, either around an obstacle in a river such as a waterfall, or between two bodies of water. When Native American Indians wanted to avoid an obstacle, or move from one lake to another, they lifted the lightweight birchbark canoe out the water and strapped it across the back of one man who took it over land
    • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 13: The Mohawks and the other nations of the Iroquois Confederacy primarily used elm bark for their canoes due to the lack of suitable birch trees in their lands. They also built heavier, dugout canoes that were built by the waterways, used to get to their destinations and left for future use. Dugout canoes were far too heavy for portage.
    • Birch Bark Canoes Fact 14: Other Native American Tribes also used both the Birch bark and Dugout canoes such as the Mohican, Fox, Sauk, and the Lenape

How to Make a Birch Bark Canoe
How were the Birchbark canoes made? A step by step guide on how to make Birch bark canoes.

  • A suitable tall tree was selected with thick bark with no holes and as few branches as possible and was carefully cut down
  • The birchbark was then split along the length of the tree, and carefully peeled off in pieces to match the length and breadth of the boat
  • The birchbark was spread on the ground with the inside facing downwards
  • Stones or logs were placed on the birchbark as it was carefully stretched
  • The edges of the birchbark were gently bent upwards to form the sides of the canoe
  • Stakes were fixed into the ground at a distance of 3 or 4 feet from each other, forming the curved line which the sides of the canoe were intended to make
  • The birchbark was bent to the shape which the boat was to have, being held firmly in position by the stakes
  • The ribs of the canoe were made of tough hickory, cut into long, flat pieces
  • The ribs bent to the shape of the boat, with wider pieces in the middle, and the narrower pieces towards the ends
  • The ribs of the canoe were placed upon the bark about 10 inches apart
  • The upper edge of each side of the canoe was made of two thin poles which was attached to the ribs
  • The edge of the birchbark was inserted between the poles on each side, and was sewn or bound into place with cordage made from spruce roots or rawhide
  • The canoe was placed on a wooden frame and the birchbark was glued together with spruce gum that made the seams watertight
  • Thick birch bark or cedar planks were laid across the bottom of the canoe to step on to
  • The prowpiece was carefully shaped and the birch bark canoes were usually painted with designs or symbols
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