Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Michigan's Whitewood Canoes

Here is a study of Michigan's "whitewood" dugout canoes that resulted from my participation in Grand River Expedition 2000 ( I hope there will be a Grand River Expedition
2010). An article based on this study appeared in Issue 93 June 1999 of "Wooden Canoe".

As usual, if you want to opt out of this or anything or everything I send out, just let me know.


While researching to compile a guidebook to the geology, geography and history of Michigan's longest river, the Grand, I kept running into references to the use of "whitewood" dugout canoes or pirogues by Indians and pioneers in lower Michigan in the early 1800s. Eventually, like a hound dog on a raccoon's trail which is diverted when a rabbit crosses the track, I put the guidebook project on temporary hold in order to pursue the intriguing dugout story


The pioneers' "whitewood" tree is what modern field guides identify as the Tuliptree or Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron tuliperifera), the tallest Eastern forest tree. As is the case with many tree species it is or was known by various names at various times or in different regions of the country. In addition to being called Yellow poplar, it was in some places called Blue Poplar, Hickory Poplar, Sap Poplar, Tulip Poplar and White Poplar.

The earliest reference to this tree that I have found was a 1710 letter in French in which it was called Black Poplar. These poplar names are really not appropriate since the Tuliptree is not of the poplar family, but is actually a member of the magnolia family. Other names include Saddle Tree or Saddle Leaf. The Onondaga Indian name was Ko-yen-ta-ka-ah-ta (white tree). Most appropriate to this article is the Tennessee name, Canoe Wood. The Tuliptree is the Official State Tree of Indiana and the unofficial State Tree of Kentucky and North Carolina.

The Michigan references I have found all use the term "whitewood". The wood of the Tuliptree is straight-grained, fine, soft, free from knots, resistant to splitting, and easily worked. Tuliptrees are tall with straight, clear trunks, frequently reaching 100 feet or more with diameters of four to six feet.

In its September 1904 issue, Outing Magazine had an article "Aboriginal American Canoes" in which it was stated that the Indian dugout builder "...demanded Trees with long, uniform trunks, without knots, and soft enough to be cut down and hollowed out with stone axes." Plainly, the Tuliptree fits this aboriginal specification.

The whitewood name refers to its white, clear sapwood. The yellow poplar name probably comes from the fact that its heartwood is usually light yellow.


In the Great Lake states, the southern limit of the Paper Birch (Betula paperifera) approximately coincides with the northern limit of the Tuliptree. This is a natural circumstance that obviously influenced the type of canoe made and used by indigenous peoples. for example, in a 1777 letter from Michilimackinac a French trader complained that the Pottawatomie Indians who occupied what is now southern Michigan and northern Indiana were "...totally ignorant of bark canoes."

The Pottawatomie's apparently didn't find that to be a handicap. They were proficient in the construction and navigation of dugout canoes, or pirogues as they were called in areas of French influence. They used dugouts going either upstream or downstream on area rivers and regularly paddled them long distances on Lake Michigan. An early day expert on the history of the St. Joseph River described Pottawatomie "canoes dug out of large white wood trees, which were very plentiful in this territory then, this being their means of travel down the river from the south in the spring on their way to the Straits of Mackinac and back

Continuing about whitewood dugout canoes:

In contrast to the Pottawatomie's, the Chippewas (Ojibwas) who occupied the more northern parts of Michigan, were expert birchbark canoe builders. Yet, when circumstances warranted, they chose to build dugouts. In 1864 a band was moving from the valley of the Thornapple River (a tributary of the Grand) to a new location considerably farther north and on the shore of Lake Michigan. They went into the woods a few miles away where they built a fleet of canoes from whitewood logs. The completed dugouts were hauled by wagon to the river. Some were as much as 40 feet long. This migration must have presented a scene much like the illustration by artist David Christofferson in the book "A Toast to the Fur trade" by Robert C. Wheeler.

In 1876 an old chief of this band traveled their route in reverse, going upstream on the Grand and Thornapple to his boyhood home at the mouth of a creek where he constructed a wigwam. He had come home to die and shortly thereafter he did.

In his 1888 book "Memorials of a Half-Century in Michigan", Bela Hubbard, an assistant to the renown Geologist Douglass Houghton, tells of a dugout procured from the Chippewa Indians in the fall of 1837 for a trip on Saginaw bay and Lake Huron:"It was a 'dug-out' of wood , thirty feet long, but so narrow that, seated in the centre, we could use a paddle on either side. In this puny craft we were to undertake, in the middle of autumn, a lake journey of 150 miles."

This was probably a whitewood dugout since we know from the account about the Thornapple band of Chippewas that they made canoes from whitewood logs and Tuliptrees did grow in the southern pat of the Saginaw Valley.

There are a number of references to dugouts on lower Michigan river systems, which, although not specifting that th canoes were whitewood, have been of interest to me because they were made and used in areas where Tuliptrees were plentiful.

In 1915 a massive four volume study was published which was entitled "A History of travel in America". Its author, Seymour Dunbar, after having described how an Indian canoe builder obtained and prepared a suitable log stated: "The log was shaped and hollowed by fire and cutting implements, and a very strong and serviceable though rough and slow moving craft was obtained." He then concluded: Such canoes were only adapted for lakes and single rivers".

He could have been describing the situation and needs in southern Michigan when settlers started arriving in the 1820s and 1830s. Those pioneers were primarily interested in a vessel's cargo carrying capability, not its portability. Likewise, the waters of their concern were the larger rivers that provided access to the Great Lakes such as the Grand, Kalamazoo and St. Joseph which empty into Lake Michigan, and the Saginaw River system which flows to Lake Huron.

Tim Kent of Ossineke, author of the definitive two-volume "Birchark Canoes of the Fur Trade", who is working on a similar book on dugouts, expresses a contrary opinion (to Dunbar's "rough and slow moving craft" characterization). In an October 1999 Chicago Tribune article on canoes, he is quoted as saying "There were an awful lot of dugouts used on rivers. There is a misconception that they were big, clunky, heavy watercraft that couldn't be portaged. Many were sleek vessels".

I found evidence that there must have been many dugouts that were indeed "sleek vessels" while researching for my narrative/monograph "Across Lower Michigan by Canoe-1790", the tale of British trader Hugh Heward's 1790 odyssey when he and seven French-Canadian paddlers in two birchbark canoes crossed the Lower Peninsula from Lake Erie to Lake Michigan. To do this they went upstream on the Huron River and downstream on the Grand River. The headwaters of these two rivers are interconnected by a series of small creeks and lakes, a three mile portage and extensive marshes.

It was an account of "two pirogues from Detroit" that crossed the Lake Erie-Lake Michigan divide in high water without having to exit their canoes. Such a feat meant that the two pirogues had to have gone down the Detroit River to Lake Erie, then upstream on the twisting and turning Huron River, up the small stream now known as Portage Creek, through a series of lakes along the Livingston/Washtenaw County Line to the divide between the Lake Erie and Lake Michigan watersheds near the village of Stockbridge.

Today in this area there are many muck farms. In pre-settlement days those were interconnected wetlands that in high-water times allowed uninterrupted passage by watercraft. There is no way such journeys could have been accomplished by clumsy log dugouts.

NOTE: The Ultimate Hugh Heward Challengers will be following this route in April but there is no chance of them paddling across the divide. Deforestation and agricultural drainage has reduced the water table radically over the last couple of centuries.

To see photos of sleek Louisiana

Pioneers' tales of dugout canoes:

An advantage of the dugout for settlers was the log-canoe's ability to withstand being pushed and hauled over barriers in the upper rivers such as floodwood log jams, snags and shallows or riffles without unloading their cargo of potatoes or oats or whatever.

The following account is from an 1879 history of Branch County:

"Another event of the spring of 1830, which may, perhaps, be worth noticing, was the first attempt by white men to transport freight on the St. Joseph. J.W.Fletcher and John Allen went to Allen's Prairie in Hillsdale County, and bought ten bushels of seed potatoes and fifteen bushels of seed oats. They constructed two whitewood canoes, loaded in their oats and potatoes, ran down Sand Creek from the Prairie to the St. Joseph, and set out on a navigation of the latter stream.

Until they reached the mouth of the Coldwater, they found their way seriously impeded by shallow places, dams of floodwood, and similar obstacles. But they made basswood 'skids' on which they slid their canoes over the dams, while in the shallows they promptly jumped into the water, and each helped the other lighten his boat...Below the mouth of the Coldwater the water was high and the way clear, and they had no serious difficulties reaching their destination".

When sawmills to provide boards for boat building became widespread, pioneers built flat boats or arks to transport their goods and agricultural products. Meanwhile they used Indian-built dugouts or made their own.

In his paper "Indians of the Western Great lakes", author W.V.Kinietz describes Indian trails that parallel the Kalamazoo, Thornapple, Huron and Grand Rivers and adds: "The rivers, of course, were dotted with birchbark canoes and pirogues cut from whitewood logs."


Pioneer accounts often dwell on the instability of the craft: "...dugouts were made with great labor from Whitewood logs. They were very narrow and one inexperienced in handling them was sure to be capsized." Or, voyaging down the Looking Glass (another tributary of the Grand) in a "...dugout which shipped water at every slight turn and finally upset in the rapids..." Or "Deer and other game were frequently seen on the banks of the river, but the rocking of the canoes prevented the rifles of the navigators from furnishing them with venison."
* My take-off on Indiana's Tippecanoe River and the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe.

In 1834, another party on the Looking Glass found a means to cope with the dugout's instability: "The men of the party at once began their construction and after several days of diligent work, completed two boats and a raft. The boats, commonly known as dugouts, were each made from a whitewood log, and were about eighteen feet long and two and one half feet wide. They were lashed together..."

On the St. Joseph, dugouts were sometimes sawed though lengthwise and widened by inserting boards.

In another pioneer history is an account about a settler on the Grand River near what is now Lansing: "He and some companions once employed some Indians to make them a canoe which they dug from a whitewood log. It was 44 feet long and 3 feet 2 inches inside. They paid the Indians 20 gallons of whiskey, and cheated them by watering it..."

Another Grand River valley pioneer recalled procuring "...a clumsy, square-toed white man's build of a canoe..." for the purpose of bringing home a supply of flour and pork. He describes the upstream journey: "I poled and Bennet pulled---that is he walked in the river or on shore ahead of the boat and towed with a rope while I poled." After days of struggle and about 40 river miles, they were both utterly exhausted and had to walk overland to get help to get it the rest of the way home.

Then there was the settler on the same river who floated his grain down steam to a grist mill and then made the return trip with the flour by hooking the dugout to a team of oxen with a log chain and pulling it cross-country through the woods back to his point of origin.Try that on your birchbark canoe---or your fiberglass canoe for that matter. The grist mill in this story was located at a spot about 450 yards downstream of my home on the Grand, within the view of Verlen Kruger's canoe base.

In these latter two accounts the pioneer didn't specifically say the dugouts were of whitewood, but I have assumed they were since Tuliptrees grew in the Grand River watershed and other stories about the Grand and the Looking Glass were about whitewood canoes.

What was it like to ride in a dugout canoe? British author Frederick Marryat wrote a two-volume account of his travels, "A Diary in America with Remarks on Its Institutions", which was published in 1839. In it he tells of his ride in a dugout canoe paddled by two "Menonnomie" Indians:

"I got into the canoe with them ...The canoe would exactly hold three, and no more; but we paddled swiftly down the stream...Independently of the canoe being so small, she had lost a large part of her stern, so that at the least ripple of water she took it in, and threatened us with a swim; and she was so very narrow, that the least motion would have destroyed her equilibrium and upset her. One Indian sat in the bow, the other in the stern, whilst I was doubled up in the middle. We had given the Indians some bread and pork, and after paddling about a half an hour, they stopped to eat. Now the Indian in the bow had the pork, while the one in the stern had the bread; any attempted move, so as to hand the eatables to each other, must have upset us, so this was their plan of communication: the one in the bow cut off a slice of pork, and putting it into the lid of a sauce pan which he had with him, and floating it along side the canoe, gave it sufficient momentum to make it swim to the stern, where the other took possession of it, He in the stern then cut off a piece of bread, and sent it back in return by the same conveyance. I had a flask of whiskey, but they would not trust that by the same perilous little conveyance; so I had to lean forward very steadily, and hand it to the foremost, and when he returned it to me, to lean backwards to give it to the other, with whom it remained till we landed for I could not regain it.

How were the dugouts built? Here are three accounts describing the process:

In a 1710 letter Jacques Raudot, then Intendent of New France, tells how the Indians used fire:

"The black poplar (Tuliptree)is also a tree of this country. It grows very tall and big and serves theses savages in making large canoes for navigating on their rivers and lakes. Formerly it was an endless task for them to make these canoes; not having iron, it was necessary to set fire to the foot of a tree, to fall it and scrape it with their stone axes, and to remove the charcoal which remained on, in order that the fire penetrate to the center. After felling it they cut it the same way to the length that they wish and also to hollow it out with fire."

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, in his monumental six volume "History of the Indian Tribes of the United States", published in 1852, described how the Indians of the Great Lakes used fire and stone tools:

"The ancient Indians, prior to the era of the discovery of America, had indeed no use for an axe, in the sense in which we apply the term now-a-days. Fire was the great agent they employed in felling trees and reducing their trunks to proper lengths. There was no cutting of trees. No stone axe, which we have ever examined, possesses the hardness or sharpness essential to cut the fibers of an oak, a pine, an elm or any other species of American tree whatever.

When the wants of an Indian hunter had determined him to fell a tree, in order to make a log canoe...he erected a fire around it close to the ground. When the fire had burned in so as to produce a coal that might impede its further progress, a stone instrument of a peculiar construction, with a handle to keep a person from the heat, was employed to pick away the coal, and keep the surface fresh. This is the instrument called by them Agakwut.

The mode of using this ancient axe, which would be more appropriately classed as a pick, was by twisting around it...a simple wythe, forming a handle, which could be firmly tied together, and which would enable the user to strike a firm inward blow. This handle was not at right angles to the axe.

He states about small specimens of this tool which were found...these small axes were adapted to the strength of boys and children, whose labors in the process of fire-fretting were always welcome and important...particularly when we reflect that this labor was generally done by females.

Eric Sloan, the late Connecticut writer and artist whose works celebrate Americana, stated in his book "A Museum of American Tools": The word canoe (canow and canoo in the 1600s) described a hollowed out log. Until the Indians saw the English hand adze, they used fire to burn out the hollow portion and flint knives and shells to scrape out the burned wood. They then devised their own adze, using flint instead of metal for the blade.. .


  1. Interesting article, Jim. I'm doing a research paper on Sustainable living drawn from Indigenous philosophy and culture. My professor, Aimee Dunn, suggested I talk about how the Natives lived when resources were plentiful how it has impacted their way of living today. Would you have any information, or be able to guide me in a direction to find the information, preferably about Michigan, I would love to hear information about the Upper Peninsula. feel free to e-mail me at lburton@nmu.edu. So I don't confuse it with spam, please put "birch bark canoe" in the subject line.

    Thanks for your time!
    Linda Burton
    Senior, 2010
    Northern Michigan University
    President of the Organization for Outdoor Recreation Professionals

  2. I should have re-read that before I posted it. there were quite a few typos and improper grammar....