Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

Then: Imagine the sight of individuals clad only in loincloths, furiously chipping at a large felled log, slivers of wood flying high above them, and smoke curling upward from sections of the burning tree as they carve out a dugout canoe. Now: In painstakingly precise recreations, archaeologists of the Bureau for Historic Preservation (BHP) of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) have created three such vessels during the past decade in an innovative outreach program, the Pennsylvania Dugout Canoe Project, which has educated thousands of visitors about this fascinating aspect of travel by Native Americans.

A dugout canoe – often known simply as a dugout – is a hollowed out log used as a watercraft. It’s typically made in a cycle of burning the log with a controlled fire and then scraping and chopping out the charred and softened wood with a variety of tools as diverse as shells, stone adzes, and wooden scrapers. The dugout is most likely the earliest form of constructed watercraft in the world, and European examples have been dated as being nearly ten thousand years old. In both North and South America, dugouts had been the main form of water travel since Native Americans arrived from Siberia more than sixteen thousand years ago. In the eastern United States, dugouts are preserved in the lakes and bogs of Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The oldest of these dates to more than six thousand years before the present (BP).

The discovery of an oak example in Savannah Lake, Ohio, thirty dugouts in 1985 at North Carolina’s Lake Phelps, and one hundred “log boats” at Newman Lake in Florida in 2000, reinforces the belief that these canoes were common in prehistory and played a significant role in the movement of goods, people, and ideas. Based on early descriptions of Native American vessels, including the well-known accounts of Captain Arthur Barlowe (1550-1620), an English explorer and protégé of Sir Walter Raleigh, and John White (1540/1550-1608), artist and governor of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Virginia, archaeologists possess some idea of construction methods and variations in size and shape. Although both Barlowe and White described a process of burning and scraping logs with shells to fashion such canoes, they do not mention the use of stone axes or adzes.

In the southwestern United States, the sixteenth-century Spanish navigator and conquistador Hernando de Soto (1500-1542) encountered huge dugout canoes – measuring nearly one hundred feet – on the Mississippi River carrying between seventy-five and eighty warriors, with twenty-five paddlers on each side. Carved from a single log, these dugouts were heavy, but proved to be swift and navigable. They were used in local and distant trading and for fishing, hunting, gathering expeditions, and during warfare.

In the Keystone State, less than twenty dugouts have been documented in bogs and lakes, primarily in the Poconos of northeastern Pennsylvania. Based on tool marks and narrow side walls, most are historic in age and were crafted with metal implements. Joseph A. Baker, a historic preservation specialist for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, in 1998 contended that the greater number of historic dugouts compared to prehistoric examples most likely represents the burgeoning of the fur trade in northern Pennsylvania during the seventeenth century. It’s also believed that in Pre-Columbian times, by AD 1550, many of the lakes in this region would have had at least one resident dugout for hunting, fishing, and gathering. Since their weight and bulkiness made them extremely difficult to transport over land, dugout canoes were probably not moved between lakes but most likely stored year-round at the lake where they were made. Once taken out of water, they are prone to cracking and deterioration. Evidence exists that, in the winter, Native Americans may have filled their canoes with rocks and sunk them below the freeze line to escape being crushed by ice and to keep them from being damaged by repeated freezing and thawing.

Although many recognize the portable birch bark canoe as a Native American watercraft, this type of vessel was rarely used in Pennsylvania. Such canoes could be made only in regions to the north where birch trees grew to a sufficient size to allow for their construction.

PHMC archaeologists staged the most recent Pennsylvania Dugout Canoe Project in September 2005 as a public exhibition at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, a historic house museum and recreational area overlooking the Susquehanna River located five miles north of center-city Harrisburg. During this project they interacted with more than six thousand visitors in a seventeen-day period. At least three individuals worked between six and eight hours each day. One of their goals was to use tools of the type that would have been available to prehistoric peoples of Pennsylvania. With the assistance of professional experimental archaeologist Jack Cresson, of Moorestown, New Jersey, the archaeologists constructed one metarhyolite and four basalt adzes that they hafted to hardwood handles.

Project participants ground, shaped, and polished the basalt adzes; grinding each consumed eight hours. The early process was not without its drawbacks, though, and ultimately evolved into a routine of trial and error. For instance, the initial low edge angles of the blades broke, requiring them to be increased. The most difficult aspect of constructing these tools was affixing the blades to the wooden handles. In their first attempts, archaeologists attached the blades to the bottom of forked branches, but the handle broke quickly and they moved the cutting surface to the top of the fork. This position worked well, but the tools loosened and needed to be reattached. After some experimentation, the most successful method consisted of sinew (a tendon-like attachment), covered with rawhide and adhered with pine pitch. To expedite the experiment, however, at least one adze was reinforced with commercial twine.

For the dugout itself, the team began with a white pine log measuring approximately twenty feet that had been donated and delivered by the staff of Michaux State Forest, a tract of eighty-five thousand acres in Adams, Cumberland, and Franklin Counties. A storm had toppled the tree about seven months earlier. As a model for the watercraft’s design, participants used a circa AD 1250 dugout from Mud Pond, near Pleasant View Summit, in eastern Luzerne County, now on exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg. The canoe was discovered by a group of boys in Mud Pond in 1935 and donated to the museum in 1968.

Archaeologists began work on the canoe by cutting and charring the ends of the log to bevel the bow and stern, exercising extreme caution to make sure they did not excessively thin these areas. They finally shaped the bow and stern with the adzes they had meticulously fashioned, and then dished out the top of the log by repeating a pattern of burning, chopping, and scraping the charred area. The burning facilitated the removal of wood, but the last firing also hardened and preserved it. By the fifth day of burning, the log’s side walls were sufficiently thinned so that the tops of these areas, the gunnels, were covered with clay before additional burnings to prevent additional charring. Each morning the team applied a layer of clay insulation to the gunnels and ignited a fire the length of the dugout, which they allowed to burn for two to four hours. They then removed the charred material by scraping the interior with beveled pieces of wood and stone adzes. Scraping progressed slowly as workers removed less than three-quarters of an inch daily. Nearing completion, they rubbed the rough surface of the interior with sandstone to reduce splinters and increase comfort. For the final treatment they applied pine tar mixed with hot wood ash as a sealant, after which they smoothed the coating by abrading it with fine wood chips and hand rubbing it with medium-coarse sand.

The working part of the project concluded on Sunday, October 2, 2005, with a four-hour maiden voyage on the Susquehanna River, from Fort Hunter Mansion and Park to Harrisburg’s City Island, about five miles to the south. Four paddlers began the journey but because the water level was so low the trip became grueling and two disembarked midway. Those aboard experienced little trouble with stability but did note that the vessel was heavy, causing it to hit rocks throughout the journey which made steering difficult.

The 2005 Pennsylvania Dugout Canoe Project enabled PHMC staff archaeologists to not only test theories and experiment with Pre-Columbian construction techniques and tools, but it also educated and informed thousands of individuals, young and old, who visited the site. They further expanded the successful outreach program in January 2006, when they exhibited the dugout canoe at the ninetieth annual Pennsylvania Farm Show, an eight-day extravaganza that drew nearly a half-million visitors to Harrisburg. During the event, archaeologists and volunteers provided visitors with information on dugouts found in the East, described their methodology, and illustrated the dramatic results – both the canoe and the prehistoric “tool kit” with which they made it.

The dugout will be on exhibit at the PHMC’s Fort Pitt Museum, located in Pittsburgh’s Point State Park, returning to Harrisburg each January for the Pennsylvania Farm Show.


Kurt W. Carr is the archaeology education coordinator with the PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation (BHP).


Douglas C. McLearen is chief of the BHP’s Division of Archaeology and Protection.


James Herbstritt works with the Commonwealth Archaeology Program.


Andrea Johnson, who worked with the Commonwealth Archaeology Program, is a graduate student at Northwestern University in Chicago.