Birch Bark Canoes By: Eric Burke
Section A

Birch bark canoes were an important element of American history, as well as an important aspect of Native American life. Native Americans started using birch bark canoes because they had many advantages over other canoe styles such as the dugout canoe. Birch bark canoes took less time to build, supplies were readily available in the Midwest, and the finished canoe was lighter, and could hold more cargo when compared to previous canoes. The emigrants learned to make these canoes and used them for trade and exploration of the wilderness. This made the birch bark canoe extremely important to the exploration of the United States. Birch bark canoes were also very significant to the development of the fur trade. These canoes made it easier to get to distant locations as well as have the ability to bring more goods with them. The birch bark canoes could be as small as six feet long holding two men with some supplies, or they could be over fifty feet long and hold four tons of supplies. This meant that the fur trade, especially between the United States and Canada, could flourish.
When Europeans came to America they were amazed at the birch bark canoes that the Native Americans were making. Records show that these canoes were being built in the Midwestern United States and Canada as early as the 1490’s. Many tribes in the Midwest and the Great Lakes region of Canada were known to construct this style of canoe. Some of the more popular tribes include the Algonquin, Ojibwa and the Chippewa.

Birch Bark canoes vary in size, shape, and style, but essentially are all built the same way. The construction process begins by gathering large, straight pieces of birch bark. The bark was harvested in the summer months when it was easiest to peel off of the tree. Harvesting bark this way allowed the trees to be un-harmed in the process. Cedar trees were then cut down to be used as the frame for the canoe. This rigid frame keeps the shape of the canoe while it is being built. The next step is to gather roots from trees such as the spruce, which will be used to hold the canoe together, similar to rope and string. Once the cedar is made into the frame of the canoe, the birch bark is then wrapped around the frame. The roots are used to stitch the birch to the frame and keep it in place. Over 500 feet of spruce roots can be used on a single canoe. These roots are also used for sewing different pieces of birch bark together so that there are no gaps between the different sections of bark. The last step is planking and ribbing the canoe, which is basically lining the bark with wood, usually cedar, so that it keeps its shape and makes it more sturdy. Seams were then sealed with a mixture of pinesap and animal grease. Paddles were then hand carved from single pieces of birch wood.

Modern Birch Bark Canoe
Modern Canoes & Contemporary Builders

Today, birch bark canoes are still built using a lot of the same techniques the Native Americans used many years ago. The biggest difference now is that modern builders use more modern tools, such as chainsaws and power tools, to make the building process easier. Though there are many builders that use power tools, there are still plenty of builders that build them exactly the same way the Native Americans did. There are also many Native American tribes that still build these canoes and use them in their daily lives. There is a true craft in building these canoes and it takes years to truly perfect the style and techniques needed to build the ideal birch bark canoe. Recently, there seems to be a new push in restoring this age-old tradition. More people are becoming involved and articles being published about this important practice. Builders now sell their hand-made birch bark canoes as well as operate camps that allow you to experience canoeing in these birch bark canoes on rivers and lakes. Today it’s very popular to go to camps where you can learn how to make these canoes with experienced builders from Native American tribes.


Not only is there a new generation becoming involved in building birch bark canoes, but there is also an emphasis being put on restoring and protecting early birch bark canoes. Many museums today are putting more birch bark canoes into their displays. They are also working on ways to restore them and make them last for many generations to come. In 2009 there was a 250-year-old birch bark canoe that was found in an abandoned barn. This discovery brought a new light to birch bark canoes that helped to make them more popular in museums, which may have helped spark the recent increase in the canoe builders. These canoes were significant to Native Americans and to the exploration of America.

Works Cited
Adney, Tappan, and Howard Irving. Chapelle. Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Vol. 2. New York: Skyhorse Pub., 2007. Print. The book covers the basics of the birch bark canoe along with other bark canoes and the general history behind them. It talks about materials and tools used, and the different types, as well as their importance in different regions in Canada. The book also provides many photos and illustrations that show how canoes have evolved and the different parts and styles.

"The Alaska State Museums." Alaska State Museums. 13 June 2007. Web. 13 Apr. 2011. <>. This site is about birch bark canoe restoration and repair in order to preserve a canoe for the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Alaska. It gives a brief overview of each step in order to make these canoes museum ready.

Burger, Albert. "Birch-bark Canoe." Albert Burger. Web. 13 Apr. 2011. <>. The website goes into great detail about what it takes to make a canoe and the importance it had in many peoples lives and in history. It talks specifically about a man named Martin Auger and how he discovered how to make birch bark canoes with his wife.

"Canoe Saskatchewan History." Canoe Saskatchewan - Trip Plans, Outfitters, History,geology, Archaeology. Dec. 2006. Web. 13 Apr. 2011. <>. The site is focused on what the birch back canoe has done for Saskatchewan. It talks about how they were used and how they helped to develop the fur trade by making transportation easier. Also, it gives information about different types of canoes and what rivers and lakes where important for canoe trade in Saskatchewan.

"Canoes." White Oak Society - Deer River, Minnesota. Ed. White Oak Society, Inc. 12 July 2001. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <>. This site is focused on the history of birch bark canoes and what they were used for. It provides information about the different types of canoes and where they were used. The site also talks about how important canoes were for trade between Canada and the United States.
Catton, Bruce. "The Men Who Made Canoes." American Heritage. 2008. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. This site is about how Edwin Tappan Adney learned how to make a birch bark canoe from the Native Americans. It talks about the importance of Americans learning this crucial craft that the Native Americans perfected.

Cayard, Steve. "Steve Cayard: Birchbark Canoe Builder." Steve Cayard :: Birchbark Canoe Builder. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <>. This site gives an inside look into a modern birch bark canoe builder. The site gives history about the builder, along with some history about the canoes. The site provides information about how the canoes are built and the traditional techniques that are still used today.

"César's Bark Canoe by Bernard Gosselin- NFB." Watch Documentaries and Animated Films Online - Web. 13 Apr. 2011. <>. This website provides a documentary about how a member of the Manawan Reserve makes birch bark canoes like his ancestors. The video shows how you can make these canoes with what is found in nature, without modern tools or techniques.

Fuller, Ben. "Birchbark Canoe." Maine Boats, Home & Harbors Mar. 2010: 82-83. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <>. This article talks about how the birch bark canoe played a key role in American history. It also talks about keeping the tradition of building birch bark canoes alive and encouraging people to learn about them and visit museums that have canoes on display.

Gidmark, David. "BIRCHBARK CANOES: THE CLASSIC BOATS." The Antique & Classic Boat Society. Web. 13 Apr. 2011. <>. This website is about the structural aspect of the birch bark canoe and about the construction. It also provides photos and diagrams that show the building process. This site provides many interesting facts about many aspects of the birch bark canoe in the past and in modern day life.

Gottfred, J. "Making A Birchbark Canoe." Northwest Journal. 2002. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <>. This sight gives an in-depth look at building a birch bark canoe step-by-step. It has helpful photos along with definitions of common terms. The site also suggests the best times of year to do certain steps of the canoe build.

Hodgins, Bruce W., John Jennings, and Doreen Small. The Canoe in Canadian Cultures. Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural History, 1999. Print. This book gives a detailed look at what the canoe did for Canada and America, especially what it meant to the fur trade. It talks about canoes meant to the culture and who specialized in making them. It also gives interesting tales of canoe routes that may have changed history.

Kavanagh, Judy. "Birchbark Canoes." Jumaka - Portfolio. 2005. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <>. The website gives an excellent description of how birch bark canoes are made and the tools that are needed. It also lists books and videos that can be helpful to learning more as well as many other helpful websites.

Lindman, John. "The Bark Canoe Store." Home of the Birchbark Canoe. 2001. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <>. This site gives a brief description of almost 20 different types of birch canoes as well as ways to take care of a canoe. They also offer classes on how to build birch bark canoes and provides lists of related books and websites.

Matile, Roger. "Those Marvelous Ojibwa Birch Bark Canoes : Reflections." Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois. 9 Nov. 2006. Web. 13 Apr. 2011. <>. This site is about how Europeans came to America and discovered the Native Americans and their birch bark canoes. It explains how the Europeans were shocked at what the Native Americans could do and how they learned to make the canoes as well. This site also talks about the drawbacks to the birch bark canoes and how they were replaced.

NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art. "Birch Bark Canoe." Home | Native Access. Web. 13 Apr. 2011. <>. This site explains why the birch bark canoe was the best type of the canoe for the Native Americans. It also talks about how versatile these canoes are and gives a brief overview of how they are made and how they were used.

"One of the World’s Oldest Birch Bark Canoes Discovered in Cornwall | National Maritime Museum Cornwall | Falmouth, Cornwall." Discover Your Maritime Heritage | National Maritime Museum Cornwall | Falmouth, Cornwall. 2010. Web. 13 Apr. 2011. <>. This is an article about a 250 year old canoe that was found last year. It talks about where they found the canoe and where they believe the canoe is from. It also talks about what the plans are to preserve the canoe and what museum it will go to.

River, Joe. "Birchbark Canoes by Joe River." Server -. 22 May 2002. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <>. The site gives a basic description of the parts of the canoe, materials, and terminology. It also offers a "tour" in which you can follow the making of a birch bark canoe through pictures.

Vaillancourt, Henri. "Traditional Birchbark Canoes." Birch Bark Canoe. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <>. This website gives a general overview of traditional birch bark canoes as well as modern day techniques to building them. The site also provides good descriptions of the different types of birch bark canoes as well as brief history of birch canoes in Native American culture.

Vennum, Thomas. "River of Song: Music Along the River." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. 1998. Web. 13 Apr. 2011. <>. This site shows the craft behind making a birch bark canoe and how the Native Americans constructed each one by hand. In addition, it explains why the canoe was a huge development for transportation.