The Dugout Canoes of Lake Phelps


Lake Phelps was discovered on August 23, 1755 when a party of white hunters penetrated an area locally known as "The Little Dismal" Swamps, in a region referred to as the "Great Alligator Dismal."

"When the group finally decided to turn back," wrote historian Dorothy Spruill Redford,

The lake remained, however, in relative obscurity until soon after the American Revolution, when a consortium of business men from Edenton, North Carolina, led by Josiah Collins, was formed with the objective of draining Lake Phelps by digging a canal between it and the Scuppernong River. The lake's rich bottoms could then be turned over to farming without the necessity of clearing 25 square miles of forests. The concept seemed sound. The lake, which possessed a maximum depth of only nine feet, was eighteen feet higher in elevation than the river, six miles away. A canal for the drainage operation could be dug by black slaves. After purchasing more than 100,000 acres of land and lake, and surveying it, however, the Lake Company decided that by controlled flooding the waterway and surrounding terrain could more readily be turned into wetlands for the growing of rice. Finally, in 1784 the company was authorized by the state legislature to begin draining the lake. [Redford, 102-105]

The Collins Canal, as the great drainage ditch came to be called, was finished in two years, but failed to drain the lake. The syndicate, however, persisted. Collins erected a plantation complex beside the canal and was soon engaged in clearing the surrounding lands for agricultural pursuits. In 1816 he bought out his partners and secured complete control of the company's holdings. A year later he named his lakeside plantation, which had been turned over to growing corn and wheat, Somerset Place. By 1820 the plantation, which stood on the north shore of the lake and on the western lip of the canal, was being termed "the finest estate in North Carolina. Sixty three thousand Acres of land in one body as rich as the banks of the Nile" (Redford, 107]. Somerset Place was not the only plantation to be erected on the lake. As early as 1790, a small farm, dubbed "Bonarva," had also been established by an Episcopal (Page 33) minister named Charles Pettigrew, on the eastern side of the canal and overlooking the lake. Others would follow. [Lemmon, I, 88]

From its first visitation by the white man in 1755, Lake Phelps was perceived as a pristine, untouched environment. Enormous stands of bald cypress, the oldest living things east of the Rocky Mountains, dominated its shores. Early records from the Collins Plantation reported cypress with more than 800 growth rings. But other forest giants were also common to the great swamp. These included sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), blackgum, or swamp tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica var. biflora), yellow tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), cherrybark oak (Quercusfalcata var. pagodaefolia), laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia), swamp chestnut oak (Quercus prinus), and sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). Undergrowths of Virginia willow, spicebush, beauty berry, and sweet pepperbush, as well as vines such as catbriar, wild grapes, rattan, and poison ivy, laced the forest floor. Plants such as jack-in-the-pulpit, dayflower, jewelweed, and dense colonies of devil's walking-stick and pawpaw, cluttered the trails of animals and humans alike.

Although writing in 1790, and entirely unaware of the lake's long unwritten record of prehistoric visitors, the Reverend Charles Pettigrew, later to become the first elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in North Carolina, presented a picture of the lake that could well have been viewed a thousand years before, or which might still be seen today. Seated before his door in his plantation cottage "Bonarva," at the lake's edge on June 29, 1790, the Reverend Pettigrew wrote:


This 1808 map of eastern North Carolina is the earliest know to display the Collins Canal, as well as Lake
Phelps and the remainder of the pocosin lakes in the Great Alligator Dismal Swamp.
Source: Cumming, 1966.

(Page 35)

Despite its beauty and apparent tranquility, the surrounding forests and peat beds were subject to frequent and deadly conflagrations. In reporting on one such dramatic episode in the region's history, the Reverend Pettigrew could well have been describing the vicious conflagration nearly two hundred years later that led directly to the discovery of the lake's most significant archaeological treasures. "We have for some time past," he wrote about March 2, 1791,

Occasional fires notwithstanding, the forest canopy surrounding Lake Phelps region continued to thrive, but then began to rapidly diminish before the onslaught of the plow. In (Page 36) 1839, and again in 1857, Edmund Ruffin, a prominent author on agriculture, visited the area. Ruffin estimated that four-fifths of the land forming the Pamlico-Albermarle Peninsula was one enormous swamp, which he described as "one uniform expanse of the most gigantic and magnificent forest growth ... The whole surface of the earth is kept always (unless in winter) under an impenetrable shade." Ruffin accurately forecast the eventual reduction of the swamp forests, however, by noting that land cleared for cultivation had increased from several hundred acres in 1839 to 5,000 acres in 1857. Moreover, renewed interest in the drainage of the swamps and the "canalization" of the region which proceeded well into the late 19th century continued to contribute to the destruction. By 1893 the North Carolina Geological Survey reported that due to timbering and conversions of the swampland for agricultural purposes, no new second growth of native cypress would occur. [Dunn, 1989]

Today, though of relatively small size, the swamp forest bordering the north shore of Lake Phelps is all that remains of the mature stand of bald cypress, some tree champions of which having trunk diameters of 32 feet. Somerset Place is now a state historic site. And the remains of the Collins Canal is still to be seen stretching the six mile distance to the Scuppemong.

The Dugout Log Canoes of Lake Phelps

The fortunate discovery of the first prehistoric dugout log canoe in the waters of Lake Phelps, North Carolina in 1985, the subsequent location, archaeological documentation, and analysis of an additional 29 canoes, dating from as early as 4,380 B.P., as well as hundreds of prehistoric lithics, ceramics, and other artifacts, some dating from as early as 11,000 B.P., has served as an important confirmation of the long-term presence and industry of Native Americans on the soil of North Carolina. They have provided a major link in the interpretive processes of reconstructing the prehistoric past in the state. Moreover, the finds have affirmed the importance of the unique Lake Phelps environment to the region's first inhabitants, the Paleo-Indians of 9000 B.C., right down to the last known pre-Contact visitors of 1400 A.D. The canoes themselves, the largest assemblage to date of intact prehistoric vessels in North America, together with the artifacts associated with the culture which constructed them, utilized them, and disposed of or abandoned them, represent one of the most significant sequences of finds of its kind in the United States. It is all the more significant in that most of these ancient craft remain undisturbed in the original pristine environment in which they were first ensconced. (Page 37)


Entitled "The arriual of the Englishmen in Virginia," this plate by Theodore de Bry portrays Roanoke
Island, the perilous shoals of the Outer Banks, Pamlico Sound, Albemarle Sound, and the mouth of the
Alligator River at the onset of the Contact Period. Source: Harriot.

(Page 38)

Data relative to the known history of the dugout log canoe is, of course, largely limited to descriptive information provided by the early explorers and settlers, to the very few examples recovered through archaeological efforts, or which are preserved in museum collections such as in the Delaware State Museum, in Trenton, New Jersey, the Valentine Museum, in Richmond, Virginia, in the National Watercraft Collection in the National Museum, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, either whole or in model form. The historic data, although addressing the log canoe only from the Contact period onward, still provides a reasonable base for model construction of prehistoric times pertinent to the Lake Phelps canoes.

In his famous discourse on the first English voyage to North Carolina in 1584-85, Arthur Barlowe presented one of the first comprehensive descriptions of the dugout log canoe of the American Indian of the middle Atlantic seaboard. "Their boats are made of one tree, " he wrote,

The naturalist artist John White, a first-hand observer of the Indian dugout canoe described the process of canoe manufacturing thus:


This engraving, entitled "The manner of making thear boates," by Theodore de Bry,
portrays several of the key steps in log canoe manufacture as recorded by Barlowe, White,
Harriot, and others: felling of the tree by fire; clearing its branches and encumberances by
fire; and the shaping by burning and scraping clear with a shell the inner hull form.
Source: Harriot.

(Page 40)

In 1609 the Virginia colonist Henry Spellman offered another more descriptive anecdote on these indigenous native watercraft by referring to them as "a kind of boate they have made in [the] form of an Hogg's trough, but somewhat more hollowed in." (Brewington, 4]

Prior to the discovery of the Lake Phelps canoes, the actual construction material for pre-contact dugout log canoes in North Carolina was largely conjectural. Despite Barlowe's assertions, it should be noted that pitch pine (Pinus rigida) was not normally encountered on the Carolina coast, although the lobiolly pine (P. taeda) and the long-leaf pine (P. palustfis) were. Both loblolly and long-leaf pines were known to have been employed elsewhere in canoe construction [Trees of North Carolina, 4]. The loblolly and long-leaf pines are still among the most prominent "firs" among the coastal trees. Thomas Harriot, in his Brief and true report of the newfound land of Virginia, reported that the natives made "boats or Canoes of the forme of trowes" from "Rackiock, a kind of tree so called that are sweet wood." Quinn [I, 363] suggests that rackiock was an Indian word which apparently meant "soft wood" and was either the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) or the white cypresss, a variety of the swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum), the latter being, of course, the more durable, but the former the more likely candidate for the canoe in Theodore De Bry's engraving after White. Although Barlowe had referred to coniferous trees as being employed in native canoe manufacturing, Quinn has suggested that it was probable that a number of different trees were employed, but champions the tulip tree as probably the most common material of choice. The tulip tree was both the largest and most easily worked, but tended to rot and become waterlogged rather quickly [Quinn, I, 363-64, n.1]. In 1701, the Carolina traveler John Lawson reported that bald cypress was, in fact, the wood of choice. "Of these great Trees the Pereaugers and Canoes are scoop'd and made," he wrote, "which sort of Vessels are chiefly to pass over the Rivers and Creeks, and Bays...This Wood is very lasting, and free from the (Page 41) Rot. A Canoe of it will outlast four Boats, and seldom wants Repair" [Lawson, 103-104]. It seems Rely, however, that the Native American artificer was more likely to employ whatever timber was locally available, and would have been governed in his construction by the availability of tree types and size of timber stands in the region.

It was, early on in the Contact period, quite apparent to the European observer that the dugout canoes of the Native Americans varied considerably in the numbers of persons they could effectively carry. As early as 1561 the Frenchman Jean Ribaut, while visiting the coast of Florida near the site of present day Jacksonville, reported observingcanoes that could carry 15 to 20 men. The Spanish explorer Heman Desoto, in a military encounter, engaged a fleet of canoes on the Mssissippi carrying 80 men each, with 25 paddlers to a side on each vessel [Fleetwood, 4]. In his own significant discourse on the first English settlement in America, at Roanoke Island, colonist Ralph Lane noted that as many as 35 persons could be transported in a single canoe [Quinn, I, 286-87]. Captain John Smith, of Jamestown, Virginia, related that some canoes were "fortie or fiftie foot in length and some will bear 40 men, but the most ordinary are smaller." [Smith, 32]

Size and construction were variables. Virginia colonist George Percy mentions seeing a canoe "five and fortie feet long by the Rule" [Tyler, 10]. Colonel Henry Norwood, marooned in 1650 on Fenwick Island, on the Eastern Shore of the Delmarva Peninsula, in what is now the State of Delaware, reported seeing dugout canoes "some twenty two foot in length" (Force, Tract, II, No. 10, 31]. Robert Beverly, of Virginia, described a canoe in 1705 of reportedly "unusual length" which he claimed to be up to thirty feet long [Beverly, III, 61]. In 1736, Philip George Von Reck, a German traveling by canoe through Georgia on the Savannah River, reported that

In his seminal tract on Chesapeake Bay log canoes and bugeyes, M.V. Brewington observed:

John Smith, however, noted that some canoes "are about an eine [approximately 3 feet 9 (Page 42) inches] deepe" [Smith, 32]. Colonel Norwood reported that the fielding of a dugout canoe required the combined strength of himself and three Indians to "launch this weighty embarkation, which was very heavy for its proportions" [Force Tract, III, No. 10, 31]. Once in the water, though, such vessels were fast and navigable." Our boat [was] well manned with 14 [men]," reported Smith on one contact with an Indian manned dugout on Chesapeake Bay, "yet would they [the Indians] row faster with 3. Oares in their Canowes then we with 8." In later years, he would note that "they [the Indian canoe] will row faster than our barges" [Smith, 19, 32]. When Hernan Desoto was attacked on the Mississippi by a large native fleet with 50 paddlers to a canoe, each vessel was propelled at the "speed of a running horse." [Fleetwood, 6]

Manueverability was undoubtedly tricky as such vessels, in unskilled hands, would have been prone to capsizing. In the able hands of the natives who built them, however, the dugout canoe could be rapidly propelled, as Ribaut observed, even while standing, either by poling or paddling, as was early on illustrated in the drawings of Jacques Le Moyne and John White [Fleetwood, 6]. In 1710, the Carolina traveler John Lawson reported that even "many of the women are very handy in canoes, and will manage them with great dexterity and skill." [Lawson, 1]

Although there is no evidence of the use of sails on canoes by the Native Americans along the middle Atlantic at the period of contact, the navigational techniques employed by the natives in canoe travel was considerable. "Sometimes it happened, observed Lawson,

The adoption of the dugout canoe by the early settlers of Virginia and the Carolinas, most of whom were poor artisans and had come ill prepared for theirventure in the new world, is well known. Despite the early effort at importation of shipwrights to build "Ships, Boates, (Page 43) and other Vessels wherof the Collony had great need," by 1623 the dugout canoe was already being adopted by the Virginia colonists for oystering [Va. Co. I, 523; IV, 144, 230, 260].


This engraving by Theodore de Bry entitled "The Coniuerer" pictures four canoes in the
background, one of which is a four-man vessel employed by the natives for hunting waterfowl
and in fishing. Source: Harriot.

(Page 44)

Later, adaptations of the basic canoe design to a catamaran form, using two canoes lashed together with cords, to carry heavy hogsheads of tobacco, spread throughout the tidewaters. By 1686, the white man's use of single logs for canoe manufacture had been largely abandoned in lieu of two, and even three logs, squared off, joined along a center-line, and hollowed out with an adze. (Brewington 3-4]

With the arrival and eventual domination of the Carolina coastal plain by European civilization, and the dissolution or westerly retreat of Native American society, the dominance of the dugout log canoe, which had been one of the principal forms of water transporation for over 4,000 years, was doomed to adaptation and evolution. Although survivals of Henry Spellman's single log "Hogg trough" canoe was reported on the Chesapeake as late as 1761, and small punts, derived from the dugout design, remained until the Civil War era, the original form had been lost entirely. [Brewington, 3-4] (Page 45)

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Carolina Algonkian Project, All Rights Reserved