Canoe history

I will sometimes speak of the history of New England Congregationalists as “our” history even though it isn’t the story of my family. It is the history of the church that I serve and an important part of the story of the United States, but my family came to the Congregational church late in its history, just after the Second World War and just before the union that formed the United Church of Christ. My mother’s side of the family is mostly English methodists and my father’s people referred to themselves as Pennsylvania Dutch. Their heritage is probably from the areas of Europe that became Switzerland and Germany and they took a rather convoluted route to the United States. They also were religious explorers, changing churches from time to time. The family roots seem to be in an Anabaptist group that became what is known as Mennonites, but the family chafed at some of the rules of the group and went through a variety of religious affiliations. My father’s family identified as Presbyterian after they arrived in Dakota territory. When my parents settled in a small town Montana after the War, they discovered the Montana protestant apportionment system, wherein Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists had divided the Montana territory into geographical regions. Our little Congregational church used to have a framed document in the entryway stating that it was designated as the official church for Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists in our town. My parents met at a small college that was the result of a merger of colleges from the three denominations. Our father was a student there and our mother a student at the city Deaconess Hospital nursing school.

So I’m an adopted member of the Congregationalist family. My roots aren’t in the Massachusetts Bay Colony even though I belong to a religious family that claims that settlement as a critical part of our story.

I think I fit into the family quite well, however. Part of that fit has to do with theological convictions and denominational loyalty. From time to time, however, I discover other links that fascinate me.

Recently I was reading an article written 25 years ago by Ann Marie Plane and published in the “Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society” about New England Logboats. Indigenous Americans clearly had a large variety of watercraft prior to European settlement. It is unclear how many of the boats were individually owned and some boats were definitely communally owned, as they were designed for large numbers of rowers. Longboats that could carry as many as forty rowers were observed by the first settlers. Individual boats were also used. The settlers in New England quickly adopted and adapted the traditional American boats. It is hard to know exactly how much of boat design originated in indigenous designs and how much was adapted from Irish and English boat design, but it is clear that the settlers did use naive boats and learned native techniques for boat construction. From Thoreau onward, there was a romanticization of American Indian culture and boats from that era reflect an intentional imitation of indigenous design.

Logboats were especially popular in certain regions, among them Salem colony where most homes had one or more “Cannowes.” The boats generally were 20’ or shorter in length and were used for crossing rivers, hunting, and hauling all kinds of agricultural and household goods. The popularity of the boats in North America was regional and the settlers were quick to adopt boats as a part of their lifestyle.

I’ve also taken to boats. I own what might be described as a fleet. I currently have five different canoes, each with a specific function and role. I clearly own more than is necessary. Not all of my canoes saw the water last summer. The year was a bit unusual in terms of paddling for me, as we traveled more than usual, but I confess to a bit of collecting as well as the use of the boats for practical purposes.

There is something powerfully spiritual about canoes for me, however. I frequently use my boats to travel alone on calm waters and behold the glory of creation. There is something about rising before dawn and quietly paddling out onto the lake to watch the sunrise that gives one a sense of being immersed in something much bigger than oneself. A small boat gives me a perspective that has been valuable for me. Somehow, I believe that I’m not the first person to have felt this. It makes me feel connected to those Massachusetts settlers as they crossed the rivers in a new-to-them land. They must have felt small in the face of the wildness of the North American Continent. There was so much that was unknown. Yet they also must have glimpsed the beauty of sunrise and the tug of a paddle as a well-shaped craft slips easily through the water.

Plane writes in her article that nearly every house in Salem colony had a “water-house (water-horse) or two. OK, I have more than two, but you can see how my interest was piqued by the article.

My Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors seemed to be more prone to traveling overland, with wagons pulled by oxen or horses and by the time they reached Dakota territory they had become land dwellers. Although they homesteaded on the shore of Devil’s Lake, also known as Spirit Lake in what is now eastern North Dakota, there are no family stories of them owning or employing boats. They were farmers and focused their attention on the soil. My mother’s people also don’t seem to have been boaters. There are no stories of grandparents and great grandparents owning personal boats, though some of them traveled by sternwheeler up the Missouri River to settle in Fort Benton, Montana Territory.

So I reach back to my adopted church family to claim a heritage of people who knew and appreciated canoes and other small watercraft. It’s a stretch, I know, but we often are willing to reach far when justifying our passions.

Who knows, perhaps some great great grandchild one day will say, “I come from a long line of Congregationalist canoe builders.” It’s unlikely, but one can dream.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!