Sunday, May 19, 2024

Research explores how colonial America adopted the birchbark canoe – Binghamton News

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The rivers ran wild in early New York, at least to European eyes — ill-suited for the heavy, deep-bottom watercraft they brought with them from over the sea.

For Indigenous peoples, however, waterfalls and shallows weren’t an obstacle. They had long mastered the creation and navigation of birchbark canoes, popping them out at portage points in a long-established network of trade routes.

Binghamton University Assistant Professor of English John Kuhn is currently working on a book about these canoes, which may have later spurred the development of the Adirondack guide boat.

“It’s a full-scale scholarly treatment of the birchbark canoe, which was the essential watercraft of the 16th and 17th centuries, originally produced and used by Indigenous groups in the Northeast,” he explained. “It’s an interesting example of Indigenous technology being adopted by settlers.”

To that end, he is a visiting fellow at The Adirondack Experience, The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake (ADKX). He also received funding from the John Carter Brown Library of the Early Americas in Rhode Island and the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering and Technology in Kansas City.

Indigenous technology is an interest of Kuhn’s, and he is also working on a series of essays about the history of the hammock. After the start of the colonial era, hammocks ended up on virtually every European sailing ship.

European boats were heavy, with deep drafts — made for navigating slow-flowing rivers that had long been cleared of obstacles.

“From the English point of view, North American rivers hadn’t been ‘improved,’” Kuhn said.

Indigenous peoples, however, devised their own method of transportation: light craft that could easily be lifted and moved via land around obstacles.

Canoes were made throughout the Americas, ranging from heavier dugout canoes to lighter varieties made by the Haudenosaunee, the Indigenous people of upstate New York. Dutch, English and French settlers were each exposed to the technology in turn, and quickly became dependent on Indigenous boatmakers and pilots.

“Europeans were eager to take advantage of this technology but were often quite nervous and sometimes even resentful about this structural dependence,” he said.

For his research, Kuhn will rely on original accounts by early colonizers, including inventories and even laws banning canoe theft, which indicate their presence. Europeans also adopted the Indigenous transportation network, which included a system of portages marked on early maps.

In the Adirondack museum, Kuhn will explore their substantial collection of historic freshwater boats, which include birchbark canoes and Adirondack guide boats. Like the canoes, the latter have a shallow draft and are modeled on earlier French watercraft.

“Part of what I’m suggesting is that these European watercraft take their design inspiration from birchbark canoes,” he said. “They ride higher in the water; you can get them through shallower areas.”

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