Canoes & Passenger Ships

19th-century-american-maritimeLaying a foundation (or a keel) for our series on 19th Century American Maritime requires a backward look. To really understand the 19th Century situation and developments, it’s important to consider America’s maritime beginnings in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

Today’s blog post explores some of the Native American water craft and their fishing and whaling. Then we’ll introduce the comparatively large European ships exploring the coasts and bring new settlers to America.

Native American Boats

If you live close to an ocean, river, or big lake, sooner or later you’ll find a way to go out on the water. Native Americans developed some unique boat designed. We’ll talk mostly about the east coast and Great Lakes region tribes. Boats were important for transporting supplies, exploring expeditions, war parties, hunting and fishing, and trading excursions.

Eel River, Plymouth, Massachusetts (see ending video for an visual of the canoes)

Eel River, Plymouth, Massachusetts (see ending video for an visual of the canoes)

One of my favorite boat design types is the tree trunk canoe. The Wampanoag tribe (Massachusetts) used a slow burning fire to hollow out the tree trunk; then would chip away the charred word with tools, eventually making a sturdy boat that could be used in the streams, marshes, and calm ocean water. The Wampanoag people called this type of boat a “mishoon.”

Another type of vessel was the birch bark canoe. Created using a lightweight wooden frame covered with birch bark and sealed with resin, these canoes were light, steady, and fast.

Fishing & Whaling

Using nets, spears, and sometimes hooks and lines, the native tribes went fishing. Freshwater fish and seafood formed an important part of coastal tribes’ diets. Some fished with fire – lighting a fire in a raft or canoe and waiting for the curious fish to be blinded before stabbing them with fishing spears.

We’ll discuss the early whaling techniques later in the year when we get to whaling history, but for now, it’s important to note that beached whales were considered a good food source. Some tribes went to sea in their large canoes and hunted whales.

Skill sets of fishing, sea hunting, and unique practices (like treading eels) would be shared with or observed by the arriving colonists. The Europeans would learn what was good to eat and what could be “harvested” from the sea for a food supply and later profit.


Early explorers sailed along the North American coast, making maps and trading with the Native Americans. Their ships were European built and designed; many had three masts, canvas sails, forecast and poop deck, and several cargo holds.

The earliest explorers of the coastlines for the continental United States were still looking for the elusive “Northwest Passage” – a fabled channel cutting through the continent to the Pacific Ocean.

The Spanish conducted most of the early explorations. Ponce de Leon landed in Florida; Juan Cabrillo in California.

The English explorers came a few decades later. John Cabot, Martin Frobisher, and Henry Hudson explored the New England and Canadian coasts. Sir Francis Drake landed in California, claiming the land for Queen Elizabeth I and holding the first Protestant church service in America. Sir Walter Raleigh charted and attempted to plant colonies on the North Carolina and Virginia shores.

French explorers trekked or paddled through areas of Canada, the Great Lakes, and the large rivers.

How did all these explorers cross the oceans and what did they use in the explorations for transportation? Ships and shore boats, of course. Thus, maritime history – boats, captains, expeditions – is at the bottom of America’s maritime traditions.

Replica of one of the ships that brought settlers to Jamestown

Replica of one of the ships that brought settlers to Jamestown

Arriving Settlers

Few people in the 17th Century could image flying through air and space. To cross the Atlantic, they came on passenger vessels – usually converted cargo ships. Here are a few of the earliest English Colonial ships to arrive in the New World.

Tiger, Roebuck, Red Lion, Elizabeth, Dorothy made the first English colonization fleet to Roanoke Island in 1584.

Susan Constant, Discovery, & Godspeed brought the settlers to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

Mayflower – brought the “Pilgrims” to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620.

Most ships were chartered by the colonizing “company” to bring the settlers to the New World. Sometimes, a settler group would purchase a ship and hire a crew.

The length of a voyage in the colonial times varied. Five weeks from England to the Carolinas was considered a good voyage. Other ships hit storms and were at sea for additional weeks. Passengers typically stayed in their under-deck quarters, but they could enjoy time on the upper decks if the weather was pleasant. Some brought their own food supplies, other times food was shared from a common store – it depended on the provision arrangements at the beginning of the venture.

The earliest colonists had to survive their weeks long ocean voyage and then begin building their new settlement.


Hollowed-log vessels or birch bark canoes going to meet an arriving rigged sailing ship. In the earliest days of well-recorded American history, two cultures met at the shoreline. The colonial arrivals had much to learn about their new homelands. Eventually – and sometimes with their native neighbors’ help – they would discover the abundant resources of the American coastline. Fishing would soon become an important part of Colonial life and contribution to the mercantile system by which America supported the mother country: England. And that, my friends, will be next week’s topic…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

Looking for a little more information about building a log canoe? Check out this video made in Plimoth Plantation by Jim Hodges:


One thought on “Canoes & Passenger Ships

  1. Pingback: The Earliest American Whaling | Gazette665

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