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Long before Europeans settled in the Ohio River valley, Native Americans made extensive use of the great river as a means of transportation. This was accomplished with the help of several kinds of watercraft, the most famous being the canoe. While many associate the canoe exclusively with the Native Americans, nearly all early explorers and settlers utilized this light and efficient craft to navigate the at-times treacherous Ohio.
Trees to canoes
Though the design of the canoe differed from tribe to tribe all over North America, two distinct models were frequently used by the tribes along the Ohio River. The first was a type of heavy canoe made from a dugout tree trunk. Known as a pirogue in the south, the essential elements of its design were the same as that of its northern cousin. A large tree was selected, felled, and stripped of its bark. After trimming, the trunk was shaped and the hollowing process began. This was either accomplished with the ax, adze, and much labor, or by a specialized method of burning that weakened the internal structure of the log and made hollowing much easier. Though its construction was more primitive than other canoe types, the dugout was a strong vessel that could easily weather the numerous dangers of the river, including snags, rapids, and shallows.
The other common canoe type popular among Ohio River tribes was a lighter vessel constructed of large strips of bark, often birch, set around a thin inner wooden frame. This frame design proved to be an extremely practical way of keeping the weight down on the canoe, making it easy for a single person to carry. It also made the structure remarkably sturdy and balanced for its size, allowing the canoe to carry large loads even in shallow water. Though the dugout canoe was better able to withstand river hazards, the bark canoe’s light weight and increased maneuverability made it the preferred means of transportation for explorers, trappers, and settlers.
Canoes were practical to the Ohio
An advantage that canoes held over later craft was that with an experienced guide, often a Native American, canoes could run the Falls of the Ohio, as well as other famous problem spots with little difficulty. This was extremely important because larger vessels were often forced to tie up and wait for higher water in order to make the attempt. During the tension-filled days of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the ever-present troubles with native tribes, delays of this sort could prove disastrous to a remote settlement or beleaguered fort.
Despite the widespread appeal of the canoe to both Native Americans and Europeans, these early vessels were truly adequate only for short trips during periods of relatively calm water. This suited the native tribes, who used the vessels mainly for trips to their hunting grounds, for ferrying people and supplies across the river, and for journeying to councils or assembling for war. For centuries the inhabitants of the Ohio River valley had no need for more substantial transport and contented themselves with simple rafts and canoes. With the introduction of European settlers to the region, however, more substantial rivercraft were needed.