Saturday, July 31, 2010

Birchbark Canoe at Abbe Museum

The Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, on Mt. Desert Island, Maine, is dedicated to showing the history and culture of Maine's Native Americans. Set right in the center of town (which is a zoo on a summer weekend), it's new, slick, somewhat on the small side, somewhat political in nature, and it has a few canoe-related artifacts. This post will focus on the museum's only full-size birchbark canoe. The next one will look at its collection of models and other canoe depictions. (As always, click any image to enlarge.) 

I'll introduce the canoe by quoting the exhibit signage:
Canoe: Atikamekw (probably Manawan First Nation), Late 1800s
This canoe was built at St. Alexis des Monts, Province of Quebec, in the late 1800s. Algonkian in design and construction, it is similar to canoes that were used by the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indians of Maine.
Roughly similar, perhaps. There are many notable differences between this Algonquin canoe and the Wabanaki canoes of Maine, but I guess the museum couldn't get its hands on an authentic and historical Maine Indian canoe, so this one had to do.

The signage goes on to list materials: Sheathing, ribs, gunwales, "bulkheads" (i.e., headboards), bow and stern posts (i.e., stem and stern posts): all cedar, type not specified. Lashings: Split spruce root. Seam sealer: spruce or pine pitch, ground charcoal, tallow. Cover: single sheet of birch bark

Stem protectors are leather. Note the rather sharp turn of the stem or sternpost from horizontal to past vertical. (Is this the characteristic that Chapelle called "chin"?) This is quite a different profile than the Penobscot bark canoe built by Steve Cayard last year at Penobscot Marine Museum. (By the way, Steve just finished another bark canoe yesterday at Penobscot Marine Museum.)

The headboards are unusual in having a strong convex curve inboard. Most curved headboards curve the other direction. This one is the bow, I believe.
Stern headboard. I like the rounded top, maybe symbolizing a man's head.

Note how the sternpost rises above the gunwales. Also note the wulegessis, the decorative flap/deck of bark that is sandwiched between the gunwales and the hull. 

Only the thwarts were lashed. The gunwales and their connection with the bark covering were assembled with nails.

The bow, I believe.

Top view of the wulegessis, showing treatment of the gunwales, caps, and headboard lashing arrangement.

Quarter-thwart, deeply curved with the concave face facing the end of the canoe.

Interior, showing two paddles made by Joe Mell, Passamaquoddy, in 1904.

One of the paddles has a conventional Penobscot-style grip.

The other paddle has an unusual, attractive ovoid bulge with a sharp line, rather than a smooth transition, where it meets the flat base of the grip.

Exhibit signage: an image from Scribners Monthly, 1880, showing how Mt. Desert Island's Native Americans used bark canoes to hunt porpoises with spears...

...and with guns. This would take some pretty steady shooting and a lot of trust in your stern paddler.

Both of the Scribners images also appear in the new book Indians in Eden, about the Native Americans of Mt. Desert Island. (Eden was Bar Harbor's original name.) The book has significant content about their use of birchbark canoes for both traditional economic activities, and for employment in MDI's early tourist economy.


  1. Thank you for bringing attention to the Abbe Museum! I would like to add that we do in fact have two other full-sized birchbark canoes, but they are not all on exhibit all the time. In addition to the canoe currently on exhibit described in this post, we have a 19' Wabanaki canoe that dates to approximately 1876, and a 16' canoe made by Steve Cayard in 2000. While Cayard is not Wabanaki, his work is outstanding. So make sure to come back again and keep an eye out for our other two beauties! Also, our collections that are not on exhibit are available to researchers by appointment. Visit our web site at for contact information.

  2. Thanks for your comments Julia.
    Steve Cayard's amazing work can be seen here:
    By the way: the Penobscot-style bark canoe whose building he supervised at Penobscot Marine Museum last summer is for sale. See