Dugout Canoes


Dugouts are the oldest boats archaeologists have found, dating back more than 8,000 years to the Neolithic Stone Age. They are found in our time primarily because they are made of massive pieces of wood, which tend to preserve better than canoes made from lighter materials. Dugout boats were used by Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, along with bark canoes and animal hide kayaks. Most Seminole canoes are made of cypress wood or yellow pine. Notice the upturned bow, this is to aid the canoe in passing through tall Everglades sawgrass.

Seminole canoes are made of cypress logs and are shaped and carved with axes and fire. Logs are carefully selected by a woodsman who chooses a log with the heart nearer the side rather than the center. After a log is selected and tested it is hewn into shape and buried in mud for 18 to 24 months. When it is dug up and cleaned, it is dried slowly for two weeks. The wood is removed from the inside out by burning. Later a boy strikes the sides with a stick while the builder listens to vibrations and cuts or scrapes away burned wood to a uniform thickness. When the vibrations reach a certain pitch the builder knows the correct thickness has been attained. [Florida Memory Project

The sturdy and balanced dugout can be moved along by paddle while seated, or standing up and using a long pole.  Often a gig, which is used for fishing, could be used in place of a pole. Gigging for frogs and small freshwater fish was a common way women helped provide for the village.

Dugout boats provided an excellent means for transportation throughout the Everglades and rivers systems, allowing for trade networks and the mobile lifestyles of the early 20th century Seminoles. There was enough room to pack up a family's camp and move to seasonal hammocks, or two dugouts could be lashed together.

Charlie Cypress at the start of a new canoe. The technique of making a dugout boat is handed down from one generation to the next. As are the skills for making the tools needed for dugout building. In the 20th century and today, Seminoles have access to metal axes and scrapers and hammers, but in the prehistoric past, Indigenous Peoples used shell tools and stones.

Prehistoric dugouts are found in wet areas where there is the most chance for preservation. Families would use a canoe until it was damaged, and perhaps left them to sink or become covered in mud. These important artifacts range in date from a few hundred years old to well over 6,000 years showing the significance of Florida’s long aquatic cultural heritage. Over 400 dugout boat artifacts have been recorded. Once exposed wood canoes are subject to rapid decay by fungus, molds, and other microbial activity as well as by light.

["The Lake Munson Canoe" (8LE5785) was exposed during a drought of the lake. It is a prehistoric dugout approximately 500 to 800 years old. L to R: Bureau of Archaeological Research archaeologists Kevin Porter, Franklin Price, Roger Smith and Florida Public Archaeology Network's Barbara Hines.]