Stories of American Life and Adventure - Edward Eggleston

The Making of a Canoe

Henry had a young Indian friend whose name was Keketaw. One day Keketaw said to him, "Let us go into the woods and make a canoe."

"If we had an ax to cut down the trees," said the white boy, "or an adz, such as they have at Jamestown, or if we could get a hatchet, we might make a canoe; but we have not even a little knife."

"We will make a canoe in the Indian way," said Keketaw. "I will show you how. Let us get ready."

"What shall we do to get ready?" asked Henry.

"We must take our bows, and we must make many arrows, so as to get something to eat, and we must have fishing lines," said Keketaw, "or we shall not be able to live in the woods."

For some days the two boys were getting ready. It took them a long time to scrape a piece of bone into a fishhook by means of a beaver's tooth set in a stick, but they made three of these hooks. They made some more hooks not so good as these by tying a splinter of bone to a little stick. Keketaw's mother made fishing lines for them. She took the long leaves of the plant which we call Spanish bayonet, and separated these threads into a hard cord, rubbing them between her hand and her knee.

"We must have swords," said Keketaw.

"We can cut our meat with this," said Henry, pointing to a knife made of cane, such as the Indians called a pamesack.

"But the Monacans may come," said Keketaw. "If we should see one sticking up his head, I should want a sword to fight him with; and if we should kill him, we could cut off his scalp with it;" and Keketaw's eyes glistened a little at the thought of fetching home a Monacan's scalp.

The Monacans were fierce Indians of a tribe living in the country west of the Powhatan Indians. They were deadly enemies of Keketaw's tribe.

The two boys, by much slow work with stones and shells and beaver-tooth chisels, managed to scrape a wooden sword into shape. This, Henry was to wear at his back. Keketaw, for his part, found a piece of deer's horn. He stuck it into a stick so that it made something like a small pickax. With this he said he could quickly break the head of a Monacan. It would also serve as a sort of hatchet.

The land round the village in which Keketaw lived had been cleared of trees. This had been done by burning the trees in order to make room for fields. In these fields the Indians planted corn, beans, pumpkins, and tobacco, and a plant something like a sunflower, which is called an artichoke. Of the root of this artichoke they made a kind of bread.

For many miles there were no good canoe trees near the water. They had all been picked out and used. Henry and Keketaw traveled twenty miles into a deep woods, and chose a tree that would make a good canoe, and that stood near a stream which ran into the James River.

The first thing they did was to break down young trees and boughs, and build themselves a brush tent. They made a bed out of dry leaves. The first night they had nothing to eat, for they had no time to shoot any game. The next morning they were too hungry to sleep late, and they knew that squirrels are early risers. Soon after daylight the Indian boy killed a squirrel with an arrow. Having no fire, they ate it without cooking; for, when one is a savage, one must not be too nice.

How should they get a fire? They first took a piece of dry wood, which they scraped flat with stones. Then, with a blow of his tomahawk of deer's horn, Keketaw made a round hole in the wood. One end of a dry stick was placed in this hole. The other end was supported in the hollow of a shell which Keketaw held in his hand.

The string to Henry's bow was made of one of the cords or sinews of a deer's leg. He wound this once round the stick. With his left hand, Keketaw then put some dry moss about the stick where it entered the hole in the dry wood.

When all was ready, Henry drew his bow to and fro like a saw. Keketaw pressed the shell down on the upper part of the stick. The bow-string holding the stick made it whirl in the hole beneath. At first this seemed to produce no effect. After a while the rapid rubbing of the piece of wood in the hole made heat. Presently a very thin thread of smoke began to come up through the little heap of moss about the stick. Henry was now pretty well out of breath, but he sawed the bow faster than ever. At last the moss began to smolder and to show fire.

Keketaw then withdrew the smoking stick, and gathered the moss together. Lying down by it, and putting his arm about it, the Indian lad began to blow it gently. The smoldering fire increased until a little blue flame, which he could barely see, appeared. Keketaw now added some very thin paper-like bits of dry bark and some small twigs to the pile of smoking moss. These caught fire, and sent up a straw-colored flame. Henry put on larger twigs until there was at last a crackling blaze.

Taking lighted sticks from this fire, the boys made a fire all round the base of a large tree from which they meant to get the canoe. This fire they kept going constantly for two days. They even got up at night to put dead boughs on, it.

[Illustration] from American Life and Adventure by Edward Eggleston


On the third night of their stay in camp, they didn't lie down at the usual time, for the tree was burned nearly through. About two o'clock in the morning a little breeze rustled in the leaves of the great tree. Slowly at first, then more and more rapidly, the tree fell with a tremendous crashing sound, until with a final thundering roar it lay flat upon the ground.

Sleepy as the boys were, they did not lie down for the night until they had built a new fire near the trunk of the tree. Having no ax to chop with, they had to burn the log in two. They put the fire at a place that would cut off enough of the tree trunk to make a canoe.

The next day they built up this new fire, and then went fishing in the neighboring stream with their bone fishhooks, and lines made of the Spanish bayonet leaf. In two days after the fall of the tree they had burned off the log that was to make their canoe, and had scraped off all the bark with shells.

They then lighted little fires on top of the log, and, when these had charred the wood for an inch or more in depth in any place, they removed the fire and scraped away the charcoal. Then they built another little fire in the same place. These little fires were made with gum taken from the pine trees.

By burning and scraping they gradually dug out the inside of their boat, scraping out one end of it while they were burning out the other, and working at it day after day.

The only tools they had for scraping were shells from the river, and sharp stones. Keketaw sometimes used his deer-horn tomahawk for the same purpose. It was fourteen days from the time they first lighted the fire at the foot of the tree until their canoe was finished. Two more days were spent in making paddles. This work was also done by burning and scraping.

When all was done, the canoe was slid down the soft bank into the water. It floated right side up to the delight of its makers. The boys now thought it would be a fine stroke to take a deer home with them. So they pulled one end of their canoe up on the shore, and started out to look for one.

But the first tracks they found were not deer tracks. They were the footprints of men. Keketaw made a sign to Henry by turning the palm of his hand toward the earth, and then moving the hand downward. This meant to keep low, and make no noise. Then Keketaw climbed a high pine tree. From the top of the tree he could see a number of Indians at a spring of water.

The boy slid down the tree in haste. "Monacans on the war path!" he whispered as he reached the ground.

Swiftly and silently the two boys hurried back to their canoe. They wasted no time in admiring it. They gathered their weapons and fishing lines, and got aboard. It was not a question of killing Monacans now, but of saving themselves and their friends. They rowed with all their might from the start.

For hours they kept their new paddles busy. They reached the village after dark, and when they uttered the dreadful word "Monacans," it ran from one wigwam to another. The women and children shuddered with fear. The warriors smeared their faces with paint, to make themselves uglier than ever, and departed. Soon after the boys had started home, the Monacans had found their camp fire still burning. Thinking they had been discovered, and knowing that a strong party of the Powhatan Indians might come after them, the Monacans had hurried back to their own home more swiftly than they had come.