Little Egypt Heritage Articles
Stories of Southern Illinois
(c) Bill Oliver
15 February 2004
Vol 3 Issue: #07
Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen of Little Egypt,
Valentine's Day is a "romantic" day, and, in my pre-teen and
early teen years there was just a tiny bit of historical
romanticism in me. Well, maybe it was more like fantasy and
daydreaming. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Roger's Rangers, and
the Leatherstocking Tales were my inspirations. In those
days of my youth I lived among the Loblolly Pines and along
the New Bern River. There in an old flat bottom swamp boat
and a paddle I would sit in the bow and paddle my "canoe"
exploring the river banks. There I would fantasize getting
into my canoe in Fort Pitt and floating all the way to New
During the first century of colonization of this continent,
our forebears were limited to coastal settlements. George
Washington had his daydreams also. He dreamed of a network
of roads and canals. His dreams, however, were very slow in
Think of it ... a trip from Baltimore to Philadelphia took
as long as five days by stagecoach. It was an overnight
trip from East Toledo to Maumee, Ohio in the mid-eighteen
hundreds. Before the Revolution, it was quicker, timewise,
to travel to Europe from New York than it was to travel from
there to the Appalachians.
Philadelphis, New York and Boston could be reached by
Concord Coach, horseback, or by boat. The quickest was by
schooners known as the "Apple Tree Fleet", so called because
they took their bearings on the orchards along the shores.
Government and commerce were hobbled by a poor
transportation system. Of necessity America utilized its
greatest natural resource its inland waterways. This
system was not new. The First Americans had from time
immortal used water transportation.
Before the American Revolution the trappers and fur traders
followed the way of the Indian. After the Revolution,
settlers crossed the mountains and followed the waterways.
The population of the United States of America increased
500% during the first sixty years of Nationhood. This
expansion spilled over in the only direction possible from
the east coast --- westward.
After the War of 1812, canals were the frenzy and for a very
short time they were "super" highways for settlers and
commerce. Almost before the canal could be finished it was
replaced by the "iron horse". Yet, the canals did cut the
travel time from New York to Buffalo from twenty to six
The early freight canoes were made in the style of the
native canoes. They were called canots maitre and it is
said that no better vehicle was invented to travel the
rivers and lakes and yet be portaged when necessary. These
canoes were about thirty-three feet over the gunwales, and
six foot across the beam. They were nearly three feet deep
amidships and weighed about six hundred pounds, wet or
empty. Amazingly these boats were so strong and flexible
that they could survive white water runs. They were sleek,
fast and maneuverable.
The frame was make of cedar and spruce. The covering was
the bark of the white [paper] birch. When we hold a piece
of this in our hands we can't envision amazing strength,
flexibility and durability of this native material. It
withstood the bruising of logs and rocks. Further it held
its strength during portages, as well as the weight of the
freight being carried in them. If the skin should be
damaged, repairs could be made on the spot with a bark patch
attached with spruce root and gum.
Bark was stripped rom the birch tree in large sheets. Seams
and joinings were caulked with the cooked gum of the black
spruce mixed with powdered charcoal and a bit of animal
fat. The frame was lashed together with the strong and very
flexible roots of the black spruce.
It is not very difficult to understand that these boats were
constructed by contract with the experts of the continent,
mainly the Iroquois.
The outbound cargo consisted of everything imaginable for
use on the frontiers. Included were axes, shot, gunpowder,
gun tools, lead, flints, awls, firesteel, powder horns,
knives, fish line and hooks, kettles, pans, net twine,
tomahawks, hatchets, needles, thread, vermilion and ochre,
wax, chains, hammers, nails and trinkets such as garters,
mirrors, rings, combs, blankets, and even hair pieces. In
addition were food rations and personal property of the
crewmen. These were covered and lashed down with canvas
tarpaulins eight by ten feet. All toll, the freight,
supplies and crew would add up to eight thousand pounds to
Though I grew up with the rocking of a Pullman Car and the
clicking of the rails, I still dream of drifting down the
Ohio, past Paducah, Kentucky and Metropolis, Illinois. At
Cairo, turning up the Mississippi to the Mighty Missouri and
up that river to its source. Today, I would probably add an
outboard motor to the canoe to make it a bit easier
"upstream". After all, I'm not as young as my dreams.
e-la-di-e-das-di ha-wi nv-wa-do-hi-ya nv-wa-to-hi-ya-da.
(May you walk in peace and harmony)
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