Source Documents
roberts and shackleton : rafts and canoes, california, 1983 

Kenneth G. Roberts and Philip Shackleton : Rafts and Canoes, California, 1983.

 Extracts and photographs
Roberts,Kenneth G. and Shackleton, Philip:
The Canoe - A History of the Craft from Panama to the Arctic

MacMillan of Canada, Toronto, 1983.


Page 4

Rafts and Floats

A "man of California fishing on his bark log " was produced for the English seafarer George Shelvocke and first published in london in 1726.

With the shortage of wood on some parts of the California coast it is
highly likely that such tiny rafts were improvised for short trips to seal and mussel rocks just offshore.
Bark log was the English seaman's term for a log raft.

[caption, page 5]

Page 6

In tropical American waters, familiar English terms were "rafter" and "bark log," applied to any float craft up to the huge freight-carrying and sail-powered log craft of the Peruvian coast.
Balsa, the Spanish word for raft, came into wide general use and was the name given to that tropical South and Central American tree that pro­duces the lightest-weight wood known.
Lionel Wafer, an English surgeon who visited Panama in the seventeenth century, called it "Lightwood" and observed the Indians building "Rafters":

They take Logs of this Wood not very big, and bind them together collaterally with Maho-Cords, mak­ing of them a kind of floor.
Then they lay another Range of Logs across these, at some distance from each other, and peg them down to the former with long Pins of Macaw-wood; and the Wood of the Float is so soft, and tenacious withal, that it easily gives admittance to the Peg upon driving, and closes fast about it.

Macaw is a variety of palm with a very hard wood; maho or mahot refers to a tree or shrub whose stringy bark was widely used to make strong cord, rope, and fish-netting.

The seagoing Peruvian rafts, which the Spanish used early for freighting goods as far north as Panama, were of similar construction.
Truly huge, one captured by a fellow freebooter in 1680 was described by the English buccaneer William Dampier: "Captain Knight... took a Bark-log ... laden chiefly with Flower.
She had other Goods, as Wine, Oyl, Brandy, Sugar, Soap, and Leather of Goat-skins.... "
Among the islands of the Caribbean, rafts continue in use to the present time.
In Jamaica a long raft made by lashing together ten to twelve bamboo stems will carry three to four hundred pounds of pro­duce from the interior down the Rio Grande to the sea.
The drifting and poling trip ended, the raft is broken up and the materials are sold.
In neighboring Haiti similar rafts are built with a low railing to keep the heaped food produce from falling into the water.

On the California coast, Porno Indians were reported to venture out on log rafts to harvest mussels from the rocks off San Francisco Bay. Farther south, log rafts were familiar on both sides of Baja California, and in 1539 Francisco de Ulloa, the Spanish admiral, described those of the Cochimi Indians of Cedros Island off the Pacific coast:

They had live or six rafts which they had used in fishing, made of pine or cedar timbers, as long as twelve or fifteen feet and so big that a man could hardly reach around them.
The part underwater is rounded, and where the people stand on them is flat.
They are not hollow in any part.
On each side, to maintain the balance, there are bundles of many cedar poles, closely tied together.... They rowed them with paddles two or three palms long and about three fingers across....

An English adventurer, George Shelvocke, describing the fishermen at the southern point of Baja California in 1721, wrote, "they seldom need want a supply of this [fish], the men being excellent harpooners, they go out to sea on their bark-logs, which are only composed of five logs of light wood, made fast to one another by wooden pegs; on these they venture out rowing with a double paddle, and with their harpoons (which are made of a hard wood) strike the largest Albacores, and bring them in."

The eighteenth-century historian Francesco Saverio Clavijero described Indian fishing expeditions for which

they used a simple raft composed of three, five or seven logs fastened together with sticks and well tied; the log in the middle, which extends farther because of being longer, serves as a prow.
The wood from which these rafts are made is cork [probably balsa wood] because it is lightest,.
On each of them, according to their size, 2 or 3 men take their places and depart 4 or 5 miles from the coast, without fear of the high waves of the Pacific Sea, which at times, seem to lift them as far as the clouds and at times to bury them in the bottom of the sea.

Page 7

From Oregon to Mexico the most widely used float
material was a pithy rush called tule, and the craft made from these rushes took its name from the plant.
The most common variety used was the round-stemmed tule, but triangular-stemmed rushes and even flat rushes were sometimes employed.
Some of the inland tribes, such as the Utes on the upper Colorado and Green rivers, used poplar shoots and willow withes, while the coastal Seri Indians preferred a type of cane called carrizo which was extremely buoyant and also resistant to water.
Since it grows inland near fresh water, it was not always available to the coastal people.
Some craft made from these simple materials were often very primitive — nothing more than a few bundles of rushes upon which an Indian could lie and paddle with his hands.
However, those used by the Northern Paiute Indians were three-bundle, reed balsas with the bow turned up in a point and the stern cut off square.
A museum specimen from Pyramid Lake, Nevada, is sev­enteen feet long, more than five feet wide, and about twenty-two inches deep. Such a float was generally pro­pelled by poles and would carry about four people.

Page 8

The French traveller Louis Choris drew a tule balsa in San Francisco Bay in 1816 and published it in his
Voyage pittoresque du Monde in 1822.

The double-bladed paddles are correct for that region and they recur along the Santa Barbara Channel and again around the southern end of Baja California.

The two containers at the stern are baskets
 for fish or food.

[caption, page 9]

Page 9

The Pomos, who were such masters of basket-making, fashioned finely made, boat-like balsas.
Their craft had high pointed ends and were given a nest-like center with the addition of rolls of rushes along each side, rather like fat gunwales.
In these graceful craft the Pomos plied the sheltered bays and rivers north of San Francisco Bay.
To the south, along the Kings River in the San Joaquin Val­ley, the Choinimni Vokuts constructed tule trading vessels up to fifty feet long, in which they poled them­selves, their families, and their goods downstream from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada In Tulare Lake.
These enormous balsas were made ol only three bundles of tri­angular-stemmed lules bound with willow willies.
The central bundle was shorter and thinner than the two side
bundles, resulting in a protected center, while both bow and stern were raised to blunt points riding well above the water.
The finest tule craftsmen of all, according to early observers, were the coastal Seri, whose culture is still centered on Tiburon Island in the Gulf of California.

With rushes or withes in hand, the tule-maker needed some kind of cord to bind them into bundles.
And he needed a lot of it.

Page 10

Looking down on a Seri balsa, the long, clean lines show considerable development
over the bulky inshore or inland balsas of other California tribes.
On such craft the Seri Indians could venture out to sea and beyond the sight of land in the Gulf of California.
The Seri used a type of hollow cane for their balsas and the three bundles that make up the craft are clearly visible.

One bundle seventeen feet long, two feet in diameter at the center and tapering to points at the ends, with the bindings two inches apart, required 100 to 120 yards of cord.
Whatever the binding —twisted rush, yucca fiber, tok or red milkweed fiber, or long willow withes — the preparation of cordage represented a great deal of work.

Wogo, a bitumen dug from pits along the California coast, was invaluable to Chumash Indians who did not have access to the water-resistant carrizo cane or the better-quality junco rush.
The Chumash boiled wogo with pine pitch and coated the exteriors of balsas with it to prevent the rushes from becoming waterlogged.
To reduce the stickiness of the coated tule, they dusted the wogo with powdered clay.

The construction techniques of two groups —the Chumash of the Santa Barbara Channel and the Seri of the Gulf of California — feature the essential steps used by most tule manufacturers.
The Chumash added willow poles to form the core of each of their tule bundles, lend­ing them longitudinal strength equal to those made by the Seri of carrizal cane alone.
The tools were simple: a sharpened mussel shell for cutting tule, a pounder to separate the cord fiber from milkweed stalks, a little stick to poke the butt ends of the tule into the bundle, and, for the Chumash, a stone olla in which to boil up the wogo and a brush to apply the waterproofing.

Tule rush was dried in the sun and wind but not to the point of becoming brittle.
Then it was made into bundles with a core of willow poles to stiffen each one.
The butt ends of the rushes were positioned toward the center of the bundle and the binding was begun in the middle, working towards each end.
The finished bundle was a long roll of rushes, thick at the middle and tapering to points. In a well-built tule, the butts of the rushes were pushed into
the bundles and never showed, decreasing the resistance of the outer surface in the water.

For a three-bundle tule the bottom bundle was made longer and fatter than those on each side.
It was some­what flattened and the pointed ends were turned up.
Then the shorter bundles were positioned on the upper edge at each side and tied to it, with their ends flaring into the upward sweep of the lower bundle at bow and stern.
The final product was a graceful boat with a canoe form.
For larger craft, fourth and fifth bundles of rushes were tied to the top of the two side bundles to raise the sides and give the craft even more interior.
In this five-bundle tule, braces were sometimes inserted, rather like thwarts, with their ends wedged between the side bun­dles.
Tules of any size were relatively light and could be carried easily by the two- or three-man crew.
Since they became waterlogged in three or four days of continuous use, they were taken out of the water often to dry.
The Chumash propelled them with double bladed paddles


The Seri Indians made bundles with the cane butts to the center, overlapping them lor longitudinal strength.
As the bundle grew, it was rolled in keep it round and was bound spirally with vegetable fiber.
The bundles lor one vessel were of an equal length of about thirty feet, and at the center they were tied together side by side.
Towards the ends the outer bundles came together to form upturned and pointed bow and stern.

Sailing along the California coast in 1792, Captain George Vancouver sighted a "straw canoe" and his obser­vations leave a misleading impression of some inferior native craft of no significance.
This tule boat was used primarily in sheltered waters for gathering shellfish, lay­ing nets, and harpooning fish, but it was well designed to absorb rough-water punishment without severe damage and was practically unsinkable.
Vancouver's report of such a craft on the open sea is in fact a positive testimo­nial to the tule's seaworthiness.

The technology of such vessels was simple but by no means simplistic.
Floats and rafts were devised and con­structed from seemingly insubstantial materials but by such methods as to effectively meet the needs of their builders.
During the thousands of years that humans have moved about this continent, the raft has served well as a vehicle for local transport, as a ferry, as an aid to hunting and fishing, and as a vessel for migration.

The rising bow and stern of this cane float give it a distinct boat
 shape even though it has no interior.

When more than one person stood on these craft, the ends rose slightly.

The boatman, a Seri Indian from Kino Bay, Mexico, is using a pole,
but double paddles were used in deep water.

Page 265

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Clavijero, Francisco Javier: The History of Lower California.
Translated from the Italian and edited by Sara E. Lake and A. A. Gray, Riverside, California, 1971.

Dampier, William: Dampier's voyages. Ed. by John Masefield. 2 vols. London: 1906.

Du Pratz, Antoine Le Page: The History of Louisiana. Trans, from French. London, 1774,

Heizer, Robert F., and Massey, William C.: Aboriginal navigation off the coasts of Upper and Baja Cali­fornia.
Bureau of 'American Ethnlogy Bulletin151, Washington: 1953.

Morice, A. G.: The great Dene race. Vienna The Press of the Mechithariste, n.d.

Mozino, Jose Mariano: Noticias de Nuta; an account of Nootka Sound in 1792.
Translated by Iris Higbie Wilson, Toronto, 1970.

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Shelvocke, George: A voyage around  the worlsd ... London, and Toronto, 1928.

Ulloa, Francis de. "The first and second discovery of the Gulfe of California" in
Voyages of the English Nation to America before the year 1600. Ed. by Richard Hakluyt.Vol. Ill, pp. 317-65. Edinburgh, 1889.

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Water, Lionel: A new voyage and description of the Isthmus of America. G. P. Winship, Cleveland, 1903.

Kenneth G. Roberts and Philip Shackleton:
The Canoe - A History of the Craft from Panama to the Arctic
MacMillan of Canada, Toronto, 1983.

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Geoff Cater (2013) : Kenneth G. Roberts and Philip Shackleton :Rafts and Canoes, California, 1983.