Fort William Historical Park has a collection of approximately 22 birch bark canoes constructed by the Fort's master canoe builder, Dave Brown, and his assistants. Unlike most items in historic collections, our canoes are regularly used by the Fort's voyageurs and visitors as well as children in our education programs. Dave, and the other artisans of the Fort, use materials and techniques that were common in the early nineteenth century to create objects authentic to the original Fort William. The birch bark canoe is a particularly important object in the Fort's collection because it created and sustained the fur trade in North America.
This swift and easily manoeuvrable craft was invented by the Aboriginal peoples of this continent to allow them to navigate waterways with ease. Upon their arrival in North America, the Europeans quickly adopted the birch bark canoe as their primary conveyance to the rich, fur-bearing lands in the Canadian northwest. Voyageurs were soon moving tons of fur thousands of miles in the relatively lightweight vessels. At the same time, explorers like Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and David Thompson were discovering new frontiers thanks to the buoyant watercraft.
Aboriginal tribes constructed different styles of canoes across the country adapted to suit the location and purpose of the vessel. The bark of the white or paper birch was the preferred bark but others could be used. These other barks, such as spruce and elm, often made inferior crafts that could cross small rivers and lakes but were not able to make long journeys.
Canoe making was an important support industry for the North West Company's operations. Several canoe-making centres came into being all along the North West Company trade route, from the St. Lawrence River to the Rocky Mountains. Most of the canoes made at the St. Lawrence centres would have been Canots de Maitres or Montreal canoes, used for the Montreal - Fort William trip. Since canoes deteriorated badly and often were destroyed in rapids and rough water, the North West Company established canoe building and repair centres along the route.
Fort William was a major canoe building centre, mostly for North canoes but also for Montreal canoes. Most of the canoes coming to Fort William during the Rendezvous would have been made elsewhere. All these canoes, however, would have needed considerable repair before the return voyage to Montreal or the interior. Since badly damaged canoes would have needed to be replaced, and since the Fort William post needed canoes of its own, the Fort's Canoe Sheds were frequently bustling with building activity.
Most canoe builders were Aboriginal although French Canadian engagés worked at canoe making at the inland posts such as Fort William and, where labour was in short supply, even Scots clerks lent a hand.
The North Canoe was used between the inland headquarters (Fort William) and the smaller interior posts. The North West Company used approximately one hundred and eighty North Canoes to transport supplies and trade goods to the more than eighty wintering posts. The North Canoe could carry twenty to twenty-six ninety pound (40 kg) packs or pieces or about one and one half tons (1360 kg) of weight including 4 to 6 men. It was about twenty-four feet (7.3 m) in length and was manned by 4-6 voyageurs. This canoe was often light enough to be carried by two men.
The contents of the North Canoe would be mostly fur pelts and the personal belongings of the men while heading to Fort William and trade goods and supplies while heading west into the interior. Some food provisions would also be included.
On the 1200 mile (2200 km) trip from Montreal to Fort William, the largest bark canoe, the Montreal or Canot de Maitre was often used. This massive canoe, able to carry almost four tons (8000 lbs or 3600 kgs), travelled up the Ottawa River, Mattawa River, across Lake Nippissing and down the French River to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. From there, the voyageurs travelled up the North Channel of Lake Huron to Sault Ste. Marie, across to Lake Superior then on to Fort William. Along the way, the cargo and the canoe needed to be carried on the backs of the voyageurs on a minimum of thirty-three portages. It also had to be unloaded every night.
This canoe averaged 36 feet (11 m) in length and was 6 feet (1.8 m) wide and was crewed by 8-12 voyageurs. Empty, it could weigh more than 600 lbs. (250 kg).