“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
La Conner in Skagit County, Washington — The American West (Northwest)

Old Time Skagit River Indian Canoes

Shovel Nose Type

Old Time Skagit River Indian Canoes Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Andrew Ruppenstein, July 20, 2021
1. Old Time Skagit River Indian Canoes Marker
Indians Had Canoes Of Many Kinds On Skagit Waters
The old-time Indian canoe builders with their crude tools were master craftsmen turning out everything from these utilitarian shovel-nosed Skagit River canoes for poling up stream and paddling down through swift water — to the large ocean-going canoes which could carry up to fifty men, and the slim and speedy 11-man canoes of war and slave raiding parties (used in later years as racing canoes).

* The 24-foot, 6-inch shovel-nosed Skagit River canoe displayed here was contributed to La Conner by the late Bert Robinson of Mount Vernon, a canoe and Skagit history fan.

* The larger 38-foot, 2-inch shovel-nosed Skagit River canoe with a maximum canter width of 3 feet, 1 inch from gunwale to gunwale, was presented to La Conner for display by Sedro-Woolley school when its garage storage space was needed to make way for building plans. Upper Skagit historian Ray Jordan reports it had apparently been lost by some Indian up near Concrete during high water, and in the late 1940's had been hauled by Sedro-Woolley students from a field near Sterling where the river was rapidly

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eroding away the nearby bank - the students preserving it and putting it in storage. Mr. Lytel, the most recent owner, had used the old canoe in his river crossings.

There Were Many Canoes On The Skagit River
When Charles Von Pressentin settled at Birdsview on the upper Skagit in the late 1870's there were many such shovel-nosed canoes of various sizes in use by the Indians on the river. It was a common sight to see at least 8 canoes at a time passing the Pressentin homestead. If pioneer Von Pressentin needed a barrel of flour from Utsalady, all he had to do was "holler" at the Indians in one of the canoes and they would immediately head down river and get the flour - no money or written order involved - the Pressentin word was sufficient.

The La Conner Community Study Group in 1957 conducting research into Skagit River floods and flood control reported: "In 1856 exploring pioneers poling and portaging up the Skagit River by canoe above the big log jam at what is now Mount Vernon found signs of the tremendous flood earlier that year - with draft noted high in the trees along the river. It is said that 1815 was the year of Skagit's worst flood - of almost Biblical proportions with water standing 6 to 8 feet deep all over the Skagit Flats." Canoes were of great importance in the early days. When La Conner pioneer Samuel Calhoun in 1863 was attempting

Old Time Skagit River Indian Canoe and Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Andrew Ruppenstein, July 20, 2021
2. Old Time Skagit River Indian Canoe and Marker
to dike and reclaim the first delta land in this area, a Swinomish Chief came to him and told him "You are a fool, for when the winter winds come the water will be all over your land and hunting canoes will glide over what now are your fields."

Pioneer Canoe Incidents, Humorous And Tragic
Mrs. Carl Dean of Coupeville recalls having been told how her mother, when a teen-age school teacher on Whidbey Island, in company with another young lady and their escorts, paddled by dug-out canoe to a dance in La Conner. Becoming stuck on the mud flats, the gentlemen got out in their best clothes and waded through the mud pushing the canoe to deeper water. The pioneer young couples danced all night and returned home by canoe the next day.

Carrie M. White in 1898 told the Anacortes Historical Club of a somewhat similar incident in the Fidalgo area when a number of young gentlemen hired an Indian with a large canoe to take them and some young ladies to a ball. When the canoe got stuck they faced a long wade through the water and mud to shore. Each gentleman gathered his young lady in his arms and started the struggle for shore, stopping midway at a grounded snag to rest until the next gentleman in line with his giggling armful showed up at which time the first man would continue on the rest of the way to shore.

While the big canoes of the Skagit River

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and nearby islands were good and "seaworthy" craft sudden squalls sometimes brought tragedy. In 1863, Mrs. Mary McCrohan O'Leary of Oak Harbor lost her mother, brother and husband by drowning when the Indian canoe in which they were returning with household goods purchased at an auction sale at Penn's Cove, capsized in a sudden squall. Even the Indian paddler, a strong swimmer, was drowned.

Saw Haidah War Canoe Party Kill Camano Indians
The old-time Indians used their dug-out canoes for every kind of purpose - small canoes for hunting and fishing - gigantic canoes built large enough to hold whole families and all their belongings - and fast canoes for war and raiding parties. Northern Indians often raided the lower Skagit and the Island tribes. In May of 1858 young Thomas Hastie, Whidbey Island and Skagit pioneer, with a companion hidden in the brush along the shore, saw a war canoe of 14 Haidah Indians from the north surprise a small band of Camano Island Indians along the beach. The speedy war canoe swung broadside to the beach and the Haidahs with wild war cries let go with their Hudson Bay Company flintlocks - killing SIX of the Camano Island Indians. The remaining Indians on the beach returned a volley and retired to a safer spot, while the Haidahs retreated as fast as they had come. During the 1880's and 1890's whole fleets of northern family style canoes would pass down Swinomish Channel to go hop picking in the La Conner area or on the hop fields around Puyallup.

Good canoe builders were known far and wide among the tribes for their specialties — for their spirit helpers and for the taboos they observed while building a canoe. The Makahs and the Quinaults were among the most skillful builders of the sea-going canoes and it was from the Indian canoes that the shipbuilders of the Atlantic coast took the lead as a maritime nation.

How They Built Ocean-Going Canoes
The canoe builder chose a log which was of desired length, without branches, and of uniform thicknes throughout its length. The canoe was made from a little more than one-half of the log split lengthways Then it was roughed out by splitting out slabs with wedges. Then came charring with fire and cutting o' the charcoal with an adze. The canoe builder's tools included such things as charring fires, wedges or sharp rock, bone, elk's horn, wood, hot water, stone adze, and shell scrapers. Sea-going canoes were built near the beach where sheets of big sea lettuce could be used for dampening. The builder worked entirely by eye until the dugout was almost in final shape. Then holes were bored through the sides at intervals and stick thrust through to measure the thickness. Later the holes were plugged with pieces of wood. Cooking methods were used to get the desired shape for the canoe. Th canoe was almost filled with water and hot stones put in the water and small fires built under the canoe until the wood was steamed and it was soft and pliable. Pieces of yew wood of various lengths were inserted in the hollowed out portion, of greater length near the middle where the canoe was desired to be wider than the natural width of the log. These thwart-like yew sticks kept the sides bulging. Then the water was dipped out and the canoe left to dry in its curved shaped. Finally the thwarts were fastened tightly to the canoe by cedar withes, passing through holes in thwart and gunwale.

The inside of the canoe was usually colored red. The Indians made a sort of oil paint by mixing red ochre with fish or seal oil. The outside, after being smoothed with shark skin was charred lightly with cedar torch. An extra curved projection on bow and stern made it possible for the ocean-going canoes to break the big waves or to be brought in stern first for safe and easy landing. Explorer Meriwether Lewi has written: "I have seen natives near the ocean riding waves with safety, where I have thought impossible for any craft to live a minute."

The Building Of Swinomish Canoe "Telegraph"
Another type of canoe was the long, narrow, low-riding 11-man war or racing canoe of which some are in storage on the nearby Swinomish Reservation. The late Andrew Joe of Swinomish (one of the later canoe builders) has told of how the Swinomish built the famous old "Telegraph" canoe now on display at Coupeville — and winner of international championships when there were as many as 18 or 20 canoes competing. The Swinomish found a big cedar 4 feet through, cut it down and went to work with adze and ace roughing it out where they had felled the big cedar. They roughed it out to about 3 inches thick, 14 inches deep at the middle and 16 inches deep at the ends — then moved it to the shoreline for the finishing work. They also carved a flared figure-head, like that of ocean-going canoes, so that the "Telegraph" could take the rough water better. Indian paints of red, black and brown were used — using clay and rotten wood materials to get the desired tints. To the frustration of the Swinomish paddlers their new canoe placed second to the old champion "Valdez", and to a British Columbia canoe at races at Anacortes in 1906 and 1908. The enraged Swinomish paddlers following the last celebration shoved their "bad luck" canoe adrift, but Andrew Joe and Edward Joe still had faith in the "Telegraph", recovered the canoe and brought it back to Swinomish where they remodeled it. In 1910, the "Telegraph" defeated the old champion "Valdez" on a five mile course. The "Telegraph" went on to win race after race at various celebrations until the early 1930's.

Swinomish Still Hold 11-Man War Canoe Races Here
The Swinomish still participate in 11-man war canoe races and make practice runs on the Swinomish Channel at La Conner on early summer evenings, and quite often hold canoe races at La Conner on July 4th.

In Appreciation
1961 — The La Conner Chamber of Commerce wishes to express its appreciation to the following:
■ Mr. and Mrs. John Demorest of Channel Boat House for providing the site for this canoe shed display;
■ The late Bert Robinson of Mount Vernon for the smaller Skagit River Indian canoe of shovel-nosed design and the Sedro-Woolley school and historian Ray Jordan for making the larger canoe available;
■ The Pioneer Shingle Company of Anacortes and Bernie Owens for' providing the shakes for the shed;
■ Skagit Valley Telephone Company and the Town of La Conner for the poles;
■ Nelson Lumber Co. and Dunlap Hardware for providing some materials;
■ R.V. Moore Company for providing a truck and men to help with the canoe hauling - and the many others who helped in various work ways on the project.

Erected by Chamber of Commerce.
Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Native AmericansSettlements & SettlersSportsWomen. A significant historical month for this entry is May 1858.
Location. 48° 23.31′ N, 122° 29.849′ W. Marker is in La Conner, Washington, in Skagit County. Marker is at the intersection of Moore Street and Second Street, on the right when traveling north on Moore Street. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: La Conner WA 98257, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 7 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. Magnus Anderson Log Cabin (within shouting distance of this marker); Town of La Conner 1873-1914 (within shouting distance of this marker); Former Grange Hall (about 400 feet away, measured in a direct line); Deception Pass (approx. 6.9 miles away); a different marker also named Deception Pass (approx. 6.9 miles away); a different marker also named Deception Pass (approx. 6.9 miles away); a different marker also named Deception Pass (approx. 6.9 miles away); Crossing the Pass (approx. 6.9 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in La Conner.

Credits. This page was last revised on July 27, 2021. It was originally submitted on July 27, 2021, by Andrew Ruppenstein of Lamorinda, California. This page has been viewed 161 times since then and 50 times this year. Photos:   1, 2. submitted on July 27, 2021, by Andrew Ruppenstein of Lamorinda, California.

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Oct. 3, 2023