The largest of the four lakes in Madison, Wisconsin, Lake Mendota, originated after the Western glaciation some 15,000 years ago. It has been a subjec
The largest of the four lakes in Madison, Wisconsin, Lake Mendota, originated after the Western glaciation some 15,000 years ago. It has been a subject of fascination for botanists, historians, and urban planners alike, and this interest has been renewed with the discovery of a 1,200-year-old dugout canoe that was recently removed from its underwater resting place. The 15-foot (4.6-meter) dugout canoe was discovered lying 30 feet (9.2 meters) below the lake surface earlier this year, but it was pulled out of the lake for the first time this week, reports the Wisconsin State Journal .
A member of the Ho-Chunk nation with his hand on the oldest dugout canoe ever found in Wisconsin waters. ( Wisconsin Historical Society )
The Historical Tribes of Wisconsin and Dugout Canoes
“We have identified the Ho-Chunk as the most likely descendants of the canoe-makers. The Oneida and Potawatomi did not arrive in Wisconsin until much later, and the homelands of the Menominee and Ojibwe were further north. The canoe was made by effigy-builders, and the Ho-Chunk claim direct descent from that population,” said Amy Rosebrough, Staff Archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society, as reported in The Daily Mail .
The Ho-Chunk, or the Winnebagos, are a Siouan-speaking Native American people, whose territory has historically included parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. The Oneida tribe are the original inhabitants of the area that is today central New York, a Native American tribe that settled in and around the Green Bay area of Wisconsin around the 1820s and 1830s, because they lost most of their land in New York as the government was trying to eliminate indigenous people from the eastern states.
The Ojibwe settled in southern Canada, and are historically Anishinaabe people , implying that their origins are from the area around the Great Lakes in the north-eastern United States. They faced the most severe brunt of the European expansion, including an assault on their territorial, spiritual, and human rights.
“The manner of making their boates” by Theodor de Bry after a John White watercolor from 1590. Native Americans make a dugout canoe with seashell scrapers. ( Public domain )
Dugout Canoes: Their History and Use
Dugout canoes have been a longstanding cultural development of the indigenous peoples of North America, particularly along the north Pacific coastline. Different sub-cultures pioneered dugout canoes in a number of styles for different purposes, including canoes for whale or seal hunting , transportation, and fishing. Ocean travelling and freshwater dugout canoes were designed differently.
Ironically, early settler European colonizers effectively utilized “modern” canoes both for conquest and exploration purposes, in the early 17th century, when they came to the Americas.
Christian Overland, CEO of the Wisconsin Historical Society, concurs, as recorded in the same article printed in The Daily Mail , “The dugout canoe found in Lake Mendota is a significant artifact of the continuum of canoe culture in the Western Great Lakes region. The canoe is a remarkable artifact, made from a single tree, that connects us to the people living in this region 1,200 years ago.”
Incidentally, dugouts are the oldest boat type that archaeologists have found, dating back 8,000 years to the Stone Age . They are made of the trunks of big trees, which means they were preserved much better and longer than other types of canoes. The Native American people were historically known for their skills as wood cutters and shapers and have long excelled in dugout canoe making.
The Wisconsin dugout canoe emerges from Lake Mendota after lying for 1200 years or so underwater on the lake floor. ( Wisconsin Historical Society )
Discovery of the Canoe and Future Plans
On a beautiful Saturday morning this June, Tamara Thomsen and Mallory Dragt rented a couple of underwater scooters to enjoy on Lake Mendota. On their adventure, they accidentally found what looked like a massive log poking out of the water, and Thomsen, who is also a maritime archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society, correctly guessed that it was a dugout canoe.
“I’m underwater a lot, but this is the first dugout canoe I’ve ever seen underwater,” said Thomsen, who has been diving for 30 years. He has been with the Wisconsin Historical Society for 18 years and lives on Lake Mendota. “It’s really amazing to be working here, literally in our backyard.”
A few weeks later, after carrying out carbon dating, it was determined that the Wisconsin dugout canoe was 1,200 years old, making it the oldest intact boat ever found in Wisconsin’s waters. “This is the first time this thing has been out of the water in 1,200 years. And maybe they left from this very beach to go fishing,” said James Skibo, Wisconsin’s state archaeologist.
“Not only has it been underwater; it’s been under the ground. The reason it’s so well preserved is that it has not been exposed to the light. So that’s one of the reasons we have to start preserving it. There’s living organisms on it that are chewing away on it as we speak.”
The Wisconsin dugout canoe will likely be put on display in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s new museum on Capitol Square in Madison. But right now, it will take a couple of years to treat the dugout canoe to prevent degradation and ensure its preservation.
Top image: The 1200-year-old Wisconsin dugout canoe as it was lifted out of Lake Mendota this week. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society
By Sahir Pandey