Mission Mishoon—The Dugout Canoe of the Pequots

Unveiled from the Water
Prior to European contact, dugout canoes ("mushoon" in Pequot language and "mishoon" in Wampanoag language) were the principle means of traveling the extensive waterways of southern New England. However, it is uncommon to find the canoes in archaeological excavations. Because either the wood decayed easily, or the canoes were preserved in the bottom of the pond, only to be found centuries later during periods of drought or when a particular pond or lake was drained. 

In 1955, a 14 feet long, 2 feet wide canoe dating back to more than 300 years ago was found in 20 feet of water by four High School Summer campers in Rust Pond in Wolfeboro, NH.

In 1977, a half-hewn canoe dating back to the early colonial era was found in the bottom of the exposed Morgan Mill Pond in Laurel Hill, NC, by archaeologist Dr. David McLean.

In 1980, a 12 feet long, 3 feet wide canoe dating between 1750 and 1800 was found in a stream in Virginia during a drought by locals.

In 1997, a 17 feet long, 2 feet wide canoe dating back to around 1670 was found floating in Curtis Pond in Waymart, PA, by a local who went fishing.

"People have called up saying thing like, 'I found a canoe like that in my pond and it's stored in my barn.' There could be many canoes out there...as many as one per pond," said Dan Perry.

This 17th century canoe was discovered submerged at the bottom of West Hill Pond in Winsted, CT, in the late 1980s. Although it is Native made, it shows evidence of metal tool marks, which indicated the canoe was made after European contact.

This canoe is currently displayed at the Pequot Museum.

In order to keep canoes from drying out over the winter, Native people filled them with stones and sank them to the bottom of ponds before the water froze.

This stone was found along with the canoe shown in previous image.

Life Style by the Water
Prior to contact with Europeans, the Pequots inhabited an area of present-day coastal Connecticut along the estuaries of the Thames, Mystic, and Pawcatuck rivers. The Pequots frequently crossed Long Island Sound to reach nearby islands and regularly navigated local rivers. 

Although the popular image of the northeastern Native canoe is one of birch bark, large white birch trees were not commonly found in southern New England.

Historical records note that the Pequots instead used dugout canoes, made from the hollowed-out trunks of pines, chestnuts, or other sizeable trees.

Most canoes were between 10 and 14 feet long and could hold 3 or 4 people. These small canoes were often used for fishing in shallow waters.

Larger ocean-going canoes could reach over 40 feet in length and carry anywhere from 15 to 20 people and their possessions.

Pequot villages always had a number of small canoes on hand to use for fishing, trade, and scouting trips. Depending on their purpose, canoe travelers might cover 20 miles or more in a single day.

Paddles were about 5 feet long and were usually carved from maple or ash, often with a characteristic ridge running the length of the blade. The overall shape and design of Native canoe paddles was fairly consistent throughout the Northeast.

Seafood was a staple in Pequot meals throughout the year. The Pequots used a range of fishing techniques, many of which had been known for thousands of years, such as hooks and lines, nets, spears, bows and arrows, and wires, or fish traps.

Once the fish were brought home, they were cleaned and then boiled, roasted, smoked, or dried. Shellfish, dug in shallow water or collected off the beach, were cooked immediately or pried open, strung, and dried.

Lobster and some fish could be easily killed with a sharp fish spear, called a leister.

The center point of leister speared the fish, while the outside prongs held it tight and kept it from escaping.

The Pequots caught eels with the help of woven woodsplint eel traps. At one end of the cylindrical trap was a funnel, and the eels, attracted by fish head bait inside, could swim in but could not find their way out. The other end of the trap had a lid that allowed the eels to be removed. The trap was weighed down with rocks, and a line was attached so it could be hauled out of the water.

Territory Redefined
The spread of English colonies along the Connecticut coast has transformed the landscape. The colonists cleared and fenced the land, and thus natural resources of Native hunting or canoe-making has been reduced. Furthermore, Mashantucket Pequots were forced to settle on a reservation inland eventually. 

Before the Pequot War (1636-1637), the Pequots lived east of the Thames River.

After the Pequot War in 1636-1637, former land of Pequots was taken over by English colonists. Many of the Pequots who had been sent as captives to the Mohegans were settled in five villages in an area called Nameag, near present-day New London. Before long, the area became too crowded.

In 1651, the 400 Pequots living at Nameag received permission to live on 500 acres at Noank. Noank was on the coast and provided access to fishing. But within a few years the soil on this small tract was depleted of nutrients---making farming difficult---and there was no more firewood. Noank proved too small for their shifting agriculture.

Within a few years the Pequots petitioned colonial authorities for additional land. As a result, in 1666, they were granted permission to inhabit approximately 2500 acres at Mashantucket...

…and allowed to keep Noank as well. The Pequots continued to travel to Noank to obtain fish, shellfish, and waterfowl.

By the end of the 17th century, more English settlers had arrived, demanding more land. Gradually, the English took control of the most desirable land. By 1713, the Pequots lost Noank. Forced from their traditional coastal territory, these Pequots were left with an inland reservation consisting of rocks and swampland.

Reclaiming the Waterway
The loss of land would lead to significant changes to traditional Native lifeways. The canoe was once an important object in the daily life of the Pequots, but its utility has diminished as the Pequots were forced to leave their traditional territory. Through raising awareness of it, one relearns the culture and history. 

Most of our knowledge today about the Native canoe is based on ethnohistoric records. One example is an engraving illustrating the New World published by Theodor De Bry in late 1500s. It depicts how Natives made the dugout canoe.

The Pequots used logs of pine, oak, chestnut, and other sizable trees for their canoes.

The canoe ranged from 10 to 40 feet long. The size of it was determined by its activity and use. Smaller ones were used for fishing in river, and larger ones were used for fishing and transportation in oceans.

The first step was locating a suitable large tree, which was felled by burning through the base and using a stone ax to hack away the charred wood.

"I have seene a Native goe into the woods with onely a Basket of Corne with him, & stones to strike fire when he had feld his tree...," by Roger Williams, 1643.

The Pequots hollowed out the logs with carefully controlled fires. As the fire smoldered, wood, shell or stone tools were used to chip out the charred wood.

When the log was sufficiently hollow, the final step was to use a scraper or quahog shell to smooth the canoe all over. The entire process for building an average-size of 12 feet long took one man about 10 to 12 days.

"...so hee continues burning and hewing untill he hath within ten or twelve dayes (lying there at his worke alone) finished, and (getting hands,) lanched his Boate," by Roger Williams, 1643.

A 36 feet long dugout canoe, which could hold at least 10 people, was made by Wampanoag canoe makers in the Pequot Museum from May to July, 2015.

Titled "Mission Mishoon," it is the largest dugout canoe made in southern New England for more than 200 years. It is made from a 70-year-old tulip poplar tree, also called "canoe tree," which was found in Ledyard, CT.

After it was made, the Mission Mishoon was launched into and paddled down the Mystic River, which connects three of the Nation’s oldest Indian Reservations, from the headwaters near the Mashantucket Pequot and Eastern Pequot Reservations to the river’s mouth where the first Pequot reservation at Noank was located.

Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center
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Co-produced by Ashley Bissonnette, Christopher Newell, David Naumec, Jason Mancini, Jonna Chokas, Kevin McBride, and Yulun Huang.

Curated and created by Yulun Huang.

Image courtesy of The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, Coastal Connecticut Magazine, Ashley Bissonnette, Clifford Sebastian, Michael Johnson, Owen McDonald, and Yulun Huang.


Led by Darius Coombs and Jonathan Perry.

Supported in part by Katherine Raia and Ronstan International Inc.

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