From a 1754 French map of Canada: Carte_pour_servir_à_l'éclaircissement_[...]Franquelin_Jean-Baptiste_btv1b8021562s_1

Glossary for this article:

Portages:  “carrying places” necessary to circumvent around waterfalls or rapids.   Longer portages connected disjunct lakes and rivers to form a chain of cross-country waterways

Fall Line:  a geological term for the place where there is a drop in elevation where the coastal plain meets the rising Piedmont hill country.  The fall line in our work begins in Virginia and parallels the seacoast southernly through North and South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. The foothills of the Appalachians lie to the west of this line along the Atlantic coast and north of the Gulf of Mexico. This line creates a coastal region where navigation leave the bays and estuaries and ascend into the interior “low country.”  Many of the points where the fall line cross major rivers were called “jumping off places” because waterfalls or shoals prohibited water travel upstream. Smaller crafts such as canoes, pirogues, and dugouts were portaged around the fall line and used for many more miles before the rivers became so small that water travel was not possible. 

The map above displays the three regions which were conducive to major historic waterways.

 ONE: The complex of the Mississippi River drainage basin in connection with the Great Lakes-Hudson Bay-Northwest Territories lake country. Birchbark canoes of several sorts were built where the paper birch was indigenous. Dugouts were also used in the north but were much more fitted for the Southeast where the tulip poplar is plentiful and easily worked into craft.

TWO: The Southeastern Coastal Plain from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean to the fall line. The fall line shown above was also the route of a major trading path which forded the shallows above the waterfalls and shoals.  Major shoals were also favorite fishing places for Native Americans as the spring spawns brought an immense number of fish including Silver Redhorse which were caught in baskets at the small end of funnel-shaped stone weirs.

THREE: The Piedmont region was more seasonal and less traveled by water. Dugouts were sometimes available at fording places for use when the water was high. 

In the 1960's I made several extensive canoe trips into Ontario's Quetico Wilderness. I have my canoe on my shoulders as we are setting off on a portage from near Ely, Minnesota through Canadian Customs. The man in the foreground is John Foshee, my former Scoutmaster. Our huge Duluth portage backpacks are made of heavy canvas.

This is a photo of a centuries-old Lenape or Delaware dugout canoe in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. This is very typical of all dugout canoes used in eastern North America. There were much larger versions made for large lakes and coastal waters but this one worked for small coastal rivers.

The physical mobility of the human race is the most basic phenomena and characteristic next to the flexibility of the human imagination which empowers us to invent and create. I am sure we all have wondered how, when, where or why a human race appears on a planet that is perfectly equipped with gravity to connect feet and legs on “terra firma” or “firm land.”

We’ll not digress into the evolutionist’s theory to solve the riddle as to what primeval, unknown force decided to endow us with “toes, feet and legs” at that elusive fork of evolutionary decision-making, (rather than a slithering snake-belly or slimy slug machination), nor will we debate the universal beliefs of the historical majority who believe(d) that “in the beginning” an Almighty God (Great Spirit to some) designed such an intricate and complex world within an equally intricate and complex universe.

Since humans were born without wings into an earth of air, land and water, possessing only leg-mobility and arm-mobility, walking or swimming constituted the only two viable methods of travel. It did not take long for the most primitive canoes, boats and rafts to appear. In addition to the evolution of continental trails on land, there was a concurrent integration of water trails with portages (carrying places) around waterfalls or rapids. Longer portages connected disjunct lakes and rivers to form a chain of cross-country waterways.

This historic model of travel reached a summit of history in the Canadian North Woods/Lake Country during the zenith of the fur trade. New France was established in modern Canada following the discovery of the Saint Lawrence River which nearly connected with the Great Lakes. The Canadian lake country stretches from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay to the Northwest Territories and produced the most prime and high quality furs due to the intense winter cold. These included mink, martin, beaver, wolverine, otter, fisher, fox, wolf and lynx. The Native Americans long-ago identified canoe trails and portages across the northern wilderness.

The French voyageurs (boatmen) and coureur des bois (independent entrepreneurial French-Canadian traders) traveled from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes up and down the Mississippi River which itself was about 2,300 miles. The Missouri River tributary of the Mississippi was navigable about 2,500 miles to the Great Falls in modern Montana.

The Appalachian Mountain chain that stretches from Canada through Maine to Alabama forms a geographical break in the connectivity of the vast travel system comprised by the overlapping of the Mississippi River and Great Lakes (to Northwest Territories) region. The Arkansas and Missouri Rivers are two navigable fingers of the Mississippi that extend far into the West. The famous Lewis and Clark Expedition followed the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains in Montana.

The Ohio and Tennessee Rivers are primary tributaries extending into the East. Both of these rivers formed parts of the boundaries of the Cherokee Territorial Claim. The Ohio River was the northern boundary of the “buffalo grounds and salt springs” referred to by Dragging Canoe about 1776. The Tennessee River was along the corridor of the southern boundary of the Cherokee claim in Alabama. Cherokees impressed the British authorities in South Carolina with their geographical knowledge of the lands extending to the Mississippi.

This brings us to an important understanding of the role the Tennessee River played in Southeastern Indian history. The head of navigation on the Tennessee River was the Muscle Shoals in northwest Alabama. Boats of some size could travel the Mississippi upstream from the Gulf of Mexico or downstream from the Ohio region and clear into modern Alabama. Several ill-faring trips by keelboat or flatboat began in Tennessee and floated downstream through the “boiling pot,” “the suck” and other dangerous rapids into the Big Bend of the Tennessee in Alabama but only to eventually strike the Muscle Shoals which stretched along the Tennessee Valley for miles.

The water route of the Trail of Tears from Alabama to Oklahoma began below the Muscle Shoals and began at Waterloo Landing near Tuscumbia and followed the river downstream to the Mississippi River.

A few years ago, my friend and adventurer Dale Stewart of Hendersonville, NC, paddled more than 1,200 miles along the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers to retrace the route. This was an incredible challenge.  See news link  for more info. Or check out Dale Stewart’s Facebook page.

Heading upstream above the Narrows of the Tennessee River south of Chattanooga, navigation began again and followed the Tennessee, Little Tennessee and several upper tributaries along the northern valleys of the Appalachians. Parallel to these rivers, major trading routes and trails connected the Overhill Cherokee towns on the Little Tennessee to Virginia. The Cherokee heartland of the eighteenth century was within the mountain barriers of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge. Water travel here was limited to local use and for ferrying across the rivers when the water was up and fording was impossible or dangerous.

Water travel in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama was viable from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts up most rivers to the “fall line” or heads of navigation. The abrupt drop in elevation over rock formations is defined by waterfalls, cascades, rapids or shoals. Large boats stopped and trading factories or mills were built. Forts were commonly built at these places. Where the waters were deep enough upstream of the fall line, portages were used to carry dugouts and canoes around and on into the Piedmont hills until shallow water forbid moving.

The preparation and gathering of natural materials and the process of building lightweight watercraft was not only a skill-craft but an art form. Knowing how to quickly repair a punctured canoe was not a casual task, but sometimes life-dependent.

Left: Native people in a birchbark canoe in eastern Canada. Right, Native people in Oregon in dugout canoes.