A Canadian birchbark canoe dating to the eighteenth century, that was unexpectedly discovered in Cornwall will be returned to Canada. It is thought to be the oldest surviving example of its type. Unusually, the documentation from its acquisition is surprisingly clear & detailed, giving more information about the provenance of it.
Birchbark canoe from 18th century returning to Canada.
By Randy Boswell, Postmedia News December 27, 2010
It’s being described as the world’s oldest canoe, a one-of-a-kind relic from 18th-century Canada rediscovered in a storage shed in Britain and bound for repatriation to this country next year.
Earlier this month, the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall announced the “incredible find” at an estate in Penryn, England. Curators said the canoe – found in two pieces but remarkably well preserved given the passage of time – would be stabilized by conservators and exhibited in the U.K. before shipment overseas for permanent display at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont.
Initially, the experts “had no idea of the importance of the find,” George Hogg, trustee and archivist at the Cornwall museum, said at the time. But after examining the artifact and probing the history of the family who owned it, “we knew we had something special,” added Hogg.
“This is a unique survival from the 18th century.”
Now, a peek into the journals of Lt. John Enys – the British soldier who brought the birchbark treasure to his English home following two tours of duty in North America during and after the Revolutionary War – appears to reveal the very moment more than 220 years ago that sparked his passion for the humble Canadian canoe.
Remarkably, Enys recorded the date, time, place and every vivid detail of a poignant midnight encounter with dozens of First Nations paddlers on the St. Lawrence River – at a site, coincidentally, near present-day Cornwall, Ont., named for Enys’s home county in southwest England.
It was the night of Aug. 4-5, 1787, and Enys was in a rowboat with six other soldiers on their way from Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario to Montreal, where he may well have acquired the canoe now being hailed as the earliest surviving specimen of its kind.
After sharing greetings and provisions with a group of four natives on a small island, Enys and his party resumed their journey toward Montreal at about 11 p.m. on Aug. 4.
“Having proceeded about a mile,” the soldier noted in one passage, “we saw a great number of lights before us, all moving about upon the water.”
Because the night “was very dark,” the moving lights “had a very pretty effect,” Enys observed in the journal, a published copy of which is held in Ottawa at Library and Archives Canada.
“Curiosity prompting us to see what they were, we soon got up to them and found they were all Indian Cannoes fishing, each containing a man and woman and some of them a child or two,” Enys wrote.
He described how the mysterious lights were, in fact, “torches” made of burning bark “stuck in a cleft stick” to illuminate the water around each canoe.
“This Indian Regatta,” Enys continued, “if I may be allowed to call it, was so numerous and extended that it was in sight for near two hours, the novelty of which entertained us so much that we did not go to sleep until we lost sight of it.”
Enys, who returned to Britain after a six-month tour of the U.S. east coast as far south as Virginia, must have packed a birchbark canoe with the rest of his belongings for the voyage home.
U.S. historian Elizabeth Cometti, who edited the Enys journals when they were finally published in 1976, included a footnote stating: “The remains of an Indian canoe, brought from America by Enys, is in a stone shed at the Enys estate, Enys-Penryn, Cornwall.”
Cometti also included a note from a family descendant, Elizabeth Enys, who stated that “there is no documentation (regarding the Canadian birchbark canoe) but I have always understood that he acquired it in Canada and brought it back from there down the mighty Hudson River . . .”
She added the canoe “might well have been packed with some stupendously big Buffalo horns which we used to have, but which were stolen some years ago, and other things which he thought of interest and worth transporting.”
In early December, when British museum officials made clear the significance of the Enys canoe, family member Wendy Fowler expressed her gratitude that “my great, great, great, great, great uncle’s travels have led to such a major chapter of boating history being discovered in Cornwall.”
It was a treasure that Lt. John Enys – near another Cornwall in far-off Canada – may well have been inspired to possess by an unforgettable constellation of fiery lights, shimmering water and drifting canoes.