Gateway to the Classics: Peter of Amsterdam by James Otis
Peter of Amsterdam by  James Otis

A Strange Kind of Craft

Five traders at length set out, each in a boat with four Dutch sailors, and one of the brown men to show him the way, and before the last had departed I saw a craft, made by the savages, which was by no means as light and fanciful as were the canoes of the birch-tree bark.

The boat had been fashioned out of a huge log, and although there seemed to be great danger she would overset if the cargo were suddenly shifted to one side, she was of sufficient size to carry a dozen men with twice as much of goods as we put on board of her.

I was puzzled to know how these brown men, who had not tools of iron, could build such a vessel, which would have cost the labor of two Dutchmen, with every convenience for working, during at least ten days. Later, however, when I had more time for roaming around on the shore, I learned in what manner the task had been performed, and then was I filled with wonder because of the patience and skill of these savages who were so childish as to be pleased with toys.

When a wooden boat, or "dugout," such as I have just spoken of was to be built, the brown men spent much time searching for a tree of the proper kind and size, and, having found it, set about cutting with both fire and sharpened shells.

A fire was built entirely around the tree, but the flames were prevented from rising very high by being deadened with wet moss or leaves, thus causing them to eat directly into the trunk. When the surface of the wood had been charred to a certain extent, the Indians scraped it away with their knives of shell, and this they continued to do, burning and scraping until finally the huge tree would fall to the ground.


Then was measured off the length of the boat they wanted to make, and the same kind of work was done until they had cut the trunk again, leaving a log fifteen, twenty, or even twenty-five feet long, as the builders desired. Next this log was hollowed out by fire and scraping, until only the shell of the tree was left, so you can have some idea of the amount of work that was done by such rude methods.

The ends were fashioned much after the shape of the canoes, save that neither the stern nor the bow rose above the midship portion; thwarts, or seats, were fitted in as neatly as one of our workmen could do it with the proper tools, and when finished, the craft would carry quite as large a cargo as one of our longboats.

Our Dutch seamen looked upon these boats with wonder, questioning if they would not be swamped in a heavy sea; but those of our people who had lived here nearly a year, declared that these dug-outs would swim where many a better built craft would go to the bottom.


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