New date for dugout canoe

A dugout canoe pulled from Squam Lake in central New Hampshire in 1939 is significantly older than previously believed, dating to the mid-16th century.

It was discovered by James King and Harold Smith of Tilton when they were fishing on Squam Lake in 1936. It was under 14 feet of water, so they didn’t recover it right away. They did keep an eye on it, and in August 1939, their friend Horace Wheaton was able to raise it to the surface. It took him 15 dives to remove the stones pinning the canoe to the lakebed and raise it to the surface. The canoe was 14 feet long, three feet wide and 15 inches deep, and there was a paddle inside too, but it had disintegrated when Wheaton touched it. The three men put the canoe on display in a garage in Tilton and it got a lot of visitors for a couple of weeks.

When it first raised from the lake, the assumption was that it was an old Indian canoe, but by early September a new origin story had taken hold. Locals claimed it has been carved in the second half of the 19th century by one Bartlett Smith of Holderness. He felled a large tree and dug it out to use on the lake as a personal watercraft. Alas, he had overestimated his canoe-making skills and on Smith’s first attempt to cross the lake from Holderness, the vessel sank. He abandoned it on the lake floor and there it remained until 1939.

There was some desultory talk about preserving the canoe as a sort of quaint artifact of the quaint olden times, but ultimately nobody in New Hampshire cared to take on the boat, so eventually it wound up in the Shelburne Museum in Vermont whose experts correctly identified it as a Native American artifact.

In 2019, the canoe returned to New Hampshire, now in the care of the Holderness Historical Society. Again it was subject of local interest, increasing visits to the historical society tenfold. They decided to undergo a new analysis to date the canoe and help determine its real history.

The highly complex process for dating the canoe began with the taking of a small sample of the wood and exposing it to a series of stress tests: freeze-drying it to minus-107 degrees Celsius to remove all moisture, then heating it to more than 110 degrees Celsius to remove any trace of iron and calcium carbonates.

Using sterilized instruments, the sample was placed inside a quartz tube with cupric oxide and silver added before it was “hydrogen flame-sealed” under vacuum and combusted at 820 degrees.

The sample was then radiocarbon dated to the mid-17th century, a good hundred years before English settlers discovered Squam Lake.  When Samuel Lane surveyed its shores in 1751, he saw evidence of settlement and agriculture by the Penacook-Abenaki People of the Algonquin Federation. Artifacts connected to the Cowasuck Band have been unearthed around the lake and river.

Experts theorize that, with no saw or metal tool marks evident, and an upturned stern with bow and sides of varying thickness, that the Holderness canoe is undoubtedly made by Native Americans during the “Early Contact Period.”

By the mid-1600s the more maneuverable birch bark canoe had replaced the cumbersome dugout, so this Squam Lake artifact most likely had been abandoned.

The canoe is scheduled to go on display June to September at the Holderness Historical Society Museum. Fingers crossed.

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