Quick Facts:

One of the earliest vessels used by humans, canoes were resourceful for transportation along rivers and coasts, and some ocean travel, by many cultures across the world.

Date: 3000 BCE - Present day

Ottawa River Five Fathom Canoe

The canoe has been used by ancient and modern cultures as a means of transportation and trade. The Mariners' Museum 1940.0190.000001A

The canoe is one of the earliest examples of a boat known in history. Native cultures of the Americas used canoes to navigate the rivers, lakes and coasts of their homes. Polynesian travelers relied on the outrigger canoe to travel great distances across the Pacific Ocean. While simple in design, it required knowledge and expert skill to build. The canoe has made a lasting impact on maritime history.

History and Development

Canoes developed in many different cultures and geographic locations. No one knows the exact date the first canoe was crafted. We do know that native people of the Americas were using canoes as part of their daily lives for thousands of years. They traveled along the rivers and lakes using the canoe for transportation, hunting, trade and communication with each other.1 The modern word “canoe” comes from the Arawak word canoa.2 Arawak were indigenous people to parts of Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Early European explorers used the word canoa in their early reports. Over time, the word became translated to canoe. Look, construction and materials varied from region to region, representing the individual cultures who used these watercrafts.

There are three basic classes of canoes based on material: animal skin, bark and the dugout.3 Animal hide was often used in the colder, northern Arctic regions. Skin from moose, seals, caribou and walrus were stretched over the wooden frame of a canoe. The umiak is an example of a skin canoe. Cultures who lived in forest and wooded areas relied on tree bark as a building material. For early native canoe builders, birch was good for many reasons. Not only was it flexible and sturdy, but the birch tree was abundant throughout North America. Another style of canoe was the dugout. Simply put, a dugout canoe is made from a hollowed out tree log. The corial is an example of a dugout canoe. Native cultures relied on the canoe as an important part of their daily life. As the French, British and other Europeans colonized the New World, they adapted the canoe for their needs. 

The outrigger canoe is another canoe style, and has also been around for thousands of years. They are especially used in the Indian Ocean off of east Africa, as well as in the Pacific Ocean around southeast Asia and Oceania.4  The ancient Polynesian people are perhaps most known for using the outrigger canoe. They used this watercraft to travel and inhabit thousands of islands throughout the Pacific Ocean. Outrigger canoes were typically made by local trees of the islands Polynesian navigators traveled to. Examples include the Kos and Acacia trees early Hawaiian natives used.5 Ultimately, the canoe has a long and important history. It is still used today, and has become a popular recreational vessel on the water.

Design and Construction

Canoes come in different shapes and sizes, and can be made from different materials. The body of a boat is called the hull. A standard canoe is a single hull (also called a monohull) vessel. They are typically long and narrow with open tops for the user or users to sit in. They can have flat bottoms, or they may have a keel. The keel is the long piece along the bottom of a boat that helps to keep the boat balanced in the water. Dugout canoes are created using a single log. It is hollowed out by burning and scraping it to make the final shape. Other canoe styles may contain ribbing which creates the frame and shape of the vessel, and uses thwarts attached to gunwales which hold it all together. Some canoes have seats, while others you just sit in. Canoes are propelled by someone paddling, facing the direction of movement. As mentioned above, they can be made from different materials, including traditional materials like animal skins or modern materials like fiberglass. Most canoes come up to form pointed ends at both the front and back of the vessel.6

The design of the outrigger is different from the canoe. They have a similar canoe-style framework, but outrigger canoes are multihull vessels. Meaning they have two or more hulls. Outrigger canoes have a support frame on one or both sides. This frame is called an outrigger. The outrigger is attached to the main part of the canoe, sitting parallel to it. It provides balance and stability when traveling in the water.7 A boat with an outrigger on just one side is known as a single-outrigger; if the boat has outriggers on both sides, it is a double-outrigger canoe. The canoe is a versatile boat, used by cultures across the globe, and crafted to meet their specific needs. 


  1. John Jennings, The Canoe: A Living Tradition (Canada: Firefly Books Ltd., 2002), 10.
  2. Kenneth G. Roberts and Philip Shackleton, The Canoe: A History of the Craft from Panama to the Arctic (Maine: International Marine Publishing Co., 1983), 1.
  3. Roberts and Shackleton, The Canoe, 2.
  4. Beverly McMillan, editor, Aak to Zumbra: A Dictionary of the World’s Watercraft, (Newport News: The Mariners Museum, 2000), 421.
  5. K.R. Howe, editor, Vaka Moana: Voyages of the Ancestors, The Discovery and Settlement of the Pacific, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 121.
  6. McMillan, Aak to Zumbra, 113.
  7. McMillan, Aak to Zumbra, 421.


Howe, K.R.  ed. Vaka Moana: Voyages of the Ancestors, The Discovery and Settlement of the Pacific. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.

Jennings, John. The Canoe: A Living Tradition. Canada: Firefly Books Ltd., 2002. 

McMillan, Beverly, ed. Aak to Zumbra: A Dictionary of the World’s Watercraft. Newport News: The Mariners Museum, 2000.

Roberts, Kenneth G. and Philip Shackleton. The Canoe: A History of the Craft from Panama to the Arctic. Maine: International Marine Publishing Co., 1983.