Did Native Americans build sailboats?
April 20, 2012
A reader from Port Townsend, WA wrote the Examiner with this question about Native American history:
Mr. Thornton, did any Native Americans build sail boats? Last weekend I visited a museum on the Olympic Peninsula. The exhibits said that although Washington’s Native Americans build large canoes, propelled by paddles that could go out to sea to hunt whales, no American Indians knew how to build sailboats. Diana S.– Port Townsend, WA.
Historians and archaeologists have not found evidence of canoes or boats with sails in most of North America. That does not mean that certain ethnic groups and certain times did build sail boats, but that they were not witnessed by early European explorers.
Currently, the only known exception was in southern Florida. The Calusa Indians of southwestern Florida were descendants of a very advanced indigenous people, who began interconnecting their towns with canals and controlled natural waterways as early as 100 AD. At the time of first contact with Spanish explorers in the early 1500s, the Calusas were building a wide range of dug-out canoes. Some were large enough to carry cargo between Florida and Cuba. These sea-going craft possibly also traded with the Yucatan Peninsula. The large canoes that crossed the ocean often had steering oars and simple sails woven from split river canes. Such sails were only useful when the wind was blowing in the same direction that the Calusas wanted to travel.
In more frequent use were catamarans constructed by mounting two dug out canoes together with a wooden platform. These craft were used to transport humans and small cargos along the coastal waterways or on Lake Okeechobee, which is in the center of southern Florida. The Spanish Explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés described the Calusa catamarans as “being compose of two canoes, fastened one to the other.” The catamarans that he observed had decks covered with woven mats. Simple huts were built from saplings, river canes and palm fronds to provide shelter from the sun and rains.
Calusa water craft had a very unusual design feature. Although all examples found to date appear to have been hollowed out of either longleaf pine or cypress logs, most were in the shape of the plank-built boats fabricated by the Chontal Mayas of southern Mexico. They had exaggerated bows and sterns with rounded ends that were identical to the design details on Maya canoes. This shared esthetic treatment suggests that the people of southern Florida visited locations where they could see Maya canoes and sea craft.
The Chontal Maya definitely built sea going sail boats that were the same size and construction as Viking longboats. The primary difference between Chontal Maya and Viking boats was that the Maya boats had reed mat sails, plus small huts, where at least some of the crews could take shelter.
If you have questions about the history of the Native Peoples of North America, please write Richard Thornton atNativeQuestion@aol.com
. If there has not already been an Examiner article on the subject, he will write one just for you!
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