Dugout Canoe with outrigger at Russell Key by HermannTrappman

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Like our family car today, canoes were the only means of transportation in pre-Columbian Florida. There were a variety of designs, from large trade canoes for long distances to sleek war canoes to family canoes for local travel and fishing to even small canoes for kids to play in just like kids today have bicycles.

Historical Context

On the last venture of Christopher Columbus, 1502, his youngest son, Ferdinand, describes this canoe which he encountered along the coast of Central America:

“There came at that time a canoe as great as a galley, eight feet wide, all of a single trunk, and made like the others, the which came loaded with merchandise… Amidships it had a canopy of palm leaves, like that of gondolas in Venice, which protected what was underneath in such a manner that neither rain nor waves could wet anything within. Under this canopy were the children, women, and all the baggage and merchandise. He then ordered that there should be taken from the canoe whatever appeared to be most attractive and valuable, such as cloths and sleeveless shirts of cotton that had been worked and dyed in different colors and designs, also pantaloons of the same workmanship with which they cover their private parts, also cloth in which the Indian women of the canoe were dressed, such as the Moorish women of Granada are accustomed to wear. Also long swords of wood with a groove along each edge, wherein stone knives were set by means of fiber and pitch, cutting like steel when used on naked people; also hatchets to cut wood, like those of stone used by other Indians, save for the fact that these were of good copper, of which metal they also had bells and crucibles for smelting. For food they carried roots and grain such as they eat in Espanola and a certain wine made of maize, like the beer of England, and they had many of those kernels which serve as money in New Spain, which it appeared that they valued hi

Map of Calusa territory in southwest Florida


Calusa warriors at target practice in southwest Florida. Note the sun compass on the dugout in the foreground.

A later sighting, during the Francisco Hernandez de Cordova expedition, took place off the northern side of the

Yucatan Peninsula:

“On the morning of the 4th March, (1517) we saw ten large canoes, called pirogues, full of Indians from the town, approaching us with oars and sails. The canoes were large ones made like hollow troughs cleverly cut out from huge single logs, and many of them would hold forty Indians.  – Bernal Diaz del Castillo.”

Building a Canoe

A tree, usually pine, but cypress would do for a large sea going canoe, can easily be felled in an hour or so with a shell axe. Once the branches are removed the log can be floated down a stream or river to the seacoast where it is set up on wedges to be shaped while the wood is still green. When heart of pine ages it hardens to a plastic like material making it almost impossible to carve.

New Canoes. Building a new canoe was also a time for men to get together and tell stories.

Shell adzes and axes are used to carve out the rough shape and then a controlled fire used to shape the interior. Rasps made from quohog shells can be used to start smoothing the surface while shark skin is used for fine finishing work.

In 2007 Elizabeth and I visited the Kuna Yala in the San Blas Archipelago off the Atlantic coast of Panama. Amazingly these Indians live pretty much as the Calusa may have lived 400 to 500 years ago. Every morning the men rise at dawn to sail their dugout canoes from their island homes to the mainland where they tend their coconut groves. Fishing, too, is a mainstay of their economy. We witnessed children playing in their 6 foot long toy canoe and were amazed at their agility. We watched children swimming around these heavy canoes seemingly unaware of that they could be crushed between the hulls in a heartbeat. And watched as families arrived home in their family canoes. Canoes were everywhere! 

If you don’t believe us, watch this short film by Elizabeth at about 6:30 minutes. Kuna Yala

Playing in their dugout canoe, help children develop the skills they will need later.


Calusa Indians poling a canoe on their way home from trading with some neighbors.

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