Primary Source: De Bry's “The manner of making their boates”

This historical engraving depicts several figures, Indigenous Algonquian men, in various stages of making canoes. Dominating the image in the foreground, two men work on a canoe in its finishing stages. The boat, burned and scraped out from a tree trunk, sits atop logs. A fire burns in its center. One man fans the flames, while the other scrapes the char from the boat. The smoke from the fire separates the background into two sections. On the right, a fire burns at the base of a tree. On the left, a tree has been felled. One man stands at its base, poking at it with a long stick. Another man fans the flames of a fire positioned near the middle of the fallen tree.

Primary Source

Image Citation
“The manner of making their boates,” engraving by Theodor de Bry. From A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, JS83.01.03.

Standards and Skills
Virginia Standards of Learning: VS.2d, VS.2e, VS.2f, US1.3c
Meets National Standards of Learning for Social Studies

Summary and Significance

This image depicts the method of making canoes used by mid-Atlantic coastal Indians. The image is based on a description by Thomas Harriot, who travelled to the Outer Banks in the 1580s and described the lives of the Indigenous people he saw. Back in Europe, an engraver, printer and publisher named Theodor de Bry engraved this image based on Harriot’s description and published it in a book in 1590. The image offers insight into how Indigenous people in and around Tidewater Virginia, including the Powhatan, would have made canoes, which were an important part of Powhatan life.

Historical Background and Image Analysis

Image/Author Background
John White was an English gentleman and artist. While exploring what would become Roanoke in 1585-1586, John White created portraits of the Indigenous people he encountered and their towns. Meanwhile, fellow colonist Thomas Harriot wrote about the native inhabitants he encountered in an account titled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. In 1587, White was made the governor of what became the famous Lost Colony of Roanoke, along the coast of today’s North Carolina.

The people and places John White painted were in and near the Outer Banks of modern-day North Carolina. While the Roanoke colony was in modern-day North Carolina, the colony was part of the land Queen Elizabeth I granted to Sir Walter Raleigh, land she called “Virginia.” As mid-Atlantic coastal Indians, the Indigenous people John White painted shared many aspects of culture and language with the Powhatan paramount chiefdom to their north. Therefore, historians use these watercolors to learn about Powhatan culture, even though the watercolors do not specifically depict members of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom.

John White returned to England before the members of the Roanoke colony infamously disappeared. By the time he went back to Roanoke in 1590, he found a deserted colony and was forced to return to England once more.

Theodor de Bry was a goldsmith, engraver and printer. He was born in Belgium, but throughout his life he also lived in France and England until settling in Frankfurt, Germany. In Frankfurt, he set up a publishing house. While in England, de Bry had acquired the text of Thomas Harriot’s A Brief and True Report and John White’s watercolors. In Frankfurt, he created engravings of White’s watercolors. These engravings did not copy White’s paintings exactly. While de Bry had never been to America, he inserted his own preconceived notions about the people and places of the Americas. In 1590, de Bry published Thomas Harriot’s account alongside his engravings of John White’s paintings in a volume together. The images and text were primarily anthropological in nature: they included portraits of Indigenous people, depictions of their culture and way of life and images of their towns. Europeans and their interactions with Indigenous people were absent from the volume.

A Brief and True Report was wildly successful and gave Europeans hungry for information about the Americas a glimpse into a place they would likely never see. However, Europeans did not gain an objective or fully truthful view of Algonquian Indian life. Rather, their view of the Americas was filtered first through John White’s and then through de Bry’s motives and biases.

Image Analysis
While dugout canoes were not unique to coastal Virginia, they were very important to Powhatan life and culture. Think about it: if we didn’t have cars, planes, trains or even horses, how would we get around? The Powhatan had two options for transportation: their feet or boats. It’s no surprise they often relied on boats, which could carry more people and cargo faster than their feet could take them. The Powhatan also used boats because of their environment, where the shortest distance between two towns might have been by water. Dugout canoes also were convenient for fishing, or for gathering and transporting food or materials found near the coastline and riverbanks.

The process of making dugout canoes was a method developed and practiced over thousands of years. It started with a thick tree, often a cypress. A fire would be set at the tree’s base and maintained until the tree fell. Then, more fire would be used to trim off the branches and foliage of the tree. The tree would then be hoisted horizontally onto forked branches. Fires were set along the log to begin burning out the inside. The fire would create char, which is easy to scrape away. Shells, edged rocks or sharpened sticks were used to scrape the char. The fire would then burn the newly revealed wood, which would char and then be scraped away, and so on. The process would repeat until the canoe was at the desired depth. This is the process shown by de Bry’s engraving.

How did de Bry know this was the process for making a canoe? This image appeared in A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, which de Bry published in 1590. The text of A Briefe and True Report was by Thomas Harriot, who had travelled to the Americas in the 1580s. Most of the images accompanying Harriot’s words were based on watercolors done by John White at Roanoke. However, there is no evidence that this particular image was based on a John White drawing. Thomas Harriot wrote about the process in so much detail that de Bry may have used Harriot’s description to create his engraving.

Harriot was impressed by the ingenuity that he witnessed in how Indigenous peoples created boats without the iron tools readily available in England. Yet his account also betrayed his own biased worldview by calling Indigenous people “savage.” His full description reads:

The manner of makinge their boates in Virginia is verye wonderfull. For wneras they want Instruments of yron, or other like vnto ours, yet they knowe howe to make them as handsomelye, to saile with whear they liste in their Riuers, and to fishe with all, as ours. First they choose some longe, and thicke tree, accordinge to the bignes of the boate which they would frame, and make a fyre on the grownd abowt the Roote therof, kindlinge the same by little, and little with drie mosse of trees, and chipps of woode that the flame should not mounte opp to highe, and burne to muche of the lengte of the tree When yt is almost burnt thorough, and readye to fall they make a new fyre, which they suffer to burne vntill the tree fall of yt owne accord. Then burninge of the topp, and bowghs of the tree in suche wyse that the bodie of thesame may Retayne his iust lengthe, they raise yt vppon potes laid ouer cross wise vppon forked posts, at suche a reasonable heighte as rhey may handsomlye worke vppó yt. Then take they of the barke with certayne shells: thy reserue the, innermost parte of the lennke, for the nethermost parte of the boate. On the other side they make a fyre accordinge to the lengthe of the bodye of the tree, sauinge at both the endes. That which they thinke is sufficientlye burned they quenche and scrape away with shells, and makinge a new syre they burne yt agayne, and soe they continne somtymes burninge and sometymes fcrapinge, vntill the boate haue sufficient bothowmes. This god indueth thise sauage people with sufficient reason to make thinges necessarie to serue their turnes.

A Deeper Look
To see a modern-day canoe being made using Powhatan Indian techniques, watch this video:

Classroom Inquiry

1. Have students read Thomas Harriot’s description, then make a drawing based on what they read. Then, show them de Bry’s engraving. Ask if the students think it is possible that de Bry created his image based just on Harriot’s description.

2. Look at John Smith’s Map of Virginia, paying close attention to the location of Powhatan towns. Based on the geography of Tidewater Virginia, why were canoes important to Powhatan life?

Related Classroom Resources

Additional Reading