If there is one person who can be credited with preserving the knowledge of bark canoes in North America it is Tappan Adney.
Tappan Adney was an artist, linguist and a canoe historian. His appreciation of canoes and canoe building led to years spent researching and building hundreds of historically accurate canoe models.
Adney was born in 1868 in Athens, Ohio. He studied art at night school while working at a law office. At his mother’s boarding house in New York, he met his future wife, Minnie Bell Sharp, the daughter of the well-known Canadian horticulturist, Francis Peabody Sharp.
While visiting the Sharp family home in New Brunswick in 1887, he met one of the last Maliseet canoe builders, Peter Jo. This introduction to First Nations culture had a profound impact on Adney who stayed with Jo and his family for nearly two years, learning the Maliseet language and sketching and the building of a birchbark canoe – something that had never been done before.
From that point onward, Adney made hundreds of canoe models using a scale of 1 to 5 of as many Native bark canoes as he could discover and even some of the ones which were classified as ‘extinct’ using the same materials as much as possible. Adney’s approach to canoe history was all-encompassing – he endeavoured to learn languages and cultures as well as the geography in which the canoes were built. His canoe models were so accurate that they became works of art on their own.
He travelled across most of Canada and into the Yukon where he chronicled the Klondike gold rush and came across more unique bark canoes such as this one from Carcross, the home of Skookum Jim.
In 1917, Adney became a Canadian citizen.
Financial hardship took a toll on the Adney family as the Depression loomed. He actively sought a Canadian museum to buy his collection, but none were interested. He spent the remainder of his days in Woodstock, New Brunswick working on his canoe collection. In the end, his collection of model canoes was purchased by the Mariners’ Museum in Virginia.
After Adney’s death in 1950 at the age of 82, Howard Chapelle of the Smithsonian Institution gathered Adney’s notes and drawings and published “The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America” which continues to be a resource for canoe and kayak builders.