Tuesday, February 24, 2009

FDR's Tomah Joseph Bark Canoe

Recently I read of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's birchbark canoe on display at Roosevelt Campobello International Park. Curious to learn a bit more, I learned that it was built by Passamaquoddy artist Tomah Joseph (1837-1914) who befriended the future President and is said to have taught him how to paddle

Tomah Joseph(1837-1914)

Young FDR paddling a canoe built by Tomah Joseph

An aged canoe is now on display on the veranda of the Roosevelt Cottage. Some shots below show a graceful boat that has weathered to a grey patina. Its nailed gunwales and stitched side panels seem to have held up well over time. I doubt my lashed boat will look so good at this age.

On display

Kind of curious, but there appears to be some sort stetched out canvas nailed to the gunwales covering the end thwart. If you look carefully at the pic of Tomah Joseph above, there seems to be something similar attached to boat's stern. It seems to be placed right over the end thwart though I can't imagine why. Maybe a sort of sling seat perhaps? It would explain why FDR is pictured paddling so far astern in his boat. Most solo paddlers today would kneel amidships to allow the boat to sit evenly in the water.

Stetched canvas on stern

If anyone knows more about this canoe and its unusual addition, I'd appreciate some feedback.


Anonymous said...


I visited Campobello some years ago and noted the following about the two canoes they have on display: The canoe hanging in the visitor's center is credited to Tomah Joseph. As proof of its connection to FDR, they also have on display a huge photo of a young FDR paddling that very same canoe.

The canoe in the visitor's center is unique in several respects. The lashings at the thwarts and the stems were done with rattan -- chair caning material -- not spruce root. Also, the gunwales are held together with screws, not nails. I've seen a lot of old canoes in museums, but not one with rattan and screws as building materials. I believe these were building innovations of Tomah Joseph, identifying characteristics so unusual that they can be used to identify Tomah as the likely builder of other canoes.

As to the silver-gray canoe on the back porch, being left to bleach in the sun, its builder is not identified, implying that the builder is unknown. However, that canoe also has screwed gunwales and rattan lashings. Given the canoe's location, age and unusual construction, it's reasonable to conclude that Tomah Joseph also built that one. But the Campobello curators don't have "proof," so they revere the one in the visitor's center, but let the one on the back porch rot because they don't value it.

As to the canvas covering over the end thwart, I don't recall seeing that when I last visited around 2001. It is probably a makeshift seat, since it appears that FDR is sitting, in the visitor's center photo. It could also be a repair to compensate for the loss of a thwart, put there to simply keep the canoe from deforming.

A few comments about Tomah Joseph himself. He was a Passamaquoddy who lived in the Reserve at Pleasant Point, Maine, across the bay from Campobello. During their summer vacations, he worked for the Roosevelt family for many years as a hunting and fishing guide and general handyman. He was locally famous for his artistic skill with birchbark etchings. The Roosevelt home at Campobello is filled with examples of his etchwork, all highly prized among antique collectors today.

Tomah Joe was a contemporary and possible relative of Peter Jo, the Maliseet/Passamaquoddy builder Tappan Adney met in 1887, and who inspired Adney's love of bark canoes and ultimately his monumental book, The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Both Tomah Joe and Peter Jo were born at Pleasant Point within less than a year of each other. It is a virtual certainty that they knew each other.

Murat said...

Many thanks for your informative post, Ted. Intriguing to note the use of screws and rattan. Such a shame that the curators don't seem to value this canoe...any birchbark canoe (especially from an innovative builder like Tomah)is worth preserving in my opinion.

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