Minnesota Dugout Canoe Project

Maritime Heritage Minnesota
St. Paul, MN

“As the land of more than 10,000 lakes; home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River; and host to nearly 200 miles of Lake Superior shoreline; Minnesota’s waterways have played a significant role in the lifeways of the state’s inhabitants throughout its history.  For this reason, we are fortunate that Maritime Heritage Minnesota (MHM) has dedicated itself to the task of documenting and preserving Minnesota’s submerged cultural heritage.” The words of one reviewer emphasize the importance of waterways and watercraft to understanding Minnesota’s history, as well as the necessity of research and preservation of the artifacts associated with this heritage.

The goals of the Minnesota Dugout Canoe Project (MDC) were to document and determine the ages of ten dugout canoes taken from archaeological contexts in nine Minnesota counties, as well as to identify their prehistoric or historic cultural contexts.  Through the use of radiocarbon dating of small wood samples using Accelerated Mass Spectrometry, Minnesota’s eight oldest watercraft have been identified and information that disproves many previous theories has been verified. Drawn from canoes made as long ago as 1025 AD and as recent as the 1950s, the data from this project has greatly enhanced knowledge of Minnesota’s maritime heritage and prehistoric landscape, and contributes to ongoing revitalization of museum interpretation. In particular, communities in Hennepin, Chippewa, and McLeod/Meeker Counties have been significantly impacted by the data produced during the MDC Projects. The respective museums that house the dugout canoes in those counties have improved or are in the process of improving their interpretive exhibits and enhancing the environmental controls that affect the artifacts. Additionally, the project reports for each canoe are available free online to help support further research and inquiry.

Through innovative partnerships and resourceful fundraising, Maritime Heritage Minnesota completed a necessary study that could never have been done by any institution on its own. Through their efforts, MHM not only advanced statewide knowledge of the chronology and construction of dugout canoes, but they also in return provided the host institutions with an increased understanding of the history of their individual specimens, including in some cases correcting misattributions. With better understanding of the ages and compositions of their artifacts, Minnesota’s museums are better equipped to care for them and understand their place in the state’s historic and ecological landscape.