Catlin, George. North American Indians: Being Letters and Notes on Their Manners, Customs, and Conditions, Written During Eight Years’ Travel Amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America, 1832-1839. Volume 2. Philadelphia: Leary, Stuart and Company, 1913.
The red and black Johnson Family Chinook canoe paddling into Chinook Point, a village site named in the 1851 Tansey Point Treaty with the Lower Chinook | Image courtesy Gary Johnson

The largest Chinookan canoes stretched between 40 and 60 feet. These were freighters that could haul as much as 12 tons of goods and people. Some were war canoes meant to overwhelm an enemy. They were frequently embellished with paint, carvings, and inlaid shells. As impressive as their beauty could be, most observers thrilled at their efficiency and the skill of their operators in even rough waters. Jon Dunn, who wrote about his experiences on the Northwest Coast in 1846, exclaimed:

It is surprising to see with what fearless unconcern these savages venture in their slight barks on the most tempestuous seas. They seem to ride upon the waves like sea fowl. Should a surge throw the canoe upon one side and endanger its overturn, those to windward lean over the upper gunwale-thrust their paddles deep into the wave-apparently catch the water, and force it under the canoe; and, by this action, not merely regain an equilibrium, but give the vessel a vigorous impulse forward.

Some have argued that the Chinook traded with Nootkan people on Vancouver Island for the massive finished canoes because they did not have access to the large cedar logs of the north. Members of the Chinook Nation counter that the Chinook people lived in the heart of cedar forests with access to humongous trees, techniques for cutting them, and a long-held expertise that allowed them to craft canoes without outside help. Ethnographic evidence also counters this point. James Swan documented the construction of canoes in Willapa Bay in the 1850s and nearby archaeological sites include partially constructed and ancient canoes. Josie George (1871-1945), a well known boatmaker from Bay Center, Washington carried on a family tradition of canoe making from his father, George Squamaups; a tradition that one descendant, Tony Johnson, points out includes skills you cannot “make up. You have to be taught to make a canoe right.”

Braving breakers along the Washington Coast. The bow piece is clearly visible here and was both decorative and functional as it helped to break waves. “Nuu-chah-nulth Canoes off Ucluelet” Original watercolour 18.5″ x 29″ by Gordon Miller © 1991 | Courtesy of Canadian Museum of History, virtual exhibit

These large craft were essential to the Northwest Coast economic and demographic patterns. Their size made them seaworthy, which allowed coastal groups great mobility in trade and travel. As archaeologists Ken Ames and Herbert Maschner point out, the mobility and transport of goods and people made possible by the canoes allowed Chinookan peoples to live in semi-permanent villages and move seasonally. Canoes made it possible for entire community populations to move from summer sites to winter homes. They transported significant cargo and people, which allowed bands to move the planks for houses, while frames remained in villages awaiting their return.