Long before the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Harbor in 1620, Wampanoag Indians were building and using dugout canoes called mishoons. Darius Coombs is the Director of Wampanoag and Eastern Woodlands Specialized Programing and Training at Plimoth Plantation.
“This is how you got around back then,” Coombs said. “There were no horses seen around this area probably not until the 1630s or 40s. So, how you got around was you’d either walk, run, or use your boats. The rivers were considered to be the highways."
The mishoons are made almost exactly as they were centuries ago. First step is to find the perfect tree. Indians frequently worked with white pine, chestnut, white oak, or tulip poplar. The Indians’ tool of choice was fire.
“Fire for us is considered to be the No. 1 wood-working tool,” Coombs said. “It’s not like we didn’t have the tools to chop and carve, we did. If you know about stone tools, certain types of stone are extremely sharp. Burning is just easier if you know how to burn the fire.”
Plimoth Plantation visitors can see one of these mishoon canoes being made at the Wampanoag Homesite. Those working at the Homesite are responsible for tending to the fire. But the museum hours mean boats can only burn from 9 to 5 compared to 24-hour burn schedule the Indians held hundreds of years ago. Coombs said the Homesite can complete a 16-foot boat in about a month’s time.
“The blowing of oxygen and you add that to the fire to make the fire hot so it burns faster," Coombs said.
Those working on the boat will use stones tools to scrape until they hit unburned wood, keeping burning coals on one side of the boat while they scrape. The process is done when the sides are one to one-and-a-half inches thick and the space between those in the boat and the water is four to six inches.
“What are you doing?" a visitor asked.
“What am I doing? I’m scraping the boat out,” Coombs said. “You always want to burn and scrape. Burn and scrape, right? It can I guess, but also you can cook over it. But the main purpose of the fire is you want to hollow out the log."
“Oooh," the visitor said.
“Burn and scrape, burn and scrape until you get the boat by itself," Coombs said.
Coombs said it’s a point of pride to teach younger generations how to build the mishoons. His next project is called Mission Mishoon and takes him to the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, Connecticut. Coombs is helping Aquinnah Wampanoag Jonathon Perry and the museum’s director Jason Mancini build a 36-foot mishoon.
The boat will be the largest canoe of it’s kind made today. The project began in May and will be finished in August. Once completed, they’ll take the mishoon on a voyage up Connecticut’s Mystic River, where they’ll paddle to the sites of old Pequot villages
“For myself, that gets my blood pumping,” Coombs said “Any time a historic voyage can be made like that, in that realm that hasn’t been done in a couple hundred years, it’s exciting to bring something back to the people, it’s an awesome feeling."
Coombs said these types of voyages were the norm hundreds of years ago, and he hopes that continuing to make these trips will help Wampanoag culture reemerge throughout the Northeast.