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Bark Canoes: The Art and Obsession of Tappan Adney

Bark Canoes: The Art and Obsession of Tappan Adney

by John Jennings

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The definitive reference to indigenous peoples' watercraft around the world.

Tappan Adney (1868-1950) was an artist, writer, ethnographer, historian and modelmaker of unparalleled ability. He tirelessly documented the cultures and languages of vanishing native cultures. His most enduring legacy is the extraordinary 110 birchbark canoe models he


The definitive reference to indigenous peoples' watercraft around the world.

Tappan Adney (1868-1950) was an artist, writer, ethnographer, historian and modelmaker of unparalleled ability. He tirelessly documented the cultures and languages of vanishing native cultures. His most enduring legacy is the extraordinary 110 birchbark canoe models he handbuilt to exacting standards. The models, now held at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, were built to ensure future canoe builders had exact reproductions for reference.

These historically accurate, 1:5 scale models were meticulously researched, and traditionally constructed using the identical materials of the originals. Many are based on canoes that were the last example of their type. Before such a canoe disintegrated, Adney measured and recorded its dimensions, consulted with native builders and studied historical photographs and paintings.

The canoe models are organized into eight distinct groups:

  • Maritimes
  • Eastern Woodland
  • Northwest
  • Lower British Columbia
  • Fur Trade
  • Amur Valley
  • Asia
  • South America.

Each canoe model is beautifully photographed and accompanied by captions that outline the craft's origins, uses and technical details. Adney's amazing technical drawings for the models are also included.

An extensive introduction covers Adney's life and provides information about native model builders, canoe decoration and fur trade heraldry.

Bark Canoes is the definitive reference to indigenous — and ingenious — watercraft used around the world.

Editorial Reviews

Good Times - Liz Grogan
[Review of hardcover edition] A must have cottage book.
Canoe and Kayak Magazine - Ted Behne
[Review of hardcover edition] Remarkable book documenting Adney's work... featuring detailed photographs.
Appalachian Quarterly
[Review of hardcover edition] Chronicles the fascinating story of Adney's life, presents for the first time incredible photographs of his canoe models, and explains the cultural and historical significance of this craft.
Canadian Camera - Becky Mason
[Review of hardcover edition] The pictures are almost surreal in their minimalist presentation and razor sharp quality. I could literally count each tiny gunwale lashing and felt like I could pluck the canoe off the page and put it in water!
Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal - Linda Turk
[Review of hardcover edition] A glorious illustrated study of [Tappan Adney's] model canoes... beautifully balanced... a remarkable man and the equally remarkable legacy he has left us.
Wilderness Journal
[Review of hardcover edition] Incredible photographs... a great service to historians and the paddling community... beautiful and informative book.
[Review of hardcover edition] An essential addition to [Chapelle's The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America]... You have to have this one as well if you have any interest in canoe history.
E-Streams - Kay Plesca
[Review of hardcover edition] Not only of interest to maritime enthusiasts but also those interested in Native Peoples, history, art and crafts.
Canadian Geographic
[Review of hardcover edition] A significant aspect of North American heritage... features artistically crafted photographs of Adney's intricate scale models of canoes.
WoodenBoat - Jerry Stelmok
[Review of hardcover edition] Flawless photos of the entire Adney collection... handsome and instructive... Bark Canoes, with Pemberton's lovely photographs, is the perfect complement to Adney's and Chapelle's earlier masterpiece.
Choice - P.D. Thomas
[Review of hardcover edition] This handsomely illustrated work presents a clear and succinct review of the talented, driven, and irascible [Adney]... Recommended.
Wave Length Magazine - Diana Mumford
[Review of hardcover edition] A photographic gallery of the extraordinary work of a remarkable man... Adney became obsessed with accurately recording every aspect of North American canoe building.
Nastawgan (Quarterly of Wilderness Canoe Associati) - Toni Harting
[Review of hardcover edition] Wonderful book... a marvelous and important job by making Adney's creations available to us in this beautifully produced book that is a feast for the mind and the eye... a most useful basis for further study.

Product Details

Firefly Books, Limited
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
8.90(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Opening introduction to the chapter on the life of Edwin Tappan Adney

The canoe models of Edwin Tappan Adney, universally recognized as the foremost scholar of the North American bark canoe, represent the distillation of a lifetime of research into the Native canoeing cultures of northern North America. Adney originally intended his collection of models to illustrate a major book on the subject. Sadly, he never completed that work, and his extraordinary models have remained in storage at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, for more than half a century, known only to a relative few. It is estimated that Adney constructed about 150 models of Native canoes during his lifetime. This volume presents the complete collection of Adney models at the Mariners' Museum — 110 in all — representing all major Native groups of North America who built bark canoes.

Tappan Adney was unquestionably the most important scholar the canoe world has known. Fortunately, his passion for Native canoes culture came at a time when it was still possible to gather information from elderly Native canoe builders and retired fur traders of the birchbark era. As a result, his research yielded an extraordinarily diverse and voluminous written record in addition to his models.

For Adney, building models was not a hobby or an appendage to some other enterprise. He believed that Native bark canoes, and knowledge about their construction, were fast disappearing. Therefore a collection of exact replicas at a consistent scale of 1 to 5 would be crucial for the preservation of this aspect of Native heritage.

When Adney began building, he was the only one in the world doing so, and even he was almost too late. During his 63 years of intermittent research, from 1887 to his death in 1950, much of the first-hand knowledge of bark canoes disappeared. Without Adney's vast collection of papers and models he left as his legacy, a vital part of North American Native heritage might well have been irretrievably lost.

In a way, Tappan Adney was a tragic figure. He would probably be largely unknown today if someone else — Howard Chapelle — had not completed his great book for him, because he never quite around to the task. While the study of canoes was undoubtedly his great passion, he was all to easily distracted by his many other obsessions, including Native languages and ethnology, photography, painting and music. Adney read Greek, Latin, French and Maliseet, and spoke the latter fluently. The 10 boxes of his Native canoe material at the Mariners' Museum and the 88 boxes of his research records at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, mostly on the subject of Native linguistics, attest to the depth of his scholarship. They also include material on Native culture, botany, astronomy and heraldry — a subject on which Adney would become one of North America's leading experts. He developed an abiding interest in birds as well, and was a charter member of the Explorers Club. His illustrations were used in museum publications, in Frank M. Chapman's Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America (first published in 1895) and in Theodore Roosevelt's Good Hunting. Combining the roles of journalist, artist and photographer, he wrote and illustrated The Klondike Stampede, about the Klondike gold rush. Appalled by the cruelty to horses he witnessed in the Klondike, he became a strong advocate for animal rights and lectured for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Yet Adney's first love always remained the Native bark canoes, and their linguistic and cultural content.

Meet the Author

John Jennings is an associate professor at Trent University, a specialist in frontier history and editor of The Canoe: A Living Tradition.

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