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UP CLOSE: Rewriting Adirondack history

Lake Placid dugout canoe part of scientific study, history project

August 29, 2014
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

ONCHIOTA - There's a good chance John Fadden's Mohawk ancestors used the dugout canoe in his family's museum.

Then again, nobody really knows for certain.

The best guess, using carbon-14 dating sent to a laboratory this summer, is that the canoe - found submerged in Lake Placid lake in the early 1960s - dates to between the mid-1600s and the late 1800s. Using Native American history in New York state, this gives the more likely timeline between 1669 and 1780.

Article Photos

Six Nations Indian Museum owner John Fadden sits in front of the dugout canoe found in Lake Placid lake in the early 1960s. A recent carbon-14 test showed the Native American canoe dates to between the mid 1600s to the late 1800s, most likely 1669 to 1780. Fadden’s museum, located in Onchiota north of Saranac Lake, celebrates the history of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, including his own, the Mohawk Nation, which had controlled this region of New York state before the American Revolution.
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

Cut marks on the canoe look like they were made by a steel tool rather than a stone one, according to Paul Smith's College biology professor Curt Stager, who took core samples from the dugout canoe, located in the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota, and sent them to a lab to be carbon-14 dated.

"It was either a native person who had a steel hatchet or a Euro-Anglo trapper or a hunter-fisherman," Stager said.

Since studying three dugout canoes found in the Adirondacks - one in Daggett Pond near Warrensburg, the one in Lake Placid and one in Cranberry Lake - Stager has found all kinds of interesting connections, some that keep the history of these artifacts as murky as the sediment they were found in. For example, he was recently reading David Tatham's book, "Winslow Homer in the Adirondacks."

"The first painting he did up here of many was called 'The Trapper,' and there's the guy in his dugout canoe in 1870," Stager said. "It was something people used, it wasn't just native folks."

When a dugout is as young as the Lake Placid one, it's hard to tell whether it was used by a Native American or an Anglo-American.

"Either way, it's still pretty cool," Stager said.


Lake Placid dugout

The Lake Placid dugout canoe arrived at the Six Nations Indian Museum around 1961.

"There were three men that contacted my father and said they had this canoe, and they wanted to sell it," Fadden said. "I think he paid a hundred or a hundred and 25 dollars at the time. They brought the canoe here, and my recollection from that day was that this thing was really heavy. Of course, it was soaked, saturated with water."

Since that day, the dugout canoe has dried out, and it currently sits on the floor in one of the museum's four rooms. Several years ago, one of the three men who sold the canoe contacted Fadden, and they reaffirmed what he remembered about the discovery.

"He thought that he had found it in Mirror Lake, as opposed to Lake Placid, so in my notes on the topic, I changed it to Mirror Lake," Fadden said.

That's when Stager entered the picture. While his parents were visiting this summer, he took them to see the museum.

"We're looking around, and here's this dugout," Stager recalled.

Stager was curious about the age of the canoe, but there was no information available. John's son, Dave, was working at the time and told the Stager and his parents where and when it was found.

"He asked David if we ever had it carbon-14 dated, and David responded with the usual response that we don't have a budget to do that," Fadden said.

Stager was in the process of retrieving sediment borings of the various lakes and waterways in the Adirondacks for a climate change study.

"In typical fashion, my father says, 'Well you have a research grant for carbon dates. Why don't you do it?'" Stager said. "So I said, 'OK.'"

Stager soon returned to the museum with a carbon-14 dating kit to start the process.

As a result of Stager's interest, he contacted the man who told Fadden he found the canoe in Mirror Lake and emailed him some maps of waterways in the Lake Placid region.

"And they came to the conclusion that it wasn't Mirror Lake, but it was Lake Placid where the canoe was found," Fadden said. "The man mentioned that while they were dragging this canoe out, there was an island nearby and there was a woman waving at him from the island. The woman was the famous Kate Smith, the singer from that time period. And the only island over there is on Lake Placid. There is no island in Mirror Lake. Therefore, that's where it was found."

For Fadden, it makes perfect sense that this dugout canoe was found in Lake Placid.

"Lake Placid and all of the lakes in the Adirondacks and the rivers were used as means of transportation and a source of fish by Native American people," Fadden said. "The Adirondacks, at least this part of it, is part of the traditional territory of the Mohawk Nation. It's assumed then that this canoe is Mohawk. Now the Abenakis also hunted and fished here with permission from the Mohawk Nation, so it's conceivable that it could be Abenaki. But there's no way of telling, that I'm aware of, by the design as to which nation it is from."

Fadden isn't sure what type of tree was used to make the canoe. He's heard pine, and Stager guesses cedar. Dugout canoes were used at the same time as birch-bark canoes, but Mohawks didn't use birch-bark canoes here.

"Birch-bark canoes were made and used primarily by Algonquin speakers to the north of here because up there, there's a big birch tree that's called canoe birch," Fadden said. "From these huge trees, you get these large pieces of bark, whereas most of our birches down this way aren't that big. There just isn't enough."

The Mohawks and the other nations of the Iroquois Confederacy primarily used elm bark for their canoes.

"You could get large pieces of that, and at the time before the Dutch elm disease came here, there were a lot of elm trees to make elm-bark canoes," Fadden said.

Dugout canoes were usually made on the waterway, and they would be left there for future use.

"You don't pick up one of those for a portage; it's simply too heavy," Fadden said. "On occasion, they would be scurried away under some brush, or they would be dropped down to the bottom with stone, so they wouldn't be observable, and just hidden in the water."

The dugout canoe is an important artifact to have in the collection of the Six Nations Indian Museum because it was used on a nearby waterway.

"It's in our territory, and the odds are it's Mohawk, and the museum is dedicated to the Mohawks and the others of the Six Nations Confederacy," Fadden said.

It's not clear whether there was a Native American village on Lake Placid. The conventional thinking is that Native Americans only visited the Adirondack region for hunting and fishing, but Fadden isn't convinced that's the case.

"The verdict is still out on that," Fadden said. "The common belief, folklore, is that the Native people never lived here and that they just occasionally used it for a hunting ground. There's never been any archeological effort to find out whether that's true or not; however, things are found, including this canoe, and just by accident. My personal opinion is that it reflects the demographics of today. Today you have the larger populations that are down in the valleys, but there are still hardy folk that live here year-round. And I think it was like that in the old days."


Stager's project

Curt Stager is having an Indiana Jones moment. After a report about the Lake Placid dugout canoe was aired on North Country Public Radio Aug. 15, he received a phone call from a man who owns a dugout canoe that was found in Cranberry Lake, so he drove there to check it out and take core samples for carbon-14 dating. It seems Stager's original study - sediment cores - has morphed into a historical mystery tour around the Adirondack Park.

"It's turning into a big project," Stager said. "This just happened accidentally last month. ... The goal of my regular research here is to look at lake levels of the last thousand years, which then tells you about climate change, with the hope that if we look to the past, it will tell us in the future, as the globe warms, if we're going to get more floods or more droughts."

But Stager keeps finding dugout canoes in private and public collections, and they are feeding his insatiable curiosity about early Adirondack residents and visitors. Core samples have now been taken from the Lake Placid and Cranberry Lake dugouts and the one found in Daggett Pond, which is currently at the Rogers Island Visitor Center in Fort Edward.

"They're hoping it's really, really old, but I can tell by looking at it that it isn't," Stager said about the Daggett Pond canoe.

The problem with dating newer canoes is that they are too young for the carbon-14 date to be precise, according to Stager. Most of the ones found so far were made in the "post-contact" period, meaning the time after Europeans first arrived in the region in the 1600s.

"This is no more precise than a few centuries," Stager said. "Anything less than about three or four hundred years, it's really hard to nail down."

Scientists could also count the tree rings of a dugout to decipher its age, measuring it in the trunk and matching it to a known tree-ring pattern from the area.

"That would be someone else's expertise," Stager said.

Two dugout canoes that were found in Twin Ponds in the town of Malone are the oldest ones found so far in the region, and they are the only ones found that were made by charring and non-metallic tools. The carbon-14 dating on one, using updated methods for calibrating the original data, shows a date between 1297 and 1632 AD, most likely 1376-1526. The canoes are in the private collection of Barry Silverstein, owner of Adirondack Life magazine. Stager hopes to have both dated using updated radiocarbon methods (accelerator mass spectrometry).

The Adirondack Museum's dugout found in Lake Ozonia in the 1950s - not part of Stager's study - is much younger than the original carbon-14 dates that put the age somewhere between 1344 and 1504. Cut marks on the canoe show it was made during the post-contact era. Therefore, Stager guesses, that the carbon-14 information most likely refers to the original tree, not the dugout itself.

"Most of the ones that have been found now, roughly half a dozen, are from the shallows where a fisherman finds them or kids swimming find them, so they're in 10 feet or so of water," Stager said. "The records I'm pulling out of the lakes now, including Lake Placid, suggest that this is the wettest time in the last thousand years or more. The lake levels are higher than they used to be, so it's not surprising that most of the dugouts we're finding are in about 10 feet of water because the older stuff was probably stashed when the lakes were shallower. That means if you're going to find them, you're going to have to go farther out from shore because now they're under more water."

They're also under more sediment. Dugouts people find while boating or snorkeling are not likely to be pre-contact. Older ones would most likely be found by dredging them up from under centuries of mud. The Twin Ponds canoes were dredged out of the bottom of the sediment.


Rewriting history

It seems Stager is currently rewriting Adirondack history, and if anyone finds a dugout canoe, he would like to see it so he can add it to the dugout dossier.

"If anybody knows of a lake that's going to be either drained or have the dam worked on and they are going to drop the level ... let me know," Stager said.

That's how the Cranberry Lake dugout was found. When the dam was being worked on, the water level was dropped about 10 feet, and there was the canoe.

In Stager's professional opinion, there are still more dugouts to be found in Adirondack lakes.

"Absolutely," Stager said. "There have been people here for a long, long time. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the lakes around here have lots of dugouts in them, especially in the last few centuries because of the fur trade. There were people up here all the time coming up the rivers and splitting off into all the different ponds looking for beavers."

There's something inside Stager that compels him to search for the truth, whether it's sediment cores, climate change or dugout canoes.

"Having something like a dugout canoe really pulls your imagination down into that deep well and helps you really get a sense of how long people have been here," Stager said. "They've been here as long as they've been in Europe, and so this is a windmill on that history."

The dugout canoe project is important to Stager because it's giving us a deeper sense of our history in the Adirondacks.

"There's this thin band of time that people look at, and it comes from the books and the museums," he said. "They say history here essentially began with Paul Smith's hotel and the loggers ... the War of 1812, as if there was nothing happening before that. But, in fact, people have been here for thousands of years."

Stager's findings show there is need for more research into the older history of the Adirondack Park, even more archeological digs.

"There is very little comprehensive clear summary of the archeological history of this place," Stager said. "I think there's a ground swell here to change that."

Anyone who has found a dugout canoe in an Adirondack waterway can contact Stager at 518-327-6342 or email him at



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