Busy villagers burn, chop, and scrape with their stone tools to form the fallen cypress tree into a canoe. Mural by Martin Pate.

Uncovered cypress dugout canoe along the Red River
Red River Dugout Canoe

In 2017, a Caddo dugout canoe showed up along the bank of the Red River, just north of Shreveport, Louisiana.  The canoe, crafted from a single bald cypress tree sometime between 1298 - 1413 CE, measures over 34 feet in length and nearly 3 feet in width.  It claims the title of the largest pre-contact watercraft ever found in the southeastern United States, narrowly surpassing a similar canoe excavated nearby in 1983.  

The canoe provides tangible evidence of a means for the Caddo people to travel.  They traveled within and between villages to visit relatives, exchange food and tools, and engage in other social activities.  This canoe also deepens our understanding of the Caddo's profound mastery of watercraft construction and their facilitation of trade networks that spanned time and space.

Following conservation, the canoe will go on display at the Red River National Wildlife Refuge in Bossier City.  Learn more about the Caddo Canoe and its journey below, thanks to a collaboration with Regan Crider at the Red River National Wildlife Refuge. 

How Did They Excavate the Canoe?
Jenna Bradley and Robert Cornett found the canoe
Jenna Bradley and Robert Cornett.
Photo courtesy of The Shreveport Times

In June 2017, Jenna Bradley and Robert Cornett stumbled across the buried dugout canoe while boating on the Red River.  The pair soon got in contact with Louisiana's state archaeologist, Chip McGimsey, along with Jeffrey Girard and Jameel Damlouji of the Louisiana Archaeological Society, who all confirmed it as a dugout canoe, resembling another one found in 1983. 

Rivers like the Red are state property up to the normal water level, and above that, the property on the river bank belongs to the landowner.  Given that this canoe was on the bank and mostly above the normal water level, ownership belonged to the landowners.

Canoe wrapped up for transport from river bank
A team of volunteers loading the canoe onto a flatbed trailer. Photo courtesy of The Shreveport Times

The joint owners of the land, Kavanaugh Family Properties, LLC and McNeely Family Partnership, then generously donated the canoe to the state.

Moving the waterlogged and heavy canoe posed a challenge.  With the threat of an approaching storm, local volunteer and history enthusiast Paul Dickson and building contractor Michael Crager enlisted the help of 7-8 people.  They constructed a platform and surrounded the canoe with a protective framework and padding.  Using a bulldozer, the crew removed a section of the bank, strapped the canoe to the platform, and pulled it onto a trailer.  From there, it was off to the Conservation lab at Texas A&M for preservation.

How Was the Canoe Preserved?

A team helps suspend canoe for conservation
A team of people stand over the canoe, which is suspended in a vat of liquid. Photo courtesy of Dr. Peter Fix
The first step of the preservation process involved a thorough cleaning of the canoe, removing centuries of sand, mud, roots, and other debris.

Next, the canoe was coated with a petroleum-derived chemical known as polyethylene glycol (PEG), which acts like a wax.  PEG permeates the wood, displaces water, and binds to the wood fibers to enhance the strength and prevent shrinking, cracking, or splitting.

Finally, the conservationists placed the canoe in a vacuum freezer to extract air.  Over a few months, as the temperature increased, the frozen water gradually evaporated into gas, ensuring complete removal.

A worker from the Texas A&M Conservation Research Lab scans the canoe to create a 3D rendition of it.  Photo Courtesy of Dr. Peter Fix.
A worker from the Texas A&M Conservation Research Lab scans the canoe to create a 3D rendition of it. Photo courtesy of Dr. Peter Fix

The Caddo

Busy Caddo villagers go about their day tanning hides, cooking meals, forming clay pots and gardening, as a young hunter brings in a wild turkey for the day's meal.  Mural by Martin Pate.

The Caddo people have inhabited Northwest Louisiana and surrounding areas since at least the 900s CE.  Traditional Caddo villages had clusters of houses and gardens spread along bayous in the Red River floodplain.  Some resided in isolated communities on hills and ridges.  The Caddo constructed houses by connecting wood posts in large circles, forming conical-shaped buildings covered with thatch or split cane walls. 

While other villagers go about their daily chores, 7 Caddo fishermen launch their recently finished canoe into the water of the Red River for its maiden voyage. Mural by Martin Pate.

They cultivated crops like corn, beans, and squash, gathered wild plant foods, hunted deer, and fished.  Clay jars, bowls, and bottles were used for storing and serving food, often adorned with intricate designs.  The Caddo also crafted stone tools, wooden ornaments, and items made from mussel shells and bones.  Water transport, particularly through the use of canoes, played a vital role in their social interactions and trade between villages.

Want to learn more?

Check out the resources below to continue learning about the canoe and the Caddo people:
©2024 Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism