Rescuing the Horseshoe Bend Canoe
Location where the canoe was discovered, still half-buried in the White River
A Mysterious Discovery
Have you ever found anything cool while out on a walk? A Civil War coin, an arrowhead… maybe an old canoe? On November 15, 1964, a resident of the Frank Levinson Farm (located about a mile from Conner Prairie Museum) spotted something interesting poking up out of the gravel in the horseshoe bend of the White River. It was a dugout canoe.
The discovery was immediately reported to the Hamilton County Historical Society (HCHS), who thought the canoe would be a perfect fit for Conner Prairie:
“The [HCHS]…was notified yesterday of the finding of what appears to be an Indian dug-out canoe on the West bank of White River…The President of our local Society and I went out there yesterday and found one end and about 12 feet of the side rails visible above the gravel…We agreed that Conner Prairie museum is the proper place for this canoe if you are interested in it” (Letter to James D. Cope, Director of Earlham College Museum, 11/17/1964).
The canoe is from the late 18th to early 19th century. It is 24-feet long, weighs nearly 2,000 pounds, and is made of tulip poplar. We know now that the canoe was most likely used by white fur traders because of the distinct tool marks visible within the interior—the Delaware in the area would typically burn the inside of trees to hollow them out. The size of the canoe was another clue, as most Indigenous-made dugouts were only 16- to 18- feet long.
A Backhoe, a Block & Tackle, and a Tilt-Bed Truck
Excavation needed to happen quickly to recover the canoe safely. Cope led a team of students and maintenance staff from the college, as well as a crew from Conner Prairie Farm to begin digging the canoe out of the earth. This turned out to be difficult for several reasons, including the fact that the ground was frozen to a depth of about 2 inches:
“The job of excavating it was hard…Bob Mills [member of the maintenance staff at Earlham] had the answer and the know how. He built a cradle under the craft…the wood of the canoe was so fragile that no pressure could be applied to its sides…From this point on all that was required was brute strength and luck. Twelve of us picked up the cradled canoe and put it in a waiting truck which then took it to the Conner Prairie Farm for the night” (Staff Stuff, vol.5 issue 6, 12/06/1964).
The extraction took a couple of days to complete. By the second day, the discovery had been so heavily publicized in local newspapers that crowds of people showed up to watch the excavation—with babies and grandparents in tow. The possibility of “souvenir hunters” or vandals damaging the canoe overnight inspired the crew to work until after dark to ensure the canoe made it out of the mud safely, onto a truck, and into a barn at Conner Prairie to spend the night.
Conservation efforts began immediately after the canoe was transported to Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, from Conner Prairie Farm. When an object is unearthed from a wet environment—like a cannon recovered from a shipwreck—it is imperative to stabilize the object before it can dry out on its own, as rapid drying will cause irreparable damage to the shape and structure of an object.
The canoe was moved into the basement of the faculty housing unit on campus, which then assumed its new identity as an informal canoe restoration center. A 25-foot tub was constructed for the 24-foot canoe, lined with plastic sheeting, and filled with nearly $1,000 worth of polyethylene glycol—nearly $10,000 in today’s money. This preservative, when the object is submerged, is intended to keep the wet wood from cracking and warping as it dries.
Disaster struck soon after the process began. After only soaking for a few days, a pin-hole sized leak in the plastic caused the fiberboard to get wet. The tub burst and nearly half of the preservative literally went down the drain. For the next two months, a student would come by to sprinkle the canoe daily with the remaining solution.
How did it end up in the river?
Due to the damage incurred while underground, it was suspected that it had been buried in the river around 1825. It was common practice in the 1700–1800s to bury a dugout canoe once it was no longer useful, so some believed it had been buried due to its age. Others thought it was because it was too long to navigate the bends of the White River. Uncovering dugout canoes is not uncommon in the United States, as other examples have been found in Florida, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
The canoe received unexpected visitors last year when descendants of Forest Beaver, owner of the land where the canoe was originally discovered in 1964, visited Conner Prairie’s collection to see the piece of history that was dug up from their grandfather’s property nearly 60 years ago. Sally Knopp, Debbe Beaver and Susie Crandall all visited their grandfather’s farm often as children. Sally even remembers seeing the canoe—still half-buried in the mud of the White River—when she was around 3 years old. The canoe has been in our Permanent Collection since it was first discovered all those years ago. Due to its fragile condition, it cannot be put on display without being completely encased, but Conner Prairie aspires to be able to put the canoe on display again one day. When we do, we hope to see crowds of families, friends, and neighbors lining up around the canoe once more to check out the marvelous discovery that was buried in the banks of the White River, not far from where it now rests.
About the Author
Rebekah Furey is the manager of Conner Prairie’s 3D, library and archival collections, which currently hold more than 27,000 objects. She has been at Conner Prairie for the past five years, focusing primarily on policy development, preventive conservation and object housing, as well as spearheading an ongoing effort to increase access to both the Collection and the Archives. Rebekah has a BA in Spanish & History and an MA in Museum Studies from IUPUI. When not at work, she can often be found hiking in National Parks or riding her bike around town.