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St. Lawrence River history...a summary & links

River view

Sometimes serene and gentle, sometimes ferocious and dangerous, the St. Lawrence is one of the world's great rivers. It was a crucial artery for westward migration, commercial goods, and troop movements during several wars. It nourished a large French-speaking population in Quebec and served as a partial barrier between the U.S. and Canada who fought several wars for control of this vast northern region. Here pictured is a view of Lac St-Francois, a river lake, looking as it might have hundreds of years ago to native populations before the arrival of Europeans. The river also spawned fascinating and unique evolutions in boats and shipping as white settlers attempted to tame the river for their own purposes.



Resource Riviere War: Europeans War: Americans Shipping
Resentment Native Environment Boats & ships Links and sources

"In late August, 1760, hundreds of canoes and small, armored bateaux loaded with 10,000 British troops and 700 Iroquois warriors paddled the length of Lac du St-Francois en route to Montreal. Ella and Everett anxiously watched from the point of the island as this enormous procession inched eastward in the main channel a mile to their north. Ella softly rubbed her hand over her swelling belly in hopes of calming the baby within from the feverish pace of her racing heart. She prayed that the massive fleet would continue on its murderous journey and leave them alone. It was a still day with sweltering heat, but after a time a light west breeze creased the water with tiny waves, gently urging the fleet eastward. Ella could not calm herself, however, until the last speck of the last canoe disappeared out of view..."(Rips, 295)

In one of the final scenes of the novel Rips, a huge fleet, headed by British General Jeffery Amherst headed east down the St. Lawrence where it would converge with another fleet that had sailed north from Lake Champlain. On September 6, 1760 a force of 17,000 British troops assembled and prepared for the seige of Montreal where only 2,200 French troops remained (Bellico, 108). That evening the French pondered their untenable predicament and surrendered, effectively ending the French and Indian War. This remarkable armada, made up of a dizzying potpourri of locally constructed boats, barges, and war ships, represents the crucial role of this great river in the events of men and women struggling for dominance in an enormous region linking the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and by tributary including Lake Champlain, Lake George, and ultimately the Hudson River to New York City within its vast reach.

Without the St. Lawrence, the history of North America would be utterly different and impossible to ponder. The entire region at this time embraced an enormous tangle of swamps, forests, mountain ranges, and rugged, impassable land. The river cut through this dense wilderness joining huge land-locked lakes and made travel possible and thus inevitable. It enabled white settlers to decimate native populations and served as the central artery for bitter colonial and continental wars. Its shore became home to major cities and migrations that shape North America, and it all began not so very long ago during the last great glacial surge.

A vast resource

Unlike many of the world's great rivers, the St. Lawrence has not changed greatly since forming after the ice ages. It has been a remarkably stable river over the centuries largely because it derives its source water from the Great Lakes whose vast expanses absorb periods of torrential rain, winter melt, and mitigate weather extremes such as drought.

The river includes its own broad lakes which distribute water over thousands of square miles. While hydroelectric dams, canals, and lock systems also regulate flow, The St. Lawrence has avoided the huge floods that have devastated the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River systems in recent years. Nonetheless, the system and the tributaries flood every year unless in a drought. In the days of Rips the Montreal Harbor streets would be flooded annually with 3 to 6 ft of water. This was due to the ice jams just below Montreal. The floods were so bad that even the Longeuil side of the river had to build dikes. This problem existed until the ocean freighters started coming up the river through the winter and the icebreakers worked all winter.

Prior to the last ice age, the river was part of an enormous ocean basin, but after ice receded some 10,000 years ago, the river has maintained a steady course over 800 miles from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, moving over 200,000 cubic feet of water per second. If the Great Lakes are included as part of its length, the river flows 2500 miles from source to its Atlantic outflow.

Among interesting facts compiled by St. Lawrence River Restoration Council:

  • The St. Lawrence River is the world's longest deep-draft inland waterway.
  • Just east of Massena, NY, the St.Lawrence River leaves the U.S. border and becomes solely a Canadian river.
  • The upper St. Lawrence and the Thousand Islands was once called "The Garden of the Great Spirit" by Native Americans.
  • The St. Lawrence Seaway took 15,000 people and 4 years to build, beginning in 1955.
  • The St. Lawrence River has the largest discharge of any river in North America.
  • Only the polar ice caps contain more fresh water than the Great Lakes.

In the mid-1700s when Rips takes place, the river was interrupted by treacherous stretches of rapids which prevented large ships from traveling to the Great Lakes. However, smaller vessels frequently made the journey from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes, and the river was the most important inland route for French settlers who claimed land from Eastern Canada to the Delta of the Mississippi, including the vast Ohio Valley. This vast reach of claims by the French would ultimately prove impossible to defend and set the stage for a series of wars with England and its expansionist American colony.

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Riviere de Canada history

In 1535 two Indian youths told Jacques Cartier about the route to "Kanata." They were referring to the village of Stadacona; Kanata was simply the Huron-Iroquois word for village or settlement. This modest, generic name stuck. Cartier used "Canada" to refer to the entire area subject to its chief, Donnacona. The name was soon applied to a much larger area: maps in 1547 designated everything north of the St. Lawrence River as "Canada." Cartier also called The St. Lawrence River the "Riviere de Canada," a name used until the early 1600s. By 1616, although the entire region was formally known as New France, the area along the great river was still called Canada.

Explorers and fur traders opened up territory to the west and to the south and the area depicted as Canada grew. In the early 1700s the name referred to all lands in what is now the American Midwest and as far south as present day Louisiana. The first use of "Canada" as an official name came in 1791 when the Province of Quebec was divided into the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada. In 1841, the two Canadas were again united under one name, the Province of Canada. At the time of Confederation in 1867, the new country assumed the title The Dominion of Canada. There were only four provinces Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. There are now ten provinces and three territories.

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War: France and England clash

Because it populated and controlled the major inland water routes during the great European expansion from 1500 to 1700, France created a barrier preventing British expansion westward. Had it played its cards more wisely, France could have controlled most of North America, including most of the American and Canadian West. But British authorities and American colonists grew alarmed at French expansionism in the mid-eighteenth century, stirred by newspaper accounts and French fortifications at Fort Duquesne.

Fresh from conflict in Europe known as the King George War and a few years later the Seven Years War (the European corollary to the French and Indian War) the British and French clashed in North America. Mostly a series of skirmishes and sieges of strategic forts, the French and Indian War erupted in 1755 and ended with French retreats down the St. Lawrence River from Fort Niagara toward Quebec. Another important water passage was the Richelieu River linking Lake Champlain with Montreal and preventing New England expansion toward the Northwest. But the French abandoned Fort Ticonderoga on Champlain under British threat, fled north via the Richelieu River, and in 1759 Quebec City fell to British General James Wolfe leading to the Treaty of Paris in 1763, leaving all of Eastern Canada in British control. Some 60,000 French-speaking residents, far outnumbering British subjects, were not granted elected government, however. This set the stage for simmering resentments that persist today.

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War: American attempts to conquer

The American Revolutionary War of 1776 posed another threat to Canada. American forces took Montreal under Richard Montgomery who was joined by Benedict Arnold. During the winter Arnold was wounded and Montgomery killed. On Feb. 15, 1776, Benjamin Franklin and two commissioners arrived in Montreal to mend fences and pave the way for the annexation of Canada, but their mission failed.On June 17, 1776 the American army occupying Montreal under John Sullivan retreated to Crown Point on Lake Champlain in the face of an advancing British army led by Governor Guy Carleton.

Although Canada was not significantly threatened during the rest of the American rebellion, some 40,000 British-American loyalists fled the American colonies to Canada, beginning what would become many years of migration dominated by English, Scots, and Irish. Eventually French-Canadians were reduced to a minority except in Quebec where they remain the vast majority. While the French population continued to grow, it did not include significant migrations from France, and gradually France backed away from its North American interests. When U.S. President Thomas Jefferson persuaded Congress to purchase the Louisiana Territory in 1803, France abandoned its remaining control in North America.

The British could have lost control of Canada to the U.S. during the War of 1812, but large doses of American military ineptitude combined with winter weather aborted a full-scale invasion of Canada by American troops. Despite a few notable skirmishes including the famous victory of the USS "Constitution" against the H.M.S. Java, the Americans lacked the resolve to send the Brits packing from North America. On the Chateauguay River south of Montreal, Col. Charles de Salaberry tricked a much larger force of American invaders into thinking they faced a huge British-Canadian army. The Canadians' meager force spread out, blew their bugles madly, and shot guns from disparate locations, convincing American General Wade Hampton that an invasion was too dangerous. American reinforcements were just up river a few miles under General James Wilkinson, a man Hampton despised. Their mutual disdain and refusal to cooperate prevented what could have been an easy and overwhelming invasion of Canada.

Wilkinson commanded an invasion fleet of gunboats and scores of bateaux filled with troops that stalled above the treacherous Long Sault rapids. The fleet moored near shore at Crysler's farm on the north bank. Before they could prepare to run the eight-mile rapids, Wilkinson's troops encountered another, much smaller British-Canadian and Indian force who set up positions at Crysler's farm. Historian John Elting described the action: "Struggling across rain-slick gullies and sodden plowed fields, the Americans stumbled into action piecemeal, never achieving any decisive numerical superiority on the firing line. Green troops fired too wildly, mostly for the comforting noise of it; green officers failed to control them; ammunition pouches emptied...." (149) and the Americans fell back. Though not a decisive defeat, the debacle at Crysler's farm shook the American's resolve. They took to their boats, shot the rapids, and regrouped in calmer waters.

Learning that Hampton could be of little help, Wilkinson's officers voted to abandon the invasion, and headed south up the Salmon River to winter over in French Mills, now Ft. Covington, New York. The army "went into winter quarters, suffering intensely from cold, exposure, sickness, short rations, and incompetent officers." (150) Hampton took most of his troops to Plattsburgh, offered leave to many of his officers, and escaped to Washington to avoid arrest by Wilkinson. His remaining troops, in disarray, were "encouraged by the British" to desert with bribes of up to five month's pay. Elting refers to this series of blunders as "a fit subject for a comic opera," concluding that "Wilkinson's only concern had been to avoid responsibility and risk; Hampton completely lacked the primary military quality of being willing to fight." (151)

Canada was sparred an invasion that under competent leadership could have turned Canada into America's fourteenth state. Why two such bumbling, fumbling men of legendary pomposity and dubious achievement were given such an important task remains a mystery to military historians, but Canada should be grateful.

The Americans were fortunate, in fact, not to lose territory in northern New England and Upstate New York. With its troops weakened and in disarray in Plattsburgh, the American Navy faced an invasion of a powerful British fleet being built and prepared for battle just north of the border. In September of 1814, American Commander Thomas Macdonough completed work on his own fleet, including the warships Saratoga and Ticonderoga. He positioned the fleet at anchor in Plattsburgh Bay. According to Historian Russell Bellico, "The two fleets were nearly evenly matched although the British vessels, primarily the Confiance, had greater weight in long-distance cannon. Both fleets had a hodgepodge of crews consisting of trained seamen and inexperienced land troops. None of the crews, however, were prepared for the devastating savagery of the ensuing battle." (223) At one point the Confiance blasted the Saratoga with a broadside "killing or wounding 40 of her crew. The blast shook the Saratoga so violently that half the crew was flattened." (223) After nearly three hours of fighting and both fleets battered, the British surrendered. Meanwhile, on shore American troops beat back a British invasion of Plattsburgh village, aided considerably by the American naval victory visible and audible from the shoreline.

Although the Americans had planned to conquer Canada as part of their war strategy, they achieved a more modest aim of halting British harassment of American shipping while inadvertently solidifying British rule throughout Canada. The former borders were restored under the Treaty of Ghent, and the War of 1812 ended armed hostilities between the two countries.

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St. Lawrence shipping

The St. Lawrence was a crucial maritime passage for troops and war ships during these wars, but major shipping could travel no further west than Montreal. Troops were then forced into smaller boats, canoes, bateaux, sloops, shallops, and sailing gunboats to continue westward. Remarkably, people during the era routinely traveled huge distances, and the river was the principal route for people, supplies, arms, and commercial goods. Despite the need to portage past the Lachine Rapids, Niagara Falls, and other shallow rapids, the St. Lawrence was far easier to travel than rugged, inland routes. The importance of the St. Lawrence as the primary water route for shipping American goods westward receded with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, thus allowing a more southerly root stretching from New York City to Lake Erie to serve settlements in the Midwest.

The most difficult rapids were located at Coteau-du-Lac (see below) and Lachine just upriver from Montreal. They served as barriers for major war ships, but boat builders along the St. Lawrence and on the shores of the Great Lakes built fleets of larger war vessels for local use between major barriers and shallows. The first canal around the Lachine Rapids was begun by the Sulpicians in 1680, so it existed at the time in which Rips is set. It was not completed for many years, but parts of it were used by canoes and bateaux. Between 1780 and 1804, lock canals (see restored Coteau canals below) were completed around the Coteau, Cedars and Cascades rapids, which close the downstream end of Lake St.-Francis. They allowed passage of large bateaux. Completion of the Lachine Canal was left to Britain's Royal Engineers who opened the canal on September 14, 1824.

A canoe polls upriver in Lachine Rapids, circa 1900. This was grueling, treacherous work. Passenger excursion steamboat shooting the Lachine Rapids channel en route to Montreal, circa 1900, a special thrill for travelers.
The Couteau Rapids today with most of the river water diverted to the St. Lawrence Seaway canal in Valleyfield.


Canals were later constructed at Soulange, Cornwall and Welland (1829) which were capable of handling small vessels right up through the Great Lakes. Over time the various rapids were bypassed by channeling or dredging, but the river wasn't opened its full length to oceangoing shipping until 1959 when the St. Lawrence Seaway (map at was completed. Huge deep channels were dug between Montreal and Lake Ontario, including the deepening of shallows and shoals and straightening of channels in Lake St. Francis, a broad and relatively shallow section of the river capable of whipping up dangerous storms over many miles of open water. The Seaway is among the world's busiest shipping routes, but only ships drawing less than 26 feet can use the river west of Montreal, making the Seaway already obsolete for many new oceangoing vessels and preventing passage to the Great Lakes. (More about boats and ships below)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now studying ways to accommodate larger ships. According to Save the River, an environmental group, " There is language in The Water Resources Development Act of 1999 (WRDA 99), which authorizes one million dollars to the Detroit office of the Army Corps of Engineers to look at 'Improvements' to Navigation in the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway System. The goal of this study will be to determine the feasibility of revamping the system to accommodate larger ships, with larger drafts, potentially by blasting, dredging and building bigger locks. This year's bill appropriates half of that million to the Corps, which is currently beginning the reconnaissance phase of the study." (see environment below)

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French Canadian resentment

Although the British Parliament enacted the Constitutional Act in 1791 giving Canadians the power to elect their own representative governments in Upper and Lower Canada, British governors largely ignored the voices of French Canadians of lower Canada who were led by Louis Joseph Papineau. Riots broke out in Montreal in 1837. But the government quickly crushed the French Canadian rebellion and chased Papineau across the border. Similar aborted rebellions occurred in largely English-speaking Upper Canada. In 1840 the Act of Union unified the two vast regions under a single government. Hostilities developed a few years later with passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill, aimed at compensating French-Canadians for losses during their earlier rebellion. The Tories of Upper Canada were outraged, more riots broke out, and ethnic resentment festered. The British allowed French civil law to remain in effect in Quebec, but enforced British criminal law across the country.

Although the French and English managed to coexist for another century, Quebec remained very much a French-speaking region while great waves of immigrants, mostly English speaking, poured into the Maritimes, Ontario, and Western Canada. But in the 1960s the old ethnic resentments erupted again with the Quebec separatist movement. Despite declaring French as an official language equal to English, the federal government was unable to stem the tide of unrest and resentment in Quebec. In provincial elections in the mid 1970s, Quebec separatists gained a majority and adopted local laws elevating the French language and culture while imposing French as the language of government, law, commerce, and education in Quebec. Although narrowly losing referenda in 1980 and 1995 that would have made Quebec a separate nation, the question of Quebec separation remains unsettled.

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Native populations suffer

Perhaps more momentous than the squabbles and conflicts between Europeans was the sad history of native populations who were driven from their lands, annihilated by European diseases, traded as slaves by white settlers and trappers, and massacred by white soldiers. One of the world's first documented cases of germ warfare was carried out under British General Lord Jeffrey Amherst whose troops used blankets, infected with smallpox, in an attempt to wipe out natives during the French and Indian War.

Persuaded to take sides by their apparent white benefactors, native populations were drawn into battles during the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and their conquest became a primary motivation for American rage during the War of 1812. Americans accused the British of supplying arms to the Shawnee tribe, one of several motives for Americans to strike out against British rule in 1812. But the Americans this time wanted free reign to push native populations further west or annihilate them altogether. Each of these wars had strong racial components, and in the end, the once vast and powerful Iroquois nation was largely destroyed. Smaller nations in all directions were devastated by a mix of military conquest, European diseases, and humiliating treaties that left natives without adequate land or suitable habitats that had provided their way of life for centuries. Tribes in the area of these conquests included the Abenaki, Wendat (Huron), Iroquois, and Micmac, nearly all of them devastated by conquest and disease. The Mohawks of Akwesasne, part of the Iroquois nation famous for its effective self-government, is now split between Canada and the U.S.

While the Americans ultimately proved the most brutal in their native conquests, the British and French contributed greatly to their demise. Even during periods of relative peace, the huge influx of white settlers and their growing populations overwhelmed natural habitats for deer, beaver, fish, and other wildlife. Native religions were scorned by overzealous missionaries, and their cultures assaulted and degraded, making it nearly impossible for natives to maintain continuity and historical identity. Forced to choose between assimilation or starvation, tribes often disintegrated, making modern day efforts at legal reparations difficult. When Europeans arrived in North America some estimates of native populations range from three to 10 million. By 1896, only 254,000 survived, although these figures vary considerably and will never be known.

Canada's native peoples struck back in the 1990s in thoroughly modern ways. Mohawks of Akwesasne tried to block expansion of a golf course in the town of Oka, Quebec. The natives argued the land in question was ancestral and blocked access for eleven weeks. Another native group blocked the Mercier Bridge into Montreal, and other protests have erupted throughout Canada including Inuit attempts to block Hydro Quebec from flooding native ancestral lands the size of Connecticut for the purpose of expanding electric power generation to serve American markets. In an attempt to recognize "First Nation" populations, the Canadian government has recognized the right of Inuits to control more than a half million acres in Northern Canada, but many disputes remain. In Upstate New York, Oneida natives are fighting in the courts to regain ancestral lands, and whites who would be displaced are fighting back angrily. How these arguments over ancient thefts will ultimately work out remains unsettled, but clearly history is not going away gently into the night.

Meanwhile, sharp divisions between the British and French ancestors embodied in today's ongoing separatist movement in Quebec is deeply rooted in resentment for British rule. While British descendent historians often characterize British rule of Canada as largely benevolent, French descendant historians tend to see British rule as oppressive, domineering, and at times brutal. For many years British governors forced English as the language of government and commerce despite the size of Quebec's French-speaking population. Today's Quebec, with laws requiring the use of French in government transactions and commercial signage, represents a massive backlash, deeply entrenched in history.

Most of the St. Lawrence River runs through French-speaking Quebec, and if Quebec ever separates from Canada to form an independent nation, it will become largely a French resource, fed by lakes in English-speaking Canada! Quebec independence remains an unsettled question, but the deep roots of French identity are very powerful. (See the's "Fine Distinctions," reprinted from Britain's The Economist for an interesting discussion of modern conditions).

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Environmental challenge

The river's greatest challenge today is environmental. Canadian and American scientists have identified mercury, PCB, and other heavy metal contaminants stored in the flesh of game fish. Layered in the sediment in many locations and downstream of many cities, this contamination is not going away quickly and would be impossible to remove. Despite talking a good game of environmental concern on a global scale, Canada has not been the best of stewards along its greatest river, and its American partners are pushing for expanded navigation opportunities for larger ships. Industries continue to pollute, and while cleaner than in decades past, the river faces ongoing environmental challenges. Zebra mussels, meanwhile, have prospered and proliferated during the last decade, giving the river an illusory clarity. Removal of microorganisms may have serious long-term consequences for the river's food chain, ultimately threatening larger organisms including game fish and bird populations. The river's once famous muskie population is suffering from over-fishing, and sturgeon have not recovered from years of commercial exploitation. Once the home of vast flocks of migrating ducks, the river's bird population has declined sharply in recent decades, though indications of some recovery are surfacing as habitats are being protected and the number of hunters declines in North America generally.

The St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Science has brought together researchers at the University of Ottawa and from industry to study water quality of the St. Lawrence. Several doctoral students are working on dissertations looking at PCBs, mercury, toxic organic contaminents, and various issues related to river pollution. The St. Lawrence River Restoration Council, a coalition of government agencies, native groups, and concerned citizens was formed in 1998 to act on a Remedial Action Plan identifying "eight major environmental issues: mercury contamination, PCB contamination, the presence of other contaminants, bacterial (fecal) contamination, excessive growth of nuisance aquatic plants, habitat destruction and degradation, impacts of exotic species, and fish and wildlife health effects."

According to Save the River, Inc., "The Detroit office of the army corps is considering reengineering the St. Lawrence and the GreatLlakes for commercial navigation and midwest industrial interests. Plans could easily include blasting and dredging in the great lakes and the St. Lawrence."

Save the River warns that impacts could include:

"1. Destruction of wetlands, fish habitat and fish populations as a result of dredging and blasting.

"2. Increased toxin levels in sediments and fish tissue also from dredging and blasting, causing the resuspension of contaminated sediments.

"3. Increased risk from oil and chemical spills as a result of enormous increases in cargo size (and we know the preparedness is insufficient already!), and finally,

"4. The removal of the last barrier between the Thousand Islands and a brand new icebreaker being used on the upper lakes that is being touted by the Coast Guard as having virtually no environmentally damaging effects. The reason stated by the Coast Guard and Seaway that this icebreaker would not be used on the St. Lawrence is that it would not fit through the locks. New, larger locks could set the stage for another push for winter navigation."

Although many of the world's great rivers are in far worse shape, the St. Lawrence is seldom described as pristine. Still, it is a vast resource, in many places wild, sparsely populated, magnificent, and much remains to save.

According to Ducks Unlimited, Canada, a hunters' advocacy group, "We are focusing our efforts on the wetland protection, restoration and enhancement along the southern Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. This is an important breeding area for mallards and black ducks, and a significant migration route for many populations of geese and diving duck species. This area contains much of the Canadian human population and DU will need to communicate the values of wetlands systems and promote land use policies and programs that will minimize wetland losses."

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Boats, canoes, and sailing ships

The St. Lawrence River, despite its rapids, shoals, and treacheries, was a crucial transportation artery that linked Europe and the American northeast to the Great Lakes. Its shipping and water craft evolved directly from local conditions and produced interesting variations from their saltwater cousins. The dominate coastal small craft during the colonial period was the shallop, a keeled, undecked sailing and rowing galley that sometimes included a small cuddy cabin, usually rigged with one mast but sometimes two. In 1609 Samuel de Champlain traveled down the Richelieu River in a shallop from the St. Lawrence River (Bellico, 9) but was forced by rapids to switch to canoes en route to Lake Champlain. The need to change boats illustrated the diversity of craft required in the region and set the stage for evolutions in local design that would span the next three centuries. Local natives had already solved many navigational problems with a great range of canoes that Champlain and other Europeans marveled at for their versatility. But the Europeans wanted even greater carrying capacity for their guns and goods. Despite the abundance and popularity of shallops elsewhere, the St. Lawrence River's flat-bottomed colonial bateaux became the dominate craft for moving whiskey, tobacco, troops, guns, crops, livestock, and various goods long distances up and down the river. The flat bottoms were ideal for navigating rapids and for passage up the shallow early canals along the river.

According to the British Lake Vessels web site focusing on Inland Shipping on Lake Champlain and Lake George, "Colonial bateaux were shallow-draft, flat-bottomed vessels with plank-on-frame construction and fuller at the bow that at the stern. Colonial bateaux generally averaged 30 to 32 feet long, though some were as small as 18 feet and others 50 feet long. Their width varied from vessel to vessel, but those bateaux 30 to 32 feet long were about six to six and a half feet wide. Bateaux were rowed, poled, and in some cases, sailed. They were equipped with four to six oars. Oars were set inside a pair of thole pins which acted as an oarlock and which were set into thole pin pads attached to the sides."

Above left is a model of an early Bateaux on display at the Coteau-du-Lac National Historic Site in Valleyfield, Quebec. Above right is a full-scale cutaway model on display at the museum in one of the first St. Lawrence canals. The canal originally had no locks, and the bateaux had to be polled or pulled by pack animals or men upstream against powerful currents. Restored in recent years, the canal did offer shelter against wild and treacherous rapids less than one hundred meters to the right on the canal shown here in its original location. Thanks to Coteau-du-Lac National Historic Site.

Bateaux carried sizable cargoes. "British bateaux during the French and Indian War reportedly could carry 23 men with a month's provisions. French bateaux during this same period reportedly carried up to three tons of cargo," reports British Lake Vessels.

Rafts mounted with guns were also used during the period. "The word radeau or raddow is French for raft. Variations of this type of vessel would later be called a Radeau or Floating Battery. The radeau was a wide, partially enclosed floating barge with both sails and oars, mounting heavy guns which were used in defense of a fleet of bateaux." (British Lake Vessels.) Some of these military barges simply involved lashing several bateaux together as pontoons, then building decks above them for cannons and troops. Other designs emerged that looked more like floating flying saucers, with angled sides to deflect cannon and musket balls. Inside the walls cannons were installed, and while ungainly to navigate, some were rigged with elaborate sails and galley oars poking out from the superstructure.

When canals and locks appeared on the river, bateaux and radeau gave way to the long, narrow Durham barge (see below) that fit in the canals but navigated ably enough on the open river and lakes under normal weather conditions. As larger canals were built, new barge designs evolved, as did fleets of shoal-draft sailing schooners and eventually steam and motor barges. These long, narrow, and ungainly ships solved the problem of inland navigation, but were vulnerable to storms especially on the Great Lakes where shipwrecks were as commonplace as they were along the Atlantic coast.

Above left is a model of the Durham barge on display at Canadian National Museum at Coteau-du-Lac in Valleyfield, Quebec. At right is a scale cutaway model shown in the actual restored lock at Coteau. These early nineteenth century locks allowed for substantial cargoes in boats too large to muscle against swift currents. The Durham barge was a precursor to many innovations in St. Lawrence-to-Great Lakes ship building where large, long, narrow boats plied the river until the St. Lawrence Seaway was opened in 1959. Thanks to Coteau-du-Lac National Historic Site.


Canoes during the era were also large, carrying as many as twenty people, constructed of lightweight bark, and easily portaged. Hundreds of canoes and bateaux carried British and French soldiers and marines up and down the St. Lawrence during the war years, while gunboats and sloops patrolled areas between rapids, serving as an inland navy.

Canoes originated with native populations. They were light, quickly built, and could be crafted with local materials without heavy tools. Dozens of varieties and shapes emerged, and sizes ranged from 10 feet to 30 feet, the latter best suited for transporting furs and large hunting or war parties. White settlers and fur traders quickly embraced the canoe and learned to build variations that evolved as well. According to Hallie Bond at the Adirondack Museum, such famous boats as the Adirondack Guide Boat and St. Lawrence River Skiff emerged as hybrids of both canoe and bateaux designs. Boat builders combined the durability of wood with the lightness of canoes, producing swift, easily portaged, tough and durable boats for work and recreation. In the mid-nineteenth century, Henry Rushton of Canton, New York began building decked canoes that combined features of canoes, guideboats, river skiffs, and skin-coated Inuit kayaks. His Ruston Canoes were sold by catalog all over the U.S. and Canada, and large fleets of these small, extraordinarily light boats sailed in races on the St. Lawrence and on Adirondack lakes as boating emerged as a recreational activity.

(left) A large St. Lawrence River canoe, circa 1900. St. Lawrence River skiffs (foreground) meet with steam-powered party fishing boat, circa 1900.

The river spawned innovations in larger shipping, as well. Single-masted sloops capable of navigating amid shoals and small inlets were built for lake use and ventured into the river to fight battles during the French and Indian War. According to James Barry in Ships of the Great Lakes, French and British sloops and brigs clashed near Ogdensburg, 100 miles north of Montreal. He writes, "As it progressed, the two navies blundered about among the islands; the British ships got into a dead-end channel and had to be painfully warped up against the current to get them out, while the French ran one of their vessels onto a sand bar and damaged her so badly that she was useless." Additional skirmishes near Ft. Levis followed as large vessels bombarded the fort with cannon. A huge force of British troops under General Amherst head down river, mostly in smaller gun boats and bateaux where 64 boats "were swamped or stoved in during the passage of the rapids and 88 men drowned," but eventually the fleet reached Montreal leading to the surrender of the French to the British.

Much larger two-masted brigs and three-masted frigates were built on the Great Lakes and on Lake Champlain. During the War of 1812 a British fleet of six large vessels was defeated by Oliver Hazard Perry on Lake Erie. Perry's fleet included ten large vessels all built locally. These large war ships were accompanied by small fleets of bateaux, rowing galleys, canoes, smaller sloops and gunboats that swarmed around with crews of marines and smaller arms ready to board, conquer and harass the more lumbering brigs and frigates.

A restored brig heads down river toward Montreal. Two hundred years ago warships and merchant vessels of this size were built locally on the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, and along sections of the river that could accommodate them and put them to use. They were essentially landlocked by rapids, however, until canals and locks emerged to free them.

The conditions for carpenters were often brutal. According to Howard Chapelle, "The winter of 1812-13 was a severe one, and both sides were greatly handicapped by deep snows and extreme cold, which made movement of supplies, materials, and munitions in from the coast a very uncertain matter. Lack of shelter and poor food, as well as unsanitary living conditions, created much sickness among carpenters on both sides of the lake, and this caused unforseen delays. (Chapelle, 272)

The Battle of Plattsburgh Bay, in 1814, included a fourteen-vessel American fleet against sixteen British warships led by the HMS Confiance, a 36-gun frigate. These vessels were built on Lake Champlain. The American flagship, the 140-foot, 26-gun Saratoga was adapted from a keel intended for a steam freighter, and in only 40 days construction was completed . The Americans also built six 70-ton galleys equipped with two masts and forty oars (Bellico, 213). The Confiance, a major warship, was similarly constructed with great haste by local carpenters.

These projects were perpetually hamstrung by political and budget problems, labor shortages, and often included controversies and jealousies among designers that sometimes led to ships being doomed by storms or fated to lose in battle because local conditions were ignored. Still, this North Country region yielded remarkable innovations, adaptations, and unique contributions to boat and ship building.

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Links and sources

River Lore

St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Science

The Mother of All Maritime Links

Great Lakes United, Union to Preserve Great Lakes - St. Lawrence River ecosystem

French and Indian War Magazine On-Line

Scalping During The French And Indian War

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

America's Historic Waterways: The Lake Champlain and Lake George Historical Site

British Lake Vessels

The Seven Years War Website

Oh, Canada. Canadian History on the Internet

Aboriginal Peoples and their Heritage

Text of Oneida Indian land claim

Ontario County - New York State Military Page

Online Resources for Canadian Heritage

Historical Atlas of Canada, Online Learning Project, map 1713-1791

French and Indian War, 1755

Bone Snow Knives and Tin Oil Lamps: Enduring Traditions Among Canada's First Peoples

First Nations in Canada

National Archives of Canada

Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall, 1869, by Frances Anne Hopkins (1838-1919)

First Americans

1492: The Effects of European Contact on the Health of the Native People of North America: A Selected Bibliography of Books, Theses, and Audiovisuals

Abenaki Nation

Native Groups: Canada

Nativetech, native technology


Save the River, Inc.

Ducks Unlimited

Canadian Wildlife Service's species Who's Who

Fighting for a Continent: Newspaper Coverage of the English and French War For Control of North America, 1754-1760

Sir William Johnson - Indian Superintendent

History of the French and Indian War

Web Index of the French and Indian War

The French and Indian War's Impact on America

Canadian History--a Canadian Perspective, Canadian Information Pages

Canada: Natural Environment

The Fur Traders and Slave Trade Documented accounts of the selling and trading of Native American women during the Fur Trade era.

Mohawk Governments How the Mohawks of Akwesasne have survived under three governments.

First Nations, Issues of Consequence

Iroquois History

Huron History

PEOPLE of Canada

The French presence in Canada, Francophone links

Jeffrey Amherst and Smallpox Blankets

How to do Maritime History Research on the Internet

Adirondack Museum

A Political History of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve Prior to 1894 Constitutional Convention

The Adirondacks More than just mountains

Adirondack Links

Adirondack History

Historical Ships, Peabody Essex Museum Marine Paintings

Rigging of American Sailing Vessels, Peabody Essex Museum

WebTech of Cornwall links

Selected Bibliography

The Iroquois by Dean R. Snow
Women's Indian Captivity Narratives edited by Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stedola
Memoir of a French and Indian War Soldier edited by Andrew Gallup
Chain Her By One Foot-The Subjugation of Women in 17th Century New France by Karen Anderson
Captured by Indians-15 Firsthand Accounts 1750-1870 edited by Frederick Drimmer
The French and Indian War 1754-1763 by Seymour I. Schwartz
Quebec, 1759 by C.P. Stacey
Adventure in the Wilderness--The American Journals of Louis Antoine de Bougainville 1756-1760 edited by Edward Hamilton
The History of the Five Indian Nations by Cadwallader Colden
American Indians and Christian Missions by H.W. Bowden
Major Problems in American Indian History, edited by Hurtado and Iverson
The Adirondacks by Paul Schneider
The Founders of America by Francis Jennings
Native American Autobiography edited by Arnold Krupat
This Land was Theirs-A Study of North American Indians edited by Wendall H. Oswalt and Sharlotte Neely
Everyday Things in American Life 1607-1776 by William C. Langdon
National Geographic Collection of Historical Maps
Historical Maps of the United States by Michael Swift
America and the Sea: A Maritime History by Benjamin W. Labaree et al.
Sloops and Shallops by William A. Baker
Ships of the Great Lakes, 300 Years of Navigation by James P.Barry

Amateurs, To Arms!, A Military History of the War of 1812 by John R. Elting
Historie de Coteau-du-Lac by Hector Besner

Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America by Adney and Chappelle
The American Sailing Navy by Howard Chapelle
Eagle Seamanship, A Manual for Square-Rigged Sailing by E.H. Daniels
The Venice of the Woods in "Maritime Life and Traditions" No 8., by Hallie Bond
Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks by Hallie Bond

Adirondack French Louie by Harvey Dunham
Guides of the Adirondacks by Charles Brumley
Sails and Steam in the Mountains by Russell Bellico
The Iroquois in the War of 1812 by Carl Benn

The Old American (French & Indian War) by Ernest Hebert




Resource Riviere War: Europeans War: Americans Shipping
Resentment Native Environment Boats & ships Links and sources

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Copyright Peter Owens, 2000-2009

Thanks to Bob and Shirley Watson and Bob Smith and the many Web authors and scholars listed here.

Contact: Peter Owens,

Last revised: 2-12-2009