Lt. John Enys, a British officer who visited Lake George in the 1780s and whose travel journals were published by the Adirondack Museum in 1976, returned to England with an unusual souvenir: a birch bark canoe made by Native Americans.
The 250-year-old canoe not only remained stored in a barn on the family’s ancestral estate and survived; it is to be restored and ultimately returned to North America, the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall has announced
“There is a strong family story that this canoe was brought back to England by Lt. Enys,” said Captain George Hogg, an archivist at the National Maritime Museum. “Once artifacts such as this are collected by a wealthy landed family, they remain on the estate where there is plenty of space to store them and there is no pressure to dispose of them. We believe this is one of the world’s oldest Birch Bark Canoes, a unique survival from the 18th century.”
According to Hogg, the museum was contacted by a descendant of Lt. Enys, Wendy Fowler, who asked the staff to look at a canoe lying in the Estate’s barn.
“The Estate is very special to us and holds many secrets, but I believe this is the most interesting to date. I’m most grateful that my great, great, great, great, great Uncle’s travels have led to such a major chapter of boating history being discovered in Cornwall,” said Fowler.
After receiving little attention for a number of years (it may have been restored in the Victorian era, archivists say), the canoe saw daylight for the first time in decades when it was moved from its shed to its new temporary resting place at the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall.
Andy Wyke, Boat Collections Manager said, “Moving the canoe is the beginning of a whole new journey back to Canada for this incredible find.”
Lt. Enys sailed from Falmouth in a Packet Ship to join his regiment in Canada to relieve the city of Quebec, which was under siege from the Americans. He fought in the Battle of Valcour, on Lake Champlain, in 1776 and in raids against the frontiers of Vermont in 1778 and New York in 1780. Instead of returning to England in 1787, he traveled through Canada and the United States. In 1788, he sailed back to Canada, taking with him the canoe.
“It’s incredible to think its legacy has been resting in a barn in Cornwall all this time,” said Wyke.
The archivist, Captain George Hogg, said, “When we received the call from the Enys family to identify their ‘canoe in a shed’ we had no idea of the importance of the find. But we knew we had something special.”
Prior to her arrival at the Museum, the canoe was digitally recorded by the curatorial team and during the canoe’s time at the Museum, teams will be researching her history, conserving the remaining wood and preserving what’s left as well as preparing her for the trip back home and representing what she might have looked like over 250 years ago.
In September, 2011 the Native American canoe will be repatriated to Canada where the Canadian Canoe Museum will conduct further research to see where the boat may have been built and by which tribe. The canoe will be displayed in Cornwall, England from January through September.
Enys visited Lake George in 1787. According to his journals, Enys set sail for Fort George, at the head of the lake, from Ticonderoga on November 10.
He spent the night in a “House or Rather Hovel” at Sabbath Day Point, where his sleep was disturbed by hunters who were arguing about the best method of collecting honey from the hives of wild bees.
“So very insignificant was their information that altho deprived of my rest I could learn nothing by it,” he wrote.
On November 11, Enys passed through the Narrows, rowing rather than sailing. “Tho the wind was fair it was not in our power to make use of it, the Lake being here very Narrow and enclosed between two high ridges of mountains; the wind striking against them forms so many eddy winds that unless the wind is either in a direct line up or down it never blows five minutes in the same direction,” he wrote.
Near Fourteen Mile Island, the boat’s sails were hoisted and Enys sailed on to Fort George, arriving in time for dinner.
He then left for Albany and proceeded to New York, Philadelphia and Mount Vernon, where he visited George Washington.
The American Journals of Lt. John Enys, edited by Elizabeth Cometti and published by the Adirondack Museum and Syracuse University Press in 1976, is out of print but available through rare and used book dealers.
Photos: Lt John Enys; Removing the canoe from a storage shed in Cornwall, England
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