The Kennebec River Bateau

The Boat That Carried Arnold’s Stores and Supplies Up the River

By tradition, the bateau (bateaux as plural) brought to North America by French explorers who first began visiting the area of the Arnold Expedition in 1603. The French saw this craft as best suited for carrying people and trade goods on the many shallow rivers in what is now Maine and Quebec. The natives in this region referred to it as “The White Man’s Canoe” as it served the same purpose as the Indian birchbark or dugout canoes.

There are many variations of the basic bateau design, but all include a flat-bottomed wooden craft with a higher, pointed bow and stern. The boat rode low in the water which made it stable even while carrying heavy loads.

At the request of George Washington, Reuben Colburn built 200 of these boats for the Arnold Expedition in just 14 days. When Arnold arrved with his army at Coburn’s home on the Kennebec River on September 21, 1775, he noted that they were smaller than he expected and would need 20 more. Reuben and his craftsmen had these additional boats ready in three more days.

Given the short time given to build the boats, and the sparse supply of dried wood and nails, the bateaux had to be built of green wood and too few nails, and were thus prone to fail and far heavier than anticipated. Colburn’s brother Oliver, led a company of men from Pittston along with Arnold to repair the boats as often as necessary.

Of the 220 bateaux that left the Colburn House, only seven are known to have crossed into Canada with the expedition.

 

From the Audio Booth

Bob Cunningham interviews Cecil Pierce, both founding members of the AEHS, about bateau construction. Cecil was a boatbuilder in Midcoast Maine who took an exceptional interest in the watercraft used on the expedition. (1990)

Cecil Pierce 1 – Discusses the probable type of bateau used

Cecil Pierce 2 – Reads a brief paper on the subject

Cecil Pierce 3 – Discusses the adventures of he and another founding member, Dude Wing, on their canoe trip along the Arnold Expedition route.