Centuries-old dugout canoe unearthed & rescued

Paul Pinkerton

If I am honest, I have tried to make one, and failed. To many of us, the holy-grail of canoes is the dugout canoe.  So much skill and knowledge goes into making one.

We are fortunate enough to have some talented people who still make this art form look easy. I am not saying that I am envious, but I am envious of these craftsmen. I have been lucky enough to see their work up close in Canada and have seen sea going dugouts in a museum.

However, I would have died and gone to heaven if one day,

A water's edge view of the dugout canoe protruding from the bank on Turtle Island. Photo credit, University of South Carolina
A water’s edge view of the dugout canoe protruding from the bank on Turtle Island. Photo credit, University of South Carolina

I happened to be paddleboarding and a piece of old lumber caught my eye. This is exactly what happened to Daufuskie resident John Hill who discovered a dugout canoe while paddleboarding with his wife and friends.

The dugout canoe, hand-hewn in 1700s was discovered in mud on Turtle Island in May 2012. Archaeologists from University of South Carolina along with residents from Daufuskie Island were able to excavate and recover the canoe in October of that year.

Underwater archaeologist from University of South Carolina, James Spirek, oversaw the dig and says it is a great find and you can see axe marks in it left behind by the craftsmen.


Spirek goes onto say “Based on how well this seems to be built, it suggests it was hewn with tools, it may have been Indians using iron tools. I think more than likely it was … European.”

James Spirek, who also helped raise the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley from Charleston Harbor in 2000. The plan is  for the canoe to undergo radiocarbon dating, which can determine its age within 50 years and  maybe within 10 years.

John Hill who discovered this amazing relic goes on to say: Considering the area’s rich history,one marked by Indian wars and Revolutionary and Civil war conflicts, it is great to think that the the canoe might have been used in battle. However, we will never know.

“I got a look at it when we were digging it out. It looks like something went through the back corner. Maybe that’s what ended up sinking it,” Hill said.


Although the vessel was found along the shore, old maps of Turtle Island suggest the area in which it was discovered was once an inlet or saltwater pond. Spirek said the canoe was probably buried bit by bit over the years.

“At least two feet or three feet (of sand) built up over it at some point in time,” he said. “That helped preserve it.”

The soil, however, was not airtight. Cracks, fissures and a barnacle on the hull suggest it was exposed to salt water.

In the weeks following the canoe’s discovery, several state archaeologists examined it and created an excavation plan. They also had to find a new home for the vessel, which is owned by the state.

This particular dugout canoe is a noteworthy discovery for South Carolina, according to Spirek, as relatively few of them have been found in lower coastal region of the state. Others of its kind that have been found in the area include the Parris Island Canoe, a prehistoric dugout canoe discovered on the Parris Island shore in the 1980s, and a canoe recovered from the Savannah River flood plain a couple of years ago, now stored in the Blue Heron Nature Center in Ridgeland, S.C.

“Research of the Turtle Island Canoe will offer us new insights into the early settlement of the state’s Lowcounty region,” Spirek said.

Although the canoe was found mostly intact, during its recovery, it broke into three large pieces. The pieces are submerged in a freshwater solution in a tank inside Scurry’s restaurant, the Old Daufuskie Crab Co.

The canoe could remain underwater there for as long as two years, a move that will help preserve it. It also will be treated with a substance that prevents cracking and warping.

The goal is simple: put the pieces back together, and with them, a small part of the past and put it on display.p;


jack-beckett is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival