BATEAU - (batteau) (battoe)

OED - [from French] - "A light river boat, esp. the long tapering boats with flat ends used by the French Canadians [erroneously 'batteau']." They were the European settlers' answer to the somewhat limited size of canoes, but being built from experience, not from plans, little detailed information remains.

RCYC c. 1854, centre-board added to a batteau?
from a painting by William Armstrong

Great Lakes Saga, Anna G. Young, Richardson, Bond and Wright, 1963:

"However, as traffic increased, some stronger means of transportation was required and then the Batteau came into the picture. It was a large, flat-bottomed skiff, sharp at both ends, about forty feet long and six feet to eight feet wide amid-ships. Those built at Lachine were capable of carrying three to five tons, or thirty-five barrels of flour. They were built of cedar or spruce, or the available hardwood in supply. Sometimes they were confined to a particular reach of water. In other places, they were dragged up the shallow rapids, with the aid of ropes and windlasses, men and oxen, or horses. Or they were unloaded and carted across portages. A Batteau was provided with a mast and lugsail, with about fifteen foot hoist, an anchor, four oars, six setting poles shod with iron, a crew of four men and a pilot, who steered. They were practical and adaptable to the conditions of the route. They could not be easily capsized in the excitement of a rapid while their light draft enabled them to creep up along the shore. With thirty-five to forty barrels of flour on board, they only drew about twenty inches of water and their flat bottoms were not too easily damaged on water-worn rocks. Then coasting along the shore of the Great Lakes, if the sea became too rough they could be hauled up and inverted to provide shelter like a canoe. Their light draft and displacement, together with their sharp bows, made them sail well when the oarsmen could take advantage of the wind.

However, the Batteau men were crooked, awkward, and careless. Their wages were periodically stopped, to make pilfering less frequent. In the St. Lawrence canal route, supervision was exercised largely by the merchants of Kingston. Twelve boats constituted a brigade under one conductor and each Batteau could carry four or five families each. The U.E. Loyalists used them and many of the early immigrants were also dependant on them. They were obliged to camp on shore at night; while the crew toiled up the rapids the passengers were obliged to tramp through the adjoining woods.

Wolfe used the Batteau at Quebec; indeed it was the instrument of the conquest of Canada. When this conquest was achieved, the tide of immigration quickened. With this tide came an upsurge in trade and commerce. Farther and farther west the lines of communication stretched, and transportation by canoe came to be half again as expensive as the white man's boats. When the Hudson's Bay Company ordered boats it was a death blow to the canoe. However, on shorter, backwater routes, the Indians brought their produce, mostly pelts, by canoe to junction points where the voyageurs arranged trans-shipment to Batteaux for Montreal."


A non-French-Canadian version existed in the C18th, from the Mohawk River and the Hudson (particularly the Schenectady area) down to the James River. In his American small sailing craft, WW Norton, 1951, Howard Chapelle devotes a section to 'bateaux' (with a reference or two to Québec and the St Lawrence).

From Phil Lord dead link of the New York State Museum: "The batteau was the mainstay of inland shipping, particularly for the military, until the end of the 18th century. During the French and Indian War, and later the Revolution, fleets of these craft were constructed at the boatyards in Schenectady.

Batteaux (the plural) came in different sizes, known generally as 3-handed, 4-handed or 5-handed, according to the men needed to propel them. There were undoubtedly many variations in design, but all were characterized by a flat bottom of pine boards laid lengthwise, with battens [cleats] nailed across to hold them together. Oak frames (ribs), usually made from natural crooks, fastened the bottom to the pine planks which formed the sides of the vessel."


Again from Young (op cit): "It was the American traders from the Mohawk Valley who introduced what was known as the Durham, a rival of the Batteau. It was long, light, shallow and not quite such a flat bottom, with moderately sheer sides. The bottom was of strong white oak, and the sides were of fir. Their fitness for those primitive transportation routes of their time made them acceptable until the canals were built. They had ten times the capacity of the Batteau. The boats traversed the lake and quieter portions of rivers. Much depended on the dexterity of boatmen, wielding "setting poles" in swifter water, as well as their luck in surmounting rapids that sometimes detained them for hours or even days. They had to contend with swift currents, damage by rocks or shoals. Worse still, they might be caught in eddies or out-current that swept them over rapids and resulted in the loss of life, boat, and cargo. Sometimes they were towed by horses close by a shoreline and woe to the teamster who was not provided with a knife to cut the line in such an emergency."

Other references:

H.C. Folkard, The Sailing Boat, Longmans, Green and Co, 1870: "AMERICAN BATTOES. Battoes (1) are a kind of flat-bottomed boat, much employed in Albany. They are used chiefly for carrying goods up and down the rivers, where the birch-bark canoes would be unfit, by reason of their slender and delicate construction.
Battoes are constructed of boards of white pine. The bottom is flat, in order to enable them to go with facility into shallow water. In form they are sharp at both ends, and somewhat lower amidships than fore and aft. The sides are almost perpendicular. They are of various sizes, from three to four fathoms in length, and about three feet six inches in breadth, and in depth from one foot eight inches to two feet. (2)
(1) From the French 'bateau' (2) Kalm's "Travels in North America" "

Short, Adam, & Doughty, A.G., eds. Canada & It's Provinces: A history of the Canadian People & their institutions, Edinburgh Edition, 1914: "Bateaux were sharp at both ends, wall-sided and flat-bottomed except for a slight inclination upward in the bottom at each end. They had generally a crew of five men, four to row and one to steer, and were equipped with square sails, oars and long poles for setting them through the rapids. The earlier type of bateau carried about three tons of merchandise or thirty-five barrels of flour. Subsequently, however, these vessels were built much larger, their carrying capacity being from four to four and a half tons."

Hager, Robert E. 1987 Mohawk River Boats and Navigation Before 1820. Syracuse: Canal Society of New York State.



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