The Split-Planked Canoe

The split-planked canoe [called tomol by the Chumash, te'aat by the Gabrielino] was the finest technological achievement of the coastal dwelling Chumash and Gabrielino peoples, and was unique in the Americas. Nearly all of the Spanish diarists described these marvelous boats and were unanimous in their praise. In 1602 the Spanish explorer Sebastian Viscaíno visited the Chumash and wrote that

... a canoe came out to us with two Indian fishermen, who had a great quantity of fish, rowing so swiftly they seemed to fly. They came alongside without saying a word to us and went twice around us with such speed that it seemed impossible.

Almost two hundred years later, the Spanish explorer Font noted of these canoes:

They are very carefully made of several planks which they work with no other tools but their shells and flints. They join them at the seams by sewing them with very strong thread which they have and fit the joints with pitch.... Some of the launches are decorated with little shells and all are painted red with hematite. In shape they are like a little boat without ribs, ending in two points.... In the middle there is a somewhat elevated plank laid across from side to side to serve as a seat and to preserve the convexity of the frame. Each launch is composed of some twenty long and narrow pieces. I measured one and found it to be thirty-six palms long and somewhat more than three palms high [the palm measurement varied from 3 to 4 inches]. In each launch ... ordinarily not more than two Indians ride one in each end. They carry some poles about two varas [about six feet] which end in blades, these being the oars with which they row alternately ... now on one side and now on the other side of the launch.

The tomols varied in size from about 12 feet to over 24 feet long with a beam of three to four feet, and could carry about 4,000 pounds of cargo or up to twenty people. They were navigated by men kneeling on the bottom of the tomols using double bladed paddles.

Tomols were very light (two men could carry one) and seaworthy. Several times a year the coastal people made the round trip of over 100 miles to Catalina Island for steatite and to the even more distant San Nicolas Island, a round trip of over 130 miles.

The tomol was frameless, with no internal structural ribs and was made from driftwood logs, mainly redwood or from pine that grew in the Santa Barbara and Ventura back country and which washed up on the beaches during winter storms. It was collected from the beaches and brought to the villages to dry.

The wood for canoe making was very carefully selected: only wood with a straight grain and no knots was used, since knots would dry out and crack causing the boat to leak. The Indians split the logs into planks by using whale bone wedges or deer antler, carefully shaped, trimmed and leveled them with Pismo clamshell adzes and chert knives. After the planks were split those selected for hull boards were beveled and finished with sharkskin sandpaper.

Holes were bored in the hull planks using had drills tipped with chert or bone. The planks were then laid edge to edge and then skillfully fastened together with red milkweed [tok ] fiber cords passed through the small drill holes. Once fitted and lashed, caulking tule, which was the heart of dry tule rush, was forced into the cracks on the outside of the canoe hull. Then melted asphalt was poured along the edges where the planks came together and into the holes where the cords or thongs were tied.

Next a structural crossplank was added at midship to reinforce the tomol. Finally, splashboards were attached to the stern, prow, and gunwales. When all structural elements were completed the tomol was sanded and painted with red ochre which acted as a sealant that greatly enhanced the integrity of the boat. Finally, shell inlay was added for decoration to the outside in traditional geometric designs.

Possession of a tomol was a sign of high position in Chumash and Gabrielino society, and only male members of the upper class were allowed to own them. These boats were respected and cared for and were used for many generations and often were passed on from generation to generation. Font noted the status conferred by canoe ownership:

Among the men I saw a few with a little cape like a doublet reaching to the waist and made of bear skin, and by this mark of distinction I learned that these were the owners and masters of the launches.... When it [the canoe] arrived at the shore ten or twelve men approached the launch, took it on their shoulders still loaded with the fish and carried it to the house of the master or captain of the launch.

Among the Chumash, the men who made and used the tomol belong to the Brotherhood of the Tomol, one of the many Chumash craft guilds. Members of the Brotherhood of the Tomol called each other by kinship terms. The main activities of the Brotherhood were to build canoes, to fish, and to keep up the sea going trade with the Channel Islands.

California's south coastal native peoples also made and used two other types of watercraft for fishing and transportation on both the ocean and coastal lagoons:

Tule boats were used in lagoons as well as at sea and were quickly built: start to finish from the cutting of the tule to the launching of the boat could take as little as three days. To make a tule boat, green bulrush (Scirpus acutus ) was cut, spread out to dry for several days, then, when partially dried, it was taken up and formed in cigar-shaped bundles, the length of which depended on the size of the boat to be made. The bundle that formed the bottom of the canoe was much larger than the others. A willow pole ran the length of each bundle to add strength to the body of the canoe. Bundles were tied together at the stern and prow to form a raised point and then tied to the bottom bundle along their length. There was no seat in the tule boat. Instead, the boatman could kneel or stand in the boat and either paddle it with a double bladed paddle or with the arms when lying in the prone position. If the boat was not woven tightly enough, then the boatman would find himslef standing or kneeling in several inches of water. Sometimes the outside of the tule boat was coasted with tar to add buoyancy and prevent rot.

Very little is known about the dugout canoe that the Chumash used except that it was propelled with paddle or long willow pole, was used mainly for fishing in estuaries and calm water, was about twenty to thirty feet in length and made of a solid tree trunk, probably willow or cottonwood.