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National Maritime Museum Cornwall and one of the oldest, and most influential families, in Cornwall are working together to conserve possibly the oldest Birch Bark Canoe in existence. Estimated to be over 250 years old, the canoe has been stored on the Enys Estate near Penryn, housed in one of the Enys family's barns.
National Maritime Museum Cornwall and one of the oldest, and most influential families, in Cornwall are working together to conserve possibly the oldest Birch Bark Canoe in existence. Estimated to be over 250 years old, the canoe has been stored on the Enys Estate near Penryn, housed in one of the Enys family's barns.

Historic Canadian birch-bark canoe found among junk in British shed Add to ...

A 250-year-old piece of Canadian antiquity has been found in a British shed, where it has been stored alongside discarded bathroom fixtures.

The birch-bark canoe was transported from Canada to England by a British soldier who fought in Quebec during the American War of Independence, and is believed to be the oldest surviving boat of its kind.

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"Talk about an Antiques Roadshow dream," said Jeremy Ward, curator of the Canadian Canoe Museum, in Peterborough, Ont.

The canoe, believed to have been built in the late 1700s, was uncovered by the descendants of Lieutenant John Enys. They notified the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall that they may have been storing a valuable piece of history.

"It's incredible to think its legacy has been resting in a barn in Cornwall all this time," said the maritime museum's Andy Wyke. He believes Lt. Enys toured Eastern Canada after his military campaigns and bought the canoe along the way.

Wendy Fowler, a descendant of the Enys family, called the museum and asked that it inspect the canoe lying in her estate's barn. A photograph shows the canoe resting on an old door, a discarded sea-foam toilet lying nearby.

The British museum will put the craft on display next year before returning it to Canada in the fall.

But first, museum staff will attempt to learn more about the craft's history and help restore it and prepare it for its trip home.

Estimated to be almost 250 years old, the boat was found in two pieces, but has weathered time well, according to Mr. Ward.

"It's a beautiful boat, except for the midsection, which looks like it's been hit by a snowplow," he said.

What caused the damage is unclear, but Mr. Ward said it does not appear to have happened recently.

Birch-bark canoes from this era were held together by tree root lashings, he said, the hull almost spring-loaded against itself.

"When the lashings come apart, the whole thing comes undone, so it's very hard for them to live over 150 years, certainly if any weather's getting at it," he said.

There will be no effort to rebuild the hull. But when it returns to Canada, Mr. Ward said, he would like it to be displayed in its original shape, with the aid of a support structure.

His team is helping Cornwall museum employees narrow the boat's provenance. The style indicates that it may have been built by the Maliseet, a native culture from the east coast of New Brunswick.

Lt. Enys is believed to have visited the region after one of his tours of duty in the British colony.

Canoes were a novelty item for European visitors, many of whom commissioned small boats to take home with them to the continent, Mr. Ward said. But the Enys boat appears to be full size, he added.

The collections of such visitors have paid off in the long run. Birch-bark canoes were so common in Canada at one point that no one bothered to collect them, said Mr. Ward, and the surviving artifacts have inevitably turned up overseas.

"We are finding that the oldest of our canoes tend to be abroad," he said.

His museum is also in the process of tracking down a canoe that Samuel de Champlain took back to France in 1603. If it survived, it would be 200 years older than the Enys boat.

He is grateful that the Enys family and the Maritime Museum made an effort to reach out to Canada to inquire about the craft.

"They've really risen to the occasion," he said. "I wish more Europeans did that with our pieces of antiquity."

 

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