Florida by Paper Canoe

It took a certain love of adventure in 1875 to consider a 2,500 mile canoe trip, and a certain sense of the practical to decide to do it in a canoe made of paper.

Born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1837, Nathaniel H. Bishop was no stranger to adventure when he undertook this journey. He had completed a thousand mile hike across South America and settled down on a New England cranberry farm when the urge to travel struck him again. He wanted to go along the East Coast of the United States, from Quebec to the Gulf of Mexico along inland waterways.

He started out in a traditional birch bark canoe that weighed several hundred pounds. After 400 miles the craft was swamped and he was exhausted. Fortunately in the little town of Troy, New York, he found a craftsman who was making canoes out of heavy Manila paper, several layers deep and covered with a tough lacquer.  Best of all, it weighed about 58 pounds. That made it easy to portage, or carry the canoe by hand, between waterways.

On July 4, 1874 he set off again from Quebec, working his way down the coast in his 14 foot paper canoe.

He reached Florida in February, 1875, heading up the St. Mary’s River, portaging to the Suwannee and then out the Gulf of Mexico.

He sent his detailed charts of the waterways to the U.S. Costal Survey Service. He was an advocate of opening waterways to navigation. His trip across Florida resulted in the first discussion of the long debated Cross Florida Canal.

He also wrote a book about his trip. The copy at the Library of Florida History provides a first- hand account of the sparsely- populated rural state, stocked with lots of characters; hunters, lumberjacks and, in this post Civil War era, Freedmen.

While he describes them in what can only be called paternalistic terms, typical of the times, his visits to their independent communities gives us an insight into their society.

Then there were the gators. At least one made a considerable impression. He talks about how it set itself up on a bluff near camp and bellowed for hours at another nearby male, which bellowed back, until the two of them finally settled their differences without a fight.

Of all the events that filled his journey, that is the one he chose for the front piece image in the book.