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The Batteau

A military batteau of 1758.
Figure 1: A drawing of a 1758 military batteau based on archeological remains found in Lake George.

"Batteau", a French word for "boat", came to mean in the late 18th century any flat-bottomed craft that was pointed at both ends - the type of boat commonly used in the inland waterways of northeastern North America. Here, frequent shallows required a boat that drew little water, even when fully loaded, could be deftly maneuvered through rapids and around rocks, and was light enough to be lifted out of the channel and carried over the several portages1 that blocked navigation into the interior.

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 crooks2, fastened the bottom to the pine planks which formed the sides of the vessel.

Being so commonplace a vehicle, built by eye, not from plans, very little detailed information has been preserved regarding batteaux. Although they occasionally appear in contemporary paintings, batteau images are sufficiently vague to preclude drawing very specific conclusions about design and construction.

Archeological remains of military batteaux sunk in Lake George in 1758, consisting primarily of bottoms, fragmentary frames and a few planks, suggest a boat about 31 feet long and 4 1/2 feet wide on the bottom with a fairly blunt stem3 and only a moderately raking4 stern. 5

During the Revolutionary War, reference is made to batteaux as generally being "thirty six feet long and about five or six broad in the center, tapering to both ends almost to a point" with sides "about three feet deep" and attached by "slight knees of timber." These craft were carvel built, with the boards abutting each other, caulked with oakum6 and pitch.7 However, a significant qualifier was then quickly added: "There is no other batteaux used in America except on the Mohawk River from Schenectady to Oswego, which is a bad and shallow navigation. A smaller boat is used, which carries seven barrels, navigated by two and sometimes three men." 8

The "new threehanded batteau" purchased by Philip Schuyler on August 21st, 1792, would appear to be the direct descendant of these "smaller" boats which sixteen years earlier had already been established as a unique sub-species of batteau.

An examination of the navigation between Schenectady and Oswego as it existed at the close of the 18th century reveals the limiting characteristics of the waterway that directly influenced batteau design. There were over 90 separate and occasionally extensive rifts or rapids on the Mohawk alone, often as shallow as a foot and frequently under 18 inches. The rivers west of the Mohawk contained still more. The falls at Little Falls and near Oswego, and the Great Carrying Place at Rome, required lifting the boat out of the river and carting it overland for distances of up to three miles. The twisting, narrow, and extremely shallow channel of Wood Creek, between Rome and Oneida Lake, could stop a long or deep drafted vessel in its tracks.

Thus a boat in the range of 20 to 30 feet and 4 to 5 feet wide on the bottom would seem to be representative of a Mohawk River batteau. The interior depth was probably fairly shallow, if for no other purpose than to lighten the craft for portaging. A high-sided boat would not only be unnecessarily heavy, it would impede the work of the boatmen in the bow, poling the boat upstream. There was little function to a 36 inch deep vessel when it rarely was able to draw 9 over 15 inches because of the shallow river.

References made by 18th century Mohawk travelers to the batteaux they traveled in are rare. Where they do exist, however, they suggest a boat less than 30 feet long and barely 24 inches deep. Two construction scows ordered by Schuyler in 1796 to haul lime to his canal works on the upper Mohawk were to be only "22 or 24 inches high."

Commercial Mohawk River batteaux probably had more graceful lines than suggested by the sunken remains of military batteaux in Lake George. The few 18th century illustrations available, of which almost none are from New York, suggest at least a moderately raking stem and stern. An illustration of a large Durham-type freighter and what appears to be a double-manned 4-handed batteau, observed and recorded on the Mohawk in 1807, reveals craft that are shallow and have an observable pitch to the stem and stern posts. Certainly the working batteaux of the later 19th century, represented primarily by the logging batteaux of the St. Lawrence region and interior New England, had dramatically raking stems and sterns. These boats were particularly well suited to river running and easy handling.

Whether we see the Mohawk River commercial batteau of the 1790s as part of a continuum from the blunt-nosed military craft of the 1750s to the sleek working boats of the 1890s, or as a design that early on developed in response to the most restrictive heavy traffic navigation in the Northeast, we may assume a craft of modest but pronounced rake, stem and stern, and moderately low sides. It may also have been of lapstrake construction, with overlapping side planks - a lighter but still strong construction.

The canal company seal.
Figure 2: The seal of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, 1792.

Perhaps the most relevant image of a Mohawk River batteau is that engraved in the seal of Schuyler's canal company in 1792. The design captured by the engraver is of a boat that is transitional in form, the descendant of the 1750s and the precursor of the 1890s.

Three-handed batteaux were operated with one steersman in the stern, controlling the steering oar, and two boatmen who stayed forward in the bow working poles in the shallows or oars where water depth permitted. Such a boat could carry 3 wagon loads of cargo [1.5 tons] or the equivalent in passengers.

Boating on the Mohawk, 1807.
Figure 3: Prepared from eyewitness observations in 1807, this engraving shows a river freighter passing through one of Schuyler's wing dams in the Mohawk while a large batteau waits its turn.

The invoice for Schuyler's 1792 batteau lists driving equipment that includes 4 poles, 4 oars, 3 paddles, 4 pikes and a "skoop" for bailing. This proportion of poles and oars to boatmen is typical for 3-handed batteaux, based on the few other accounts we have for the period.

In addition, Schuyler's batteau was equipped with an awning, as were several other batteaux he ordered from the Schenectady boatyard during the 1790s. Batteaux rigged for passenger, not freight, service frequently had such awnings, and Schuyler's boats invariably did. From the invoice for this awning from Abraham Eights, the sailmaker in Albany, we know the type and quantity of the fabric, but have no clues as to the rig of such an awning. Contemporary accounts and subsequent histories suggest a "prairie schooner" rig on bentwood hoops, while contemporary paintings frequently indicate a more tent-like affair.

Schuyler paid for a "painter" for his boat. While the term "painter" also referred to a rope used in towing a boat, the cost of this item suggests it was for wages to a man to paint the boat. 10 At least one other batteau ordered in Schenectady for use by Schuyler was painted, as use of it was delayed because damp weather prevented the paint from drying on time. We have no idea what type of paint was used, but we can assume it was an oil and pigment wash, with perhaps tar added as a preservative.

While we have no evidence this particular boat had a mast and sail, most batteaux were so equipped for those few advantageous moments when wind and river direction cooperated, and generally for the downriver run back home to Schenectady. Then a following westerly wind could cut travel time in half.


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