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Roy Mitchell with his Native American dugout canoe, believed to be between 400 and 600 years old.
Daily photos by John Godbey
Roy Mitchell with his Native American dugout canoe, believed to be between 400 and 600 years old.

Sweet deal for a Native American relic
Ancient transportation
Milkshake, hamburger meal led to friendship, rare artifact

By Ronnie Thomas
rthomas@decaturdaily.com · 340-2438

A milkshake and a hamburger might seem a fair exchange for an arrowhead or two.

But for a hunk of a dugout tree worth perhaps between $150,000 to $250,000? A real steal, right?

Roy Mitchell of Decatur thinks so, too. That’s what you get for making friends with the right person.

His canoe is more than a slab of timber. It’s a dugout canoe crafted from a poplar tree by an American Indian. The rare artifact measures 17 feet, 2 inches long and weighs about 300 pounds.

Examined in 1970

Mitchell said in 1970 an archaeologist, who he believes was the state archaeologist, came to his house in Priceville and estimated the canoe at between 400 and 600 years old.

“He examined it and took a small piece of the wood with him,” said Mitchell, who is one-quarter Creek. “He never called me back. I got busy doing something else and never called him. I can’t recall his name, but I do know that he’s deceased.”

Michael Murphy, chairman of the Department of Anthropology at The University of Alabama, thought Mitchell’s visitor might have been David L. DeJarnette, who helped pioneer initial archaeological research at the university under the auspices of the Alabama Museum of Natural History and who did extensive research at Moundville. He died in 1991 at 84.

Roy Mitchell’s dugout canoe is believed to be one of the few still intact in the U.S.
Roy Mitchell’s dugout canoe is believed to be one of the few still intact in the U.S.
“It wasn’t DeJarnette,” Mitchell said. “I knew him.”

Mitchell said Gregory Perino was the first expert to view the boat during the latter part of 1969.

“At the time, I believe he was state archaeologist for Oklahoma and was a professor at Oklahoma City College,” Mitchell said. “I had known him for a long time. He came, took photos and also a sample of the wood. I can’t recall if he got back to me or not. He died four or five years ago.”

Whether the craftsman and original owner of the canoe was a Creek, Cherokee or from another tribe, one can only imagine his travels.

Gift from a farmer

Mitchell, too, can only wonder about the canoe’s ancient history. He got it in March 1969 because a farmer was a regular visitor at his Texasburger restaurant on Main Street in Moulton.

“He’d drop by every Thursday or Friday afternoon, and we became friends,” Mitchell said. “He knew I collected American Indian relics, and every now and then he’d bring in an arrowhead or two, and I’d give him a milkshake and a hamburger.”

Mitchell said the farmer, also deceased, found some of the arrowheads near a creek in front of a bluff shelter on his property. He told Mitchell about the canoe and said he could have it.

Under bluff shelter

He said the bluff shelter was about 75 feet deep with a sandstone overhang. The canoe, he said, was at the back of the shelter, turned upside down and covered with two feet of dust.

“It was so dry under (the shelter), and I believe the dryness is what protected the canoe from deteriorating,” he said.

Mitchell pointed to a kill hole in the bottom of the canoe about six feet from where the owner sat.

“That’s where his spirit escaped after his death,” Mitchell said. “Native Americans also broke pottery and axes and put them in graves to let their spirits loose.”

While the canoe hasn’t been afloat in centuries, it has made a few trips by trailer since Mitchell acquired it. He sold it to a Prattville man in 1973 for $6,000 cash.

Legend has it that Native Americans would bore a hole in a canoe’s hull to free the spirit of the recently departed owner.
Legend has it that Native Americans would bore a hole in a canoe’s hull to free the spirit of the recently departed owner.
But if Mitchell felt the canoe is so valuable, why would he sell it for such a seemingly nominal cost?

“I needed the money,” he said.

Three weeks ago, he got the canoe back from the same man, who brought it to Decatur from his home in Macon, Ga. This time, it wasn’t a cash deal. Mitchell said he traded for the canoe, giving the man Indian relics which he valued at about $10,000.

This transition also begs the question, Why would the man sell it for so little?

“He’s a preacher for a Baptist association, and they used to send him all over the world,” Mitchell said. “Now, he travels the country and changes houses often. He ended up in a one-story house in Macon and had no garage or access to a large enough storage facility for the canoe. He was pleased to get it back to me, and I was happy to accept it.”

A rare find

Mitchell said he believes there is only one other dugout canoe in the state, but about half of it is rotted because it was in water. He said workers found it a swamp near Mobile.

“There’s probably no more than five in this country that originated here,” he said. “Traders are bringing dugout canoes into the United States that were crafted in South America and passing them off as Native American.”

Lamar Marshall, executive director of Wild South in Moulton, said Mitchell’s canoe story is feasible.

Utilizing poplar

“It was standard procedure for Southeastern Indians to make and utilize dugout canoes out of yellow poplar,” he said. “That was their traditional craft. They would cut (the tree), let it season and begin to shape it, sometimes leaving it as a log shape. They didn’t just hew them, they also burned them out with fire and coals.”

Marshall also agreed with Mitchell that dryness of bluff shelters preserved the canoes. Marshall said he doesn’t know how many completely preserved dugout canoes are in the U.S.

Mitchell said his interest in Indian relics began when he was a child in 1949 and he started collecting arrowheads.

“You couldn’t give them away then,” he said. “They really didn’t start selling for cash until about 1980.”

Mitchell said it is illegal to dig up burial grounds.

“If I find burial relics on top of the ground or in a bluff shelter or cave, I will pick them up and trade them, perhaps for guns,” he said.

And what’s in the future for his dugout canoe?

“I’ll keep it for a while,” he said.

“I’m in no hurry to sell it.”

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