Blackbeard makes room for state park canoes

A preservation specialist measures and weighs a piece of one of the ancient canoes in the laboratory.
Most of the American Indian canoes at Pettigrew State Park remain underwater for safekeeping.

Two ancient American Indian dugout canoes wrested from Lake Phelps at Pettigrew State Park are sharing space with the cannon and trinkets from the pirate Blackbeard’s famous Queen Anne’s Revenge in a laboratory in eastern North Carolina.

At least one of the canoes sailed the waters of Lake Phelps about 1,000 years before anybody ever heard of Blackbeard. The cypress canoes are undergoing an intense bout of preservation so that they can be reassembled and returned to Pettigrew for display.

There are at least 30 known canoes still resting in the shallow waters of Lake Phelps, left by Algonkian Indians and perhaps other tribes who moved in and out of this area near the Scuppernong River and the Great Dismal Swamp over centuries. The story of these two is interesting.

Intense wildfires in 1985-86 prompted firefighters to draft water from Lake Phelps, and the pair of canoes – one about 550 years old and the other about 1,600 years old – were left high and dry and each was in several pieces, according to state parks education specialist Gene Peacock.

Each is about 12 feet long. They were taken to a park building for assembly and display in a glass case. The best science of the time suggested coating them with a sugar-based solution, but it wasn’t the best idea. Over time, as humidity levels fluctuated in the tiny building, the solution crystallized and drew even more insects than had already been eating at the canoes.

In 2011, they were taken to the Queen Anne’s Revenge Lab near Greenville to be stabilized. That has involved keeping them in a room with humidity controlled at 50 percent and periodically measuring and weighing each. On July 25, the canoes underwent the second of three planned inspections. The final one is scheduled for this winter. They’ll then be reassembled into newly designed cases and placed in a renovated facility at the state park.

One canoe from Pettigrew State Park rests in the North Carolina Museum of History and another, which was recovered in two pieces, is shared between two regional museums. As for the canoes left in the water – which range up to 30 feet long – Peacock, who has a background in archaeology, and park rangers monitor them at least twice a year to make sure they’re not damaged or disturbed. The water of Lake Phelps is actually the best-known preservative.

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