March / April 2022

The Bucktail in Florida

A tiny Rushton canoe’s journey through time
Bucktail

In 1885, the celebrated outdoor writer George Washington Sears, who wrote under the pen name “Nessmuk,” explored still-wild Florida in a diminutive canoe called BUCKTAIL. The boat was built by J. Henry Rushton of Canton, New York. The author recently discovered and purchased an identical canoe near the area of Nessmuk’s travels.

Only a few hours before I set out from east central Florida for the beautiful Adirondack Mountains of New York, I encountered a set of low-resolution photographs on an online forum that set my heart racing. I was traveling to attend the 2019 Annual Assembly of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, and the images on my computer appeared to show a 19th-century lapstrake canoe from the celebrated builder J. Henry Rushton of Canton, New York. The little canoe was for sale and only two hours north of my home and just minutes off my travel route, and so in less than 12 hours I became the new caretaker of a small Rushton canoe in remarkably good condition. Little-used over many years, and almost certainly stored indoors and thus protected from the subtropical heat, rain, and humidity, the canoe was fully intact but graying and in need of care.

Florida was an important destination for outdoor adventurers in the late 1800s, so while restoring my canoe I also began researching the canoeing history of both Rushton and Florida. From his Canton workshop, Rushton played a central role in the early expansion of American canoeing. He was a cofounder of the American Canoe Association, and his boats won many races at regattas in the United States and Canada. Rushton’s collaborations with some of the most noted canoeists of his day led to an explosion of designs that cemented his reputation for producing the “Stradivarius of canoes”; his canoes, in turn, helped solidify the reputations of some of the most popular outdoor writers of the time, including some who made Florida their ultimate adventure. As I pored over historical documents, I realized that this might be the canoe that helped make one legendary outdoor writer, as well as Rushton, even more famous through a series of adventure stories published in Forest & Stream, the most popular outdoor-oriented periodical of the day.

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