Gulf Shores’ Ancient Canoe Canal

A rediscovered Native American canoe canal sheds light on the history of ancient inhabitants in the local area.

native men making a canoe
A 1500’s engraving by Theodor de Bry and John White depicting native men making dugout boats by burning and scraping with seashells. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

In 1828, Captain Daniel Burch of the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers completed a survey of prospective routes for new roads and canals in southwest Alabama. This was the time of the Erie Canal, and a great canal-building boom was underway in the eastern states. In his report to Congress, Burch noted the surprising presence of “vestiges of a Canal,” nearly a mile in length, crossing Fort Morgan peninsula from Oyster Bay to Little Lagoon. “One of the old residents of the Country” had shown the half-filled trench to Burch, who concluded it must date “to some former period before the occupation of this Continent by the present race of white Inhabitants.”

Captain Burch’s reluctance to credit the mysterious canal’s origin unambiguously to Native Americans, who were, of course, the obvious suspects, betrays a prejudice not shared by many later Gulf Shores residents, who have long called it the “Indian Ditch,” as so labeled by a sign on Fort Morgan Parkway. 

In 1934, before modern development obscured most of the features, Alabama’s pioneering archaeologist and state geologist Walter B. Jones visited Gulf Shores and concurred with local opinion. He had no doubt this was a rare example of an ancient canal built by Native Americans. Despite Jones’s effort to publicize the “Indian Ditch” in scholarly journals, it remained a local curiosity and attracted no further attention from professional archaeologists for nearly a century. That this unfortunate situation has recently changed for the better is due entirely to Gulf Shores resident Harry King, a retired lieutenant commander with the U.S. Naval Reserve, and a real estate broker and developer who campaigned for years to raise awareness and scientific interest in the canal. 

In 2017, I had just retired from teaching at the University of South Alabama when Harry convinced me to take a closer look at the reputed canal. Although only two short sections of the canal are now visible, the vestiges that remain above ground are still very impressive. The popular name “Indian Ditch” does a disservice to a remarkable engineering accomplishment by the ancient canal builders. Instead of a simple sea-level ditch or trench connecting Oyster Bay to Little Lagoon, the canal crossed the 20-foot-high crest of the peninsula, well above sea level. Its usefulness must have required a sophisticated understanding of coastal groundwater flow. Harry King was right. Determining how this canal functioned, when it was built and for what purposes called for nothing less than a thorough study of this unusual landscape feature. 

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These days, most archaeology projects across the nation occur because of some threat of damage or destruction by development. For instance, the discovery of important archaeological sites in the path of proposed highway construction will trigger a federal requirement — and federal funding — for the preservation or excavation of those sites. Research projects, on the other hand, often have minimal funding. In such situations, archaeologists typically turn to “public archaeology.” For our canal study, I was fortunate to be able to call on a dedicated group of volunteers for assistance. Among these skilled individuals, who have gained practical experience working with me for years on field and laboratory projects, were several members of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, a federally recognized tribe with deep ancestral ties to this region’s Indigenous history. Also joining us were several of Harry King’s Gulf Shores neighbors who shared his enthusiasm for learning more about their own community’s distant past. Together with my professional colleagues, Bonnie Gums and Erin Nelson, our volunteer field crew carefully excavated two trenches across the canal and examined a small shell-midden site adjacent to the canal.

Of course, modern high-tech archaeology involves much more than digging. Our exploration of a canal with few surviving surface traces required the deployment of geophysical search methods, including Lidar, ground penetrating radar and gradiometry. Our efforts to calculate the age of the canal involved radiocarbon dating of plant remains and optically stimulated luminescence dating of buried soil layers. Geoarchaeologist Howard Cyr was able to “read” the soil strata of cores extracted from waterlogged deposits to understand the canal’s history of construction and abandonment. And hydrologist Alex Beebe analyzed data from monitoring wells that, by happy accident, had been placed near the canal years ago to track seasonal fluctuations in groundwater level. Some of these specialists donated their time to the project, but the others required funding, graciously provided by the city of Gulf Shores.

Several weekends with the volunteers revealed a flat-bottomed canal, originally measuring about three feet deep and 20 feet wide inside tall sand berms. Constructed late in the Middle Woodland period, around 600 A.D., this canal would have supported traffic by shallow, 8-inch draft dugout canoes during periods of high groundwater level, mostly during the winter. We suspect that earthen dams once blocked the two ends of the canal, which would have maintained higher water levels and lengthened its utility. 

A Stremalined Trade Route

Alabama’s Gulf Coast is widely regarded today as an attractive tourist destination and a lovely place to reside. Visitors and residents who love this area may not be surprised to learn that living the good life on the Coast has a very long history. Once the world’s post-Ice Age sea levels stabilized 4,000 to 5,000 years ago and created our region’s current coastal landscape, Native Americans took full advantage of the abundant marine and estuarine food resources in the bays and inlets. For millennia, Indigenous people efficiently harvested croakers, mullets and other fish with tidal traps and nets. They hand-collected oysters, clams and other shellfish in vast quantities. Seafood was bountiful and easy to come by.

From about 575 to 650 A.D., a large Native population lived in the area that would become Gulf Shores, including a permanent village at the north end of Oyster Bay. Archaeologists once thought that the earliest inhabitants of the Alabama coast lived principally in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and visited the shoreline mainly during the winter. Modern-day “Snow Birds” who escape northern climes for the milder winters of the Gulf Coast might have inspired this notion. But recent studies of fish bones and mollusk shells, which contain growth patterns in their chemical structures that reflect water temperature at the time of death, confirm the year-round occupation of the Oyster Bay village. 

Left to right The south end of the canal, where it enters Little Lagoon. Courtesy Greg. Waselkov Harry King, Greg Waselkov and Peter Waselkov excavating a trench across the Gulf Shores canal in 2018. Courtesy Lori Sawyer.

On the other hand, Little Lagoon, at the opposite end of the ancient canal, is lined with short-term campsites of people who engaged almost exclusively in intensive fishing and shellfishing. These accumulations of shells — called shell middens by archaeologists — help preserve millions of tiny fish bones, refuse discarded over decades from cooking and smoking seafood for storage and transport. Thanks to radiocarbon dating, we know the canal, the village and the campsites were all contemporary. The canal facilitated movement between the two locations and the transport of dried oysters and fish to the village on Oyster Bay. But was the ease of local travel reason enough to clear hundreds of trees from a broad, mile-long path through a forest, then dig and pile 10,000 cubic yards of soil, all with simple hand tools, essentially to create a river where none had existed before? The making of this canal must have required immense community effort, comparable to the construction of the largest (and more numerous) earthen mounds built throughout eastern North America before European contact.

We know there was long-distance, as well as local, canoe travel in and around ancient America. Early accounts written by European colonists describe large, double-hulled canoes used by Native Floridians venturing into the Atlantic Ocean for voyages to the Bahamas. And Hernando de Soto’s army retreated for days down the Mississippi River pursued by massive war canoes. Dugout canoes, made by burning and carving huge logs of longleaf pine or cypress, were very capable watercraft, but their weight made long overland portages impractical, and their shallow draft made them vulnerable to swamping in choppy water. Carefully placed canals could shorten routes and provide easier access to safer waters for long-distance travel.

The Gulf Shores canal would have cut many miles of paddling from the canoe journey between Mobile Bay to Little Lagoon, which otherwise involved rounding Mobile Point many miles to the west. Once in Little Lagoon, a traveler could then continue eastward, via interconnected coastal back bays and tributaries that once formed a continuous waterway as far as modern-day Panama City. Mobile Bay itself sits at the southern end of the extensive Alabama-Tombigbee River system that reaches into much of the South. We know that a lively trade in exotic materials once flowed along these waterways, with whelk shells, sharks’ teeth and asphaltum heading north from the Gulf to be exchanged for copper, bison hair and flakeable stone moving south. The Gulf Shores canal and another canal in the Florida panhandle must have streamlined long-distance commerce into the interior of the continent, as well as coastwise traffic to points east and west. 

Only six other ancient canoe canals are known from the Native Southeast, all of them in Florida. The Gulf Shores canal, brought to wider public attention through Harry King’s keen interest and persistence, is a rarity that deserves to be preserved and made accessible for public education. The George C. Meyer Foundation has taken a major step toward that goal by donating the southernmost intact section of the canal, where it intersects Little Lagoon, to the Archaeological Conservancy, a national non-profit organization dedicated to preserving major archaeological sites. This remarkable survivor from seventh-century Native America is finally gaining recognition for its well-deserved place in the cultural landscape.

Greg Waselkov is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of South Alabama and co-author with Phil Carr of the upcoming book Southern Footprints: Exploring Gulf Coast Archaeology.

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