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The earliest record of American timber rafting I can find is the painting "The Lumber Raft" by Frances Anne Hopkins, c. 1868. I cannot find any earlier records.

Timber rafting is the act of lashing or otherwise securing felled logs into a raft, which are then pulled or drifted, often with sails.

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    @BrianZ timber rafting is the act of lashing or otherwise securing felled logs into a raft, which are then pulled or drifted, often with sails. The definition does not cover a log being placed into a river, and my question specifically states "in the Americas". I added a source to assist. Dec 5, 2023 at 0:00
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    I see you changed the word order, that makes more sense now.
    – Brian Z
    Dec 5, 2023 at 0:20
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    This article has some references that look useful. Would need to check the full book out from Internet Archive to see the bibliography: andrewsforest.oregonstate.edu/sites/default/files/lter/pubs/pdf/…
    – Brian Z
    Dec 5, 2023 at 0:28
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    Haven't found a source prior to 1800 yet, but here is a half-page description of timber rafting in Canada dating to 1827. The Westminster Review, Vol. 7, Oct. 1826 - Jan. 1827, p. 138: "The winter of Canada, during which the timber is felled and hewn, is a season of the most intense and piercing cold; and the rivers down which it has to be conveyed are long, broad, in many places rapid, and in all places dangerous for the navigation of timber rafts. The timber, ..."
    – njuffa
    Dec 5, 2023 at 2:35
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    Hugh Gray, Letters from Canada, written during a residence in the years 1806, 1807, and 1808. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme 1809, p. 211-213: "All the timber shipped at Quebec is floated down the river in what is termed rafts: a raft is the general name; but they vary greatly in their construction, according to the kind of wood of which they are composed. The large masts are laid close to each other and have pieces of oak fastened to them ..."
    – njuffa
    Dec 5, 2023 at 2:59

1 Answer 1

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This is not a comprehensive answer as my literature search focused on North America, since my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese is absolutely minimal. I am aware that timber rafting occurred on the Amazon River and that there was timber rafting of mahogany in Central America, but I am not familiar with the time frames.

In general, long-distance timber rafting requires a market demand of sufficient size to make it economically worthwhile. An example would be the rafting of timber from the Black Forest and neighboring regions down the Rhine to the Netherlands (a distance of some 600km) which commenced in the 1700s spurred by demand from shipbuilders.

The earliest references to such timber rafting in North America that I have found date to the first decade of he 19th century, and refer to the delivery of timber from Lake Champlain and the Ottawa Valley, respectively, to Quebec City in Canada, a distance of some 450km in both cases.

H. N. Muller "Floating a Lumber Raft to Quebec City, 1805: The Journal of Guy Catlin of Burlington." Vermont History, Vol. 39, No. 2, Spring 1971, pp. 116-124 describes the trip of a timber raft from Burlington, Vermont, down the Richelieu and St. Lawrence Rivers to Quebec between May 23 and June 15, 1805. The last of the timber was not sold until July 20. Catlin noted in his journal:

Tuesday and Wednesday attended as usual the Raft with out finding any one to ask the price of timber. Thus I continued from Day to Day without finding any one to purchase until Tuesday the 8 of July.

This suggests that the reason for lack of evidence of timber rafting in North America prior to 1800 is that it was not a viable business at that time, as the economy of the region was not yet sufficiently developed and enough timber of sufficient quality was available close to major settlements.

David Michael Ray, Settlement and rural out migration in easternmost Ontario 1783 to 1956. M.A. thesis, University of Ottawa 1961, p. 20 describes the commencement of timber rafting from Hull in Ontario down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers to Quebec:

The pioneers along the Ottawa Valley were the lumbermen and lumbering was a distinct industry by itself and not a by-product of clearing the land. The most famous of these lumbermen was Philemon Wright who settled in Hull in 1800 and floated his first timber rafts to Quebec in 1806.

The Historical Society Of Ottawa writes on its website:

In June 1806, Philemon Wright navigated the first log raft, christened the Columbo, from the confluence of the Gatineau and Ottawa Rivers down the Ottawa to the St. Lawrence and on to market in Quebec City for sale to the Royal Navy. At that time, Britain was fighting Napoleon’s France. With Britain’s usual Baltic supply of Norwegian pine cut off due to a French blockade, it looked to Canada’s white (sometimes referred to as yellow) pine as a replacement. The tall, straight, first growth trees made ideal masts and spars for its naval vessels.

Purchases by the Royal Navy seem to be the key event that made long-distance timber rafting economically viable in early 19th century Canada.

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  • Thanks! I'm very curious to know about the Amazon river and Central American timber rafting. I think it woud probably have been impossible in the Amazon much earlier than that, because of, say, disease, the terrain, lack of infastructure, the Tupi, etc. Dec 5, 2023 at 11:03
  • Brazilian Indians would carve one-piece canoes out of whole tree trunks, rather of making rafts. I can only guess why: a) canoes are faster, their travels were frequent and long. b) I would worry much less about crocodiles (jacarés) and anacondas in a canoe than in a raft. c) obviously a one-piece canoe would last much longer with low maintenance.
    – Luiz
    Dec 5, 2023 at 11:45
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    @Luiz The question here is about timber rafting, not about building rafts to transport humans and their possessions. When there were no roads and no railways, timber had to be transported via rivers. Luckily, most wood floats in water. A number of logs were lashed together into smaller units that were then in turn combined into rafts (on the Rhine this resulted in articulated assemblies several hundreds of meters long). These rafts were used for a few weeks until the final destination was reached. There they would be disassembled and the timber sold.
    – njuffa
    Dec 5, 2023 at 12:00
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    @JessieKirk You are right, timber rafting is called in Latin America "jangada" and it was common in the Amazon River, the Paraná River and the Uruguay River. But all the references I could find point to this practice flourishing during the 19th century, not earlier. Dec 5, 2023 at 14:56

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