Michael B. Alford
Naval Architect and
Retired Curator The North Carolina Maritime Museum


The periauger, of the southeastern Atlantic region has long been an enigma to historians, despite the clearly ubiquitous status of the type in the Colonial Period and early 19th-Century. A humble work boat closely associated with plantation culture, it was known only through numerous but sketchy references in Colonial documents. Despite the seeming dearth of technical data and lack of pictorial evidence, sufficient data was found to define the vessel type and reconstruct a naval architectural profile, which was used to design a working example. The key to the process was a brief non-technical description, written in 1701, which was finally interpreted after related forms of the construction were discovered and systematically studied. Information about capacity, performance, rig, and crew came from port records, tonnage rules, and period narratives. While it is likely that no two periaugers looked exactly alike, the present design is based on demonstrable sources that make it a credible reconstruction. A boat based on this design was constructed by The North Carolina Maritime Museum for educational use by a non-profit historical association.


The periauger, or petiauger, of the southeastern Atlantic region has long been an enigma to historians, despite its clearly ubiquitous status through the Colonial Period and early 19th-Century. A humble work boat closely associated with plantation culture, it is known only through numerous but sketchy references in Colonial documents, particularly port records and merchant vessel registries, court records such as estate inventories, newspaper advertisements, and by a few eyewitness accounts. Use of the term for other boat types in various parts of the world has not helped in the search for identity. Etymology of the term fails to clarify the confusion surrounding its application. Dozens of variations in spelling are in the Carolina and Georgia records, adding to the haze. One eyewitness sketch, by P.G.F. von Reck from the early 18th-Century, identified as a "petiager," is known but it clouds as much as it reveals. The periauger was a mystery in the maritime history community.

For more than twenty years it was my privilege to inquire into the origins and development of boats in the southeastern Atlantic States. During that time I examined historical documents, studied boats and hulks and fragments of boats, and sought clues at every opportunity. The periauger became more and more interesting. That chase led to the Caribbean islands, Central America, New England and New Jersey, the South Pacific, Africa, and Europe, with little satisfaction. Gradually though, information began to accumulate contributed to a growing picture. Port records yielded information pertaining to cargo and capacity. Vessel enrollments listed periaugers by name and owner or master, with tonnage and date of construction. Newspapers advertised their sale, loss or recovery and sometimes arrivals and departures. Published travel journals added first hand accounts of how they were used, and how they performed.

The data showed that periaugers in northeastern North Carolina ranged between three and a half, and seven tons burthen. Wilmington, N.C. and Charleston, S.C. vessels could be larger, and on the Savannah River and Gulf Coast they could be even larger, in the range of twenty to thirty-five tons, suggesting something completely different from the periaugers of upper North Carolina.

Canoes and periaugers are often lumped together, or closely associated, in the historical record. Any small boat carved from a log was a canoe to the English, peragua to the Spaniards and pirogue to the French. Periaugers were larger but the term is clearly related and probably derived from the same root as the French or Spanish terms. According to various reports, periaugers could be sailed or rowed. I some the masts were taken down for rowing. Plantation inventories typically listed both periaugers and canoes and their gear, giving an idea of comparative values. Some are described as a kind of large canoe. They carried cargo on the sounds and rivers and some were used by local militia as scout boats. One report says that periaugers of twenty to thirty five tons were rowed by two oars. Some apparently undertook short along shore voyages to trade with neighboring colonies.

So the term, periauger, as we have come to understand, refers not to a particular kind of boat, but a class of unconventionally constructed vessels, mostly log-built, more often made not in shipyards, but at locations, often remote, where the trees from which they were made were felled. They were favorites among plantation owners and perhaps independent merchants trading with plantations because they could operate from river banks, beaches along the edges of sounds, and other unimproved landings. They plied the often shallow waterways between plantations and mercantile centers like Edenton, Beaufort, Wilmington, Georgetown, Charleston, and Savannah. They were quickly made and inexpensive at a time when labor was available and cheap.

A key reference for understanding what a periauger, or a canoe, is comes to us from John Lawson who, writing in 1701, gives us what has become the best eye-witness description of "canoes and pereaugers" that we have.

An interesting first-hand account of building colonial dugouts is related by John Lawson, an Englishman traveling through the Carolinas in the first decade of the eighteenth century. From James Towne on the Santee in South Carolina in 1700 he writes:

The next Day we entered Santee River's Mouth, . . . As we row'd up the River, we found the Land towards the Mouth, and for about sixteen Miles up it, scarce any Thing but Swamp and Percoarson, affording vast Ciprus-Trees, of which the French make Canoes, that will carry fifty or sixty Barrels. After the Tree is moulded and dug, they saw them in two Pieces and so put a Plank between, and even a small Keel, to preserve them from the Oyster-Banks, which are innumerable in the Creeks and Bays betwixt the French Settlement and Charles-Town. They carry two Masts and Bermudas Sails, which makes them very handy and fit for their Purpose; . . . .

The "French Settlement" was at Jamestown, which was inhabited by Huguenots who came into Charleston as early as 1680 seeking freedom from religious persecution. Later, Lawson took up residence on the Trent River in North Carolina, again among French Huguenots. This group had come down from Virginia, and was moving southward in search of a good site to plant their settlement. Writing on the qualities of the cypress tree, Lawson says:

Of these great Trees the Pereaugers and Canoes are scoop'd and made; which sort of Vessels are chiefly to pass over the Rivers, Creeks, and Bays; and to transport Goods and Lumber from one River to another. Some are so large as to carry thirty Barrels, tho' of one entire Piece of Timber. Others that are split down the Bottom, and a piece added thereto, will carry eighty, or an hundred. Several have gone out our Inlets on the Ocean to Virginia, laden with Pork, and other Produce of the Country. Of these Trees curious Boats for Pleasure may be made, and other necessary Craft. . . . This Wood is very lasting, and free from the Rot. A Canoe of it will outlast four Boats, and seldom wants Repair.

What John Lawson described is known as split-dugout construction, a way of extending the basic dugout shell by splitting it along the centerline and adding structure between the two halves. The technique is used to make canoes and flatboats as well periaugers, and has been found in certain areas of southwestern France, from where it was likely brought to this country by the Huguenots.

In concise, if archaic, language Lawson tells us the kind of logs and how they were used to make the boats, where and how the boats were used, what their cargo capacity was, and how they were rigged. Later in his narrative he reiterates his observations and adds further information. But despite Lawson's valuable first-hand account, the process he witnessed baffled historians and students down through the decades. Only when actual examples of the spilt dugout tradition were recognized and examined in recent years has the accuracy of Lawson's observations been appreciated.

To be sure, when all is taken into account, it becomes clear that what was called a periauger could cover a broad range of vessel configurations. The record indicates some were long, narrow, and made in one piece from a single log, while others were made in the split dugout tradition or of more than one log. There is also early reference to periaugers built of planks. Considering the peculiarities and limitations of log construction it must be concluded that the vessels at the upper end of the tonnage range (15 tons and up) were most certainly plank-built and would be in the forty-foot and longer range. At the bottom of the range of tonnages (3.5 to 7 tons) the boats could have been shaped from a single log, split and joined to a backbone structure in the exact manner described by Lawson. The smallest would be under thirty feet in length, basically large canoes. In the middle range it is more likely that each side was fashioned from a log each joined to the backbone in the manner of the split dugout method.

In the practice of naval architecture, you begin with the needs of the client. In this case, the "client's" needs were revealed, albeit piecemeal, in the composite historical record. The challenge to produce a design for the construction of an obscure vessel type was a temptation difficult to ignore in light of the atmosphere of mystique prevailing among maritime historians. The notion is not so great a stretch as one might think. There is a dictum in naval architecture that says simply, form follows function. For what purpose, and how, and where, will the boat be used? Then, how will it be built? Those questions answered, the boat takes form in the builders mind, or on the architect's drafting table.

Without knowledge of the construction method, a number of forms might satisfy the function criteria at this point. The final key, and most difficult to quantify, was how the vessel was built. It was the critical piece of the puzzle that determined overall size and proportions, in particular, length, beam and depth of hold.

Data collected during in the research eventually enabled us to construct a table correlating capacity in barrels with tons burthen and overall dimensional of vessels. Inserting limiting factors peculiar to log construction resulted in the ability to predict the dimensions of log-built vessels based on either one known dimension, or desired capacity. The dimensions and proportions of log built vessels differ from those of conventionally built vessels of the same or similar capacity. This is because the various ratios established for the relationship of length, beam, and depth of hold for merchant vessels cannot be met with log construction. Restrictions on maximum beam, due to limiting log diameters, result in longer vessels. Depth of hole is limited by the types of waters in which they operate. For example, a log boat equal in capacity to a thirty foot shallop may need to be thirty five or more feet in length.

In the mid 1990s maritime history and archaeology students under the direction of Dr. Lawrence Babits at East Carolina University undertook a feasibility and background study for the construction of a periauger or scout boat. Working with that effort I undertook preliminary calculations and produced a sketch and dimensions for such a vessel.

The opportunity to design and construct a vessel to periauger criteria came from the Perquimans County Restoration Association in 2000. Among other historical properties they manage the Newbold-White House, the oldest brick residence in North Carolina. A periauger is listed in the inventories for this property and it was thought that the presence of such a vessel at the site would enhance their interpretive programs. The North Carolina Maritime Museum, PCRA, and ECU reached an agreement and enlisted me to produce the design.

Discussion with the owners resulted in establishing the key dimensional criteria. Some non-historical considerations necessarily were part of the early planning, namely, a bridge span with a height restriction of twenty six feet, and the ability to trailer. It was decided that a vessel of thirty feet overall length could meet the restrictions and fall within the range of tons burthen required to be called a periauger. At the smaller end of the periauger spectrum, thirty feet overall might have been considered a large canoe by some, but the five and a half ton rating definitely put it within the range of known periaugers from northeastern North Carolina.

The design process for the reconstruction project was initiated with construction of a half model based on requisite preliminary calculations overall dimensions and design displacement, and incorporating by eye features characteristic of log construction. There are visual cues that result from the differences in hull geometry related to carved surfaces versus planks sprung over frames and it was vital that the vessel exhibit that quality. Moreover, the overall general shape of the hull must conform to the limiting realities of a tapered cylindrical source that contains it. The rise of the sheer forward, the breadth of beam and its freeboard and the breadth of the transom at its height all must lie within the perimetric boundaries of the "log." Additionally there should be an economic relationship between the shape of the boat and the amount of material that is removed to achieve that shape. This is the domain of the log boat "digger." It has been described as conceptualizing a boat that can be gotten out of a given log, or otherwise as the ability to visualize the boat as it lies within the log. The half model approach afforded a freedom to realize a log boat conception that did not seem likely with ducks and spline on a drafting table. After shaping the half model, the lines were transferred to the drafting table where the science of naval architecture was applied. In this manner a level of performance was assured while preserving the intuitive qualities of the model. It was essential that the final design be predictably safe and functional. The prototype, by virtue of its place in the historical record, was certainly a functional and manageable vessel. Just how well it performed and what was involved in navigating the vessel would hopefully be learned from experience with the reconstruction.

A similar approach was taken during transferring the offsets to the mold loft floor. Greater tolerances than would have been allowed in lofting conventional lines were applied so as to introduce a level of variation into the finished surfaces. This is an arguable point. Even with perfectly reconciled lines the process of shaping and finishing the hull surface itself would likely have resulted in desirable surface inconsistencies. Still, it seemed appropriate to have an attitude of "controlled imprecision" throughout the process of simulating log shaping.

There were only two options for construction. One was to use actual logs and replicate the process from beginning to end. The other was to devise a method that simulated and hopefully represented the defining peculiarities of log construction. Because locating, acquiring, and transporting logs of proper quality and size presented a mammoth expense and complication, an alternative means of construction was sought. A scheme of laid up chunks of cypress wood oriented longitudinally like the grain in a log was devised. In this manner a shell representing the roughed-out stage of the dug out log was produced. Interior and exterior surfaces were then worked down to the lines with hand tools. The construction scheme also replicated the characteristic three-part construction of the prototype.

Construction did not follow exactly the scheme as designed. Instead of the two shells being built independently and attached to the center structure, the vessel was laid up all in one sequence. Hence there are glue lines representing the seams between the three major elements that can be pointed out for educational purposes, but there are also other glue lines that confuse the imagery. Moreover, the reconstruction does not test the endurance of the prototype's three-part construction scheme. Most of the deviation from the plans can be attributed to the Museum's production schedule imposed by other program commitments. This was a long, involved project that virtually tied up the shop, staff, and volunteers for the duration. Other departures resulted from discussion between owner, builder and designer. Dockside tests and sailing trials were cut back to meet the delivery date.

Two dockside tests that I, as designer, insisted upon were an inclining experiment and swamped buoyancy test. The latter was absolutely necessary because of 1500 pounds of lead ballast placed in the bottom beneath the foot gratings. The periauger is designed to carry cargo and the difference between the weight of the boat itself (2500 pounds) and its weight when fully loaded (over 9000 pounds) is considerable. Obviously the boat cannot perform at its best in its light ship condition and ballast is indicated. Because this is an open boat with no supplementary flotation, however the original specifications called for all ballast to be disposable sand bags. However, lead pigs were installed in the vessel and an additional 1320 pounds in the form of bagged gravel was provided. When swamped the hull reached equilibrium with the gunnels awash in quiet water, indicating that self rescuing will be very difficult, probably impossible in any kind of seaway. With the bagged ballast removed the swamped hull came to equilibrium with the tiller port awash. For self rescue ability, costly lead ballast will have to be discarded in the event of a knockdown or other swamping.

Another undesirable consequence of the lead ballast is an abnormally low vertical center of gravity which makes the boat very stiff with a very quick roll period. In the heeling experiment a moment of 600 foot-pounds was required to heel the boat three degrees. A quick roll period can be hazardous for crew and boat. The original boat would not have been so stiff.

The boat sails well in open water, is fast on a reach in a breeze but is more cumbersome in close quarters than a modern vessel, especially against strong tide currents, and in light airs. In light load conditions it suffers from adverse leeway, an expected condition that improves with increased displacement. However it should be understood that the original operators of this type of boat well understood its limitations and wasted no energy trying to make it do something it really doesn't want to do. They sailed in fair conditions, rowed in less than fair, and beached when it got too tough. That's probably what we in the 21st Century will do best to learn from this reconstruction.


Length overall: 30 feet 6 inches
Beam, moulded: 7 feet 4 inches
Depth of hold: 3 feet 0 inches
Full load displacement: 9000 lbs. (fresh water)
Weight of hull: 2400 lbs.
Drag of keel: 4 inches
Draft: 19 inches stern, 15 inches forward
Sail area: 323 square feet
Tonnage for Admeasure: 5.48 Gross (by old rule, or 60 barrels capacity)
Mast maximum vertical height above water line: nominal 25 feet
Hull thickness: bottom 3 inches, bilge area 1-1/2 inches, gunwale about 1 inch at top
Pounds per inch immersion: 738 pounds
Moment to trim one inch: 1024 foot-pounds
Slenderness ratio (relative displacement): 202
Prismatic coefficient: 0.56
Moment of inertia, load waterplane about the centerline: 417 feet to the fourth power
BM, metacentric height: 2.75 feet
Righting arm at 10 degrees heel (calculated): 0.46 feet


Alford, Michael B. "French Boatbuilding in the Carolina Colonies."The European Origins of the Small Watercraft of the United States and Canada, Joseph T. Butler, Thibodeaux: Center for Traditional Louisiana Boatbuilding and the Museum Small Craft Association: p.20-5 (1992).

------. "French Sources of Vernacular Boatbuilding Practices in the Carolinas."Underwater Archaeological Proceedings From the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference, Shelly Smith, Los Angeles Maritime Museum: Society for Historical Archaeology: 43-8 (1993).

------. "Origins of the Carolina Split-Dugout Canoes." International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 21, no. 3: 191-203 (1992).

------. "Tracing Colonial Carolina Boats to Their European Roots."Proceedings of the Seventh International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology: Construction Navale Maritime Et Fluviale. Patrice Pomey, and Eric Rieth, Archaeonautica, no. 14. Aix-en-Provence: CNRS-Universite de Provence: 273-80 (1998).

Alford, Michael B. And Geoffrey J. Scofield. Tabulated synthesized data relating log-built vessel capacity, cargo, and basic hull dimensions. Unpublished (1991)

Beaudouin, Francois. "Les Bateaux De L'Adour." Genese D'Une Architecture Nautique. Bayonne (1970).

------. Les Bateaux De L'Adour . Conflans-Sainte-Honorine: l'Association des Amis du Musee de la Batellerie, Bulletin No 22 (1987)

Brickell, John. The Natural History of North Carolina. Dublin (1737). Notes: 1968 reprint by: Johnson Publishing Company, Murfreesboro. Must be taken with caution , esp. notes on periaugers and canoes, lifted from Lawson and distorted.

Clonts, F. W. "Travel and Transportation in Colonial North Carolina." North Carolina Historical Review 3, no. 1: 17-35 (1926). Notes: confined to the Albemarle region

Crittenden, Charles Christopher. The Commerce of North Carolina 1763-1789. New Haven: Yale University Press,(1936). Notes: A good oversight of many primary sources brought together

------. "Ships and Shipping in North Carolina 1763-1789." North Carolina Historical Review VIII, no. 1: 1-13 (1931).

Doar, David. Rice and Rice Planting in the South Carolina Low Country. Charleston: The Charleston Museum, (1936). Notes: Contributions from The Charleston Museum, Edited by E. Milby Burton, Director

Fleetwood, William C. Jr. Tidecraft: The Boats of South Carolina, Georgia, and Northeastern Florida. Tybee Island, Georgia: WBG Marine Press (1995).

Gannon, Peter Steven, Editor. "Huguenot Refugees in the Settling of Colonial America." Colonization Failures in Brazil, Florida, and North Carolina, Liddell. Jane Hawkes, New York: The Huguenot Society of America: 63-74 (1985).

Hvidt, Kristian ed. Von Reck's Voyage - Georgia in 1736. Savannah: Beehive Press (1980).

Kelso, William M. Captain Jones's Wormsloe. Athens: University of Georgia Press (1979).

Lawson, John. A New Voyage to Carolina. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press [1709](1967). Notes: Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Hugh Talmadge Lefler

Moore, Francis. A Voyage to Georgia Begun in the Year 1735. London: J. Robinson (1744).

O'Regan, Deirdre, and Lawrence E. Babits. "Reconstructing the 1740 Scoutboat SAVANNAH." Museum Small Craft Association Transactions 1996-1997 3: 14-22 (1997).

Pecorelli III, Harry,"The Scout Boat: Its Evolution and Function As Determined Through Analysis of the Chronological Progression of Vessel Terminology From 1600-1750." Partial fulfillment for History 5005, East Carolina University (1993).

Pecorelli III, Harry, Michael B. Alford, and Lawrence E. Babits. "A Working Definition of "Periauger"."Proceedings of the Society of Historical Archaeology, SHA/Panamerican Maritime, Memphis, Tennessee: 22-8 (1996).

Petit, James P. Ed. South Carolina and the Sea: Day by Day Toward Five Centuries: 1492 - 1976; Volume I. Charleston: State Ports Authority (1976). Notes: a chronology of maritime and related material and happenings without citations.

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. A History of Transportation in the Eastern Cotton Belt to 1860. New York: Columbia University Press (1908). Notes: reprint: Octagon Books, Inc. N.Y. (1968)

Poesch, Jessie. The Art of the Old South: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture & the Products of Craftsmen, 1560-1860. New York: Harrison House (1989). Notes: originally Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. Bishop Roberts 1739 View of Charleston Harbor containing a boat resembling Lawson's description.

Smith, Henry A. M. "French Jamestown." South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 9: 220-7 (1908). Notes: early history of the settlement where Lawson observed the French building their boats

Steffy, J. Richard. "Construction Details of the Brown's Ferry Ship."Beneath the Waters of Time: Proceedings of the Ninth Conference on Underwater Archaeology, J. Barto Arnold, Austin, Texas: Texas Antiquities Committee: 55-61 (1978).

Still, William N. Jr., and Richard Stephenson. "Shipdata: List of Vessels Built in North Carolina With Pertinent Data." Notes: unpublished tabular printout, no date

Vedder, Charles S. "Our Huguenot Ancestors: Their Homes in France." Transactions of the Huguenot Society of South Carolina 75: 94-8 (1970). Notes: original material compiled by Prof. F. Muench, 1898


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