Locals find 18th century canoe in Tallahala


When Vincent Spradley went fishing recently, he came away with the catch of a lifetime from Tallahala Creek.

He and 15-year-old daughter, Brittany, who live in the Glade Community, and buddies Tommy Elias, 35, of Purvis and Jacob Livingston, 25, of Laurel returned to shore with a dugout canoe that could be more than 300 years old.

Spradley could only see about 7 inches of the 17-foot canoe sticking up at an angle in the middle of the creek, between the boat launch off Highway 29 South at Spurline Road and Tuckers Crossing.

“I saw it Saturday while I was riding the creek with my dog and fishing,” Spradley said. “I started fishing, but I kept thinking, ‘I better go back and look at that.’”

When he went back and took a closer look, he was glad he went back to check out the “log” that caught his eye.

“I felt of it and I said, ‘That’s a canoe,’” Spradley recalled. “I must have drove by it a hundred times.”

It was upside down in the creek, so what couldn’t be seen was a hollowed-out log with a seat sculpted into the wood at the end.

It was in knee-deep water and it took about three hours for Spradley and his crew to carefully dig it out. Livingston called Wayne County Sheriff Jody Ashley – a former conservation officer – and Ashley put him in touch with a state archaeologist who advised them how to preserve the canoe.

“They told us we needed to keep it wet or it could dry out and fall to pieces,” Elias said as he poured water from a pitcher onto the canoe. “We want to do things right. This is history.”

Conservation officer Keith Jones, who met them at the Highway 29 boat ramp, reiterated the advice about keeping it wet as they tried to figure out how they were going to transport it. There wasn’t much question what they were going to do with it.

“It’s not on sale, it’s for sale,” Spradley said. “This is the find of a lifetime.”

His daughter said she had done some research and learned that Native Americans would bore a hole in a canoe’s hull to “free the spirit” of the recently departed owner. There was a hole in the bottom of the canoe, a couple of feet from the seat.

Elias’ father is longtime Bassmaster pro fisherman Paul Elias.

“He ain’t never caught nothing like this,” his son said with a laugh. “This is something.”

State Historic Preservation Officer Jim Woodrick said that the canoe is likely from the 1700s, and officials can’t speculate about what tribe it could have come from — or even that it was made by Native American hands.

What he does know is that it’s a “remarkable find” to have anything that was hand-made in the 18th century.

“We have at least one (Indian dugout canoe) in the museum’s collection,” he said. “I’ve been here since 1997, and I’ve only heard of two or three being found in the state during that time.”

There is some question about who the owner of the canoe is, though.

“As I understand it … anything found in the streambed of a waterway belongs to the State of Mississippi,” Woodrick said, “but we need to do a little more investigation and have some more discussions.”

While the find’s keepers are holding their breath waiting for the ruling, the canoe is still submerged in a safe place.

“We want to preserve it ourselves,” Livingston said.

Thornton is the managing editor of The Laurel Leader-call.