Albert Pike and the Old Canoe

Where the shadow is heavy the whole day through—
There lies at its moorings the old canoe.

“The Old Canoe” was a popular 19th century poem written by Emily Rebecca Page. However, over the years, the poem became attributed to another person, a man named Albert Pike.

Yes. That Albert Pike—the Mason, Confederate general, and poet-lawyer of Arkansas.

Albert Pike circa 1880, courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

To learn why the poem became attributed to Pike, one should look no further than Columbia, Tennessee. Albert Pike left Massachusetts (the state of his birth) in 1831, headed for the West. It seems that Pike, like so many others of the day, stopped in Columbia on his way to a new frontier.

It is not clear how long Pike stayed in Columbia, but it was long enough for him to rack-up a bill for room and board at the Nelson House hotel. Pike was not having much luck in Columbia and the young school teacher and poet did not have the funds to cover his fare. He looked towards the West once more.

Pleasant Nelson, the proprietor of the hotel, was known to keep an old canoe tied on the banks of the Duck River. Albert Pike helped himself to this canoe one night and paddled downstream to Gordon’s Ferry on the Natchez Trace. Now, with Columbia and his hotel bill well behind him, he could start anew.

Pike would find success in Arkansas as a newspaperman and attorney. He would also become active in politics and a leader of the Whig party. In this capacity, Pike would return to Columbia.

1844, hometown-boy James K. Polk is the Democrat nominee for President of the United States. Not everyone in Columbia is behind “Young Hickory,” though. The local Whigs planned a huge rally in support of their candidate, Henry Clay. Among the many noted orators to speak at this rally was a man that the people of Columbia remembered—Albert Pike.

Perhaps he had forgotten about the hotel bill. Maybe, perchance, Mr. Nelson had forgotten about the hotel bill and the canoe, too. Pike would know when he returned to Columbia.

Pike checked into his Columbia hotel (it is safe to assume not the Nelson House), and, as he tried to sleep, the town band began playing on the street below. It was a very catchy piece of music. There were also twenty verses of lyrics to go along with the tune. Only these lines remain:

“Albert Pike he came to town
          to spend a day or two.
 He ate up Nelson’s meat and bread
          and stole his old canoe.”

After enduring several encores of this performance by the local Democrats, Albert Pike was said to have left Columbia again without ever giving his Whig speech. It was the last time he was ever known to be in Columbia.

This humorous little act performed by the people of Columbia would follow Pike for many years. The story about he and the old canoe he stole became so well-known that Pike was eventually given credit for writing the poem titled “The Old Canoe.”

The story did little damage to Pike’s fame, however. He would go on to fight in the Mexican War, be active in railroad speculation, and eventually became a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, in command of Native American regiments. After the War, he returned to law and focused on Freemasonry, on which he wrote much, including the famous work, Morals and Dogma.

All pretty good for a common “canoe thief.”

-Adam Southern

From the Knoxville Daily Tribune, April 6, 1876.

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