The word canoe comes from the Carib kenu (dugout), via the Spanish canoa.
Constructed between 8200 and 7600 BC, and found in the Netherlands, the Pesse canoe may be the oldest known canoe. Excavations in Denmark reveal the use of dugouts and paddles during the Ertebølle period, (ca 5300 BC – 3950 BC).
Australian Aboriginal people made canoes using a variety of materials, including bark and hollowed out tree trunks. The indigenous people of the Amazon commonly used Hymenaea trees. The Pacific Northwest canoes are a dugouts usually made of red cedar.
Many indigenous peoples of the Americas built bark canoes. They were usually skinned with birch bark over a light wooden frame, but other types could be used if birch was scarce. At a typical length of 4.3 m (14 ft) and weight of 23 kg (50 lb), the canoes were light enough to be portaged, yet could carry a lot of cargo, even in shallow water. Although susceptible to damage from rocks, they are easily repaired. Their performance qualities were soon recognized by early European immigrants, and canoes played a key role in the exploration of North America, with Samuel de Champlain canoeing as far as the Georgian Bay in 1615. René de Bréhant de Galinée a French missionary who explored the Great Lakes in 1669 declared: "The convenience of these canoes is great in these waters, full of cataracts or waterfalls, and rapids through which it is impossible to take any boat. When you reach them you load canoe and baggage upon your shoulders and go overland until the navigation is good; and then you put your canoe back into the water, and embark again. American painter, author and traveler George Catlin wrote that the bark canoe was "the most beautiful and light model of all the water crafts that ever were invented."
Native American groups of the north Pacific coast made dugout canoes in a number of styles for different purposes, from western red-cedar (Thuja plicata) or yellow-cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis), depending on availability. Different styles were required for ocean-going vessels versus river boats, and for whale-hunting versus seal-hunting versus salmon-fishing. The Quinault of Washington State built shovel-nose canoes, with double bows, for river travel that could slide over a logjam without portaging. The Kootenai of British Columbia province made sturgeon-nosed canoes from pine bark, designed to be stable in windy conditions on Kootenay Lake.
The first explorer to cross the North American continent, Alexander Mackenzie, used canoes extensively, as did David Thompson and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
In the North American fur trade the Hudson's Bay Company's voyageurs used three types of canoe:
- The rabaska or canot du maître was designed for the long haul from the St. Lawrence River to western Lake Superior. Its dimensions were: length approximately 11 m (35 ft), beam 1.2 to 1.8 m (4 to 6 ft), and height about 76 cm (30 in). It could carry 60 packs weighing 41 kg (90 lb), and 910 kg (2,000 lb) of provisions. With a crew of eight or ten (paddling or rowing), they could make three knots over calm waters. Four to six men could portage it, bottom up. Henry Schoolcraft declared it "altogether one of the most eligible modes of conveyance that can be employed upon the lakes." Archibald McDonald of the Hudson's Bay Company wrote: "I never heard of such a canoe being wrecked, or upset, or swamped ... they swam like ducks."
- The canot du nord (French: "canoe of the north"), a craft specially made and adapted for speedy travel, was the workhorse of the fur trade transportation system. About one-half the size of the Montreal canoe, it could carry about 35 packs weighing 41 kg (90 lb) and was manned by four to eight men. It could be carried by two men and was portaged in the upright position.
- The express canoe or canot léger, was about 4.6 m (15 ft) long and were used to carry people, reports, and news.
The birch bark canoe was used in a 6,500-kilometre (4,000 mi) supply route from Montreal to the Pacific Ocean and the Mackenzie River, and continued to be used up to the end of the 19th century.
Also popular for hauling freight on inland waterways in 19th Century North America were the York boat and the batteau.
In 19th-century North America, the birch-on-frame construction technique evolved into the wood-and-canvas canoes made by fastening an external waterproofed canvas shell to planks and ribs by boat builders Old Town Canoe, E.M. White Canoe, Peterborough Canoe Company and at the Chestnut Canoe Company in New Brunswick.
Although canoes were once primarily a means of transport, with industrialization they became popular as recreational or sporting watercraft. John MacGregor popularized canoeing through his books, and in 1866 founded the Royal Canoe Club in London and in 1880 the American Canoe Association. The Canadian Canoe Association was founded in 1900, and the British Canoe Union in 1936.
Sprint canoe was a demonstration sport at the 1924 Paris Olympics and became an Olympic discipline at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The International Canoe Federation was formed in 1946 and is the umbrella organization of all national canoe organizations worldwide.
In recent years First Nations in British Columbia, Washington State have been revitalizing the ocean-going canoe tradition. Beginning in the 1980s, the Heiltsuk and Haida were early leaders in this movement. The paddle to Expo 86 in Vancouver by the Heiltsuk, and the 1989 Paddle to Seattle were early instances of this. In 1993 a large number of canoes paddled from up and down the coast to Bella Bella in its first canoe festival - 'Qatuwas. The revitalization continued - an Tribal Journeys began with trips to various communities held most years.