The History Of North Carolina’s Shad Boat

The History Of North Carolina’s Shad Boat

Suz Suz August 15, 2022 0 Comments History, Latest News

Boat building and boating are an integral part of North Carolina’s history. From commercial and water transportation to recreation, boating has shaped eastern North Carolina’s economy and lifestyle. One of the most iconic boats in North Carolina’s history, a boat credited to playing a major role in rebuilding the economy for many southerners after the Civil War is the Shad boat. 

Watermen referred to the Shad boat as the “smart” boat. It was fast and easy to handle, a thing of grace and beauty with sleek curves and a shallow draft. It could navigate dangerous shoals with confidence. It was powered by three sails–a mainsail, a jib and a topsail. 

In 1987 the North Carolina State Assembly recognized the Shad boat as the State Historic Boat of North Carolina.

Who Built the First Shad Boat?

The originator of the Shad boat was George Washington Creef. Creef was a fisherman and boat builder, living on Roanoke Island. Shortly after the Civil War, Creef had an idea for creating a stronger, larger boat that could haul large catches of fish and navigate the unpredictable waterways of eastern NC. 

In the 1870s Creef crafted the boat by combining traditional split-log techniques with conventional plank -on-frame construction. After the war timber was scarce but Creef found local durable timber including cypress, cedar and juniper. The boat’s hull was shaped from the root ball of the Atlantic white cedar, also known as juniper trees that grew along the shoreline of the Pocosin wetland region of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina. Creef taught other boatbuilders along the outer banks from Elizabeth City to Ocracoke how to construct the boats and soon their popularity took off. 

The long boats were ideal due to their stability and how easily one could maneuver them in shallow sound waters. According to David Cecelski, the story goes that the first Shad boat was named the Dolphin by Creef’s assistant. 

What Was Unique About Shad Boats?

Paul Fontenoy, Maritime Research and Technology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, explains how the Shad boat is different. “They’re very different from any other boat.” The principal difference is the way that the keel is built, because the keel is essentially a very skinny dugout canoe that had framing put onto it, then was planked like a regular boat. It makes it very strong.” 

This shallow draft sloop with a broad bottom was quick and  easy to handle making it more suited for the area then the existing small sailing craft. Shad boats quickly became the choice for fishing, ferrying and progging, meaning doing anything from cruising on the water to hauling farm produce. The Shad boat was the workhorse of the water.

Illustration of people fishing in a shad boat | Inn on Bath Creek

What Was Their Primary Use?

The Shad boat got its name from the fish it was used to catch – the shad

Because it was so efficient at its craft, it was a key factor in helping North Carolina recover from the devastation of the Civil War.  

Just as the shad boat was becoming popular, fishing was becoming more efficient. Mighty seine nets, pound nets, gill nets were laid down to round up herring and shad that swam into the Sound and up rivers by the millions to spawn each spring.

It was a time of the great Albemarle fisheries, when fishermen worked all day and into the night to bring in large catches that would be exported to a country demanding more and more fish. Even with these hauls there was still enough left to process for keeping people fed throughout the rest of the year.

The sturdy and reliable  shad boat was the perfect boat for the job. Its 8-foot beam gave it stability, especially when handling heavy pound nets. The round bottom and the deep V-shaped bow could take on steep, choppy waves even when heavily loaded.

Smaller boats, like kunners and skiffs could not have handled enough volume to make the fisheries profitable.

However over time due to high costs of construction the production of the Shad boat ended in the 1930’s. They stayed in use into the 1950s.This was a tribute to the high quality and craftsmanship of these boats.

Where Can You Find a Shad Boat?

Even though construction of the boats stopped in the 1930’s, there are still some to be found on the water and museums. Close to 100 years old, they are a timeless piece of North Carolina history. 

The Roanoke Island Maritime Museum has a Shad boat on display. Ella was built in 1883 by George Washington Creef. The museum’s address is 104 Fernando St. Manteo, NC.

The North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort has a collection of shad boats, including an original built by George Washington Creef, Sr.

If you are a fan of wooden boats and are planning a trip to Manteo, consider a stop over in Bath, NC.  We are on the way to the ferry and offer plenty of local history. Among other “firsts”, Bath was the first port of NC. Fishing has always been popular in our little part of the world.


Leave your reply