Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Paddle Your Own Canoe

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 13, 2016

Back when autograph books were popular among schoolgirls, it was a given that one page would say love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.  In fact, F.G. Bosse suggested the phrase as an appropriate inscription in his book “Selections For Autograph and Writing Albums” published by Charles A. Lilley in 1879.

To paddle your own canoe means to be in control of your life and to set your own course.  It was used in the article “8 Tips For Starting Your Own Agribusiness” on February 15, 2016 on the Farmers Weekly website.  The writer interviewed Hanna Moule, 34, who launched her rural surveying firm in 2010 with nothing more than a laptop, a car, and a few clients.  Her first tip was this:

1.  Paddle your own canoe — “I took on my second employee to do cross-compliance and record keeping,” Hannah says.  “It’s bread-and-butter work that many land agents wouldn’t take on, but it builds a relationship that leads to return work.”

The expression has been around for a long time, and is still in use today.  It’s a proverb that’s found its way into many songs such as the one by Indiana pioneer poet Sarah Tittle (S.T.) Bolton (18 December 1814 – 5 August 1893) titled “Paddle Your Own Canoe” published in 1854.

Where’er your lot may be
Paddle your own canoe.

There was also a song mentioned in the Laura Ingalls Wilder (7 February 1867 – 10 February 1957) book titled, “By The Shores Of Silver Lake” where paddle my own canoe or paddle your own canoe is found in the verses shared in the book.  The lyrics were sung to the tune of “Rosin The Bow.”

PADDLE MY OWN CANOE

I’ve traveled about a bit in my time
And of troubles I’ve seen a few
But found it better in every clime
To paddle my own canoe.

My wants are few. I care not at all
If my debts are paid when due.
I drive away strife in the ocean of life
While I paddle my own canoe.

The love your neighbor as yourself
As the world you go traveling through
And never sit down with a tear or a frown
But paddle your own canoe.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 1:  The fifth book in the series, “By The Shores of Silver Lake” covered Laura’s childhood when the family lived near de Smet, South Dakota in 1879.

The phrase was used in 1865 by American writer and politician Charles Henry Smith using the pseudonym Billy Arp (15 June 1826 – 24 August 1903) in his book titled, “Billy Arp, So Called: A Side Show of the Southern Side of the War.”  It was registered with the Metropolitan Record Office in 1866.

Charles Henry Smith adopted his pen name, Billy Arp, in April 1861 after President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation ordering Southern rebels to retire peaceably.  He wrote the equivalent of an Open Letter to the President under his pen name, and that letter made him a household name.

In one letter, to Mr. John Happy (which he titled, ‘Billy Arp To His Old Friend‘) he began by saying:

I want to write to you personally about some things that’s weighin on me.  I look on you as a friend, and I feel lik dropping a few lines by way of unberthening my sorrowful reflections.  For the last few years you have travelled round right smart, and must have made a heap of luminous observations.  I hear you are no wliving in Nashville, where you can see all sides of every thing, and read all the papers, where you can study Paradise Lost without a Book, and see the devil and his angels, without drawing on the imagination, and I thought maybe you might assist me in my troubled feelings.

Yes, that was all one sentence.  Regardless, Billy Arp then launched into asking when the government was going to quit persecuting his people, and other important matters affecting those living in the Southern states.  At one point, he talked about the Constitution which, he said, had been smuggled into an “abolishun mush.”  The phrase appeared in this passage:

They built a fence around the institution as high as Haman’s gallows, and hemmed it in, and laid siege to it jest like an army would besege a city to starve out the inhabitants.  They kept peggin at us untell we got mad — shore enuff mad — and we resolved to cut loose from ’em, and paddle our own canoo.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2:  Bill Arp had a weekly column in the Atlanta Constitution that was syndicated to hundreds of newspapers.  At the time, no one had more verified regular readers than Bill Arp.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 3:  Bill Arp wrote 30 such letters over the course of the war, and into the early 1870s.  The theme of his letters was unwaivering in its support of the Confederacy, and its dislike of Union policies.

Back in 1807, Sicnarf (a pseudonym for the real author, and coincidentally, Francis spelled backwards) published “The Selangor Journal: Jottings Past and Present” in which he mentioned that in Malaysia, rather than loan money to entrepreneurs starting their own coffee plantation, they would let them make their own way.   It was, quite literally, a sink-or-swim scenario for those who started their own businesses.

They let each poor fellow paddle his own canoe, and if he capsizes and stretches out his hand in despair for someone to save him, offers all he posses — all his money, all his property only to save him from ruin, they won’t do it.  He may die and perish.  There are hundreds of thousands of things, which the Planters’ Association could do; but they don’t do them.

There’s no published mention of paddle your own canoe prior to its use in this book from 1807.  Somewhere between 1807 and 1865, the expression paddle your own canoe came to mean you were in charge of your destiny.  All this leads Idiomation to wonder what this might have to do with loving many and trusting few as F.G. Bosse suggested as a proper inscription for autograph books.

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