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“The Gum-Tree Canoe”

GUM TREE. The black gum (Nyssa multiflora), one of the largest trees of the Southern states. Its small blue fruit is the favorite food of the opossum. Most of the large trees become hollow. Also, a hollow tree. — Webster, 1882

[Laura] felt her eyelids closing. She began to drift over endless waves of prairie grasses, and Pa’s voice went with her, singing… — Little House on the Prairie, Chapter 26, “Going Out”

Lyrics to “The Gum-Tree Canoe” were written in 1847 by S.S. Steele, with music by A.F. Winnemore. The song is sometimes known as “The Tom-big-bee River.” It was first published in Boston by George F. Reed. The lyrics mention the Tombigbee River, a river approximately 400 miles long which runs through Mississippi and Alabama. It unites with the Mobile River before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Although the gum tree generally refers to the eucalyptus tree (a native species of Australia), there are a number of native southern American gum trees, including the sweet gum, Liquidambar styraciflua, traditionally used to manufacture small boats.

Little is known of the life of Silas Sexton Steele, a popular songwriter and playwright in the 1840s and 50s. He wrote the lyrics to a number of “Ethiopian melodies,” including “Oh Darkie Don’t You Linger,” “The Rose of Alabama,” and “Dandy Jim of Caroline.” Anthony Fannen Winnemore (1815-1851) was a Philadelphia lyricist, singer, and composer. He worked as a music engraver in Philadelphia, and died there of consumption.

Two lines of lyrics used by Laura Ingalls Wilder in one of three surviving manuscripts and the published Little House on the Prairie (“Row the boat lightly, love, over the sea; / Daily and nightly I’ll wander with thee.”) are not part of the lyrics published by Steele and Winnemore. In November 1934, agent George T. Bye received a reply to his letter to the Edward B. Marks Music Corporation, asking for a copyright search of a number of song titles Wilder wanted to use in her third book. Among the list was an “unknown title” with the lyrics used by Wilder; most likely, this is the way Charles Ingalls sang the song. Marks replied that the song was “Old Gum Tree” and “was published by Brainerd in Chicago a long time ago and is most likely in the public domain.” There is another song titled “Old Gum Tree,” also an old minstrel song. Wilder and daughter Rose Wilder Lane may have done no more research on the song and simply used the lyrics as Laura remembered them.


1. On Tombigbee river so bright I was born,
In a hut made ob husks ob de tall yaller corn,
And dar I fust meet wid my Jula so true
An I row’d her about in my Gum Tree Canoe.

[chorus] Singing row away row, o’er de waters so blue,
Like a feather we’ll float in my Gum Tree Canoe.

2. All de day in de field de soft cotton I hoe,
I tink of my Jula an sing as I go,
Oh I catch her a bird, wid a wing ob true blue,
And at night sail her round in my Gum Tree Canoe.

3. Wid my hands on de banjo and toe on de oar,
I sing to de sound ob de rivers soft roar;
While de stars dey look down at my Jula so true,
An’ dance in her eye in my Gum Tree Canoe.

4. One night de stream bore us so far away,
Dat we could’nt cum back, so we thought we’d jis stay;
Oh we spied a tall ship wid a flag ob true blue,
An’ it took us in tow wid my Gum Tree Canoe.

(from Little House on the Prairie)

Row away, row o’er the waters so blue,
Like a feather we sail in our gum-tree canoe.
Row the boat lightly, love, over the sea;
Daily and nightly I’ll wander with thee.

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Click on the above images to view a copy of 1860s sheet music of “The Gum-Tree Canoe.”    


“The Gum Tree Canoe” (LHP 26)
     “Row away, row o’er the waters so blue”