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The Beothuks of Newfoundland disappeared in part because they had nothing European settlers wanted

By Denise Flint

Photo: (Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions) microfiche series; no. 94749 in the Queen Elizabeth II Library at Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL. Original housed in The National Library of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

It was in 1612 that adventurer and colonist John Guy first met the people who already inhabited Newfoundland. He was acting under the charter of the Council and Company of the New-found-land Plantation to establish a colony on the island, which had been claimed for the British crown in 1583. His orders included the instruction to “capture one of the savages of the country … and teach him our language, that you may after obtayne a safe and free commerce with them.” The order was fraught with the assumptions taken for granted at the time, including the belief that the inhabitants were “savages” (inferior enough that the Englishmen would not be obliged to learn their language instead of vice versa). He and 13 companions, setting out to fulfill their remit, encountered a small group of Beothuk. They ate a meal together, had a few drinks and played some music before agreeing to meet again in the same place the next year.

This was the last recorded friendly interaction between the two people. The following year a different crew, who knew nothing of the agreement, happened to arrive at the meeting place, saw a large group of native people on the shore and immediately fired a cannon charge. The Beothuk retreated into the woods and, eventually, out of all contact, the only North Americans to completely withdraw in the face of European aggression and encroachment on their lands. In 1829 Shanawdithit, known as the last of the Beothuk, died in St. John’s. It had taken a little longer than 200 years to traverse the dark road from first contact to annihilation.

A female Red Indian of Newfoundland by William Gosse, 1841. Photo:Reproduced by permission of Ingeborg Marshall. From Ingeborg Marshall, A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, ©1996)

Nowadays, the Beothuk are defined by the fact that they no longer exist. When one hears the word Beothuk the description that immediately springs to mind is “the extinct Indigenous people of Newfoundland”. But who were these mysterious people before they were reduced to nothing more than memory? With the exception of a few drawings by Shanawdithit (who, apparently, was quite artistic), most of the information we have has been pieced together from contemporary European reports and, more recently, archaeological digs. With no oral history, no living customs, no one carrying on their traditions, the first-person voice is silent.

Jacques Cartier described them as being “of indifferente good stature and bigness, but wild and unruly,” and it was Cartier who first recorded their use of ochre to colour their skin, hair and clothing. They were consequently tagged with the sobriquet Red Indian or Redskin, a designation that was later applied carelessly and inaccurately to all native North Americans. Another chronicler from the 1500s, Johan Alphonse, described them as “people of goodly stature, and well made; they are very white … and if they were apparelled as the French are, they would be as white and as fair.”

Descriptions like these and the fact that some Beothuk men were fully bearded, an unusual characteristic for an Indigenous North American, led many to suspect a European contribution to their heritage, either through earlier Viking encounters or ship-wrecked fishermen and explorers. Historians and linguists even went so far as to suggest that the Beothuk language contained many words of Nordic or other northern European origin. In a stunning display of both racial and cultural prejudice, John H. Cooper in a 2007 monograph postulated that “cultural evidence of musicality, as well as of a strongly contrasting blend of tolerance and vindictiveness points strongly to some Gaelic heredity.”

However, recent DNA testing has shown that the Beothuk people shared the genetic characteristics of native people across North America and had none of the genes associated with European ancestry. So much for those “Gaelic” traits they were reported to exhibit. What surprised a great many people, though, including experts in the field, was the fact that they were not descendants of the earlier Maritime Archaic people or the Paleo-Eskimo group that followed those people, as had previously been assumed. The Beothuk were the third, independent wave of people to inhabit Newfoundland—and to disappear.

They never constituted a large population. The most generous estimate puts their numbers at about 2,000 when Europeans first made contact with them. Others believe they were as few as 500. Before contact, they lived along the coast of Newfoundland where they were able to survive securely on a diet of shorebirds, seals and fish, as well as caribou, beaver and other terrestrial animals. Their homes (mamateeks) were water-tight, comfortable and built to last for years.

This map accompanied the report written by John Cartwright, a magistrate in Newfoundland from 1768 to 1773, on the intolerable situation of Newfoundland’s Indigenous populations. The map contains information on the now-extinct Beothuk people and shows the location of their villages and the fences they built in order to catch caribou. Photo: Library and Archives Canada/NMC 000027 © Public Domain.. Credit: John Cartwright. nlc-8738

Ironically, life got a little more comfortable for the Beothuk when Europeans first arrived on Newfoundland’s shores. After a few abortive attempts at settlement, Britain decided to treat the island more as a way station than a colony. Crews (not just from England) would come over yearly to fish, setting up temporary camps on shore for living and fish processing and then sailing back to Europe when the season was over. Generally, they left quite a few supplies behind, some discarded and some cached for use the following year. To the Beothuk there was no distinction between the two. Those abandoned camps and everything in them were fair game and easy pickings, just as their own goods would be for someone else if they left them behind. They helped themselves to nails, sails, hooks, lines and possibly sinkers—whatever they saw that they could adapt for their own use. New technology was embraced as nails were turned into arrowheads and fish hooks were fashioned into awls.

As a result of this steady robbery—as the Europeans saw it—the Beothuk had no reason to form any kind of relationship with these incomers. They could take what they wanted without being forced to trade with or even interact with the European interlopers. After all, what contact they’d had in the past had generally been unpleasant and usually fatal, a state of affairs that showed no sign of abating as Europeans saw them as little more than thieves, who made their own lives more difficult. Worse, they saw them as unnecessary. Whereas fur traders in the rest of North America needed local inhabitants to either guide them or trade with them, fishermen had no such requirement. A native population was simply a nuisance.

Unlike their closest neighbours, the Innu and Mi’kmaq, the Beothuk chose to withdraw, maintaining, as best they could, their own way of life rather than becoming increasingly dependent on European trade. Unfortunately, it was a strategy that failed. As more and more Europeans arrived and the embargo against establishing settlements was dropped in the 18th century, the Beothuk moved deeper and deeper into the interior and slowly lost access to the coast.

The term nomadic is often interpreted as moving randomly and whimsically. In fact, nomadic people like the Beothuk had defined patterns to their movement and planned their peregrinations very specifically to be in certain places at certain times. They would, for example, be on the northern coast of the island when the seals came in to shore, and in the interior to hunt caribou in the autumn. Newfoundland is not blessed with an abundant supply of terrestrial animals (and there were no moose in those days). Being cut off from the coast meant a huge loss in terms of available food. Archaeological evidence suggests that they began hunting caribou year-round, a practice as desperate as it was unsustainable.

Withdrawal also didn’t prevent them from falling prey to European diseases—the usual culprits, especially tuberculosis, ran through the population like a river flooding a canyon. When fur trappers started moving into the interior as well, their fate seemed sealed. Now they were in direct competition with Europeans for what scarce resources were left to them.

A similar situation had faced the Innu in Labrador, who had been forced out of their traditional coastal lands. But there was one notable difference. They had Hudson’s Bay trading posts and missionaries to turn to for help. The Beothuk were on their own, adapting to an inhospitable environment and surrounded by enemies moving closer and closer every year. Sporadic attempts were made by the government to re-establish, or perhaps more truthfully, establish friendly relations with the dwindling population, but for the most part fur traders and settlers were having none of it. The Beothuk were hunted for sport and treated cruelly when accidentally encountered. One rather unlikely story tells of 400 of them being driven onto a headland and then slaughtered.

In the spring of 1823 some fur trappers were approached by five Beothuk on the ice on Notre Dame Bay. Relations between the two groups being what they were, the trappers fired on them, killing one man and one woman. The remaining three, all women and starving, who had risked coming to the shore to collect mussels, gave themselves up and were taken to the local magistrate and then to St. John’s. They were Shanawdithit, her mother and sister, both of whom died shortly thereafter. According to Shanawdithit there were only 13 more Beothuk left in the world. They were looked for, but never found.

Almost all the firsthand knowledge we have about the Beothuk comes from Shanawdithit. During the six years she lived with Europeans she learned English, spoke about her life and drew illustrations of their settlements. William Cormack, in whose home she resided for some time, wrote about what she told him, concluding: “Here ends all positive knowledge of her tribe, which she never narrated without tears.”

When Shanawdithit died in in 1829 at age 28, a St. John’s newspaper reported: “She died of consumption, a disease which seems to have been remarkably prevalent amongst her tribe.” There seems to have been no acknowledgement that it was European settlers who introduced the disease to a people who had no resistance to its ravages.

Shanawdithit was buried in the St. Mary’s Anglican Church graveyard in St. John’s. Her skull was later exhumed and sent to Britain where it was destroyed in an air raid during World War II. No one knows what happened to the rest of her skeleton. Her burial ground is now the site of a sewage treatment plant. A small monument marks the approximate spot where they believe she was interred. No other Beothuk has ever been identified and with her passing the Beothuk were declared extinct.

Newfoundland author Gary Collins has written two books about the Beothuk. His most recent, The Last Beothuk, won the inaugural Newfoundland Reads competition and is a local best seller. He has done extensive research on the subject and is convinced that there are Beothuk descendants alive today.

“I have no doubt that there are still people of Beothuk blood all over Newfoundland and Labrador,” he says. “We’re only an island in the summer. The Beothuk could have easily crossed the ice to Labrador. They were modern, sophisticated hunters and they only had a few caribou to hunt.”

His words echo those of Dr. Mullock, bishop of St. John’s, who wrote in an 1893 magazine:

“I have slight reason to think that a remnant of these people survived in the interior of Labrador. A person told me there, some time ago, that a party of Montagnais Indians saw at some distance (about 50 miles from the seacoast) a party of strange Indians, clothed in long robes or cassocks of skins, who fled from them. They lost sight of them in a little time, but on coming up to their tracks they were surprised to see the length of their strides, which proved them to be of a large race, and neither Mic-Macs, Montagnais, nor Eskimos. I believe that these were the remains of the Beothio nation; and, as they never saw either a white or red man but as enemies, it is not to be wondered at that they fled. Such is the only trace I can find of the Beoths.”

A sculpture entitled Spirit of the Beothuk, created by Gerald Squires, is part of the display at the Beothuk Interpretation Centre, Boyd’s Cove, NL. Photo: Courtesy of Beothuk Interpretation Centre, Provincial Historic Site

Other lone Beothuk members could have been assimilated into Mi’kmaq, Innu or even white households, so it’s not unreasonable to assume there may be people of Beothuk heritage left alive.

The story of the Beothuk runs through Newfoundland history like thread through a quilt. Initially infantilized and scorned, later romanticized and mourned, to this day their fate, and how to best remember and celebrate them, remains at the forefront of the provincial consciousness. The Newfoundland and Labrador coat of arms shows two Beothuk holding the shield. Premier Dwight Ball recently announced that the government would be looking into redesigning the outdated motif. Demand is growing for a statue of Shanawdithit to be erected in the capital where so many statues of European figures already have a home. Authors from Bernice Morgan to Michael Crummey have written about the Beothuk; their name is emblazoned on everything from a building in St. John’s to a luxury yacht, shuttle tanker and green energy company. On the wackier end of the scale, a woman in North Carolina recently proclaimed herself the new chief of the Beothuk, based on some dodgy DNA testing (she’s accepting donations on Facebook to help her fight her land claims).

In any event, it seems safe to say that there are no more pure-blooded Beothuk left in the world—and that the Beothuk as a race may have died out simply because they thought they didn’t need the Europeans and the Europeans didn’t need them. In either case it makes for a sad epithet.

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