Personal Appearance and Items of Clothing
Several 16th-century records claim that the Beothuk were
“tall” or ”of large stature,” but this seems not to have been the
case. Reliable eyewitnesses said they were of “an ordinary middle size,” “broad-breasted” and with a “bold and upright posture.”
Unusually tall persons would have been the exception. Several
eyewitnesses claimed that the Beothuk were of a lighter colour than
other native people; others said they looked very much like the
The Beothuk were said to have worn their hair “somewhat long” and
straight; some of them had a strand of hair at the back of the head
plaited and decorated with feathers; others seem to have worn it
hanging down or had all of the hair plaited. The Beothuk were
generally beardless, although Demasduit's husband, Chief
Nonosabasut, was said to have had a bushy beard.
As mentioned earlier, the Beothuk traditionally painted their faces
and bodies with a mixture of red ochre and grease. When genuine
ochre was not at hand, they used reddish soil with a high iron
content that stains well. The ochre colour was a mark of tribal
identity and the first coat, given to infants, was regarded as a
sign of initiation. It also had a religious connotation.
Under favourable circumstances, the Beothuk were said to have been
ingenious, trustworthy and proud. On other occasions, they were
considered to be aggressive and vengeful and ready to retaliate for the many wrongs
they had suffered. Chief Nonosabasut was an exceptionally
courageous man. When his wife had been taken by the settlers, he
singlehandedly faced the armed men to demand her release - he paid
with his life for his loyalty to his wife.
Demasduit and Shanawdithit, the two women captives who stayed among
the English for an extended period, were said to have been gentle,
intelligent, affable and affectionate, but also proud. Shanawdithit
easily took offence if she thought she had been slighted.
Of the several portraits of Beothuk women that have survived, only
the miniature of Demasduit, painted by Lady Hamilton, is fully
authenticated. It portrays her as an attractive and sensitive young
woman with black eyes and short-cropped black hair. Two miniatures
by William Gosse, which were based on this portrait, show a more
stolid and mature person with a penetrating and reproachful look.
It is believed that Gosse's miniatures portray Shanawdithit.
Miniature of "A female Red Indian of Newfoundland" by
William Gosse, 1841.
This is believed to be a portrait of Shanawdithit.
Reproduced by permission of Ingeborg Marshall. From Ingeborg Marshall,
A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University
The Beothuk made their clothing from animal skins. Some were tanned with the hair intact; others had the hair removed to produce supple leather. There are no reports of Beothuk using European blanket material for their garments or wearing European clothes.
According to eyewitness accounts the Beothuk's major garment - worn by men as well as women - was a coat or cloak made from several caribou skins sewn together into one large piece. It was thrown over the shoulders, wrapped around the body and held in place by a belt. The hairy side was turned towards the body for greater warmth. Some garments had a collar made from marten, otter or beaver skins or had fringes. Other coats were made from leather and were lined with the soft skins of smaller furbearers. Women's coats had a hood in which to carry a baby. Some men wore special head covers. In the early 1600s European-style hats decorated with shells were recorded, and in the 1800s a chief was seen wearing a “high cap.”
Because Beothuk coats had no proper sleeves - the Beothuk did not produce tailored clothes as did the Labrador Inuit - the arms (and possibly shoulders) would have been protected with separate arm covers, tied together under the outer robe across the back and front of the body, as was the custom among other native people. The Beothuk's winter outfit also included mittens.
The Beothuk covered their lower torso with a loincloth. Although some contemporaries claimed that they went about "naked", most likely, by European standards, the native people were considered naked even if they wore a rudimentary item of clothing. In inclement weather the Beothuk wore leggings, which appear to have extended to the waist of the wearer, rather like pants. The legging that has survived was tied with thongs along the outside edge and had carved bone pendants and bird's feet attached. Since it was used as a burial shroud, the attachments may have been added for burial.
A woman's legging.
Drawing by Ruth Holmes Whitehead.
(1) vamp; (2) cuff; (3) sole.
Drawing by Ruth Holmes Whitehead.
Courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John's,
Footwear consisted of leg-skin boots and moccasins. Leg-skin boots
were made from the hide of caribou shanks left in their cylindrical
shape and sewn together at the lower end to form the toe part.
Moccasins, or ankle boots, were produced from three pieces of
caribou leather that formed sole, vamp, and cuff. They were secured
by a drawstring thong. Some boots had a finely fringed band sewn to
the upper edge. A cone-shaped projection at the heel appears to be
peculiar to the Beothuk design.
©1998, Ingeborg Marshall on behalf of the Beothuk Institute.
[Based on Ingeborg Marshall, A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk (Montreal: McGill-Queen's
University Press, ©1996).]
Revised by Ingeborg Marshall, February, 2012