Disappearance of the Beothuk

In April 1823, a group of Newfoundland fur trappers encountered three Beothuk women at Badger Bay – a mother, Doodebewshet, and her two daughters, Easter Eve (her Beothuk name is unknown) and Shanawdithit. The women were in a starving condition and had journeyed from the island's interior in search of mussels. Although Shanawdithit seemed otherwise in good health, her mother and sister were sick with tuberculosis and died shortly after the men brought them to Exploits Island. Shanawdithit estimated that no more than 15 people were left in her tribe.

Spirit of the Beothuk by Gerry Squires, 2005
This life-sized bronze statue of Shanawdithit stands at Boyd's Cove on Newfoundland's northeast coast. Shanawdithit is widely believed to have been the last of the Beothuk. She died of tuberculosis on 6 June 1829 in St. John's.
Photo by Art and Carol Griffin. Reproduced by permission of Art Griffin. © 2005.
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Spirit of the Beothuk by Gerry Squires, 2005

She spent the next five years at Exploits Island, working as a servant in the household of the magistrate and merchant John Peyton Jr. In 1828, the Boeothick Institution moved her to St. John's, where she lived for a year under the care of the philanthropist and scientist William Epps Cormack. Shanawdithit provided Cormack with important information about the Beothuk culture and history. She translated English words into her own language, drew pictures of Beothuk tools, food, mythological figures, homes, and other artifacts, and illustrated various encounters between her people and European settlers.

On 6 June 1829, Shanawdithit died of tuberculosis. She was about 29 years old. Although her death is widely accepted as marking the end of the Beothuk people as a distinct cultural entity, oral evidence indicates that some survivors were still living on the island, in Labrador, and elsewhere in North America. Some may have joined neighbouring native groups, such as the Innu and Mi'kmaq. In 1910, the American anthropologist Frank Speck spoke with a woman who self-identified as Beothuk. Santu Toney said that her father was Beothuk and her mother Mi'kmaq. Both of her parents had died in the 1800s. Toney also said that she had known other Beothuk-Mi'kmaq couples, but did not cite any specific examples. She was living in Massachusetts at the time.

Shanawdithit's sketch of a devil, ca. 1823-29 Shanawdithit's sketch of a devil, ca. 1823-29
Shanawdithit contributed to white society's limited understanding of Beothuk traditions by drawing pictures of Beothuk tools, food, mythological figures, homes, and other artifacts. A handwritten caption next to this sketch (not shown) reads: “Aich-mud-yim. The Black Man, or Red Indian's Devil. Short & very thick; He dresses in Beaver Skin, has a large beard, etc.”
Drawing by Shanawdithit. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (C-028544), Ottawa, Ontario.
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A variety of factors contributed to the disappearance of the Beothuk. The arrival of European settlers dramatically reduced the amount of available land and resources, while an almost complete lack of trade and other interactions between the two peoples precluded any beneficial relationships. At the same time, exposure to European diseases, particularly tuberculosis, took a toll on the Beothuk population. Sick, starving, and largely isolated from outside help, the Beothuk dwindled in numbers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and eventually disappeared.

Reduced Access to Land and Resources

Avoidance was one strategy the Beothuk used to deal with the Europeans' arrival – they withdrew from areas where the newcomers settled to live elsewhere on the island. By the late 17th century, English and French settlers and seasonal fishing crews had claimed many of the island's coastal areas, particularly in Trinity and Placentia Bays. While this left much of Newfoundland's interior and some of its more sheltered inlets available to the Beothuk, it also cut them off from valuable salmon, seal, and other coastal resources that previously made up an important part of their diet and lifestyle.

Beothuk access to resources continued to shrink throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as European settlement expanded northward and westward. Salmon-rich Notre Dame Bay initially provided a safe retreat for the Beothuk until settlers opened salmon-catching stations there in the early 18th century. The Beothuk retaliated by stealing nets and attacking some settlers, but the fishing stations remained in place and the Beothuk eventually retreated to the Exploits River in the island's interior.

 Shanawdithit's sketch of Beothuk spears, ca. 1823-29
Shanawdithit's sketch of Beothuk spears, ca. 1823-29
The Beothuk scavenged abandoned fishing stations for nails, kettles, fish hooks, and other metal pieces. They converted some of these items into arrowheads for harpoons, spears, and other weapons.
Drawing by Shanawdithit. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (C-028544), Ottawa, Ontario.
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Here, however, the Beothuk had to survive on limited food resources. Freshwater fish were scarce and moose were not yet present on the island. Caribou made up the bulk of their diet. The Beothuk periodically travelled to the coast in search of food, but had to compete with a growing settler population. The few Europeans who encountered Beothuk in the 1800s often reported that they were starving. Malnourishment would have made it even more difficult for weakened hunters to catch food for their families.

The Beothuk took steps to resist and adapt to European encroachment. In addition to moving inland, they adjusted many of their hunting, subsistence, and other practices to better suit life on the interior. These efforts may have included improving food-preservation technologies to allow caribou and other meat to last throughout the year, and altering hunting methods to better harvest interior species. They also retaliated against the encroachments by stealing fishing nets, destroying river dams, boats, and other property, and by sometimes attacking their European competitors.

Limited Interaction with Europeans

Limited interaction with Europeans also contributed to the Beothuk's demise. Newfoundland's seasonal fishery and small settler population meant it could not support a missionary effort until the 1800s. At the same time, European interest in Newfoundland was mostly confined to its marine resources, so neither the British nor French governments appointed agents to establish relations with the Beothuk.

With no fur traders, missionaries, or government agents to facilitate contact and promote peaceful relations, and with the Beothuk strategy of avoidance, the two groups remained largely isolated from one another. Thus, the Beothuk were cut off from any help that may have come from potentially friendly groups among the outsiders.

In 1822, William Cormack had hoped to make contact with the Beothuk during his 30-day trek across the island's interior, but failed to meet anyone. He subsequently founded the Boeothick Institution in 1827, which sent out other expeditions that also failed to find any Beothuk. It was by then widely feared that they would soon be extinct as a people.

Disease

European diseases also became a problem for the Beothuk, particularly after permanent settlement of the island increased in the 18th century. While some Beothuk may have contracted the measles or smallpox, tuberculosis was likely the most devastating of the European diseases.

Although it is unknown exactly how many Beothuk died from tuberculosis, evidence from Shanawdithit's conversation and other sources suggests their population sharply declined during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, from approximately 350 in 1768 to 72 in 1811 (Marshall, 1981). Tension between European settlers and the Beothuk sometimes escalated into violence and there were deaths on both sides, but this cannot account for such a sudden and dramatic population decline.

Portrait of Demasduit, 1819 Portrait of Demasduit, 1819
A group of fur trappers captured Demasduit, who was Shanawdithit's aunt, on 5 March 1819 near the Exploits River. She lived in white society for less than a year before dying of tuberculosis on 8 January 1820.
Watercolour by Lady Henrietta Martha Hamilton. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (C-087696), Ottawa, Ontario.
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If, however, Europeans transmitted tuberculosis to Beothuk living in increasingly confined areas, the disease may have quickly spread among a population vulnerable to unfamiliar viruses and bacteria. As increasing numbers of Beothuk became ill, it would have further hampered their ability to hunt and gather food for survival.

Scholars estimate the Beothuk population was small before European contact – between 500 and 700 people – which would have made their survival as a people even more precarious in the face of European encroachment and disease.

Article by Jenny Higgins with additional research by Carolyn Lambert. ©2008, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

Updated July, 2013

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