Post-Contact Beothuk History
The Beothuk are the immediate descendants of a Recent Indian
people whom archaeologists refer to as members of the Little Passage
Complex. In fact, they are the same people; when Little Passage
people acquired European objects, archaeologists would refer to them
When Europeans arrived in Newfoundland in about 1497, the people we would
come to know as Beothuk lived all around the island, with the possible
exception of the eastern portion of the Avalon peninsula. There is good
evidence to suggest that Beothuk also lived on the other side of the Strait
of Belle Isle in what is now southern Labrador and the Québec Lower
North Shore. In fact, in many ways it is useful to think of the prehistoric
Beothuk (or Little Passage people) as part of a continuum that extended from
the island of Newfoundland to the coast of central Labrador where a closely-related
group known to archaeologists as the Point Revenge people lived.
Many archaeologists believe that the Point Revenge people are the
ancestors of today's Innu which would make the Innu the closest
living relatives of the Beothuk.
Beothuk Occupation of Newfoundland, 1497 - 1829.
Based on J. A. Tuck. “Prehistoric Archaeology in Atlantic Canada
Since 1975.” Canadian Journal of Archaeology No.6 (1982), p 203.
Illustration by Tina Riche.
The Beothuk, like all subarctic hunter-gatherers, followed a fairly
precise schedule during the year in order to get the food and other
material they needed to live. While this “seasonal round” probably
differed somewhat from place to place, it can be partially
reconstructed by archaeological evidence from a number of Beothuk sites.
At Boyd's Cove, in Notre Dame Bay, for example, it is possible
that people lived at this large base camp for most of the year.
The Boyd's Cove Beothuk would have been able to gather shellfish,
fish for inshore species, and hunt harbour seal and many migratory
birds close to the village in the warmer months, but they would have
to establish satellite camps in the outer islands and headlands in
order to kill harp seals in the late winter and early spring.
Similar special purpose camps would have been needed to take salmon
from nearby the larger rivers in the summer. A fall caribou hunt
would have been absolutely necessary, not only for the meat but for
the skins for clothing and the sinews (tendons) used as thread for
sewing. Caribou are most easily killed during their fall migration
when they cross large bodies of water, such as the Exploits River.
We know that some Beothuk groups maintained “deer fences” long,
funnel-shaped lines of poles with fluttery scraps of skin
(later cloth) on them. These drive lines, as they are sometimes
called, served to channel the animals into the water where they
could be more easily killed, sometimes as they scrambled up the
bank of the river. It is quite possible that whole bands of
Beothuk camped along the Exploits River in order to take
advantage of this resource.
In the prehistoric period, we also know that the ancestors of the
Beothuk would have had to schedule trips to the sources of grey-green and blue-green
cherts that they favoured for making
their stone tools and weapons. Geologists tell us that the likely source of
this chert in eastern Notre Dame Bay is in boulders left behind by the last
glacial age. To date, archaeologists have not discovered the whereabouts of
these chert boulders, but we can be assured that the prehistoric Boyd's Cove Beothuk
would have needed a sufficient supply of raw material to make into the
lance and arrow points necessary to carry out a caribou hunt.
The people who hunted and fished the coasts and interior of Newfoundland
were organized into bands, perhaps numbering 35 to 50 or so people.
Such groups were led by individuals who achieved a consensus among
their people. It is quite likely that a particularly good hunter served
as a leader for a caribou hunt, for example, while a wise, elderly
woman might have provided the leadership and advice to deal with the
new strangers who had come across the water from Europe.
We know relatively little about the first contacts in the 16th
century between the Beothuk and Europeans. There is evidence
that a casual trade, similar to what occurred elsewhere in the
Gulf of the St. Lawrence, was carried on in Newfoundland and
perhaps the Strait of Belle Isle. Such a trade may have at
times taken the form of a “silent barter”--an exchange that
involved one party leaving goods at a customary spot to be
replaced by goods left by a second party. Silent barter
seems to occur when two groups who are rather wary of each
other's presence wish to trade. Certainly, the Beothuk
would have wished to acquire the iron needles, copper pots,
knives and hatchets that were so attractive to other Aboriginal
people throughout the New World. Similarly, the first fishermen
who came to the region were delighted to be able to trade these
goods for the valuable beaver, marten and fox furs that brought
a high price in Europe.
Elsewhere in the northeast, this casual fur trade in the 16th
century developed into a full-blown trade in the 17th century.
In this regard, the Micmacs of the Maritime provinces are a good
example. The Micmacs began trading with the very first Europeans
to come to the area and by the beginning of the 17th century, had
come to depend upon them. While iron needles, hatchets and knives,
as well as copper kettles, cloth, and beads could enhance their life,
they came with a considerable cost. Fur-bearing animals provide relatively
little, if any, meat (except for beavers), but they require the
expenditure of a good deal of energy to hunt or trap. Time spent
trapping foxes or otters, say, and chopping holes in frozen beaver
lodges, was that much less time that one could spend hunting moose
and caribou. Also, there was a cost involved in simply gathering
at a fishing harbour to await the arrival of a European vessel.
We know from the historical record that, on occasion, Micmacs and
Innu clustered in large numbers at such places, quickly exhausting
the food supply. This sometimes meant that they then had to trade
for European food such as dried peas, flour, and the like--food
that was much less nutritious than traditional fare.
In addition to disrupting the traditional round, the fur trade
brought other ills as well. Europeans brought alcohol, with
which the Aboriginal people of the northeast had no experience.
By the 17th century the Micmacs were also acquiring firearms which
made warfare more deadly. There also seems to have been an increase
in Aboriginal warfare as various groups sought to expand their share
of the fur trade. Perhaps the greatest cost of the fur trade, however,
was European disease. The Native people of the New World had no
immunity to such diseases as small pox, influenza, measles, and the
like, and the 17th century was the beginning of a long biological
assault on groups such as the Micmac.
The Micmacs also experienced a kind of cultural assault as well.
The 17th century brought European missionaries who ridiculed
traditional beliefs and sought to make Christians of the people
they encountered. The Micmacs, and other people of the northeast,
also found themselves drawn into the imperial wars of the era.
This was a period when the French and the English fought for control
of these new (to them) lands, and it was customary for both nations
to try to secure Native allies.
Reconstructed Beothuk wigwam at Indian Point, Red Indian Lake.
Courtesy of J.A. Tuck, Atlantic Archaeology Ltd. From Dr. Ralph Pastore,
Shanawdithit's People: The Archaeology of the Beothuk (St. John's,
Newfoundland: Atlantic Archaeology Ltd., ©1992) 21.
Significantly, this was not the Beothuk experience. After the
beginning of the 17th century, there is little evidence of a trade
between the Beothuk and the fishermen and settlers of the island
of Newfoundland. One exception involved John Guy, an English colonizer
who in the fall of 1612 met Beothuk at the bottom of Trinity Bay,
Newfoundland. The nature of that meeting is interesting because of
how the Beothuk attempted to manage a trade between the two groups.
After an initial friendly encounter, Guy returned to the spot where
he and the Beothuk had met. There he found that they had erected a
dozen poles upon which they had hung furs and shells, obviously
expecting that Guy would leave behind what he thought was appropriate.
This appears to have been a classic example of silent barter, and may
have been the most common form of trade between the Beothuk and
Europeans in the previous century.
For about a hundred years after Guy's meeting with the Trinity Bay
Beothuk, they are almost absent from the historical record. Almost
certainly they were avoiding Europeans and acquiring the metal goods
they desired by picking them up from abandoned fishing premises.
By the 18th century, however, reports of conflicts between Europeans
and Beothuk increase, in part because an expanding English population
was beginning to encroach upon Beothuk territory. As European
settlement expanded into Bonavista Bay, and then Notre Dame Bay,
the Beothuk increasingly found it difficult to hunt and fish for
vitally-needed coastal resources. At the same time, a growing
Micmac presence in the southwestern and southern areas of the
island appears to have hindered Beothuk use of those areas.
Use of the Strait of Belle Isle region may have ceased even
earlier with the arrival of Basque whalers there in the middle
of the 16th century, followed by Inuit expeditions from the north
and French entrepreneurs seeking fish and seals. By the middle
of the 18th century, the Beothuk world had begun to collapse around
them and increasingly they became more dependent upon the caribou
and beaver of the interior.
These were not enough, however, and the Beothuk had to make
furtive trips to the coast for the seals, fish, and seabirds
that had sustained their people for generations. Now, though,
the Beothuk encountered settlers who regarded the Beothuk as
thieves, and clashes between the two groups were inevitable.
The Englishmen the Beothuk would have most feared, however,
were likely the people called furriers. Because the Beothuk
had not engaged in a developed fur trade, English settlers had
early in the 17th century begun to trap their own furs. This
was a development unusual in North America at such an early date.
Everywhere else at that time European settlers traded their goods to
Indians for furs. These furriers were skilled in living in the
woods and they very much resented the Beothuk taking their traps
which the Beothuk reworked into lance blades. Many of the attacks
against the Beothuk in the last half of the 18th century were
carried out by these people.
Furrier's trap, probably from the 18th century.
Beothuk took these traps and reworked the iron in them into tools
such as caribou spears.
Courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John's, Newfoundland.
Prior to 1768, British naval governors and other officials took
little notice of the Beothuk--probably because most Newfoundland
settlers and migratory fishermen were little affected by them.
In 1768, however, the naval governor, Hugh Palliser, sent Lieutenant
John Cartwright up the Exploits River in an attempt to make contact
with the Beothuk and to draw them into a peaceful relationship with
the English. Although Cartwright recorded numerous dwellings, he was
unable to meet with any Indians.
A Beothuk house and canoe.
This drawing is from John Cartwright's map, “A sketch of The
River Exploits and The east end of Lieutenant's Lake in Newfoundland” (ca.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL MG-100), St. John's, Newfoundland.
In some ways, Palliser was representative of a new spirit in the
Atlantic world. Increasingly, some members of society had become
concerned about the casualties of western civilization. The anti-slavery
movement, the movement to abolish judicial torture, and concern for the
plight of Native people were all part of this growing humanitarian impulse.
Palliser himself was concerned not only about the condition of the Beothuk,
but also about that of the Labrador Inuit. He requested that Moravian
missionaries come to Labrador, in part to help prevent conflict between
whalers and fishermen on the one hand, and the Inuit on the other.
Unfortunately, this increased concern about the welfare of the Beothuk
would have little real effect. In 1792 Captain George C. Pulling
surveyed the English settlers on the northeast coast collecting accounts
of atrocities perpetrated against the Beothuk and apparently submitted
this report to a Parliamentary committee, although nothing of substance
came of his efforts. A succession of governors, beginning with William
Waldegrave in 1797, issued proclamations forbidding attacks on the
Beothuk and offered rewards for making contact with the beleaguered
people, but again with little positive result.
The most substantial attempt to contact the Beothuk occurred in the
winter of 1811 when Governor John Duckworth sent Lt. David Buchan up
the Exploits River accompanied by a small force of marines. Buchan
surprised a large Beothuk camp whose occupants were probably paralysed
with fear. Buchan spent a short time with them during which he tried
to convince them that his intentions were peaceful. Deciding to go back
down the river for more presents, he left two of his men behind as hostages.
Unfortunately, when he returned he found the camp deserted and his two men
killed. It is probable that by this time the Beothuk had been so victimized
that only the most extraordinary measures could have brought about a
reconciliation between them and the settler population.
In the years after the Buchan expedition, settler populations continued
to encroach on what had been Beothuk territory, and the Beothuk continued
to raid fishing premises and furriers' cabins for European goods.
Not surprisingly, the settlers retaliated. In 1818 a group of Beothuk
cut loose a boat full of goods belonging to John Peyton Senior, a local
entrepreneur who had long been known for his brutal retaliation against
Beothuk who had taken his property. In the late winter of 1819, Peyton
and a number of his men attacked a Beothuk village on Red Indian Lake and
captured a young Beothuk woman after killing her husband. This woman,
Demasduit, or Mary March, as her captors would call her, was sent to
Twillingate and then to St. John's to meet the governor, who ordered her
returned to her people. After a futile attempt to reunite her with the
remaining Beothuk, she died aboard Buchan's vessel in January of 1820.
Portrait of Demasduit (Mary
March), painted in 1819 by Lady Hamilton. Original
portrait housed in the National Archives of Canada.
Courtesy of Dr. Ralph Pastore, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
In 1823, three starving, sick Beothuk women surrendered to a
Newfoundland settler living in Notre Dame Bay. They were brought to
St. John's by John Peyton, Jr., the son of the man who had led the
expedition which had captured Mary March. Ultimately, Buchan would
try to return the women to their homes, but two died leaving alive a
woman whom we know as Shanawdithit. Peyton Jr. took her into his
household where she lived for five years, during which time it is
quite possible that the small remnant left of her people died out.
Shanawdithit was sent to St. John's in 1828 where she was interviewed
at length by William Cormack, an explorer who had made two previous, and
unsuccessful, attempts to make contact with the Beothuk.
William Epps Cormack, 1796-1868.
Born in St. John's, William Cormack was the first European to journey
across the interior of the Island. On September 5, 1822 Cormack's
expedition departed from Smith Sound, Trinity Bay and arrived in St.
George's Bay on November 4th of the same year.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, Memorial
University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
Shanawdithit's descriptions of her people, both in interviews with
Cormack and in the form of a series of drawings illustrating the life
and history of her people are an invaluable source of what we know
about the Beothuk.
Sadly, Shanawdithit died in St. John's in June of 1829. Her
death probably marked the end of her people, and as such was a
tragedy of terrible proportions. It is important to remember,
however, that the demise of the Beothuk was not the result of
“500 years of genocide” as some writers have claimed. Rather,
it was the result of a complex mix of factors involving the island's
unique ecology, history, and economy. The fact that there is no simple
explanation for the extinction of the Beothuk in no way diminishes
their loss and that of humanity's.
© 1998, Ralph T. Pastore
Archaeology Unit & History Department
Memorial University of Newfoundland
Updated February, 2005