The long indented coast of Newfoundland and its many inland
waterways were the Beothuk's highways for long-distance travel.
They used birchbark canoes, which were swift, had an excellent
carrying capacity and could be carried overland. The Beothuk were
known as skilled canoeists who not only navigated Newfoundland's
large lakes and river systems but also travelled on the ocean,
including to Funk Island, 60 km out into the Atlantic.
The size of Beothuk canoes was seldom recorded, but people who saw
them noted that they could carry between two and ten occupants.
Using measurements of canoes from other native groups, hunting
canoes for two people would have been 3.65 to 4.27 m (12 to 14 ft)
long. Canoes for travel on lakes, rivers and the ocean were between
4.27 and 6.09 m (14 to 20 ft), large enough to carry five
travellers. Ocean canoes for six, eight or ten passengers were
about 6.09 to 6.71 m (20 to 22 ft) long.
While no full-sized Beothuk canoe has survived, several small-scale
replicas have found their way into museum collections. One of them
was made by Shanawdithit while she lived on Exploits Island. In
addition to these replicas, contemporary reports and drawings
provide information on the canoe's shape and construction.
The Beothuk had two major canoe designs: one had a strongly curved bottom so that it looked half-moon-shape in profile, the other had a straight bottom with no curvatures at the ends. The first type was best suited for ocean travel. Its extensive curvature from the bottom up into the ends (rocker) and considerable draft made it particularly manoeuvrable and increased its capacity to keep on course in strong winds. In line with canoes of other tribes on the eastern seaboard, this canoe type would have been symmetrical fore and aft - that is, the greatest width was at the centre and both ends were alike.
The sides of the canoe flared out from a central timber or keelson
so that the cross-section looked V-shaped. One could say that this
canoe did not have a bottom, since it had no flat area in the
centre. The Beothuk used rock ballast, covered with moss, to settle
the canoe upright in the water and to counteract its tendency to
tip sideways when unloaded. The high, peaked front (stem) and back
(stern) sections and the pointed upward curvature (hogging) of the
sides were conspicuous, distinguishing this canoe type from those
of any other native group.
Beothuk camp with 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. 1773).
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL MG-100), St. John's, Newfoundland.
The second canoe type had a straight bottom-line and a sharp angle at the juncture between bottom and end sections. There was no curvature from the bottom up into the ends (rocker). The greatest width (beam) and draft (depth) was located towards the rear of the craft and the front part was slender and longer than the back. The sides of the canoe flared out from the central timber, as was the case on the curved-bottom canoe. The end sections were high and peaked, and the sides had an upward curvature that was also sharply pointed.
Because this canoe design had less draft than the curved-bottom one, it required less ballast. It would have been well suited for travel on lakes and rivers, although its considerable draft - in comparison with canoes from other groups - could have presented problems on shallow or rocky rivers.
Birchbark canoe replica.
Courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John's, Newfoundland.
All replicas that have survived are of the straight-bottom type, suggesting that this was the Beothuk's major design. The curved-bottom type - described by John Guy in 1612 and by John Cartwright in 1768 - was probably developed when ocean travel was at a peak. By the end of the 1700s, when the Beothuk were largely confined to the interior and did not venture on the ocean beyond the inner coastal zone, this canoe design may have become obsolete.
For the construction of bark canoes, native canoe builders from all
across North America employed the same basic principles: a hull
made from sheets of bark was prepared first, and then a frame
consisting of gunwales, thwarts, ribs, and stem and stern supports
was built into it. This contrasts with the methods used by
Newfoundlanders for their fishing boats: they first assemble the
structural timbers and then cover this "timber skeleton" with
planking (representing the hull) from the outside.
End profile of canoe replica made by Shanawdithit, showing
Reproduced by permission of the Canadian Museum of Civilization,
Hull, Ontario. Drawing by Cliff George.
Thus, Beothuk canoe builders placed large sheets of bark from the
paper birch (Betula papyrifera) on a flat piece of ground with the
white, rough outside turned upwards. Then they laid a long shaped
timber or keelson on the centre line of the bark, which was folded
upwards at a steep angle on either side of it. This gave the canoe
a deadrise, or V-shape, in cross section. A temporary building
frame placed inside the bark cover provided an outline of the canoe
shape when viewed from above. The height of the sides was
established by lifting the frame upwards. At the upper edge of the
sides (the sheer), long wooden battens (the gunwales) were lashed
with split roots. The lashing was protected by thin strips of wood
or gunwale guards. Thwarts, also called cross-pieces, were
inserted. They set the width of the craft and held the sides apart.
To protect the bark hull inside, the canoe was lined with wooden
boards that were held in place by ribs. The ribs would have been treated with
steam so that they could be bent sharply over the keelson. They had
to be fitted tightly because one of their functions was to maintain
the shape of the bark hull.
The seams that closed the hull at either end were strengthened by
sticks that were lashed to them inside and outside; they replaced
the stem pieces and headboards used by canoe builders of other
native groups. Slender saplings, fastened below the gunwale on the
outside, acted as fenders. All seams and weak spots were gummed
inside and out with a mixture of spruce resin, charcoal, fat and
other ingredients. The final touch would have been the application
of a coat of red ochre.
For the hull of the curved-bottom canoe the Beothuk were said to
have used two bark sheets with a curvature at the bottom,
representing the sides. They sewed them together along the
curvature underneath the central keelson to avoid the crimping or
buckling that resulted from trying to fold a straight sheet over
the strongly curved keelson. Also, the extensions of the keelson
were used instead of sticks to strengthen the seams at either end
of the hull.
The Beothuk propelled their canoes with single-headed paddles. At
times, they may have rigged up a bushy tree to act as a sail. After
contact with Europeans they occasionally hoisted canvas sails,
although, in principle, the bark canoes were not designed for
When a body of water had to be navigated and a canoe was not at hand, the Beothuk lashed together several tree trunks to make a raft.
For travel on foot in deep snow the Beothuk used snow shoes. The frame was made from a narrow strip of wood bent into a loop, with the ends lashed together to form the tail at the back. According to an eyewitness account the tail was about one metre long giving the snow shoe an unusual length. A Newfoundland snowshoe expert has recently constructed such a snowshoe and found it comfortable to wear in deep snow. The Beothuk snow shoe had a single support bar fitted across the frame to support the foot. The open spaces were filled with a mesh made of rawhide strips. The mesh size could have varied: a more open mesh was optimal for fast travel; a closer mesh helped to spread the weight and was better for travel when carrying loads.
For transporting heavy loads over ice and snow the Beothuk used sledges or toboggans. Because there is no record, we do not know whether they employed flat-board toboggans or runner sleds. Both types were used by other native people in the Maritime Provinces and Labrador and may also have been employed by the Beothuk.
©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