Extinction of the Beothuk

Newfoundland fur trappers captured three Beothuk women at Badger Bay in April 1823 – a mother, Doodebewshet, and her two daughters, Easter Eve (her Beothuk name is unknown) and Shanawdithit. The women were in a starving condition when the furriers found them 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 their captors brought them to Exploits Island. The deaths of these two women reduced the Beothuk population to about 11.

Spirit of the Beothuk by Gerry Squires, 2005
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.

Shanawdithit, about 23 at the time of her capture, spent the next six years at Exploits Island and St. John's, where she contributed to white society's limited understanding of the Beothuk way of life. She translated English words into her own language, drew pictures of Beothuk tools, food, mythological figures, homes, and other artefacts, and illustrated various encounters between her people and European settlers.By 1829, Shanawdithit began to exhibit symptoms of tuberculosis. She died of the disease on 6 June of that year, which likely marked the end of her people. Although scattered rumours of Beothuk sightings persisted for the next few years, Shanawdithit is widely believed to have been the last of the Beothuk.

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.

The extinction of the Beothuk was due to a variety of factors rather than a single cause. 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 land treaties or other negotiations. The Beothuk retreated to the island's interior, where food was scarce and survival difficult. At the same time, exposure to European diseases, particularly tuberculosis, took a toll on the Beothuk population. Sick, starving, and isolated from both Europeans and other Aboriginal peoples, the Beothuk declined in numbers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries until they eventually disappeared.

Limited Interaction with Europeans

Newfoundland and Labrador primarily served as a migratory fishing station for European fishing and whaling crews from the beginning of the 16th century until the middle of the 18th century. During this period, European land use was for the most part coNLined to coastal areas during the spring and summer months. Documentation of any interaction with the Beothuk is scarce, and although contact and trading did occur between the two peoples, it was likely on a limited basis.

Instead, archaeological evidence suggests the Beothuk scavenged abandoned fishing stations for nails, kettles, fish hooks, and other metal pieces. Elsewhere in North America, Aboriginal groups had to trade directly with Europeans to obtain these goods, but Newfoundland's migratory fishery made it easy for the Beothuk to forage for metal items after fishing crews left their stations and sailed across the Atlantic each fall.

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.

Upon their return, many European fishers felt the Beothuk were stealing their property, which resulted in tensions and coNLlict between the two groups. Some Europeans retaliated with violence, which intensified feelings of shared mistrust. This was compounded by an absence of any trade relations that could have placed the two groups in regular and perhaps mutually profitable contact. In addition, there were no missionaries or government agents to act as intermediaries between the Beothuk and Europeans. Newfoundland's seasonal fishery and small resident European population meant it could not support a missionary effort until the 1800s. At the same time, European interest in Newfoundland was mostly coNLined to its marine resources, which meant neither the British nor French governments appointed agents to discuss land or other treaties with the island's Aboriginal peoples. With no fur traders, missionaries, or government agents to facilitate contact between the Beothuk and Europeans, the two groups remained largely isolated from and apprehensive of one another.

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 on other parts on the island. By the mid-17th century, English and French settlers and seasonal fishing crews 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 land continued to shrink throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as European settlement expanded northward and westward. Mi'kmaq migrating from Cape Breton also began to permanently settle on Newfoundland's south coast during the 1700s, which may have prompted the Beothuk to avoid this area as well. Salmon-rich Notre Dame Bay initially provided a safe retreat for the Beothuk until European 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.

Here, however, the Beothuk had to survive on limited food resources. According to archaeologist Ralph Pastore, Newfoundland was at this time an “impoverished piece of the boreal forest” (1989) where food was scarce. Predator species were numerous and included bear, lynx, wolves, marten, weasels, fox, and humans, while prey species were few and largely coNLined to caribou, beaver, and arctic hare.

Although the Beothuk periodically travelled to the coast in search of food, they had to compete for resources with a growing resident white population. Like the Beothuk, settlers of European descent fished for salmon, hunted seals, and caught coastal birds and their eggs. They also laid some of their winter trap lines along caribou runs, making it even more difficult for Beothuk to harvest this vital food source. As their territory and food sources continued to disappear, the Beothuk found it increasingly difficult to survive. The few Europeans who encountered Beothuk in the 1800s often reported they were in a starving condition; malnourishment, however, would have made it even more difficult for weakened hunters to catch food for their families.

Aware of their shrinking population, the Beothuk took steps to resist and adapt to European encroachment. They retaliated against European use of their resources by stealing fishing nets, destroying river dams, boats, and other property, and sometimes attacking their European competitors. Anthropologist Donald Holly also suggests the Beothuk adjusted many of their hunting, settlement, subsistence, and other practices to better adapt to life in the interior after Europeans settled at coastal areas. 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.

While these strategies may have allowed the Beothuk to live independently of European fur traders, missionaries, and other agents and to avoid assimilation into another culture with its accompanying traumas, it also isolated them from any help that may have come from potentially friendly outsiders.

Disease

European diseases also became a problem for the Beothuk, particularly after permanent settlement of the island increased in the 17th and 18th centuries. While some Beothuk may have contracted the measles or smallpox, tuberculosis was likely the most devastating of the European diseases, as in the case of Shanawdithit, Doodebewshet, and Easter Eve.Although it is unknown exactly how many Beothuk died from tuberculosis, evidence from Shanawdithit's conversation and other sources suggest their population sharply declined during the late-18th and early-19th centuries, from approximately 350 in 1768, to 72 in 1811, and one in 1829. Although tensions between European settlers and the Beothuk sometimes led to hostilities and deaths in both groups, it cannot account for such a sudden and dramatic population decline. If, however, Europeans transmitted tuberculosis to Beothuk living in increasingly coNLined areas, the disease may have quickly spread among a population vulnerable to uNLamiliar European viruses and bacteria. If many Beothuk became ill, it would have further hampered their ability to hunt and scavenge food for survival. Some academics also estimate the Beothuk existed in small numbers before European contact – between 500 and 2,000 people – which would have made them even more susceptible to extinction after their land and resources began to shrink.

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.

This, alongside a shrinking resource base and isolation from European and Aboriginal groups that may have been able to offer assistance, were likely major factors contributing to the extinction of the Beothuk during the early decades of the 19th century.