The Beothuk at Ferryland

A surprising discovery during the 1995 archaeological field season was evidence that Ferryland had been occupied by the Beothuk, Newfoundland's aboriginal inhabitants. Although a fragment of a stone knife and several flakes discarded during the manufacture of stone tools were found in 1986, the 1995 and subsequent discoveries revealed a much more substantial Beothuk presence than that indicated by both history and archaeology.

Except for the writings of Henry Crout, who recorded John Guy's early 17th-century encounter with the Beothuk on the western Avalon and in Trinity Bay, historical sources are silent about Native people on the Avalon Peninsula; they are especially so for the eastern Avalon. The same is true for archaeology, for prior to 1995 no evidence of Beothuk occupation was known east of Blaketown, on the east coast of Trinity Bay.

A fanciful depiction of John Guy's 1612 encounter with the Beothuk in Trinity Bay
A fanciful depiction of John Guy's 1612 encounter with the Beothuk in Trinity Bay
From Theodor de Bry, America (Historia Americæ sive Novi Orbis), pt. XIII, German, edited by Matthaeus Merian (Frankfurt: Caspar Rðtel, 1628, 1634) 7. Copy courtesy of the CIHM/ICMH (Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions) microfiche series; no. 94749 in the Queen Elizabeth II Library at Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL. Original housed in The National Library of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

Excavations elsewhere in Newfoundland, however, had given archaeologists excellent examples of Beothuk settlements and collections of stone tools and other artifacts dating from the late prehistoric period to the early 18th century. More recent sites and historical documents record the last century or so of the Beothuk's existence. Beginning not long after Europeans began to exploit the coasts of Newfoundland, the Beothuk were displaced from their traditional territories, and by the mid-18th century were confined to the Exploits Valley and adjacent coast in central Newfoundland. Even in this area, among the last in Newfoundland to be settled by Europeans, they were soon denied access to the coast and forced to try to subsist on the impoverished resources of the Newfoundland interior. In little more than a couple of generations, the precarious nature of the resource base, conflict with Europeans, diseases introduced by Europeans, and probably other factors we will never understand, resulted in their extinction. The last Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died of tuberculosis in St. John's in 1829.

Miniature of A female Red Indian of Newfoundland by William Gosse, 1841
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 Press, ©1996).
Excerpt of Shanawdithit's obituary from <em>The Royal Gazette</em>, 16 June 1829
Excerpt of Shanawdithit's obituary from The Royal Gazette, 16 June 1829
Details reproduced from The Royal Gazette, 16 June 1829, p. 2.

The absence of references to the Beothuk on the eastern Avalon Peninsula is probably a result of this shrinking of their home territories. By the time Europeans began to take the trouble to write about Native people, the Beothuk had probably already been displaced from the easternmost of their traditional territories.