The Beothuk are the aboriginal people of the island of Newfoundland. They were Algonkian-speaking hunter-gatherers who probably numbered less than a thousand people at the time of European contact. The Beothuk are the descendants of a Recent Indian culture called the Little Passage Complex.
The Migratory Fishery and the Beothuk
The arrival of migratory European fishermen in the 16th century may have provided new opportunities for the Beothuk. These fishermen erected stages, flakes and wharves during the summer fishery, but after they left the island to return to Europe, they left behind nails, lost fish hooks, and scraps of iron and kettle. Evidence from a number of Beothuk sites indicates that the Beothuk picked up these metal objects and reworked them into arrowheads, lance points, harpoon end blades, awls and hide scrapers.
Everywhere else in North America, native people were usually eager to trade furs for metal cutting and piercing tools. The Beothuk, however, had the unusual opportunity to acquire such goods without having to exchange furs for them. This meant that they did not have to modify their traditional way of life by expending effort in the winter hunting fur-bearing animals such as lynx, marten, and the like--animals that provided little in the way of edible meat. Similarly, unlike the Mi'kmaq of the mainland, the Beothuk did not have to congregate at designated harbours to await the arrival of fur traders. This strategy often meant that the assembled Indians would quickly exhaust local supplies of game. By contrast, the Beothuk could make a quick trip to an abandoned European fishing station to acquire the desired metal goods.
The Beothuk acquired great skill at refashioning these objects into useful tools which would have considerably increased the efficiency of their hunting technology. Iron arrow heads were much tougher than those of stone and were easily re-sharpened. Iron harpoon blades would also have been much more effective than those tipped with stone.
While the Beothuk were able to coexist with, and probably to benefit from, a migratory fishery, the beginning of year-round settlement in the 17th century meant the onset of drastic change. As the French established a base at Placentia, and English settlement extended from Conception Bay to Trinity Bay and then Bonavista Bay, the Beothuk withdrew from European contact. Lacking the contacts with traders, missionaries and Indian agents that were characteristic of the mainland experience, the Beothuk became increasingly isolated.
After the middle of the 18th century, as the growth of English settlement increased, the Beothuk were increasingly denied access to the vital resources of the sea. In addition, the emergence of Newfoundland furriers, or trappers, meant that the Beothuk were now increasingly competing with white Europeans who were familiar with the Newfoundland interior. The presence of trap parts in 18th and early 19th-century Beothuk sites is clear evidence of the Beothuk practice of taking furriers' traps--a practice which inevitably brought retaliation.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the Beothuk were reduced to a small refugee population living along the Exploits River system and attempting to subsist on the inadequate resources of the interior. Although a succession of Newfoundland governors had, since the middle of the 18th century, attempted to establish friendly contact with the Beothuk, it was probably too late to change a pattern which had existed for perhaps 250 years. Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, died in St. John's, Newfoundland in 1829.