A native community on the south and northeast coasts of Newfoundland, the Beothuk were traced back to prehistoric ancestors, but became extinct by 1829.
Constructing comfortable wigwams of saplings covered with bark or perhaps caribou skins, the Beothuk home was a temporary summer refuge. On the south and northeast coasts of Newfoundland, the wigwams were sheltered in inlets and coves. When autumn arrived, new sturdier homes were built inland. More solidly structured, the wigwams were partially subterranean, “constructed by digging a shallow depression, erecting a conical wigwam in the middle and pulling the excavated earth around the perimeter,” said Ralph Pastore in “Museum Notes – The Beothuks” of The Rooms Provincial Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Beothuk built another wigwam of similar subterranean construction with a larger diameter of approximately six metres. Near the 19th century, the Beothuk were using logs instead of poles for durable wigwams, and built storehouses for their supplies.
Beothuk Way of Life
Using a powder form of the mineral “red hematite,” also called red ochre, the Beothuk painted their skin and decorated their canoes and other belongings. Caribou skins were fashioned into warm clothing by the Beothuk, forming the leather into moccasins and mittens, leggings and cloaks. In winter, the natives made snowshoes, in summer, the Beothuk made canoes. The Beothuk canoe was built strong enough to handle ocean waves. The boats were “bark canoes with a high prow and stern and a sheer which rose markedly amidships,” said Historica Dominion. The native peoples used harpoons to catch the fish, with sharp tips of stone or bone.
Moving with the seasons, the Beothuk may have envisioned a responsibility to the land to ensure that the living creatures and plants would survive from year to year. In the summer, the natives enjoyed delights from the ocean – salmon, whale and seal meat. They varied their diet with bird and inland animal protein hunted with arrows and crude knives.
Their methods of harvesting provided security, so that “they would always have a rich and plentiful diet,” noted “The Kids’ site of Canadian Settlement: Beothuk,” of Library and Archives Canada. “This is because they would hunt and fish in different areas during different seasons.” Using conservation methods, the Beothuk stopped fishing during spawning season, stopped beaver trapping when birthing time came and stopped hunting the caribou when it was calving season.
Ancestors of the Beothuk
Ancestors of the Newfoundland peoples have been traced back to prehistory through stone tools from a thousand years ago, found by archaeologists in southern Labrador, stated Pastore, but he also suggested “a small, remnant Maritime Archaic population… remained on the island and eventually became the historic Beothuk.”
It appears the Beothuk spoke a language similar to Algonkian, and were able to communicate with other natives along the Quebec-Labrador coast. The size of the complete Beothuk population is unknown – when explorers for the European fishery arrived on the Newfoundland coastline in the 1600s, they found the number of Beothuk was small, only between 500 and 1,000 people.
The European fishery was seasonal, the men departing before winter’s onset. The Europeans left behind metal scrap bits from such things as fishhooks and nails that the Beothuk picked up. They formed the abandoned debris to useful items like spear points. Thus, noted Pastore, the Beothuk “did not need to trade with Europeans for the metal tools that were so desired by all other New World peoples.”
European Settlers and Micmacs on Newfoundland
Eventually, English communities sprang up along the Newfoundland coastlines in the 1700s. In general, the Beothuk avoided the newcomers. The Europeans perhaps blocking access of the Beothuk to much of their food staples, Micmac natives also migrated onto the island, causing more competition for precious resources. Forced to live on inland hunting; there was not enough food for all. The Beothuk peoples did not survive.
While some European settlers were friendly to the Newfoundland natives, others were aggressive and hostile. An episode with two men, John Peyton Sr and Jr, was particularly egregious. Clubbing several Beothuk to death for thievery, the settlers were ordered to capture a native woman as an interpreter in 1819, said Library and Archives Canada. Carrying her baby in her arms, Demasduit attempted to escape her pursuers but she was too ill to run away. Her husband was shot dead by the Peytons as he tried to prevent the kidnapping of his wife and child. In the skirmish, the baby was abandoned and died. Promised she would be released, Demasduit was given the British name of Mary March. The Beothuk woman died of tuberculosis within a few months, before her release was possible.
Shawnadithit the Last of the Beothuk
In 1823, only about 23 Beothuk were alive. Shawnadithit was captured along with her mother and sister to be slaves to the English. Shawnadithit was renamed Nancy April, since she was caught in the month of April. (Her mother and sister died shortly after capture.) Shawnadithit was the last Beothuk. Tuberculosis claimed the young woman; she was buried in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
With the passing of Shawnadithit, the Beothuk peoples sadly vanished into history.
Pastore, Ralph T., “Museum Notes – The Beothuks,” The Rooms Provincial Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador Accessed December 1, 2010
“Beothuk,” Historica Dominion of the Canadian Encyclopedia Accessed December 1, 2010
“The Kids’ Site of Canadian Settlement: Beothuk,” Library and Archives Canada Accessed December 1, 2010
This article first appeared on suite101.com in 2010. Copyright Susanna McLeod