The Beothuk were the aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland when European settlers first arrived. The total Beothuk population at any one time is thought by many present day archaeologists to have numbered between 500 and 1000 individuals. Following contact with the Europeans, disease, malnutrition, conflict with settlers and other native groups, and disruption of traditional Beothuk fishing sites by settlers resulted in the extinction of the Beothuk people in 1829.
The earliest inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland were the Maritime Archaic Indians who crossed the Strait of Belle Isle from Labrador to the island of Newfoundland around 3000 BC (roughly 5000 years ago). There is little evidence that they remained in Newfoundland after about 1000 BC.
Between roughly 850 BC and 950 AD two populations of Palaeo-Eskimos moved to Newfoundland. And around 50 BC a new population of Indians also crossed the Strait of Belle Isle to Newfoundland. When the written history of Newfoundland began (with the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s) the descendants of this new Indian population became known as the Beothuk (sometimes Beothuck or Beothic).
The written record of the Beothuk is elusive, and much of the mythology and oral tradition which has followed us to the present time has been shown by archaeological evidence and correct reasoning to be either doubtful or impossible. Since the mid-1970s, archaeologists centred at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's have constructed a view of the Beothuk which has eliminated the fanciful and replaced it with field evidence and reasonable conclusions based on the surviving documents produced before the Beothuk became extinct.
As such, it can reasonably be said that the Beothuk were of Algonkian origin (as were the Micmac, Montagnais and Naskaupi Indians). They were also somewhat taller and their complexions lighter than other North American Indians. Their habit of using red ochre to paint their bodies traditionally has been the reason Europeans called them Red Indians.
The Beothuk wintered at Red Indian Lake at the head of the Exploits River where caribou, the main food of the Beothuk, crossed the Exploits River during their seasonal migration. This location also gave the Beothuk easy access to Notre Dame Bay during the summer when they harvested seals, birds (and bird eggs from Funk Island) and fish. However Notre Dame Bay also became a favoured location for settlement by Europeans during the 1700s. Animosity developed between the Beothuk and the Europeans as competition increased for the resources of the region. Clashes occurred and deaths resulted on both sides.
The firearms of the Europeans (which the Beothuk lacked) made it clear to the Newfoundland authorities that the Beothuk had to be protected. A proclamation was issued in 1769 (and often re-issued in later years) making it a capital crime to murder any Beothuk. Anybody charged with such a crime would be tried in England, with the cost of transport being the responsibility of the accused. This was an exception to murder trials for settlers, which were held in Newfoundland after 1750.
It is His Majesty's (King George III) royal will and pleasure, that ... I do strictly enjoin and require all His Majesty's subjects to live in amity and brotherly kindness with the native savages (Beothuk) of the said island of Newfoundland ....
From the Proclamation issued by His Excellency Captain the Honourable John Byron in 1769.
In the early 1800s, Micmac Indians (not aboriginal to Newfoundland) continued to expand their presence into Newfoundland from the mainland of eastern North America. They established settlements and they interacted and traded relatively freely with European settlers. And they used firearms. This further encroachment into Beothuk territory, together with the inevitable conflict, increased the pressure upon the decreasing Beothuk population. Intermarriage between the Beothuk and the Micmac had the effect of eroding the few Beothuk who survived into the 1800s.
In the closing years of the 18th century, the declining condition of the Beothuk became well known among the Governors and Justices of Newfoundland. Attempts to capture Beothuks in an attempt to force peace upon the whole Beothuk population failed, although some Beothuks lived with settlers for most of their lives. The Beothuk John August, captured as a 4 year old child, became master of a ship and was buried in Trinity in 1788.SHANAWDITHIT
The last known Beothuk was Shanawdithit (born about 1800) who took the name Nancy April after she allowed herself to be rescued from destitution by trappers following her father's drowning in April, 1823. The trappers brought her to the home of John Peyton Jr, who took her to St. John's, with her mother and a sister, where she was cared for by Mr. Watt, surgeon of HMS Grasshopper. Tall and easily approachable, more was learned about the Beothuk from her than from any other of her people. In 1828 Shanawdithit moved to the home of William Cormack in St. John's and a few months later she was transferred to the home of James Simms, Newfoundland's Attorney General, on Gower Street. In the spring of 1829 her health began to fail and she was placed in hospital where, like her sister and then her mother before her, she died of tuberculosis (consumption) on June 6, 1829. Because Shanadithit was a pagan, she was not buried on consecrated ground, but rather in a small cemetery at Southside, St. John's. Sailors and others without any known religious affliation were also buried in this cemetery. She was very likely the last person buried in the cemetery. Her grave is now lost, although a plaque nearby commemorates her life. The plaque reads:
This monument marks the site of the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin. During the period 1869-1963 fishermen and sailors from many ports found spiritual haven within its hallowed walls. Near this spot is the burying place of Nancy Shanadithit very probably the last of the Beothucks who died on June 6, 1829.
A description of Shanawdithit's appearance and personality can be imagined from accounts of meetings with her by different individuals:
Reverend Mr. William Wilson said 'Her complexion was swarthy, not unlike the Micmacs; her features were handsome; she was a tall fine figure and stood nearly six feet high (see Noad below with a different height), and such a beautiful set of teeth, I do not know that I ever saw in a human head. She was bland, affable and affectionate.'
David Buchan said she was '... of a very lively dispostion and quick apprehension.'
Joseph Noad (Surveyor-General of Newfoundland) said, '...her natural abilities were good. She was grateful for any kindness shown her, and evinced a strong affection for her parents and friends. She evinced great taste for drawing and was kept supplied with paper and pencils of various colours, by which she made herself better understood than she otherwise could.'
...'she aquired a knowledge of English slowly, yet it is said before her death she could communicate with tolerable ease. She feared to return to her tribe, believing that the mere fact of her residing amongst whites for a time would make her an object of hatred to the Red men.'
Two images of Shanawdithit:
Shanawdithit's record of interment in the Church of England Cathedral Parish Register (St. John's, Newfoundland) reads (with her name spelled incorrectly) as follows:
Interred Nancy, Shanawdithe aet. 23 South Side
June 8, 1829
(very probably the last of the aborigines)
(signed) Frederick H. Carrington A.B.
Rector, St. John's
Her obituary in the London Times on September 14, 1829 read:
'Died - At St. John's Newfoundland on the 6th of June last in the 29th year of her age, Shanawdithit, supposed to be the last of the Red Indians or Beothicks. This interesting female lived six years a captive amongst the English, and when taken notice of latterly exhibited extraordinary mental talents. She was niece to Mary March's husband, a chief of the tribe, who was accidentally killed in 1819 at the Red Indian Lake in the interior while endeavouring to rescue his wife from the party of English who took her, the view being open to a friendly intercourse with the tribe. This tribe, the Aborigines of Newfoundland, presents an anonmaly in the history of man. Excepting a few families of them, soon after the discovery of America, they never held intercourse with the Europeans, by whom they have ever since been surrounded, nor with the other tribes of Indians, since the introduction of fire arms amongst them. The Chinese have secluded themselves from the interference of all nations, their motives being understood only to themselves, and the peculiarities of that people are slowly developed to others. But in Newfoundland, nearly as far apart from China as the antipodes, there has been a primitive nation, once claiming rank as a portion of the human race, who have lived, flourished, and become extinct in their own orbit. They have been dislodged, and disappeared from the earth in their native independence in 1829, in as primitive a condition as they were before the discovery of the New World, and that too on the nearest point of America to England, in one of our oldest and most important Colonies.'
In 1831, Shanawdithit's skull was presented (for study) to Sir Thomas Cochrane of the Royal College of Physicians in London, England, where it remained until it was given to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1938. Unfortunately, her skull was destroyed and lost during the Nazi Blitz (sustained air-bombing) of London between September 7, 1940 and May 16, 1941, during World War II.
Although Shanawdithit was the last known Beothuk, other Beothuks probably survived for a while after her death, although there is no evidence for this and none were ever seen again. Since Micmac and Beothuk are known to have interbred in Newfoundland, it is possible that a few Newfoundlanders of Micmac ancestry today may also have a distant Beothuk ancestry. However, with the burial of Shanadithit, the Beothuk effectively became extinct as a race.
RELIGION AND BELIEFSJohn Peyton Jr, in whose household Shanawdithit had lived for a while, thought that if the Beothuk had any worship at all, it was that of the sun. Captain George Pulling said they worshiped the sun and moon. Captain Hercules Robinson said the Beothuk had no religious ceremonies. Shanawdithit thought of death as a form of sleep, and she believed that her soul would enter the 'country of the good spirit.'
Brief Cultural Notes
The Beothuk did not keep dogs, unlike most other aboriginal inhabitants of North America. Caribou and seal were the two major sources of food for the Beothuk. Beothuk generally shunned white people and Micmacs as part of their moral code.
Recently (2005-2006), the DNA of two Beothuk was analyzed. The results of that analysis were published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropolgy and can be found directly at this link (.pdf file will open):
In 2009, researchers announced their intention to test the DNA of two Beothuks who died in 1819:
Intention to test the DNA of two Beothuk
Inside Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeology
January 5, 2013
A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk
McGill-Queen's University Press,
Shanawdithit's People - The Archaeology of the Beothuks
Ralph T. Pastore,
Atlantic Archaeology Ltd. (distributed by Breakwater Books),
St. John's, Newfoundland,
Extinction - The Beothuk of Newfoundland
Frederick W. Rowe,
McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited,
1977, 1986 (paperback),
The Beothucks or Red Indians
The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland
by James P. Howley: F.G.S.
(As originally published in 1915)
Coles Publishing Company Limited