Manataka American Indian Council

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Were The

Beothuk Indians?
By Janie Albreight

 

 

 

 

[NOTE:  This article is a selection of various writers on the history and culture of the Beothuk Indians.  Credits below.]

 

Not much is known about the culture of the Beothuk people. The Beothuk Indians were the original inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland.

The Beothuk were primarily hunters, with caribou as their main source of meat. The Beothuk also harvested fish, seals and other seafood, which was plentiful along their coastline.

Upon first European contact in the 16th Century, there were about 2,000 Beothuk people. By the early 19th Century, however, the beothuk people had been completely wiped out. The last recorded Beothuk, Nancy Shanawhdit, died in 1829.

[No one really knows how many there were in 1500. Some estimates are as high as 5,000, but 2,000 is probably closer to the truth. Only 400 were left in 1768, and by 1829 they were extinct.  It would seem possible, however, that small groups of Beothuk crossed over into Labrador and merged with the Montagnais or Naskapi.]

The Beothuk were also known as the Ulno, the Skraelling and the Red Indians.

[Alternate spellings: Beathunk, Beothuck, and Betoukuag.  Also called: Macquajeet (Mequaegit) (Micmac), Red Indians, Skraelling (Norse), and Ulno (Ulnobah) (Abenaki)]

The Beothuk spoke a unique language which may have been remotely connected to the Algonquin tongue spoken on the mainland.

[Their language was unique, but it appears it may be distantly related to the Algonquin dialect spoken by the Naskapi and Montagnais in Quebec and Labrador.]

The Beothuk became very skilled fishermen and adept at handling their canoes while harpoon their prey with spears.

When Europeans and the traditional Beothuk tribal enemies, the Micmac, began to inhabit beothuk coastal areas, the Beothuk fled to the interior of the island. Without the ready food supply of the coastline, many Beothuk began to die of starvation.

[For the most part the Beothuk kept to themselves and avoided contact with Europeans, so very little is known about them. Traditional enemies were the Micmac and Labrador Eskimo, but the Beothuk seemed to have always maintained friendly relations with the Montagnais and Naskapi in Quebec ...sometimes intermarrying with them.]

Beothuk were known as Red Indians primarily because of their extensive use of red ochre. A greasy mixture of red ochre would be applied to the face, body, and hair as well as to most personal possessions. In fact, it is believed that the term "redskin" as used to apply to all Native American Indians originated at the time of contact between Europeans and the Beothuk.

The Beothuk lived in small, independent bands made up of extended families. Their dwellings were either conical wigwams which were covered with sheets of birch bark or larger square shaped wigwams used in the Summer time.

Around 1800, the Beothuk begun building European style log houses. Metal tools and weapons also came into use among the Beothuk around that time. Rather than trading for them, the Beothuk became extremely adept at stealing from the French and English settlers of Newfoundland.

Historians believe the Beothuk had been living in Newfoundland since at least 200 BC. Around the end of the 10th Century the Vikings reached Newfoundland and came across the Beothuk, whom they referred to as Skraelings.

Relations were generally peaceful until the Vikings left in the 11th Century. The Beothuk next encountered Europeans when Venetian explorer John Cabot came to Newfoundland in 1497. His tales of the abundance of fish in the area on his return to Europe sent masses of fishing boats into the region.

Unfortunately some of these fishermen were interested in more than just fish. Dozens of Beothuk were captured to be taken to Europe as slaves.

As European summer fishing villages sprang up along the coast, the Boethuk constantly raided the settlements and a climate of distrust and hatred was mutually established.

The first permanent settlement on the island was built by the British in 1610. Soon the French also established permanent settlements.

In 1613 a French fisherman shot a Beothuk who was attempting to steal from him. The Beothuk killed 37 French in retaliation. The French, who were allies of the Mic Mac, encouraged them to settle on the island. The Mic Mac were able to drive the Beothuk into the interior of the island.

For the next 150 years the Beothuk basically kept to themselves. Due to their isolation, the Beothuk managed to avoid the epidemics that would later kill many North American Indians, but the Beothuk people were starving to death. Those that did venture into European settlements in search of food were shot on sight.

When contact was re-established in the 1820ís a climate of mistrust and murder on both sides prevailed. In 1829, the last known Beothuk died, and the Beothuk were at last extinct.


CULTURE

The growing-season in Newfoundland is much too short for maize agriculture, and as a result, the Beothuk did not farm. They were semi-nomadic hunter/gatherers organized into small independent bands of extended families. Before the arrival of the Europeans, most Beothuk bands moved seasonally between the coast during summer and interior in the winter, but several groups are known to have remained at coastal villages year-around and sent hunting parties a short distance inland during the colder months.

Unlike the Labrador mainland to the north, Newfoundland did not have a variety of large land animals for use as food sources by its native population. About all that was available were Caribou. There were large herds, but their movements were not always reliable. The coastline, however, was a different story, and it was one of the world's richest with enormous quantities of fish, seals, and and other seafood for the taking. For this reason, the native population of Newfoundland before contact was always concentrated on the coastline and avoided the harsh climate of the interior. The Beothuk took advantage of this coastal bounty and were skilled canoeists who speared seals with harpoons, fished for salmon, and collected shellfish. This ended after the European and Micmac occupation of the coastal areas. The Beothuk retreated into the interior with its limited resources. Unlike other Native Americans, their subsequent decline was due more to starvation than disease and warfare.

One thing that is known about the Beothuk was their love of the color red. While the use of red ocre was common among Native Americans, no other tribe used it as extensively as the Beothuk. They literally covered everything - their bodies, faces, hair, clothing, personal possessions, and tools - with a red paint made from powdered ochre mixed with either fish oil or animal grease. It was also employed in burials. The reasons are unknown, but speculation has ranged from their religion (about which we know very little) to protection from insects. The practice was so excessive, even the Micmac referred to them as the Red Indians, and it is believed the term "redskin" used for Native Americans probably originated from early contacts between European fishermen and Beothuk. In most other ways, the Beothuk were similar to neighboring tribes in the region. During the winter, they wore caribou-skin mantles with moccasins, leggings, mittens, and arm-coverings. Despite their heavy reliance on fish and seafood, they were quite comfortable in the woods and used birch bark for their cooking vessels and wigwams. They built several types of canoes, including a humped-back style similar to the Micmac. Many of these were remarkably seaworthy and capable of making long trips across open water.

Beothuk housing varied a great deal and seems to have evolved over the years. Initially, most used either a conical wigwam built around a framework of saplings and covered with sheets of birch bark. There was also a larger square-shaped style of similar construction used in summer villages. By 1700 the Beothuk were building larger structures: a circular wigwam (20' diameter) and an oval longhouse (30' in length). A century later, Beothuk along the Exploits River favored log structures which resembled some of the houses the whites were building. Another change to the the Beothuk lifestyle caused by the European presence was the substitution of metal for many of their traditional materials. This may sound strange to some, since the Beothuk were renown for avoiding contact with whites. They did not, however, avoid stealing from them. The Beothuk stole so much metal from British and French settlers, they were one of the few native peoples who never had to trade with Europeans to get what they needed. Archeological digs at Beothuk campsites often produce hundreds of old nails (used to make arrowheads) which were obviously "borrowed" from the white men who took over their homeland.

 

HISTORY

People have lived in Newfoundland for at least 9,000 years, but it is unlikely the first residents were Beothuk. Ice age hunters followed the retreating glaciers into the area and remained as the Maritime Archaic Culture until about 3,200 years ago. They were replaced by paleo-eskimos - the Groswater and then later the Dorset Cultures. The Beothuk are believed to have first occupied the coastal areas of Newfoundland sometime around 200 A.D. and shared the area with the Dorset Eskimo during the next 400 years. After 600 A.D. there were only Beothuk living in Newfoundland. Towards the end of the 10th century, the Vikings (Norse) reached North America and established one of their settlements at L'Anse aux Meadows at Epaves Bay (near Cape Bauld on the northern end of Newfoundland). Exactly how far south the Vikings explored along the coast is unknown, but it is certain the people they encountered there, who they called Skraelings, were Beothuk. During the time they remained on Newfoundland, the Vikings traded with the Beothuk and occasionally fought with them, the most notable incident being a battle over a Viking cow.

This contact occurred during a period of unusually warm weather. The climate turned much colder during the 11th century, and the Vikings abandoned their North American settlements never to return. The next known contact between Beothuk and Europeans came 500 years later with the voyage of Giovanni Cabato (John Cabot), a Venetian navigator sailing for Henry VII of England. Cabot visited both Labrador and Newfoundland in 1497 and returned to England with tales of the seas in the area teaming with fish. Unlike some stories about the New World, this one was true. Instantly, European fishing boats (Portuguese, Basque, Spanish) began making trips to the Grand Banks every summer. If the fishermen had stuck to catching fish, perhaps things would have been different. Instead, some took to catching Beothuk . In 1501 the Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real returned from Newfoundland with 50 Beothuk "man slaves" captured during his expedition, and in 1507 Norman fisherman brought another seven Beothuk prisoners to France.

By the time the Portuguese and English fisherman started coming ashore in 1519 to dry their catch, the Beothuk had learned from painful experience to avoid these strange pale-skinned people. The fishing was phenomenal, and the number of ship grew every year. By 1578 over 400 European fishing boats were gathering every summer off the coast of Newfoundland and at least 50 rudimentary houses had been built as summer residences for the fishermen. No one was willing to stay over for the winter, so these were abandoned in the fall when the fishing fleet returned to Europe. What developed was a pattern where the Beothuk would avoid Europeans while they were there in the summer and then pilfer their abandoned dwellings when they left. Eventually, familiarity, curiosity, and a touch of greed led to constant theft while the Europeans were actually there. Within a few years, contact with the Beothuk became commonplace but it was not the kind that builds friendship and trust. Beothuk stole anything the Europeans didn't have nailed down, and the fishermen treated the Beothuk with contempt, distrust, and even hatred.

Meanwhile, the British decided, based on Cabot's voyage in 1497, that Newfoundland belonged to them. In 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert, with a grant from Queen Elizabeth I, attempted to establish a colony in North America. This effort was a failure, but in the process, he laid formal claim to Newfoundland and the Canadian Maritimes. This takeover met surprisingly little protest from the other Europeans, probably because they hoped the British would provide order and protection for the fishing fleet from Turkish pirates (yes, Turkish is correct). In addition, the British at first did not attempt any settlement to support their claim. In fact, settlement in Newfoundland was officially discouraged by the British Crown in the interest of the Merchant Adventurers of southwest England who wanted exclusive rights to the offshore fishing. The only objection (and it proved to be important) came from France, who also claimed Newfoundland as a result of Jacques Cartier's explorations in 1535.

While other Europeans continued to fish the area as before, the British made their first attempt at permanent settlement in 1610 when John Guy established himself at Conception Bay on the island's southeast corner. Guy actually managed to meet some Beothuk and, after overcoming their initial suspicions (which were considerable), started trading with them. Their reaction to getting European goods by trade rather than theft seems to have been absolute joy, and Guy was able to arrange a spot for a future meeting and trade to begin when the next British ship arrived. Unfortunately, Guy failed to inform the ship's captain of his arrangement, and when the ship finally arrived, it was surrounded by hundreds of Beothuk eager to trade. The captain fired his cannon at them, and the Beothuk disappeared. Guy was never able to regain their trust, and his settlement gradually died. However, St. John's was founded in 1613, followed by an abortive attempt by John Calvert (Lord Baltimore) to start a colony for English Catholics in 1623.

Actually, the first permanent newcomers to seriously affect the Beothuk were Native American, not European. For as long as they can remember, the Micmac from Cape Breton had been visiting Newfoundland during the summer to take advantage of the fishing. Their relations with the "Red Indians" had almost always been friendly, but in 1613 a French fisherman shot at an Beothuk who was trying to rob him. The Beothuk responded with an uprising which killed 37 French fishermen, and to protect themselves, the French began to encourage their Micmac allies to settle permanently in southern Newfoundland. As Micmac settlement spread along the southern coast of Newfoundland, competition with the Beothuk for resources led to fighting. The French provided the Micmac with firearms to defend both themselves and French fishermen, and it was no contest. The Beothuk were driven inland away from their usual food sources on the coast. Although the French during this period have been accused of paying bounties to the Micmac for Beothuk heads and scalps, no solid evidence has yet been found proving they actually did this. The Micmac also deny they were paid to kill Beothuk. Whatever the cause, the Beothuk were displaced into the interior.

At the same time the Micmac were blocking the Beothuk access to the southern coast, a string of new British settlements was beginning to extend the eastern coast from St. John's forcing the Beothuk inland in that area. About the only advantage in what was happening to the Beothuk was, because of their avoidance of Europeans, they apparently were able to avoid many of the epidemics which were decimating the other tribes in the region. Meanwhile, competition between France and Great Britain over the Beothuk homeland with its rich fishing grounds was becoming intense. The French attacked several British settlements during 1627-28, but the British rebuilt. During the 1650s the French countered the British presence with a permanent settlement of Basque fishermen at Placentia. The Basque rebelled in 1660 and murdered the French governor, but the French regained control and in 1662 stationed its first soldiers to Newfoundland. The British held on to St. John's despite the growing French threat and its capture by the Dutch in 1665. After peace with Holland, the British strengthened their forts and in 1673 repulsed another Dutch attack and a raid by four pirate ships.

After the outbreak of the King William's War (1687-96) between them, both the French and British tried to expel each other from Newfoundland. The Beothuk, by this time, had moved mostly into the interior and may not have even been aware of the struggle going on for their homeland. Although they were hostile to all intruders, French, British, or Micmac, they were not a factor in the war. During the first years of the war, the French made assaults almost every year against the small. isolated British settlements. The British countered with a major naval attack on Placentia but failed to destroy the French forts defending it. The fighting continued until the fall of 1696 when Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville brought 120 French regulars, 40 Abenaki warriors, and some French Canadians to Newfoundland. Combined with the Placentia garrison, his force totaled more than 400, and he was able to destroy all of the British settlements along the south shore and capture St. John's. The British settlers were deported, but the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) restored St. John's to Britain. 1,500 British troops reoccupied St. John's that summer and began construction of Fort William which was completed by 1700.

The Queen Anne's War (1701-13) began the following year, and France and Britain renewed their attacks on each other's settlements, but this time on a greater scale than during the previous conflict. Reinforced by Abenaki and Micmac warriors, the French succeeded in destroying most of the British settlements during 1704-05 but failed to capture Fort William during a five-week siege. A second effort to take the fort in 1709 was successful, but their success was short-lived. British troops arrived in Newfoundland a year later and rebuilt Fort William. A British naval attack on Placentia failed in 1712, but the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) gave Great Britain control of Newfoundland and the Canadian Maritimes. The French population and garrison at Placentia left Newfoundland and moved across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) where they began construction of an enormous new fortress at Louisbourgh. Fighting during the King George's War (1744-48) and the French and Indian War (1755-63) centered around the fortification at Louisbourgh. Little happened in Newfoundland during these conflicts except for a brief invasion by 800 French troops in 1762. The British, however, reacted immediately and recaptured the island.

Other than than the brief mention of John Guy's encounter with the Beothuk in 1612, there was almost no mention of the Beothuk during the next 150 years. Actually, this is not really surprising there was very little European settlement in Newfoundland during this time. Fighting between the French and British, coupled with restrictive settlement policies of the British government, served to keep this to a minimum. What little there was was restricted to the coastline, and few Europeans dared to venture into the interior because of Beothuk hostility. Contacts were few and usually limited to the Beothuk on occasion slipping silently into European settlements to steal metal or other goods. After the period of wars between France and Britain for North America ended, British settlement spread north along the eastern coast cutting off what remained of Beothuk access to the sea. The worst enemy of the Beothuk was starvation. By 1768 they were fewer than 400 and mostly confined to the Exploits River Valley on the north side of Newfoundland. The Beothuk pattern of avoiding contact and theft continued. In reaction, many British settlers began shooting Beothuk on sight like they were some kind of wolf or other dangerous predator. There was no actual warfare, but several punitive expeditions were made into the interior to punish thefts.

During 1810 the British government issued an official proclamation of protection for the Beothuk and began attempts to make contact with them. After centuries of distrust and mistreatment, some of these efforts were more like war than communication. British settlers at Twillingate were still shooting Beothuk on site in 1817, when an expedition led by Lt. Buchan finally made contact. To gain their trust, Buchan detailed two of his men to stay overnight at the Beothuk camp while two Beothuk warriors slept with his party. In the morning, his Beothuk departed suddenly. Later, Buchan found the bodies of his two men, beheaded and mutilated. Between 1819 and 1823, there were several other encounters with Beothuk with better results, but often fighting. In the process, several prisoners were taken of whom the better-known ones were Demasduit (Mary March) and Nancy Shanawdithit. A careful search of Newfoundland during 1827 was unable to locate a single Beothuk, but it is likely the last remnants crossed over to the mainland in Labrador and were absorbed by the Montagnais or Naskapi. Otherwise the Beothuk are extinct. The last known Beothuk, Nancy Shanawhdit, died of tuberculosis in 1829.


Beothuk Carved Bone Objects.
Original artifacts housed in the Newfoundland Museum.
Courtesy of Dr. Ralph Pastore, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.

 

The arrival of migratory European fishermen in the 16th century may have provided new opportunities for the Beothuks. 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 Beothuks picked up these metal objects and reworked them into arrowheads, lance points, harpoon end blades, awls and hide scrapers.

Spoon, saw and scissors from a Beothuks site on the Exploits River.
The Beothuks often acquired metal objects like these by visiting abandoned European fishing posts. Reworking the metal, the Beothuks were able to construct their own traditional hunting tools which included arrowheads and harpoon tips.
Reproduced by permission of J. A. Tuck, Atlantic Archaelogy Ltd. From Dr. Ralph Pastore, Shanawdithit's People: The Archaelogy of the Beothuks (St. John's, Newfoundland: Atlantic Archaelogy Ltd., ©1992) 61.

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 Micmac of the mainland, the Beothuks 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 Beothuks could make a quick trip to an abandoned European fishing station to acquire the desired metal goods.

The Beothuks 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.

Beothuk Tools.
From left to right: iron projectile point (probably an arrow point), bone harpoon, and bone harpoon with iron blade. Original artifacts housed in the Newfoundland Museum.
Courtesy of Dr. Ralph Pastore, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.

While the Beothuks 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 Beothuks 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 Beothuks 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 Beothuks, 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.


NOTE:  The presentation above was not written by a single author, but includes selections of several writers noted below.

 

REFERENCES and CREDITS:

Albreight, Janie, Who Were The Beothuk Indians?

Marshall, Ingeborg, A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996, ISBN: 0-7735-1390-6.

Pastore, Ralph T., Archaeology & History Dept., Memorial Univ. of Newfoundland

Shanawdithit's People - The Archaeology of the Beothuks,
Pastore, Ralph T., Atlantic Archaeology Ltd., St. John's, Newfoundland, 1992, ISBN: 0-929048-02-4.

Rowe, Frederick W., Extinction - The Beothuk of Newfoundland, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1977, 1986 (paperback), ISBN: 0-07-549308-X.
Sultzman, Lee, History of the Beothuk

 

 

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