Information about the Beothuk

The Beothuks were the native inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland at the time of European contact in the 15th and 16th centuries. They are now extinct.

Early European contact

"Beothuk" means "people" in the Beothuk language. The origins of the Beothuks are uncertain, but it appears that they were an Algonquian group who displaced a Dorset culture on Newfoundland about 1000 years ago.

It is possible that the natives described by the Vikings as Skraelings were Beothuk inhabitants of Labrador and Newfoundland. When other Europeans arrived, beginning with John Cabot in 1497, contact with the Beothuks was established. Estimates on the number of Beothuks on the island at this time vary, ranging from 1000 to 5000.

The Europeans called the Beothuk "Red Indians", because they painted themselves with red ochre. The term "Red Indian" was later used to refer to North American native people in general and took on a more negative connotation. The Beothuks spent their summers fishing along the coast and their winters hunting in the interior. In the fall, they set up fences which were used to drive migrating caribou towards waiting hunters. They preserved any surplus food for later use during winter.

In contrast with some other native groups, the Beothuks strove to avoid contact with Europeans, and moved inland as European settlements grew. Due to loss of land, skirmishes with Europeans and newly-introduced European diseases, such as tuberculosis, their numbers had dwindled to 400 by 1768, and by 1829 they were officially "extinct." However, there are many people in Newfoundland and Labrador today who can still claim direct descent from the Beothuks.

Oral histories assert that a few Beothuks might have survived around the region of the Exploits River and Twillingate for some years after they were "officially extinct." One family history records that a "full-blood" Beothuk woman, known as "Elizabeth," gave birth to Susannah Moody at Lewisporte, near the mouth of the Exploits River, on January 14, 1832. "Elizabeth" is said to have come "gliding in from the woods" at times to see her baby daughter. Susannah married Samuel Anstey, and had several children, many of whose descendants still live in and around Twillingate. Susannah died in 1911.

Statue of Shanawdithit, at the Boyd's Cove Beothuk Site, Newfoundland.The history of Beothuk contact with European settlers and their eventual "extinction" is sadly reminiscent of the somewhat later "extinction" of the Tasmanian Aborigines. The last known Beothuks lived near along the Exploits River and its mouth near the town of Twillingate.

Beothuks captured by Europeans

There are two famous stories of Beothuks being captured by Europeans. In 1819, Demasduwit, re-named Mary March, was kidnapped with hopes that she would become a translator and intermediary between the English settlers and Beothuks. She soon died of tuberculosis.

Demasduwit's niece, a teenage girl named Shanawdithit, was the last known Beothuk. She was captured in 1823 and re-named Nancy. She spent the last six years of her life describing Beothuk culture and language to William Cormack, before she too died of tuberculosis.

In 1910, a 75-year old Native woman named Santu, the daughter of a Micmac mother and a Beothuk father, sang a song in the Beothuk language for the American anthropologist Frank Speck while she was on her way to Nova Scotia and down to New England. The song was aired on CBC Radio on September 13, 2000. (To hear this song, visit the external link below).

  • Howley, James P. 1918. The Beothucks or Red Indians First published by Cambridge University Press. Reprint: Prospero Books, Toronto. (2000). ISBN 1-55267-139-9.
  • Such, Peter. 1978. Vanished Peoples: The Archaic Dorset & Beothuk People of Newfoundland. NC Press, Toronto.
  • Marshall, Ingeborg. 1996. A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk. McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal & Kingston. ISBN 0-7735-1390-6. (This is an excellent up-to-date and detailed examination of what is known about the Beothuks)
  • Tuck, James A. 1994. Ancient People of Port au Choix: The Excavation of an Archaic Indian Cemetery in Newfoundland. Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland.
  • Winter, Keith John. 1975. Shananditti: The Last of the Beothuks. J.J. Douglas Ltd., North Vancouver, B.C. ISBN 0-88894-086-6.

The above includes excerpts from Wikipedia.org, the free encyclopedia

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