The Beothuk Indians – “Newfoundland’s Red Ochre People”

By | Sep 17, 2008

The Beothuk Indians, who probably spoke an Algonkian language, were indigenous to the Island of Newfoundland. Lying off Canada’s East Coast, Newfoundland makes up one part of Canada’s tenth Province, Newfoundland and Labrador. The Beothuk may descend from a people called the Maritime Archaic, who inhabited Newfoundland and Labrador from around 5500-1000 BC. The earliest group from whom archaeologists confidently trace Beothuk ancestry are known as “The Beaches” culture, after the place in Bonavista Bay where much evidence of them has been found. They were succeeded around 1000 AD by the “Little Passage” people, who are generally considered the prehistoric phase of Beothuk culture.


The normal social organization of the Beothuk was into bands of fifty or less persons. The group’s total numbers on the Island were probably no more than two thousand at any given time. In the past some estimates put Beothuk numbers much higher, contributing to the idea that they were massacred in large numbers by White settlers. For much of the year the Beothuk lived along coastal areas in small structures called mamateeks, their version of a wigwam. These dwellings were single-family structures with hollowed out sleeping areas, a feature practically unique to the Beothuk. In Winter the bands retreated from the coast, moving into larger, multi-family dwellings.

The Beothuk were hunter-gathers and lived off a wide variety of foods. These were caught using a range of weaponry, including toggling harpoons, spears, and the bow and arrow. Sea mammals like seals were important, as were fish, including salmon. Birds also formed an important part of the Beothuk diet. The now-extinct flightless great auk was especially valued by the Natives. Using their crescent moon-shaped birch bark canoes, the Beothuk sometimes travelled sixty kilometres (thirty-seven miles) to the Funk Islands in search of the birds and their eggs.

In Winter the main source of protein for the bands was the caribou. The Beothuk followed herds of the animals along their migration routes, building a type of fence to funnel the deer into one area where they could be brought down more easily. Caribou skins were put to a wide variety of uses by the Beothuk ­ not least of which was the manufacture of clothing. There is evidence the bands participated in a ceremony similar to the Innu mokoshan feast where caribou marrow was consumed to honour the spirit of the animal and to ensure good hunting in the future.

An important aspect of Beothuk life was their use of red ochre – extracted from iron deposits – to coat their implements, bodies and the remains of the dead. The colour red played a role in Beothuk tribal identity; disgraced band members might be ordered to remove the colouring as a form of punishment. It is very likely that the red hues also had spiritual overtones for the people. This extensive use of ochre led Europeans to name the Beothuk the “Red Indians.”

Although we know little about Beothuk religion, it seems they believed that when a person died their spirit travelled to a “Happy Island” to be with the Good Spirit. Like the Christian Heaven, getting there depended on a meeting certain moral qualifications. Not least among these was a refusal to make peace or communicate with White people, who came from the Bad Spirit. This belief probably formed early in the Beothuk relationship with Europeans, and partly explains why they avoided contact with settlers.

No one is sure when Europeans first encountered the Beothuk. Natives met by Viking explorers around 1000 AD – named Skraelings by the Norsemen – may have been Beothuk ancestors, but that has never been proven. By the 1600s the Natives were already reluctant to meet with Europeans, and may have been mistreated by fishers who had been coming to the Island for a century. British officer John Cartwright (1740-1824) thought that the Beothuk shunned Europeans in response to wrongs committed against them.

Not all interaction between the Beothuk and Europeans was hostile, however. In 1610 merchant adventurer John Guy (d. circa 1629) arrived in Newfoundland in hopes of founding a colony. Though Guy left Newfoundland for good in 1613, he engineered one of the only peaceful encounters between the Beothuk and the English. In 1612 Guy set out with a party of men in two boats trying to establish contact with the Natives, whom he finally located in Placentia Bay. The two parties exchanged gifts, danced, and shared a meal. Guy apparently hoped this would lead to a yearly trade, but when the Beothuk appeared the next Summer they were met by a ship whose captain had no knowledge of Guy’s trading venture. Alarmed at the sudden appearance of “Savages,” he fired a shot at them and the Beothuk fled.

For the next two hundred years the Beothuk dealt with the European presence in their midst by retreating from the newcomers and refusing to trade or interact with them. The expansion of English settlements and competition with the Mi’kmaq gradually confined the Beothuk to the Island’s Northeast Coast, especially the area around Red Indian Lake. No one is sure why the Beothuk refused to interact with the Europeans. The (well-founded) belief that Europeans were untrustworthy may have played a role in this, but the Natives might just have felt that they did not need to trade. The Beothuk prized materials like iron and canvas, but could get all they needed from fishing premises vacated over the Winters. This tendency only made things worse between the settlers and the Natives as it was considered “pilfering” by the Europeans. In the end interaction consisted of little more than retaliation and counter-retaliation for perceived wrongs. By the early 1700s Notre Dame Bay, along with the lakes and river systems to the south, were the Beothuks’ major retreat.

As encounters between Beothuk and settlers increased in the 1700s, so too did hostilities on both sides. This being said, the Beothuk were normally a peaceful people. When they did take hostile action it appears largely the result of feeling threatened, or in revenge for injuries inflicted upon them. Reports of settler aggression span Newfoundland history. A journal written by seaman Aaron Thomas in 1794 records an instance where four hunters came across a party of Beothuk. Seeing that the band were carrying furs, the hunters fired a gun, frightening the Natives away. Along with the furs some cooking utensils were also stolen, and all were later sold.

In many cases it wasn’t just the Beothuks’ property, but their very lives that were in danger. In 1768 Cartwright was approached by a settler who expected a reward for his part in the killing of a Beothuk woman and the abduction of her young child. One early settler boasted he had personally killed sixty of the Natives, including nine at one time. These claims were probably exaggerated, given the small numbers of the tribe. In fact, archaeologist Ralph Pastore felt that no more than seventy Beothuk met violent deaths at the hands of settlers, at least in cases that can be verified. Still, there must have been many unreported cases where killers feared punishment by the authorities if their actions were known. Though we should be careful of old adage that the Beothuk were slaughtered wholesale, the stories above certainly show the callous attitude some White people had toward our Island’s indigenous people.

Today, only a few Beothuk are remembered as individuals, the best-known being two women – Demasduit (Mary March) and Shanawdithit (Nancy April). Demasduit was captured in 1815 by a group of men from Twillingate, led by merchant-trader John Peyton, Jr (1793-1879). Having lost goods to the Beothuk, Peyton hoped to make contact with the Natives, and convince them to trade rather than keep taking his possessions. Peyton’s party did meet up with a group of Beothuk at Red Indian Lake. Unfortunately, a Beothuk man – Nonosabasut – was killed when he tried to stop the Europeans from seizing his wife. This woman was Demasduit, and for a number of years she resided at Twillingate and St. John’s. It was hoped that Demasduit could act as an “ambassador” to the Beothuk, but these plans came to nothing when the young woman died of tuberculosis in 1820. A party of men, including Peyton, returned her body to Red Indian Lake but did not make contact with her people.

Three years after Demasduit’s death, Shanawdithit was found in a starving condition along with her mother and sister, who soon died. Like Demasduit, Shanawdithit spent a number of years living with Whites, for a time residing with the Peytons, for whom she acted as a kind of servant/nanny. Shanawdithit was also taken to St. John’s, sharing Demasduit’s fate in another way, when she died of tuberculosis in 1829. Although it is far from extensive, information gathered about the Beothuk from Shanawdithit by William Epps Cormack (1796-1868) provides some of the only real clues we have about their culture.

Though people like Cormack and Cartwright (along with some of the colonial governors) tried to help the Beothuk, by the time Shanawdithit was found her people’s numbers were greatly reduced. Many people believe she was the last of her people, although some good evidence to the contrary exists. The work of anthropologist Frank Speck points to Beothuk descendants still living in the 1910s, and credible reports of Beothuk sightings on the Island of Newfoundland were made as late as 1878. Perhaps we have not heard the last of the Beothuk Nation.

This is not to say that the settlers had things all their own way. The Beothuk are reported to have attacked, and sometimes killed, Europeans at places like Campbellton, Loon Bay and Twillingate.

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