The Beothuk (IPAEng|biˈɒθʊk) (also spelled Boeothuck, Beothuck, Boethuk, Boeothuk, and Boethuck) were the native inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland at the time of European contact in the 15th and 16th centuries. They became officially extinct as a separate ethnic group in 1829 with the death of Shanawdithit, the last recorded surviving member.

History and culture

"Beothuk" means "people" in the Beothuk language. The origins of the Beothuk are uncertain. There are only limited records of their language, and its identity is controversial, with some scholars regarding it as a language isolate and others as a divergent branch of Algonquian. The Beothuk culture appears to be the last cultural manifestation, beginning around 1500 CE, of a group that entered the island of Newfoundland from Labrador around 1 CE. This group went through three previous cultural phases, lasting approximately 500 years each. [Marshall, Ingeborg. (1996). "A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk", pp. 7-10. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1390-6.]

The Beothuk lived throughout the island of Newfoundland, particularly in the Notre Dame Bay and Bonavista Bay areas. Estimates on the number of Beothuks on the island at the time of contact with Europeans vary; recent scholarship suggests that there were no more than 500 to 700 people, who lived in independent, self-sufficient groups of 30 to 55. [Marshall, Ingeborg. (1996). "A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk", p. 12. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1390-6.]

Like many other hunter-gathering peoples, they appear to have had band leaders but probably not "chiefs" in the usual sense. They lived in conical dwellings known as "mamateeks", made from poles arranged in a circle, tied at the top, and covered with birch bark. The floors contained hollows used for sleeping, and a central fireplace.

The Beothuk painted not only their bodies, but also their houses, canoes, weapons, household appliances and musical instruments with red ochre, leading Europeans to refer to them as "Red Indians". This ochring had great cultural significance, and took place in a multi-day spring celebration. It designated tribal identity, for example, welcoming newborn children into the tribe; on the other hand, being forbidden to wear ochre was a form of punishment.

Their main sources of food were caribou, salmon, and seals, augmented by the harvesting of other animal and plant species. The seasonal migratory habits of their principal quarry gave rise to similar movements on the part of the Beothuk. In the fall, they set up fences which were used to drive migrating caribou towards waiting hunters armed with bows and arrows. They preserved any surplus food for later use during winter. They trapped various fur-bearing animals in order to make clothing.

Beothuk canoes were made of bark, and were curved upward at the ends, with sides that rose to a point, and a V-shaped bottom. [Marshall, Ingeborg. (1996). "A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk", pp. 37-38. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1390-6.]

The Beothuk followed elaborate burial practices. The dead were usually buried in isolated locations. Bodies were wrapped in birch bark and covered with a rock pile, laid on a scaffold, or placed in a burial box with the knees folded. Burial places were furnished with offerings such as figurines, pendants, and replicas of tools.

European contact

It is possible that the natives encountered in northern Newfoundland by the Norse around 1000 CE and referred to as "Skrælingar" ("skraelings") were ancestors of the Beothuk or Dorset inhabitants of Labrador and Newfoundland. [Brian M. Fagan (2005). "Ancient North America (fourth edition), the Archeology of a Continent", p. 20. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0500285329] Later waves of European arrivals, beginning in 1497 with the Italian John Cabot, sailing under the auspices of the English crown, led to contact with the Beothuk being established.

In contrast with some other native groups, the Beothuk strove to avoid contact with Europeans, and moved inland as European settlements grew, only visiting camps during early contact to pick up metals and other items left behind when Europeans left for the winter. Contact between Europeans and the Beothuk was generally negative for one side or the other, with a few exceptions, such as that of John Guy's party in 1612. Settlers and Beothuk came to compete for important natural resources such as salmon and seals, and these encounters led to enmity and mutual violence. The settlers, with superior technology, generally had the upper hand in both hunting and warfare. (For reasons that are unclear, the Beothuk had no interest in adopting firearms.) [Marshall, Ingeborg. (1996). "A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk", p. 33. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1390-6.] The Europeans certainly exhibited callous behavior toward the natives, but the Beothuk for their part seem to have had a strong cultural imperative toward revenge that also caused them to carry out apparently pointless attacks.

Attempts to improve relations with the Beothuk included those of naval lieutenants George Cartwright in 1768 and David Buchan in 1811. Cartwright's expedition was commissioned by Gov. Hugh Palliser; he found no Beothuk but brought back important cultural information. Buchan was sent by Gov. John Duckworth; though undertaken with the best of intentions, this expedition ended in violence. Buchan's party encountered several Beothuk near Red Indian Lake. After an initial apparently friendly reception, Buchan left two of his men behind with the Beothuk. The next day, he found them murdered and mutilated, owing to the Beothuk's suspicion of the visitors (according to Shanawdithit's later account). To his credit, Buchan did not attempt to take revenge and even tried to make further contact.


Population estimates of Beothuks remaining at the end of the first decade of the 19th century vary widely - from about 150 right up to 3,000. [Marshall, Ingeborg. (1996). "A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk", p. 147. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1390-6.] Most of the information refers to Shanawdithit's tribe that "wintered on the Exploits River or at Red Indian Lake and resorted to the coast in Notre Dame Bay." There are also a couple of references of some survivors on the Northern Peninsula until the beginning of the century. [Marshall, Ingeborg. (1996). "A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk", p. 208. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1390-6.]

Whatever the case, Beothuk numbers were certainly dwindling rapidly due to a combination of factors including: :* loss of access to important food sources:* diseases, such as tuberculosis, introduced by Europeans:* violent encounters with settlers.

By 1829, with the death of Shanawdithit, they were officially declared extinct though oral histories assert that a few Beothuk survived around the region of the Exploits River, Twillingate and Labrador for some years and mixed with "whites", Inuit and Mi'kmaq. [Marshall, Ingeborg. (1996). 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.

"A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk", pp. 224-226. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1390-6.] Some families from Twillingate claim partial descent from Beothuks.

Relations with the Mi'kmaq, a native group who arrived in Newfoundland during the colonial period, and with the Labrador Inuit, were hostile but did not often descend into violence. Relations with the Inuit were marked by avoidance more than anything else.

In 1910, a 75-year old Native woman named Santu, said to have been the daughter of a Mi'kmaq 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. If Santu did indeed have a Beothuk father, this is further evidence that at least some Beothuk survived beyond the death of Shanawdidhit in 1829, as her father must have survived until at least 1835. ["Santu’s Song. Memorable day for Beothuk Interpretation Centre BOYD’S COVE" 10/Sept./2008. [] ]

Demasduit (Mary March)

Demasduit was a Beothuk woman, thought to be about 23 years old, who was captured near Red Indian Lake in March 1819 by a party led by John Peyton, later appointed J.P. at Twillingate, Newfoundland, and son of John Peyton, Sr., a salmon fisherman notorious for his hostility toward the Beothuk. The younger Mr. Peyton is well known for his significant efforts to improve relations with the Beothuk, and was held in high regard by Captain David Buchan, with whom he had travelled into the interior of Newfoundland in search of the Beothuk. His 1819 expedition was approved by the Newfoundland governor who was convinced that it might encourage trade and help to end hostilities between the Beothuk and the English. The expedition also proved profitable for Peyton since he earned a bounty for the capture of a Beothuk. During the capture, Demasduit's husband Nonosbawsut and brother were killed, and her newborn baby died a couple of days later. She was named Mary March (following the custom of naming captives after the month in which they were taken) and brought to Twillingate and later St. John's. It was intended by the colonial government that Desmaduit receive nothing but comfort and friendly treatment during her time with the English of Newfoundland so that when returned to her people she could serve as a bridge between the Beothuk and the Europeans. She learned some English and was able to provide about 200 words of Beothuk vocabulary. In January 1820, during a trip back to Notre Dame Bay intended to return Demasduit to her people, she died of tuberculosis.

hanawdithit (Nancy April)

Shanawdithit, niece of Demasduit, was the last known Beothuk. She was captured in April 1823, when in her early 20s, and lived for several years in the home of John Peyton, Jr. (where she was known as Nancy April), working as a servant. Meanwhile, William Cormack had founded the "Boeothick Institute" in order to foster a positive relationship with the Beothuk, and study and support their culture. His expeditions found Beothuk artifacts, but concluded that the group was dying out. For this reason, Shanawdithit was brought to St. John's in 1828 in order to help Cormack with what remained of his project. She provided Cormack with drawings illustrating Beothuk implements, concepts, and mythologies, and augmented the knowledge of Beothuk words. She was also able to outline the numerical decline of the Beothuk over the previous two decades, testifying that at the time of her capture, only about a dozen remained. Despite medical care from Dr. William Carson, Shanawdithit died of tuberculosis on June 6, 1829.



*Hewson, John. "Beothuk and Algonkian: Evidence Old and New." "International Journal of American Linguistics", Vol. 34, No. 2 (Apr., 1968), pp. 85-93.

*Holly, Donald H. Jr. "A Historiography of an Ahistoricity: On the Beothuk Indians." "History and Anthropology", 2003, Vol. 14(2), pp. 127-140.

*Holly, Donald H. Jr. "The Beothuk on the eve of their extinction." "Arctic Anthropology", 2000, Vol. 37(1), pp. 79-95.

*Howley, James P., "The Beothucks or Red Indians", 1918. First published by Cambridge University Press. Reprint: Prospero Books, Toronto. (2000). ISBN 1-55267-139-9.

*Marshall, Ingeborg, "A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk". McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 1996. ISBN 0-7735-1390-6. (This is an excellent up-to-date and detailed examination of what is known about the Beothuk)

*Marshall, Ingeborg, "The Beothuk". The Newfoundland Historical Society, 2001.

*Pastore, Ralph T., "Shanawdithit's People: The Archaeology of the Beothuks". Breakwater Books, St. John's, Newfoundland, 1992. ISBN 0-929048-02-4. Ralph T. Pastore, historian and archaeologist, late of Memorial University of Newfoundland, discovered the Boyd's Cove Beothuk settlement.

*Renouf, M. A. P. "Prehistory of Newfoundland hunter-gatherers: extinctions or adaptations?" "World Archaeology", Vol. 30(3): pp. 403-420 "Arctic Archaeology" 1999.

*Such, Peter, "Vanished Peoples: The Archaic Dorset & Beothuk People of Newfoundland". NC Press, Toronto, 1978.

*Tuck, James A., "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, 1994.

*Winter, Keith John, "Shananditti: The Last of the Beothuks". J.J. Douglas Ltd., North Vancouver, B.C., 1975. ISBN 0-88894-086-6.

External links

* [ The Beothuk of Newfoundland] , contains the obituary, published in The Times, of Shanawdithit, officially known as the last Beothuk.
*Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage. [ The Beothuks]
*Native Languages. [ Beothuk]
*McMaster University. Peter Calamai. (Aug 6, 2005). [ Beothuk mystery]

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