The Beothuk and how European contact led to their extinction

July 16, 2012

The Beothuk People of Newfoundland were the first Indigenous People to come into contact with Europeans - contact that tragically set the stage for their eventual extinction. 

The Beothuk population, over its 2,000 year history, was never robust - historians estimate the number at between 500-1,000 at the time of European contact in 1497 when John Cabot arrived on the island. Less than 350 years later, the Beothuk were extinct.

They were a hunter-gatherer nation who lived and hunted in extended family groups. For most of the year they lived inland but in the summer and early fall, they would move to camps at the mouths of rivers to fish. The summer/fall camps were the times for cultural celebrations, sharing of news, trading and arranging marriages. In the winter, they moved inland where they set up “deer fences” which directed the migrating caribou herds to hunting areas. They did not over-fish nor over-hunt any species, and never during the calving or spawning periods.

The first wave of Europeans who arrived to harvest the bounties of the sea did not establish settlements but rather had seasonal camps, returning to their homelands before winter. The Beothuks were able to co-exist with this seasonal presence and appear to have had a mutually beneficial relationship based on a system of “silent” bartering in which one group would leave items of interest to the other group at a customary spot and vice versa. The Beothuk actually benefited from the Europeans as they scoured the seasonally abandoned fish camps to collect rope, nets, canvas, nails, hooks, metal and tools, which they fashioned into tools such as arrowheads, lance points, harpoon blades, awls and hide scrapers. They became very adept at metal work. Firearms, however, they did not touch which left them at a distinct disadvantage in future disputes.

Peaceful, seasonal co-existence came to an abrupt end in the 17th century when Europeans established settlements on the coast, in the traditional gathering points of the Beothuk, which had an immediate and profound impact on the Beothuk. Their nomadic lifestyle was dramatically disrupted as increasingly they were cut off from the sea, a vital food source. As the European population increased so did their hunting and trapping of fur-bearing animals which further impacted the Beothuk. The migratory routes of the caribou were disrupted and the herds were severely over hunted. The Beothuk retaliated and violent confrontations erupted as the Beothuk struggled to defend their lifestyle and very existence, but they were using arrows which were no match for firearms so these confrontations unfailingly resulted in high death rates of the Beothuk. In addition, the Mi'kmaqs were encouraged by the Europeans to join them in dislodging the Beothuk from their traditional lands.

Viewed by some settlers as savages, less than human, and as a threat to the safety of their settlements, the Beothuk were systematically hunted with the intent to eradicate all of them from the island. This period of viciousness coincided with a series of extreme winters which further decimated the Beothuk. They slowly starved as their traditional hunting and fishing grounds were taken from them; they struggled to maintain their deer fences and hunting practices but due to their diminished numbers they were unable to do so. Those other European introductions - tuberculosis, smallpox, measles - further devastated the population.

Government leaders grew concerned about the rumours they heard regarding the plight of the Beothuk. In a display of extreme naivety they offered a “reward” for the capture of live Beothuks - the intent being that the captives would be well treated, would learn to view the Europeans as benign, and once convinced of this view, would be allowed to return to their families and spread the word; the Beothuks would learn to trust them and would move closer to the European settlements where they could receive help. There were two fundamental problems with this plan: Beothuk beliefs stipulated that if they made peace with the Europeans their spirits would be denied access to “Spirit Island”, and the offer of the reward actually accelerated the demise of the Beothuks as the settlers took it to mean captive at any cost.

What little traditional knowledge there is on record is due to the offerings of Shanawdithit, the last remaining Beothuk who was found, starving, along with two other women in the spring of 1823. The other two women died shortly thereafter of tuberculosis, but Shanawdithit survived. She was placed in the care of the William Cormack, a merchant philanthropist. Cormack encouraged Shanawdithit to record her knowledge of her people, her culture and language. Shanawdithit died of tuberculosis on June 6, 1829. The drawings of this brave young woman, the last Beothuk on earth, form the foundation of our scanty knowledge of a People lost forever. 

Update: In December 2017, the Canadian government issued a formal repatriation request to the Scottish government for the remains of two Beothuk, Nonosabasut and his wife, Demasduit, held by the  National Museums Scotland.

This repatriation is a different situation because there isn’t a community of descendents to return the remains to. If the repatriation request is successful, the remains are expected to be held in The Rooms, Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest public cultural space, in St. John’s, Nfld.

This is an excerpt from the 4th edition of our book Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples® which is included as a handout in our training and is available for online purchase here.

Here's an article and short video you might find interesing "Did Christopher Columbus Discover the New World?"

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Updated: December, 2017 

Topics: Indigenous History

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