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The Beothuk ( or ) (also spelled Beothic, Beothick, Beothuck) were the native inhabitants of the island of Newfoundlandmarker at the time of European contact in the 15th and 16th centuries. With the death in 1829 of Shanawdithit, a woman who was the last recorded surviving member, the people became officially extinct as a separate ethnic group.

History and culture

Newfoundland Canada, home of the Beothuk
Beothuk means "people" in the Beothuk language. The origins of the Beothuk are uncertain. There are only limited records of their language, and theories about its origin are controversial. Some scholars regard it as a language isolate; others believe it is a branch of Algonquian, a view supported by recently derived DNA evidence.

Beginning around AD 1500, the Beothuk culture appears to have been the last cultural manifestation of a group who migrated from Labrador to Newfoundland around AD 1. This group went through three previous cultural phases, each lasting approximately 500 years.

In 2007 DNA testing was done on material from the teeth of Demasduit and her husband Nonosabasut, two Beothuk individuals who had died in the 1820s. The results suggest the Beothuk were linked to the same ancestral people as Mi'kmaqs, in which case their language was likely related as well. It also demonstrated they were solely of Native American ancestry, unlike some earlier studies that suggested European admixture. "The presence of both haplotypes [X and C in mitochondrial DNA, and Q M3 Single nucleotide polymorphism from the Y chromosome] among the current Mi’kmaq population suggests either gene flow between them and the Beothuk or a shared ancestral founder population or both. The fact that the languages spoken by both groups are believed to be of Algonquian origin, supports the idea of a common ancestry, though this may date back millennia."
The Beothuk lived throughout the island of Newfoundland, particularly in the Notre Damemarker and Bonavista baysmarker areas. Estimates vary as to the number of Beothuks at the time of contact with Europeans. Earlier scholars estimated about 2,000 persons at the time of European contact in the 15th century, but recent scholarship suggests that there were no more than 500 to 700 people. They lived in independent, self-sufficient, extended family groups of 30 to 55 people.

Like many other hunter-gathering peoples, they appear to have had band leaders but probably not more formal "chiefs". They lived in conical dwellings known as mamateeks, which were fortified for the winter season. These were constructed by arranging poles in a circle, tying them at the top, and covering them with birch bark. The floors were dug with hollows used for sleeping. A fireplace was created at the center.

The Beothuk seasonally painted not only their bodies, but also their houses, canoes, weapons, household appliances and musical instruments with red ochre. This led Europeans to refer to them as "Red Indians". The use of ochre had great cultural significance. The decorating was done during a multi-day spring celebration. It designated tribal identity; for example, decorating newborn children was a way to welcome them into the tribe. Forbidding a person to wear ochre was a form of punishment.

The main sources of food for the Beothuk were caribou, salmon, and seals, augmented by harvesting other animal and plant species. The Beothuk followed the seasonal migratory habits of their principal quarry. In the fall, they set up deer fences, sometimes 30–40 miles long, used to drive migrating caribou and deer toward waiting hunters armed with bows and arrows.
The Beothuk tribe of Newfoundland is extinct, now existing only in museum, historical and archaeological records.
The Beothuk are also known to have made a pudding out of the dried yolk of the eggs of the Great Auk. They preserved surplus food for use during winter. They trapped various fur-bearing animals and worked their skins for warm clothing. The fur side was worn next to the skin, to trap air against a person's body.

Beothuk canoes were made of bark. They were curved upward at the ends, with steep sides that rose to a point, and a V-shaped bottom.

The Beothuk followed elaborate burial practices. After wrapping the bodies in birch bark, they buried their dead in isolated locations. In one form, a shallow grave was covered with a rock pile. At other times they lay the body on a scaffold, or placed it, with the knees folded, in a burial box. The survivors placed offerings at burial sites, such as figurines, pendants, and replicas of tools.

European contact

About AD 1000, the Norse encountered natives in northern Newfoundland who may have been ancestors of the later Beothuk or Dorset inhabitants of Labrador and Newfoundland. The Norse called them skrælingjar ("skraelings" or barbarians.) Beginning in 1497 with the Italian John Cabot, sailing under the auspices of the English crown, later waves of European explorers and settlers had more continued contact.

In contrast with some other native groups, the Beothuk strove to avoid contact with Europeans, and moved inland as European settlements grew. They only visited their former camps to pick up metals and other items left behind after the Europeans had 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 competed for important natural resources, such as salmon and seals. These encounters led to enmity and mutual violence. With superior arms technology, the settlers generally had the upper hand in hunting and warfare. (Unlike other indigenous peoples, the Beothuk appeared to have had no interest in adopting firearms.) The European frontiersmen exhibited callous behavior toward the natives, but the Beothuk seemed to have had an equally strong cultural imperative toward revenge that caused them to carry out attacks.

Intermittently, Europeans attempted to improve relations with the Beothuk. Examples included expeditions by 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.

Gov. John Duckworth commissioned Buchan's expedition. Though undertaken for information gathering, this expedition ended in violence. Buchan's party encountered several Beothuk near Red Indian Lake. After an initially friendly reception, Buchan left two of his men behind with the Beothuk. The next day, he found them murdered and mutilated. According to the Beothuk Shanawdithit's later account, the deaths were due to the Beothuks' suspicion of the strangers. To his credit, Buchan did not attempt to take revenge and tried to make further contact with the people.


Population estimates of Beothuks remaining at the end of the first decade of the 19th century vary widely, from about 150 up to 3,000. Information about the Beothuk was based on accounts by the woman Shanawdithit, who told about the people who "wintered on the Exploits River or at Red Indian Lake and resorted to the coast in Notre Dame Bay." References in records also noted some survivors on the Northern Peninsula in the early 19th century.

During the colonial period, the Beothuk people also endured territorial pressure from Native groups: Mi'kmaq migrants from Cape Breton Island, and Inuit from Labrador. "The Beothuk were unable to procure sufficient subsistence within the areas left to them." They entered into a cycle of violence with some of the newcomers. Beothuk numbers dwindled rapidly due to a combination of factors, including:

* loss of access to important food sources, from competition with Inuit and Mi'kmaqs as well as European settlers;
* infectious diseases to which they had no immunity, such as smallpox, introduced by European contact (Western peoples also suffered from these diseases. Vaccination against smallpox did not become widespread until the late 19th and 20th centuries);
* endemic tuberculosis (TB), which weakened tribal members; and
* violent encounters with trappers, settlers and other natives.

By 1829, with the death of Shanawdithit, the people was officially declared extinct.
"The tribe has vanished from the face of the earth; and the tale of their extinction forms an infamous stigma, a dark series of crimes, in the historic pages of both French and English colonisation."

Oral histories asserted that a few Beothuk survived for some years around the region of the Exploits Rivermarker, Twillingatemarker, Newfoundland; and Labrador; and formed unions with European-Canadians, Inuit and Mi'kmaq. Some families from Twillingate claim partial descent from Beothuks of the early 19th century.

In 1910, a 75-year old Native woman named Santu Toney, said to be the daughter of a Mi'kmaq mother and a Beothuk father, recorded a song in the Beothuk language for the American anthropologist Frank Speck, who was doing field studies in the area. She said her father had taught her the song. This is further evidence that some Beothuk people survived beyond the death of Shanawdithit in 1829, as Santu Toney was born about 1835. Contemporary researchers have tried to make a transcription of the song, as well as improve the recording by current methods. Native groups have learned the song to use in celebrations of tradition.


Whether Europeans committed genocide against the Native peoples has been a controversial topic. There are questions about its definition, and differing political agendas by parties to such discussion. While some scholars believe that the Beothuk died out due to the elements noted above, another theory is that Europeans conducted a sustained campaign of genocide against them. According to the genocide theory, there was complex institutional racism and systematic discrimination committed by British colonists. This revisionist history is similar to that developed by scholars of the extinction/genocide of the Tasmanian in Australia.

Demasduit (Mary March)

Demasduit (Mary March), 1819.
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 Justice of the Peace at Twillingate, Newfoundland, he was the son of John Peyton, Sr., a salmon fisherman notorious for his hostility toward the Beothuk. The younger Mr. Peyton became well known for his significant efforts to improve relations with the Beothuk. He was held in high regard by Captain David Buchan, with whom he had travelled into the interior of Newfoundland in search of the Beothuk.

Buchan's 1819 expedition was approved by the Newfoundland governor, who sought to encourage trade and end hostilities between the Beothuk and the English. The expedition proved profitable for Peyton, as he earned a bounty for the capture of a Beothuk. During the capture, the husband Nonosbawsut and brother of Demasduit were killed. She left a baby behind, who died after the mother was taken from her people.

Demasduit was named Mary March by the British, her surname the month in which they were taken. She was brought to Twillingate and later St. John's. The colonial government intended to give Desmaduit comfort and friendly treatment during her stay with the English of Newfoundland. The plan was that when Demasduit/March was returned to her people, she could serve as a bridge between the Beothuk and the Europeans. Demasduit learned some English and taught the settlers about 200 words of Beothuk vocabulary. In January 1820, during a return trip to Notre Dame Bay, Demasduit died of tuberculosis before reaching her people.

Shanawdithit (Nancy April)

Shanawdithit, niece of Demasduit, was the last recorded Beothuk. She was captured in April 1823, when she was in her early 20s. Named Nancy April by the English, she lived for several years in the home of John Peyton, Jr. and worked as a servant.

William Cormack had founded the Boeothick Institute to foster a positive relationship with the Beothuk, and study and support their culture. His expeditions found Beothuk artifacts, but he concluded that the group was dying out. Cormack brought Shanawdithit to St. John'smarker in 1828 so that he could learn from her and his institute supported her. She provided Cormack with drawings illustrating Beothuk implements, concepts, and mythologies. (Examples at the external link show his comments on her drawings, based on her stories about them.) She also augmented his knowledge of Beothuk words. Shanawdithit outlined the numerical decline of the Beothuk over the previous two decades. She testified that at the time of her capture, only about a dozen people remained. Despite medical care from specialist Dr. William Carson, Shanawdithit died of tuberculosis on June 6, 1829. There was no cure for TB until the 20th century.



  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Assiniwi, Bernard, "La saga des Béothuks". Babel, LEMÉAC, 1996. ISBN 2-7609-2018-6

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