A History of the Beothuk, a talk given by Ingeborg Marshall at the launch of her book A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk, at the meeting of the Newfoundland Historical Society, St. John's, 19th Sept. 1996.
In this talk I will give an overview of the development of Beothuk/White relations which is the backbone of the history of the Beothuk as we know it. Most of the information comes from records kept by Europeans (mostly English). Because there was so little contact with the Beothuk, their voice is nearly absent from the record and it was therefore not possible to evaluate accounts by the English against evidence from the Beothuk. This is a limitation that I have not been able to compensate for other than making the very best of information that came directly from Beothuk.
There are very few 16th century reports of native people in Newfoundland and none are reliable descriptions of Beothuk. What emerges from the records is that by the mid-1500s Newfoundland's native population was said to be austere and to avoid contact.
We fare better in the 17th century. Letters by John Guy and Henry Crout from the English colony at Cupids describe a meeting with Beothuk in 1612 at Sunnyside in Bulls Arm, Trinity Bay. After a ritual involving shaking a white wolf skin, singing and dancing and striking their chests the Beothuk and colonists exchanged presents. The two parties then shared a meal. Trade was done by the silent barter method - that is in the absence of the trading partner. The Beothuk suspended furs from poles and Guy and his men left what they considered to be a fair exchange. Guy thought that the Beothuk were harmless people and planned to return to them in the following year. He described their appearance, clothes, houses, canoes and their habit of colouring themselves and their utensils with red ochre. Later documents clarify that the ochre was a mark of tribal identity for the Beothuk and that the first coat given to an infant was a sign of initiation.
Henry Croute's correspondence with Sir Percival Willoughby, for whom he acted as agent in Newfoundland, tells us that he returned to the Beothuk camp at Dildo Arm in the following year but found it deserted. He traded for furs elsewhere on the coast, again in the absence of the trade partners; although he could see Beothuk in the woods they would not come close. His men were willing to use force to catch them but Crout would not allow this, explaining in his letter to Willoughby that:
If the [the Beothuk] should be touched or taken parforce ther wilbe never no hoop of any good to be done by them// for the are bentt to revenge if the be any way wronged// the maye hear after do vs mishcheefe or ells the will do it vnto some fishermen// I do writt this because I do leave some in this place which haue a intentt to take some of them parforce which I haue told them allredy my openyon which if the do I will insure you it may be a great lost in tyme vnto the Company.
Crout also mentioned that he knew "wher is one [man?] to be procured which can speake ther langguad very well which hath bin five years a mongst them." Unfortunately, he gave no information who this person was, under what circumstances he had joined the Beothuk and what his experience had been.
Twenty six years later David Kirke from Ferryland recorded that in 1613 the Beothuk had assembled to meet with John Guy, but that the crew of a passing fishing vessel had shot at them. The Indians had immediately fled and had done much mischief in Trinity Bay ever since. This and other hostile encounters contributed to a steady deterioration of relations between Beothuk and whites. The situation was aggravated by the fact the Beothuk gradually lost access to traditional campsites on the Avalon and Burin peninsulas, including Trinity and Placentia bays.
Outright hostilities seem not have erupted until the 1720s when Skeffington and other English settlers expanded their salmon business from rivers in Bonavista Bay to those in Notre Dame Bay. The Beothuk responded with killings and a few years later they also shot English trappers who reciprocated in kind. These are the earliest recorded killings - in both cases it was the Beothuk who killed first. However, this does not exclude the possibility that Beothuk had been killed previously and that this deed had not been recorded.
The 1720s appear to have been a turning point in the history of the Beothuk because during this decade they also entered into serious conflict with the Micmac. The Micmac dislodged them from St. George's Bay and subsequently from portions of the Newfoundland west and south coast so that the Beothuk territory was once again substantially reduced.
For the next thirty years the records do not mention Beothuk until, in 1758, a Beothuk woman and child were killed and a 9 year old boy - known as June - was captured. This incident may have provoked the Beothuk's killing of shipmaster Scott and five of his men, who had built a fortified station in the Bay of Exploits. The first white settlers in Hall's Bay suffered the same fate. These acts of violence on both sides set into motion a vicious cycle of murder and revenge in which the Beothuk were usually the looser.
In 1768, when several stories of brutalities by the English came to the attention of Governor Hugh Palliser he sent Lieut. John Cartwright up the Exploits River to make peace with the Beothuk. Cartwright did not meet any of them - either they were still on the coast (it was August), or the Beothuk went into hiding to avoid the armed men. Cartwright estimated the Beothuk population at about 300 to 500 people; based on his report and his map of Beothuk dwellings on the Exploits River I suggest a population figure of about 350 in that year. In retrospect it seems that circumstances to conciliate the Beothuk were never again as favourable. The Beothuk's animosity became entrenched which would have made negotiations difficult while approaches by the English were based on the wrong premises so that their attempts at creating peace were probably doomed before they got under way.
Following Cartwright's unsuccessful expedition many acts of violence occurred. The Beothuk ambushed and killed fishermen and the English retaliated with harassment and bloody raids. The most hideous story on record is that of the "Peyton raid" in 1781. After three days of travel up the Exploits River John Peyton Sr and two others came to a Beothuk camp and fired into the mamateeks (the Beothuk term for wigwams). They then pursued the fleeing Beothuk. A man who was too wounded to run away defended himself with a trap on which he was working but Peyton wrested it away from him and beat him to death. Nine years later Peyton's men made a second raid which may have been less bloody.
This violence contrasts sharply with the experience of four French sailors, in 1787 (only six years after the Peyton raid) who had became shipwrecked near Shoe Cove, south of La Scie, and were taken in by a group of Beothuk. They were very fearful of the Indians but were actually treated well. Jean Conan, who recorded this event, said that a girl who would have been about fifteen years old, took a fancy to him and seduced him. He even considered staying with the Indians and lead a hunting life but when a French boat came to their rescue he changed his mind. The Beothuk seem not to have stopped them from leaving.
Eventually the harassment and murder of Beothuk became more widely known and several people agitated for their protection, one of whom was George Cartwright of Labrador fame. In 1784, Cartwright proposed the establishment of an Indian Reserve between Dog Bay and Cape St. John - the area to be off limits to the English except for making hay and picking berries in fall. Cartwright described some of the atrocities against the Indians that he had heard about and predicted that they would not survive unless government intervened on their behalf. He offered his services as an Indian agent, but the Colonial Office was not willing to act.
Capt. George Christopher Pulling favoured a peace mission. He wrote to authorities in Britain in 1792:
As I conceive the Bay or River of Exploits the best place to go to for this undertaking and to be enabled to remain there during the winter I judge it necessary to have a vessel of about 200 tons burthen and of an easy draught of water to sail from England in the spring of the year so as to be in Newfoundland by the time the drift ice leaves the coast ... It will in my opinion be proper to lay out about a hundred pounds in wearing apparel, trinkets, beads etc. to leave in their wigwams or to dispose in any other manner found necessary to convince them of our intentions ... I think it necessary to assure the salmon Catchers and Furriers who inhabit or frequent those parts of Newfoundland ... that no notice will be taken of any cruelties that they may already have been guilty of. But that every step will be taken to bring to Justice all those who shall in future wilfully injure or molest them.
To prove that protection of the Beothuk was urgently needed Pulling recorded many violent acts against them. Chief Justice Reeves used this evidence in his plea for a change in policy towards the Beothuk in the Parliamentary Enquiry into the State of Trade to Newfoundland, in 1793. But government officials were not prepared to take costly or unpopular measures on behalf of Newfoundland's native population and refused to act upon these appeals. Other proposals, for example by Governors Waldegrave and Pole, were equally ignored.
By the turn of the 18th century British government agencies and Newfoundland governors finally began to acknowledge that the situation of the native population was untenable and that this problem should be addressed. In order to avoid a costly mission to the Beothuk, governors offered a reward to anyone who would bring a live Beothuk to St. John's. The idea was to treat such a captive with kindness and send him or her back with presents. In 1803 William Cull succeeded in bringing a Beothuk woman to St. John's. But no proper plan of how to use her knowledge about her people existed and she was not asked how they could be approached to create better relations. Cull was simply told to bring her back with presents. But Cull was afraid of the Beothuk and left her in the forest. The woman later visited a community alone and it was thought that she never joined her people.
At that time the Beothuk had lost most of their traditional territory to the English and Micmac. They still resorted to the Exploits River and Red Indian Lake, to Gander Lake, and the lakes inland from New and Badger Bay, and to the coast between Cape Freels and Cape St. John. They also continued to venture to the Wadhams and Funk Island to collect birds and eggs.
A milestone event in the by now tense relations between Beothuk and English was Capt. David Buchan's meeting with them in January 1811. With a party of twenty-three well armed Marines and three local settlers as guides Buchan trekked up the Exploits River and, early one morning, came upon a Beothuk settlement at Red Indian Lake. The occupants were speechless but quickly rallied and offered their visitors a meal. Since John Guy's meeting with the Beothuk in Trinity Bay this was the first time that Beothuk and English had come together in a peaceful manner. Buchan made every effort to instill trust in the Beothuk and when he believed that he had succeeded he returned to his camp to fetch presents; he left two of his men behind. The Beothuk, suspecting that Buchan would come back with a larger force to take them prisoner, killed and beheaded the two hostages and fled to a sequestered part of the forest. Later they stuck these heads on poles and danced around them in victory feasts. At that time the entire tribe amounted to 72 people.
In the following two summers Buchan searched for Beothuk on the coast but was unsuccessful in catching up with them. Governor Duckworth fully supported his efforts and thereby set a new standard of concern and willingness to act in order to bring about better relations with the Beothuk.
His successors did not show the same degree of commitment, probably because political and economic crises overshadowed their anxiety about the treatment of the Beothuk. Instead of taking the initiative they simply reacted to circumstances as they arose. Thus, when John Peyton Jr. requested permission to pursue the Beothuk after they had cut the moorings of one of his boats - he said he wanted to retrieve his property and let the Beothuk know that he was willing to trade with them - Governor Hamilton encouraged him to take a captive but did not order him to refrain from violence. In the event Peyton captured Demasduit, also known as Mary March, who had just had a baby and was too weak to escape. Her baby died two days later. When her husband, chief Nonosabasut, came to her rescue, Peyton's party killed him. A witness later recorded that as he lay on the ice "his eyes flashed fire and he uttered a yell that made the woods echo." Peyton Jr was brought before the Grand Jury for the killing of Nonosabasut but was acquitted.
Demasduit was taken to St. John's and her visit caused a significant change in people's opinion about the Beothuk. An article, published on 27 May 1819 in the Mercantile Journal (by an anonymous writer) states:
On Sunday last, the curiosity of the good people of this town was gratified by an unexpected visit from one of the Red Indians, a young woman, about twenty years old. In consequence of the habitual persecution and cruelty which every well informed person in this island knows to have occurred, we could not but believe that the Red Indians were the most ferocious and intractable of the savage tribes. And it is with no less astonishment than pleasure that we find in the young woman which has been brought amongst us a gentle being, sensibly alive to every mild impression and delicate propriety of her sex. Is it not horrible to reflect that at the very moment, while we set down at our fire sides in peace and composure, many of her country men, in all probability as amiable and interesting as this young woman, are exposed to wanton cruelty ... We might remember that as far as priority possession can convey a right of property, the Red Indians have the better title to the Island.
This was the first public admission that the right of the Beothuk to the island and its resources was more legitimate than that of the English.
The principal citizens of St. John's formed a committee and decided to organize and finance a mission to bring Demasduit back to her people. But Governor Hamilton refused to relinquish control over the captive. After an unsuccessful attempt at having her brought to a Beothuk camp in Notre Dame Bay, Capt. Buchan was asked to take her back to Red Indian Lake. Demasduit, who suffered from consumption, unexpectedly died on 8 January 1820 onboard HMS Grasshopper. Buchan brought her remains to the settlement where she had been captured. He subsequently searched the country for Beothuk survivors for forty days but they had gone into hiding.
Three years later, in 1823, furriers found Shanawdithit, her mother and sister in a starved and weak condition and brought them to magistrate John Peyton Jr on Exploits Island. After a brief visit to St. John's the mother and older daughter died and Shanawdithit was taken into the Peyton household where she acted as a servant. John Peyton Jr., aged 30, had only recently married the seventeen-year-old Eleanor Mahaney who was now in charge of her. Shanawdithit seems to have been reasonably happy in the Peyton household and Bishop Inglis, who visited the Peytons in 1827, recorded that the children loved her and "would leave their mother to go to her."
In the same year William Eppes Cormack, who had walked across the island in search of Beothuk in 1822 (but had not met any), founded the Boeothick Institution to elicit general support for his scheme of making peace with the Beothuk. Many prominent citizens became members and contributed financially. When his renewed search for Beothuk as well as attempts by native guides at locating survivors were unsuccessful Cormack concluded that the tribe was on the verge of extinction.
He brought Shanawdithit to St. John's where she arrived on 20 September 1828. Shanawdithit related to him how her tribe had dwindled from 72 members in 1811 to only 12 or 13 at the time she was captured. She had little hope that they would survive since they were too few to keep up the caribou-fences; and being driven from the shore "their means of existence were completely cut off." She never related the tragic story of her people without tears.
Cormack had great hopes that Shanawdithit would become the instrument of establishing peaceful relations with her tribe but she persistently refused to accompany any of the expeditions saying that it was "an invariable religious principle laid down by her people to sacrifice to the munes [the spirits] of the victims slain by the whites and Micmacs any Boëothics who had been in contact with them." She also told Cormack that "From infancy all her people were taught to cherish animosity and revenge against all other people; it was enforced by narrating the innumerable wrongs inflicted on the Boëothics... and that if the Boëothics made peace and talked with them they would not after they died go to the happy island and hunt in the country of the good spirit."
This information would indicate that during Shanawdithit's life time the Beothuk were not prepared to forget the wrongs they had suffered and to make peace.
Cormack left Newfoundland in January 1829 and Shanawdithit was transferred to the home of Attorney General James Simms. She died of consumption in a St. John's hospital on the 6th of June 1829.
Within a few years of Shanawdithit's death public opinion about the Beothuk had shifted markedly. The opening paragraph of an article in the Royal Gazette, published in 1832, states that the Beothuk had been dispossessed of their land and resources unlawfully and without regard to their rights or their ability to survive - that the fate of the Beothuk was distressing and a perplexing page in Newfoundland's history - and that the circumstances of their demise were "repulsive."
Thus, in the course of just over three centuries attitudes towards the Beothuk have come full circle. In the 1600s they were thought to be harmless and potentially useful as trade partners; in the early 1700s, when hostilities had started, they were said to be dangerous and sub-human and were persecuted and murdered. From the late 1700s onwards at least some people acknowledged that the Beothuk had a right to the land and resources and should be protected; once the Beothuk had vanished from the island Newfoundlanders considered them victims of prejudice and cruelty.
While I agree that both prejudice and cruelty were at work I suggest that the Beothuk had not been powerless victims who had allowed circumstances to rule their lives. In my view they were a heroic people who valued their independence and traditions above all and were prepared to face hostilities rather than be subjugated.
Ingeborg Marshall on behalf of the Beothuk Institute.