In 1912 geologist and surveyor James P. Howley completed four decades of gathering first-hand accounts, family stories, artifacts and written records about the Beothuk.
His book, The Beothucks or the Red Indians: The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland, was published three years later and for much of the century was long considered the definitive collection of information about the extinct Indigenous Peoples.
Dr. Jeff Webb, a professor in Memorial’s Department of History, says the stories of the Beothuk in Howley’s book became the stories told by others for decades.
“Everybody who was interested in the Beothuk used his book and then those stories became part of the oral tradition. People’s image of the Beothuk still predominantly comes from Howley’s book,” he said.
“Without the book, the Beothuk would not loom as large in popular culture as they do.”
Knowing what we know
Dr. Webb first encountered the book in the 1980s, and recently reread it as part of a larger examination of knowledge, history and social sciences. One of the questions that has come out of his re-examination is: How do we know what we know?
“I was rereading Howley’s book while thinking about what can we learn about how he understood the world, what counted for him as evidence, what didn’t count, and how he came to know something about those people.”
Dr. Webb’s goal is to neither debunk Howley as a culturally biased colonial author nor to credit Howley as a definitive information source.
“Neither of those are very interesting or helpful. What’s interesting for me is to understand how people understand the world. How do that they make knowledge? That’s, in large part, what brought me to reread this.”
His conclusions contained in the article, A Few Fabulous Fragments: Historical Methods in James P. Howley’s The Beothuks, are scheduled for publication in the May edition of the journal Histoire sociale/Social history.
Reminiscence of Beothuk
Howley set out to remember the Beothuk through his book. He believed that it was not possible to write a history of the Beothuk because so little was known about them and so little had been written down, says Dr. Webb.
“In his words, his book is a reminiscence — it’s an exercise in remembering the Beothuk.”
While he achieved this goal, Dr. Webb says these days the book provides more insight into Howley’s beliefs than the Beothuk.
“The book perhaps tells us more about late 19th-century Europeans than it tells us about 18th-century Beothuks. It is a foundational text in Newfoundland culture.”
Howley became interested in the Beothuk following a chance meeting in 1871 with John Peyton Jr. who, in 1819, along with his father, had seized Demasduit and killed her husband. Howley also collected material that William E. Cormack compiled later.
Dr. Webb notes that like many people of his era, Howley held romantic notions of the Beothuk as a unique, shy, “child-like, innocent race” who had not inter-married with other Indigenous Peoples.
Howley described the Beothuk as not violent by nature, but that scavenging for items left by Europeans led to misunderstandings, hostilities and killings on both sides. Later European efforts to establish peace failed because the Beothuk distrusted them.
“It’s possible to have romantic notions about a group when you don’t have any real-life examples of the group to disappoint you,” said Dr. Webb.
However, Dr. Webb says Howley’s scientific methodology was generally good.
“He takes care in evidence, he collects everything that he thinks is interesting and relevant about the Beothuk. When he collects something which he believes is false, he tells it to the reader,” he said.
“He does tend to fall prey to what the psychologists call confirmation bias. When something fits with his pre-conceived notions of who the Beothuk were, he accepts it. And when something does not fit with what he believes, he’s skeptical of it.”
State of knowledge
Dr. Webb is ambivalent about the value of Howley’s book today as a source of information about Indigenous Peoples.
“It depends a bit on what your purpose is. If your purpose is to understand what late 19th-century people thought about the Beothuk and knew about the Beothuk, Howley’s book is where to go. If your purpose is to find out what we know about the Beothuk now, there is more recent scholarship that are better guides.”
One such guide is Ingeborg Marshall’s book, A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk.
Published in 1996, Marshall’s meticulous account of the Beothuk drew upon modern archaeological work to paint a picture of the day-to-day lives of the Beothuk and written documents that Howley had not found.
“His book in 1915 is the state of knowledge at that time. Her book was the definitive state of knowledge in its time.”
Dr. Webb expects today’s archaeologists and researchers will continue add to knowledge about the Beothuk through their work with DNA and radio-isotopes.
“They may indeed tell us a lot more about the Beothuk, and are raising questions Howley could not have even imagined.”