The mysterious, extinct native inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland.

These natives used a red ochre dye to cover their bodies, and it is from this appearance that the expressions red men and redskin were coined by European visitors in the 1500s.

While it is believed that the Beothuk drove the Vikings out of Newfoundland, the Beothuk avoided contact with later, more heavily armed Europeans. The Beothuk also fought a losing war with the southerly Mi'kmaq natives. Inevitable conflicts with later European settlers led to violence and the Beothuks retreated away from settlements. By 1800, due to starvation, prior conflict with the Mi'kmaq natives, and a shoot on sight practice common amongst settlers, the numbers of Beothuk had dwindled precipitously. Nancy Shanawhdit, the last known Beothuk, died in 1829.

(I.) Population - Location and Size
The Beothuk lived almost exclusively on the island of Newfoundland. Archaeological investigations have shown that Beothuk or their immediate forbears, the prehistoric Little Passage Indians (named after the site where their remains were first excavated), have at one time or another lived in all major bays of the island. They also hunted and wintered on the banks of the Exploits River and Red Indian Lake and in other inland areas. 17th century and 18th century reports from fishermen and settlers, often relayed by officers of the British Navy, confirm the Beothuk's presence in these regions.

Old campsites and burials have been found on the south coast at Burgeo, at Couteau, Hermitage and Placentia bays, and at Bay d'Espoir. On the Avalon Peninsula, stone tools have been excavated at Ferryland, at South Dildo and Dildo Pond, and at Bull Arm in Trinity Bay. Remains have also been unearthed at The Beaches, Cape Freels, and Gambo Pond, among other places, in Bonavista Bay.

There are numerous historic and prehistoric Beothuk camp and burial sites on the coast and the islands of Notre Dame Bay. Best known is the site at Boyd's Cove, which has been made a Canadian Heritage Site and has a beautiful and informative interpretation centre. The heartland of Beothuk country, at least in the 18th century, was the region around the Exploits River and Red Indian Lake. Many old mamateek pits (mamateek is the Beothuk word for house) on the river banks and the lake shore, often nearly obliterated, attest to the Beothuk's long residence there. Prehistoric (Little Passage) sites have also been found on the west coast, for example, in the Codroy Valley, at Port aux Choix, at the Bay of Islands and in St. Paul's Bay.

Among Algonquians (the language family to which the Beothuk are thought to have belonged) language and cultural features identified tribes, while bands were important social and political units. Most likely the Beothuk were organized in a similar manner. Because their bands were widely dispersed over a very large geographical area, they are believed to have conducted their daily affairs independently.

As a hunting and fishing people, the Beothuk moved with the seasons. In spring and summer families dispersed along the coast; in fall they hunted and trapped inland or congregated for the caribou drive along waterways. Each band would have required a fairly large region to be able to catch the diversity of food species that was required for its survival. For example, in the early 1600s, the Beothuk who met and traded with John Guy from the English colony in Cupids fished and collected birds and eggs on the coast of Trinity Bay and caught salmon in the Come-by-Chance River in Placentia Bay. They may also have ranged the islands of this bay to make use of its large harbour seal population.

Thus, the territory of this band was extensive, and if we can assume that other bands used a similarly large area, the size of the Beothuk population would have been relatively small. Beothuk bands are believed to have had between 35 and 55 members.

When the Greenland Norse occupied the area around L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Park (ca. 1100), there likely between 500 and 600 Beothuk in Newfoundland. No one really knows how many there were in at the time of ‘first contact’ with Europeans, ca. 1500. Some estimates are as high as 5,000, but 700 is probably closer to the truth; certainly no more than 2,000. There is good evidence that the Beothuk population amounted to about 500 to 700 people at the time.

Only 400 were left in 1768, and by 1829 they were extinct. It would seem possible, however, that small groups of Beothuk crossed over into Labrador and merged with the Montagnais or Naskapi.

To get a better picture of where the Beothuk lived in Newfoundland, see the map at http://www.heritage.nf.ca/aboriginal/sites_map.html.

(II.)Names
Two of the word lists obtained from Beothuk captives in the 19th century, Demasduit and Shanawsithit, include the terms ‘Beathook’ and ‘Behathook’, respectively. Both of these mean ‘Red Indian’, the name the Beothuk used for themselves. William Epps Cormack, the first European to traverse the interior of Newfoundland, had the opportunity to interview Shanawsithit at length during her stay with him in St. John’s, in 1828. Cormack wrote, “Boeothuck is the pronunciation of the word in question - or Boethuck, or Boethick, the emphasis being on the diphthong oe and almost dropping the o.” The common spelling is currently Beothuk, the k sound thought to designate plurality in the original tongue. In English, Beothuk is used to in both the singular and plural.

Some alternate spellings of Beothuk are as follows: Beathunk, Betoukuag, and Beothuck. Beothuk have also been known as Macquajeet (Mequaegit), by the Micmac; Skraelings, by the Norse; and Ulno (Ulnobah), by the Abenaki.

(III.)Language
Beothuk Isolate. Their language was unique, but it appears it may be distantly related to the Algonquin dialect spoken by the Naskapi and Montagnais in Quebec and Labrador.

To hear what the Beothuk language sounded like, go to http://radio.cbc.ca/programs/thismorning/lfnsound/musical_memories/musical_memories_091300.html

Want to know more about the Beothuk?
- General Overview
- Beothuk History
- Beothuk Culture

Bilbliography

  • A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk; Ingeborg Marshall; Montreal and Kingston: McGill – Queen’s University Press; 1996
  • An Ahistory of Hunter-Gatherers: The Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland and the Anthropological Imagination; Paper presented at the 98th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association; November 17-21, 1999; Chicago; Donald H. Holly Jr.
  • The Beothuks or Red Indians; J. P. Howley; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Reprinted by Coles Publishing Co., Ltd.; 1974
  • The Beothuk of Newfoundland: A Vanished People; Ingeborg Marshall; St. John's; 1989
  • The Collapse of the Beothuk World; Ralph T. Pastore; Acadiensis, 19, 1; Fall 1989
  • Extinction: The Beothuks of Newfoundland; Frederick W. Rowe; Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Ltd.; 1977
  • Newfoundland and Labrador Prehistory; James A. Tuck; Ottawa: National Museum of Man; 1976
  • The Extermination of the Beothuks of Newfoundland; Leslie Upton; Canadian Historical Review, LVIII; 1977

information from various sources compiled in my own words. any direct quotes are used with permission from the author(s)

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