For the most part the Beothuk kept to themselves and avoided contact with Europeans, so very little is known about them. Traditional enemies were the Micmac and Labrador Eskimo, but the Beothuk seemed to have always maintained friendly relations with the Montagnais and Naskapi in Quebec, sometimes intermarrying with them. The growing-season in Newfoundland is much too short for maize agriculture, and as a result, the Beothuk did not farm. They were semi-nomadic hunter/gatherers organized into small independent bands of extended families. Before the arrival of the Europeans, most Beothuk bands moved seasonally between the coast during summer and interior in the winter, but several groups are known to have remained at coastal villages year-around and sent hunting parties a short distance inland during the colder months.
Unlike the Labrador mainland to the north, Newfoundland did not have a variety of large land animals for use as food sources by its native population. About all that was available were Caribou. There were large herds, but their movements were not always reliable. The coastline, however, was a different story, and it was one of the world's richest with enormous quantities of fish, seals, and and other seafood for the taking. For this reason, the native population of Newfoundland, before contact, was always concentrated on the coastline and avoided the harsh climate of the interior. The Beothuk took advantage of this coastal bounty and were skilled canoeists who speared seals with harpoons, fished for salmon, and collected shellfish. This ended after the European and Micmac occupation of the coastal areas. The Beothuk retreated into the interior with its limited resources. Unlike other Native Americans, their subsequent decline was due more to starvation than disease and warfare.
One thing that is known about the Beothuk was their love of the color red. While the use of red ochre was common among Native Americans, no other tribe used it as extensively as the Beothuk. They literally covered everything - their bodies, faces, hair, clothing, personal possessions, and tools - with a red paint made from powdered ochre mixed with either fish oil or animal grease. It was also employed in burials. The reasons are unknown, but speculation has ranged from their religion (about which we know very little) to protection from insects. The practice was so excessive, even the Micmac referred to them as the Red Indians, and it is believed the term "redskin" used for Native Americans probably originated from early contacts between European fishermen and Beothuk. In most other ways, the Beothuk were similar to neighboring tribes in the region. During the winter, they wore caribou-skin mantles with moccasins, leggings, mittens, and arm-coverings. Despite their heavy reliance on fish and seafood, they were quite comfortable in the woods and used birch bark for their cooking vessels and wigwams. They built several types of canoes, including a humped-back style similar to the Micmac. Many of these were remarkably seaworthy and capable of making long trips across open water.
Beothuk housing varied a great deal and seems to have evolved over the years. Initially, most used either a conical wigwam built around a framework of saplings and covered with sheets of birch bark. There was also a larger square-shaped style of similar construction used in summer villages. By 1700 the Beothuk were building larger structures: a circular wigwam (20' diameter) and an oval longhouse (30' in length). A century later, Beothuk along the Exploits River favored log structures which resembled some of the houses the whites were building. Another change to the the Beothuk lifestyle caused by the European presence was the substitution of metal for many of their traditional materials. This may sound strange to some, since the Beothuk were renown for avoiding contact with whites. They did not, however, avoid stealing from them. The Beothuk stole so much metal from British and French settlers, they were one of the few native peoples who never had to trade with Europeans to get what they needed. Archeological digs at Beothuk campsites often produce hundreds of old nails (used to make arrowheads) which were obviously "borrowed" from the white men who took over their homeland.
Want to know more about the Beothuk?
- General Overview
- Beothuk History
- Beothuk Culture
- 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)