Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Beothuks or Red Indians of Newfoundland



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[On the Beothuks information is available at the following sites: the Canadian Encyclopedia , the Newfoundland Heritage site , the native archaeology site for links and at the Newfoundland History site (Beothuk entered in the search engine).



Beothukan Family (from the tribal or group name Beothuk, which probably signifies 'man,' or 'human being,' but was employed by Europeans to mean 'Indian,' or 'Red Indian'; in the latter case because the Beothuk coloured themselves and tinted their utensils and arms with red ochre). So far as known only a single tribe, called Beothuk, which inhabited the island of Newfoundland when first discovered, constituted this family, although existing vocabularies indicate marked dialectic differences. At first the Beothuk were classified either as Eskimauan or as Algonquian, but now, largely through the researches of Gatschet, it is deemed best to regard them as constituting a distinct linguistic stock. It is probable that in 1497 Beothukan people were met by Sebastian Cabot when he discovered Newfoundland , as he states that he met people "painted with red ochre," which is a marked characteristic of the Beothuk of later observers. Whitbourne (Chappell, Voy. to Newfoundland , 1818), who visited Newfoundland in 1622, stated that the dwelling-places of these Indians were in the N. and W. portions of the island, adding that "in war they use bows and arrows, spears, darts, clubs, and slings." The extinction of the Beothuk was due chiefly to the bitter hostility of the French and to Micmac invasion from Nova Scotia at the beginning of the 18th century, the Micmac settling in W. Newfoundland as hunters and fishermen. For a time these dwelt in amity with the Beothuk, but in 1770, quarrels having arisen, a destructive battle was fought between the two peoples at the N. end of Grand Pond. The Beothuk, however, lived on friendly terms with the Naskapi, or Quebec Montagnais, and the two peoples visited and traded with each other. Exasperated by the petty depredations of these tribes, the French, in the middle of the 18th century, offered a reward for every head of a Beothuk Indian. To gain this reward, and to obtain the valuable furs they possessed, the more numerous Micmac hunted and gradually exterminated them as an independent people. The English treated the Beothuk with much less rigour; indeed, in 1810 Sir Thomas Duckworth issued a proclamation for their protection. The banks of the river of Exploits and its tributaries appear to have been their last inhabited territory. [See note at the end of the text]


De Last ( Novus Orbis , 34, 1833) describes these Newfoundland Indians as follows: "The height of the body is medium, the hair black, the face broad, the nose flat, and the eyes large; all the males are beardless, and both sexes tint not only their skin but also their garments with a kind of red colour. And they dwell in certain conical lodges and low huts of sticks set in a. circle and joined together in the roof. Being nomadic, they frequently change their habitations. They had a kind of cake made with eggs and baked in the sun, and a sort of pudding, stuffed in gut, and composed of seal's fat, livers, eggs, and other ingredients." He describes also their peculiar crescent-shaped birchbark canoes, which had sharp keels, requiring much ballast to keep them from overturning; these were not more than 20 feet in length and they could bear at most 5 persons. Remains of their lodges, 30 to 40 feet in circumference and constructed by forming a slender frame of poles overspread with birch bark, are still traceable. They had both summer and winter dwellings, the latter often accommodating about 20 people each. Jukes ( Excursions , 1842) describes their deer fences or deer stockades of trees, which often extended for 30 miles along a river. They employed pits or caches for storing food, and used the steam bath in huts covered with skins and heated with hot stones. Some of the characteristics in which the Beothuk differed from most other Indians were a marked lightness of skin colour. the use of trenches in their lodges for sleeping berths, the peculiar form of their canoes, the non-domestication of the dog, and the dearth of evidence of pottery making. Bonnycastle ( Newfoundland in 1842 ) states that the Beothuk used the inner bark of Pinus balsamifera as food, while Lloyd ( Jour. Anthrop. Inat ., iv, 1875) mentions the fact that they obtained fire by igniting the down of the bluejay from sparks produced by striking together two pieces of iron pyrites. Peyton, cited by Lloyd, declares that the sun was the chief object of their worship. Cormack's expedition, conducted in behalf of the Beothic Society for the Civilization of the Native Savages, in 1827, failed to find a single individual of this once prominent tribe, although the island was crossed centrally in the search. As they were on good terms with the Naskapi of Labrador, they perhaps crossed the strait of Belle-Isle and became incorporated with them.


[ Note from the editor : The matter of the extinction of the Beothuks is a complex one, steeped in controversy and uncertainty. The idea that their extermination is attributable to the French and the Micmacs was first enunciated by Cormack on the occasion of his first address to the Beothuk Institution in the late 1820's. He offered no proof in support for his contention. Historian L. F. S. Upton ("The extermination of the Beothucks of Newfoundland", Canadian Historical Review , Vol. LVIII, No 2, June 1977, 133-153, especially pp. 146-147) comments on this theory: "This was a very comforting explanation, as it relegated the English to the minor role of finishing off what others had begun. Moreover, the French were still present in Newfoundland, much to the disgust of the English residents. France had acknowledged British sovereignty in 1714, but she kept the exclusive use of long stretches of coast for her fisheries until 1904. Any story that involved her in evil doings would be very acceptable to Cormack's audience". Upton further states that "it is highly unlikely that the Micmacs played any significant part in the destruction of the Beothucks, either at the bidding of the French or on their own account (p. 150)". He offers convincing arguments to support his point of view. Professor Olaf Janzen of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College of Newfoundland has an interesting and highly informative historiographical essay on the Beothuks that should be consulted by all serious students of the Red Indians.]


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 61-62.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College