Early European contact
"Beothuk" means "people" in the Beothuk language. The origins of the Beothuks are uncertain, but it appears that they were an Algonquian group who displaced a Dorset culture on Newfoundland about 1000 years ago.
It is possible that the natives described by the Vikings as Skrælings were Beothuk inhabitants of Labrador and Newfoundland. When other Europeans arrived, beginning with John Cabot in 1497, contact with the Beothuks was established. Estimates on the number of Beothuks on the island at this time vary, ranging from 1000 to 5000.
The Europeans called the Beothuk "Red Indians", because they painted themselves with red ochre. The term "Red Indian" was later used to refer to North American native people in general and took on a more negative connotation. The Beothuks spent their summers fishing along the coast and their winters hunting in the interior. In the fall, they set up fences which were used to drive migrating caribou towards waiting hunters. They preserved any surplus food for later use during winter.
In contrast with some other native groups, the Beothuks strove to avoid contact with Europeans, and moved inland as European settlements grew. Due to loss of land, skirmishes with Europeans and newly-introduced European diseases, such as tuberculosis, their numbers had dwindled to 400 by 1768, and by 1829 they were extinct.
Beothuks captured by Europeans
There are two famous stories of Beothuks being captured by Europeans. In 1819, Demasduwit, re-named Mary March, was kidnapped with hopes that she would become a translator and intermediary between the English settlers and Beothuks. She soon died of tuberculosis.
Demasduwit's niece, a teenage girl named Shanawdithit, was the last known Beothuk. She was captured in 1823 and re-named Nancy. She spent the last six years of her life describing Beothuk culture and language to William Cormack, before she too died of tuberculosis.
In 1929, a 75-year old Native woman named Santu, the daughter of a Micmac mother and a Beothuk father, sang a song in the Beothuk language for the American anthropologist Frank Speck while she was on her way to Nova Scotia and down to New England. The song was aired on CBC Radio on September 13, 2000. (To hear this song, visit the external link below).
- Stories of Musical Memories: A Song from the Beothuk
- The Beothuks, Newfoundland government site