Portrait of Demasduit (Mary March) 1819 watercolour on ivory USE/REPRODUCTION: Copyright: Expired Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1977-14-1
Hundred’s of years ago, their boats quietly landed on the beach, the water gently lapping onshore. They would’ve then solemnly disembarked and located the site that had been chosen for the burial. These were the Beothuk.
It is believed members of the Beothuk tribe arrived on Hangman’s Island, one of the islands of the Ragged Islands in western Placentia Bay. There, they carefully buried a member of their tribe who’s body had been meticulously prepared. It had been covered with a shield made from strips of birch bark. These had been painstakingly sewn together.
No one knows why members of the Beothuk had chosen these islands as a burial ground. It had certainly not been the first time they had visited the region. A host of artefacts—end-scrapers, blades, flakes, and bifaces—had been located archaeologically in various places such as Long Island, Merasheen Island, and at Tack’s Beach.
The area where these artefacts had been found was likely being used for both the manufacture of the tools of hunting and hunting itself. Closing our eyes, one can imagine the men and women sitting around a campsite, chatting every now and then, but busily working the pieces of rock into the tools they required. While these artefacts were regarded as belonging to earlier First Nations, those from Tack’s Beach, in particular, were attributed to the Beothuk.
As far as we know, these artefacts have not been dated. Nonetheless, it is safe to say the beothuk were no doubt accustomed to spending some of their time around the islands of Placentia Bay. In and around 1610 when John Guy landed and established a colony in Cupids, they actually met and traded with the Beothuk. In all likelihood, the Beothuk would’ve also spent time fishing for salmon in the Come-By-Chance River.
On the mainland of the Avalon, archaeological work has identified their presence in Ferryland. Up until that time, most believed the Beothuk did not spend much time on the Avalon. So, it was a promising find. Because having found evidence of their presence in Ferryland, it is highly likely, before the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Beothuk may have also followed paths through the southwest Avalon.
When the European fishery was predominantly migratory, once the Europeans left, the Beothuk could take advantage of the metal tools that had been left behind. However, with the coming of the seventeenth century, things were changing and more and more Europeans were actually settling in Newfoundland. By the mid-18th century European presence restricted the Beothuk largely to the Exploits Valley and adjacent coast in central Newfoundland.
Tragically, the Beothuk were trapped in a world that had transformed. They turned down any opportunity to trade with the Europeans and they even refused to adopt guns as a part of their culture. With the settlement of Europeans, a diminishing amount of land was available for the Beothuk to pursue their livelihoods as they once did. The places where they once hunted, established their camps, or buried their people were no longer accessible. The islands of Placentia Bay, not the Avalon where they may once have traverse, was no longer available for the Beothuk. Plus, adding to their difficulties was the old enemy—disease. Like many before them, the Beothuk were reduced by measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis.
In April 1823, a group of trappers captured a Beothuk woman by the name of Shanawdithit (the niece of Mary March) with her mother and sister, both of whom shortly died from tuberculosis. Shanawdithit survived and lived at Exploits Island. There, she worked as a servant in the household of the magistrate and merchant John Peyton Jr.
She spent a portion of her time translating English words into her own language, a variant of the Algonkian family of languages. Shanawdithit also dedicated some of her time to drawing pictures that could relay an element of the Beothuk way of life—Beothuk tools, food, their homes and mythological figures.
It was inevitable however. On the 6th June, 1829, Shanawdithit died of tuberculosis. There are no doubt some surviving element of the Beothuk who likely exist to this day. However, as a distinct cultural entity, they are no more.