DIED – At St. John’s Newfoundland on the 6th of June last in the 29th year of her age, Shanawdithit, supposed to be the last of the Red Indians or Beothicks. This interesting female lived six years a captive amongst the English, and when taken notice of latterly exhibited extraordinary mental talents. She was niece to Mary March’s husband, a chief of the tribe, who was accidentally killed in 1819 at the Red Indian Lake in the interior while endeavouring to rescue his wife from the party of English who took her, the view being to open a friendly intercourse with the tribe.
In Badger Bay, Newfoundland, in the spring of 1823, fur trappers captured three native women: a mother, Doodebewshet, and her two daughters, Shanawdithit, and Easter Eve, whose Beothuk name remains unknown. The furriers brought the women to Exploits Island, where Doodebewshet and Easter Eve died of tuberculosis. After the deaths of these women, the total Beothuk population was reduced to 11.
The Beothuk were a semi-nomadic people of Algonkian origin descended from the prehistoric Little Passage people. It is thought that they inhabited Newfoundland for thousands of years before their first contact with Europeans in 1497. Using the powder of red hematite abundant on the island to paint their canoes, artefacts and bodies led the Europeans to give them the name ‘Red Indians,’ a moniker that stuck to all First Nations people. Exactly what led the Beothuk to extinction depends upon the account. Disease, malnutrition, being forced away from their own territory and being abducted and sent to Europe as slaves or put on exhibit are certainly factors, as well as deliberately being hunted and slaughtered by settlers. Revisionist historical accounts will state that the Beothuk died out because of their own aggressive, insular customs, and their conflictual relationship with other aboriginal people, most notably the Micmac people. Some historians suggest that had the Beothuk acquiesced to the settlers and traded with them, at least for firearms, they could have defended themselves from the Europeans that hunted them. There are other accounts that state that French soldiers were sent to Newfoundland solely for the purpose of fighting and slaughtering all Beothuk. It was only after the capture of Shanawdithit that it was realized that the people were almost entirely killed off, and the Beothuk Institution was hastily founded to try to protect the island’s original inhabitants.
It is difficult to believe that a people who survived in one location for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans drove themselves to extinction. In 1915 James P. Howley published a study of Shanawdithit’s drawings created in 1829 accompanied with descriptions recorded by W.E. Cormack. Howley wrote: “ Shanawdithit gave an exact census of her tribe at that time to Cormack, as follows: In the principal encampment, that which Capt. Buchan surprised, there were in one wigwam, or mamateek, 4 men, 5 women and 6 children. In the second mamateek, there were 4 men, 2 women and 6 children, and in the third mamateek, there were 3 men, 5 women and 7 children; in the whole 42 persons. In the second encampment there were 13 persons, and in the third 17, making in all 72 persons.”
23 years old at the time of her capture, Shanawdithit lived the remainder of her life in white society, alienated from the few remaining members of her people. She was the niece of Demasduit, a woman who was captured in 1819 by European settlers in the hopes that she would act as an interpreter for them to the Beothuck people. Frustrating to the Europeans was the Beothuk’s lack of interest in trading or interacting with them in any way; the Beothuk went to great lengths to avoid the settlers.
Demasduit, later named Mary March by Reverend John Leigh, whom she was sent to live with after her abduction, had been among a small group of Beothuk who were set upon by a group of eight armed white men. An ill, nursing mother, Demasduit was unable to flee with the rest of her people, and bared her breasts to the settlers to demonstrate she was nursing an infant. Her husband Nonosbawsut attempted to intervene to protect his wife and child from the group of encroaching men and was gunned down by the group, who were later absolved of their murder by a grand jury. Demasduit was abducted, her infant left to die upon the ice. She lived among the settlers for a year, and although ill with tuberculosis, an attempt was made to return her to her people. Captain David Buchan was to bring her home but she but died en route of her illness aboard the vessel Grasshopper on January 8, 1820. Her body was left in a coffin on the shore, in the hopes that her people would recover her remains.
Her niece Shanawdithit was sent to live with Mr. John Peyton Jr., and his family where she was treated as a servant. She was renamed Nancy April, April being the month in which she was captured. Given pencil and paper, she created a number of drawings depicting the abduction of Demasduit, the return of her body, and skirmishes between her people and the settlers. She also sketched aspects of her people’s culture and translated some English words into her own language. Most of what is now known of Beothuk culture comes from the sketches and records of conversations with Shanawdithit.
Bishop John Inglis, who met Shanawdithit during a journey by ship in 1827, recorded that she was “very interesting, rather graceful, and of a good disposition; her countenance mild, and her voice soft and harmonious. Sometimes a little sullenness appears, and an anxiety to wander, when she will pass twenty-four hours in the woods, and return; but this seldom occurs. She is fearful that her race has died from want of food.” He also “greatly lamented to find that she had not received sufficient instruction to be baptized and confirmed.”
In 1828 she was sent from Exploits Island to St. John’s to live with William Cormack, the president of the recently established Beothuk Institution, a group interested in establishing an amicable relationship with the Beothuk people. She remained with Cormack until 1829 when he left Newfoundland. Before Cormack departed, Shanawdithit, gave him the gift of the only objects she owned; a piece of quartz from the land she came from and a lock of her own hair. After Cormack left, she lived under care of James Simms, the attorney general. She was seen frequently by Dr. William Carson, who treated her until her death from tuberculosis. After her death, Carson sent her skull and scalp along with a list of questions enclosed in a tin can to the Royal College of Physicians of London for examination.
Although it was recorded that Shawnadithit was buried in a military cemetery on the south side of St. John’s river, the site was lost until very recently when unearthed by a construction team planning a new sewage treatment plant for the city. Historian Bob Cuff is quoted as saying: “Interestingly, only part of Shawnadithit is buried on the southside. Her head was sent to a physicians’ college in London. It was said to have been lost to German bombs during the Second World War.”
In 1885, a paper by Albert S. Gatschet was read before the American Philosophical Society concerning the language of the Beotuck. He is recorded as saying:
“The names by which this tribe is known to us are those of `Beothuck’ and of Red Indians. Mr. Rob. Gordon Latham supposed Beothuck meant, good night in their own language, and that the tribe should hence be named the `Good Night Indians,’ Beothuck being the term for `good night’ in Mary March’s vocabulary. But Indians generally have some other mode of salutation than this; and that word reads in the original MS. betheoate (not betheok, Lloyd), it is evidently a form of the verb baetha to go home; and thus its real meaning is: `I am going home.’”
Roxanna is a freelance writer and artist educator who likes comic books, subjecting others to angry tirades, and coffee.