Shanawdithit, the Last Beothuk

Excerpt from the obituary of Shanawdithit from the London Times, September 14th, 1829:

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.
[Read more...]