Beothuk and Mi'kmaq


The Beothuk

When Europeans came to Newfoundland, first to fish and later to settle, they found the island already inhabited by the Beothuk Indians. These indigenous people were only the most recent of a series of aboriginal cultures who made the island of Newfoundland their home over the millennia. Students who desire a useful overview of these cultural sequences should turn to Lisa Rankin’s chapter, "Native Peoples from the Ice Age to the Extinction of the Beothuk c. 9,000 Years Ago to AD 1829)," in the Newfoundland Historical Society’s A Short History of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John’s: Boulder Publications, 2008). William Fitzhugh examines the factors behind, and the cultural impact of, Norse contact with indigenous people, as well as contact by Basque and sixteenth-century English explorers in “Early Contacts North of Newfoundland Before A.D. 1600: A Review,” in William W. Fitzhugh (ed.), Cultures in Contact: The Impact of European Contacts on Native American Cultural Institutions A.D. 1000-1800 (Washington & London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), pp. 23-43. A more recent essay on the theme appears in Chapter 5, “The Giving Tree,” of History in the Making: The Archaeology of the Eastern Subarctic (Lanham, NJ: AltaMira Press of Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) by Donald H. Holly Jr.. A historical geographical perspective to the topic – one that emphasises an environmental historical approach – is provided by Graeme Wynn in Canada and Arctic North America: An Environmental History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007). A now dated but still useful essay by Jacques Rousseau and George Brown on "The Indians of Northeastern North America" can be found in the first volume of the hard copy edition of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, pp. 5-16 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966).

The Beothuk have attracted a great deal of study, in large measure because of their tragic extinction early in the nineteenth century though to a considerable extent also because of the sensational myths that sprang up to account for that extinction. Until recently, the definitive source of information about the Beothuk has been James Howley’s The Beothucks or Red Indians, first published in 1915 by Cambridge University Press and since reprinted in affordable paperback editions. It is full of descriptive material and reprinted documents which continue to make it a very useful source of information for students. An influential and controversial assessment of Beothuk history was provided by Frank Speck, an ethnologist who came to Newfoundland in 1914 and published his work, Beothuk and Micmac (New York, 1922; reprinted, New York: AMS Press, 1981) a few years later. He maintains, for instance, that Beothuk individuals survived into the twentieth century; see below. The recent publication of A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk (Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996), a magisterial study by Ingeborg Marshall will almost certainly displace Howley as the start point for most research into this topic. Like so many Beothuk specialists, Marshall is an anthropologist, a discipline on which, together with archaeologists, historians have come to depend a great deal in their efforts to reconstruct and interpret the world of the Beothuk. Indeed, Marshall's use of an interdisciplinary approach to her study is exemplary; her historical research is meticulous, the ethnographic material is unlikely ever to be surpassed though continued archaeological investigation will almost certainly enhance what she offers, and overall, her conclusions about the extinction of the Beothuk and their culture are always measured and carefully qualified. Nevertheless, anyone using Marshall's book should bear in mind the cautionary words of Charles Martijn in his review essay about this book (Newfoundland Studies XII: 1+2 [Spring and Fall 1996], 105-131), namely that "not everyone will agree with the overall design [of Marshall's interpretation, but that] no one can contest its bold originality." (p. 107) For instance, Marshall maintains that Beothuk- Mi'kmaq hostility was substantial; this argument, which she first developed at length in "Beothuck and Micmac: Re-examining Relationships," Acadiensis XVII: 2 (Spring 1988): 52- 82, is not accepted by all scholars, and in her book, Marshall herself concedes that "the hunting habits of the two populations were different enough...that their paths would rarely have crossed." (p. 50)

Marshall had already published extensively on the Beothuk, supplementing the documents in Howley with "An Unpublished Map Made by John Cartwright Between 1768 and 1773 Showing Beothuck Indian Settlements and Artifacts and Allowing a New Population Estimate", Ethnohistory XXIV: 3 (1977): 223-249 and, more recently, editing Reports and Letters by George Christopher Pulling Relating to the Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland (St. John's: Breakwater Press, 1989). If there is one drawback to Marshall's book, A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk, it will probably be its length – it weighs in at more than six hundred pages. Students seeking a quick but still thorough overview of the history of Beothuk archaeology should turn to Ralph T. Pastore, "Archaeology, History, and the Beothuks," Newfoundland Studies X: 2 (Fall 1993): 260-278.

We know very little about the early period of European-Beothuk contact in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, largely because almost no written records were kept or survive. This means that, as we try to understand the Beothuk response to that contact, we are forced to depend on later eighteenth-century records, almost all of which are European in origin. This both obscures and distorts our understanding of the Beothuk in the late 1500s and early 1600s. In "A Historiography of an Ahistoricity: On the Beothuk Indians," History and Anthropology XIV: 2 (2003): 127-140, Donald H. Holly revisits the way in which past scholars have interpreted the Beothuk culture and extinction, particularly the long-standing perception of the Beothuks as a "cultural anachronism in the native history of northeastern North America. Specifically, the Beothuk have been viewed as a people who were not capable of making the transition from prehistory to the modern era. Holly explores the evidence for this view and the conclusions drawn by the evidence by past scholars.William Gilbert has also re-visited this early sixteenth-century period of Beothuk-European contact and challenges those like Leslie Upton and Ingeborg Marshall who assume that contact during this period was violent, and thereby set the stage for the better-documented violence of the eighteenth-century; see William Gilbert, "Beothuk-European Contact in the Sixteenth Century: A Re-evaluation of the Documentary Evidence," Acadiensis XL: 1 (Winter/Spring 2011): 24-44.

By turning to the methodologies of disciplines other than history, we are able to revise some of our long-held perceptions of the Beothuk, especially during the proto-historic and early contact period. For instance, in "Back to the Beaches: New Data Pertaining to the Early Beothuk in Newfoundland," Northeast Anthropology XLVII (Spring 1994): 71-86, Laurie McLean discusses new data which indicates that the traditional Beothuk culture appears to have been only slightly modified by exposure to Europeans during the initial contact period in the seventeenth century. Many maintained that the Beothuk tried to avoid contact with the Europeans by withdrawing away from those parts of the coast frequented by fishermen. This view is based in part on the fact that John Guy's encounter with the Beothuk in 1612, described in William Gilbert, "‘Divers Places’: The Beothuk Indians and John Guy's Voyage into Trinity Bay in 1612," Newfoundland Studies VI: 2(Fall 1990): 147-167, was the last recorded contact until Europeans began to push into the Notre Dame Bay region in the mid-eighteenth century. In "The Place of ‘Others’ in Hunter-Gatherer Intensification," American Anthropologist 107: 2 (June 2005): 207-220, Donald Holly confirms that there was a noteworthy increase in the use of the interior by the Beothuk during the historic period as compared to the immediate pre-contact period, as shown by the change in settlement strategies between the Little Passage (the prehistoric Beothuk) and the Beothuk. Holly develops his ideas further in "Social Aspects and Implications of ‘Running to the Hills’: The Case of the Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland, " The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology III: 2 (2008): 170-190. Nevertheless, there is also evidence that the Beothuk did not abandon the coast completely but rather continued to make use of some coastal regions well into the eighteenth century in order to harvest marine resources; see P. Rowley-Conwy, "Settlement Patterns of the Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland: A view from away," Canadian Journal of Archaeology XIV(1990): 13-29. In any case, as European fishermen and, more significantly, over-winterers, began to encroach upon the salmon-rivers and fur-trapping regions of the northeast coast of the island, contact became more frequent and, more often than not, was characterized by friction and violence.

By the eighteenth century, violence between the Beothuk and European fishermen in Newfoundland seemed to have established a tradition of unremitting hostility which caused concern among British authorities. They desired peaceful relations with the Beothuk, if only out of a conviction that the fishery thrived best under conditions of peace and harmony. Expeditions led by John Cartwright in 1768 and David Buchan in 1811/12 (see Dictionary of Canadian Biography [hereafter cited as DCB] VII: 156-160 and VII: 114-116 for essays on these men) attempted to establish peaceful contact with the Indians. There were also missionary efforts to promote peace and friendship between the Indian and white cultures; these are discussed in Ingeborg Marshall, "Methodists and Beothuk: Research in Methodist Archives," Newfoundland Studies II: 1(Spring 1986): 19-28 and Philip E.L. Smith, "Beothuks and Methodists," Acadiensis XVI: 1(Autumn 1986): 118-135. It seems unlikely, however, that such efforts, whether government sponsored or missionary in origin, had much chance for success, for by then the population of the Beothuk had probably already declined below the threshold of viability. In 1829 Shawnadithit, the last known surviving Beothuk, died of tuberculosis (see DCB VI: 706-709), although the extinction of the Beothuk as a distinct culture does not preclude the possibility that individuals survived or intermingled with other aboriginal people. David T. McNab is satisfied that Beothuk descendants were still alive and met Frank Speck when that ethnologist came to Newfoundland in 1914 to engage in research that eventually led to his book Beothuk and Micmac (New York, 1922; reprinted, New York: AMS Press, 1981); McNab‘s views are presented in two papers: "The Mi’kmak of Ktaqamkuk, Sylvester Joe and William Epps Cormack: Some Uses of Exploration Literature as History and as Propaganda," West Virginia University Philological Papers XLIV (1998): 58-64; and "The Perfect Disguise: Frank Speck’s Pilgrimage to Ktaqamkuk – The Place of Fog – in 1914," American Review of Canadian Studies XXXI: 1-2 (Spring-Summer 2001): 85-104. The possibility is also raised and explored by John S. Mitchell in a brief essay, "All Gone Widdun (‘asleep'/died): Was Shawnawdithit Right?," Newfoundland Quarterly XCIII: 1 (Fall 1999): 39-41.

Predictably, perhaps, the extinction of the Beothuks – and there is no question that the Beothuk as a culture became extinct – has become shrouded in sensation and myth. The demonstrable hostility and violence between Indian and Europeans in the late eighteenth century provided the dubious basis for claims that the Beothuk were "hunted for sport," that white men massacred the Beothuk by the hundred, and that their extinction was therefore an act of genocide perpetrated by white men. That their extinction was a tragedy is undeniable; perhaps it could even have been prevented. Yet sober inquiry has challenged the worst excesses of the standard mythology, and we are beginning to recognize that how we perceive the Beothuk often says more about us than it does about the Beothuk. This point is eloquently made by Richard Budgel in "The Beothuks and the Newfoundland Mind," Newfoundland Studies VIII: 1(Spring 1992): 15-33. The more extreme myths about the Beothuks are dismissed by Frederick Rowe in Extinction – The Beothuks of Newfoundland (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson), while Leslie F.S. Upton methodically picks them apart in "The Extermination of the Beothucks of Newfoundland," Canadian Historical Review LVIII: 2 (June 1977): 133-153, reprinted in Robin Fisher and Ken Coates (eds.), Out of the Background: Readings on Canadian Native History (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1988), pp. 45-65, and in "The Beothucks: Questions and Answers," Acadiensis VII: 2 (Spring 1978): 150-155. Upton suggests that the Beothuk never numbered more than two thousand at best and that these low numbers, together with their hunter-gatherer subsistence economy, made them vulnerable to any disruption or interruption of a fragile food chain, as when friction with European fishermen forced the Beothuk to reduce their presence in coastal areas. Upton's thesis is reinforced by James Tuck and Ralph Pastore, who show that the Beothuk extinction was not unprecedented; see their essay, "A Nice Place to Visit, but .... Prehistoric Human Extinctions on the Island of Newfoundland", Canadian Journal of Archaeology IX: 1 (1985): 69-80, which develops a paradigm linking aboriginal extinctions on the island of Newfoundland to the limitations of the island’s ecosystem. Michael Deal and Aaron Butt use the discipline of archaeobotany to examine the Beothuk subsistence economy in greater detail; see "The Great Want: Current Research in Beothuk Palaeoethnobotany," in Hunter-Gatherer Archaeobotany: Perspectives from the Northern Temperate Zone, ed. Sarah L. R. Mason and Jon G. Hather (London: Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 2002), 15-27.

Yet Frederick A. Schwartz challenges the paradigm of Beothuk subsistence fragility and vulnerability in "Paleo-Eskimo and Recent Indian Subsistence and Settlement Patterns on the Island of Newfoundland," Northeast Anthropology XLVII (Spring 1994): 55-70; he argues that the Newfoundland environment was much less restrictive than Tuck and Pastore assume. Priscilla Renouf has also proposed an alternative model which suggests that aboriginal hunter-gatherers would have coped with the unpredictability of resources on the island by maintaining connections with related groups in mainland Labrador; see "Prehistory of Newfoundland hunter-gatherers: extinctions or adaptations?" in World Archaeology XXX: 3 (1999): 403-420. In "Environment, History and Agency in Storage Adaptation: On the Beothuk in the 18th Century," Canadian Journal of Archaeology XXII: 1 (1998): 19-30, Donald H. Holly Jr. suggests that the singular focus on food procurement normally associated with hunter-gather cultures needs to be re-examined, that strategically placed caches of stored food may have given the Beothuk greater resiliency. This theme is further developed by Marianne P. Stopp in "Ethnohistoric Analogues for Storage as an Adaptive Strategy in Northeastern Subarctic Prehistory," Journal of Anthropological Archaeology XXI: 3 (September 2002): 301-328. In short, as Donald Holly argues in "The Beothuk on the Eve of Their Extinction," Arctic Anthropology XXVII: 1 (2000): 79-85, there has been too strong a tendency in the recent literature to portray the Beothuk "as a doomed people, without agency or adaptation en route to extinction." Holly prefers to regard the Beothuk "as active players pursuing social objectives within this malevolent historical context," and proceeds to identify some of the strategies employed by the Beothuk to cope with their increasingly unavoidable contact with Europeans.

One strategy they did not employ was to establish a commercial partnership with the Europeans, as many aboriginals on the mainland did. Ralph Pastore reasons that the Beothuks did not develop a trade with Europeans primarily because they were able to acquire thousands of iron objects from seasonally-abandoned fishing premises without having to trade for them; see R. Pastore, "Fishermen, furriers and Beothuks: the economy of extinction," Man in the Northeast 33 (Spring 1987): 47-62, reprinted in Darrin McGrath (ed.), From Red Ochre to Black Gold (St. John’s: Flanker Press, 2001), pp. 24-41. Pastore maintains that this is the most important factor in explaining the lack of contact between the Beothuks and Europeans or the emergence of the kind of economic relationship with Europeans that cushioned aboriginal people elsewhere against the sort of factors which contributed to the Beothuk demise. One of those factors may have been the reduced gene pool caused not only by their small numbers but also by lack of amicable contact with other aboriginal people. These arguments are made in Ralph Pastore, "The Collapse of the Beothuk World," Acadiensis XIX: 1(Autumn 1989): 52-71; Pastore's article was subsequently reprinted in the second and third editions of Acadiensis Reader: Volume One, Atlantic Canada Before Confederation (Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 1990, 1998), edited by P.A. Buckner, David Frank, and (the third edition) Gail G. Campbell, pp. 11-30 in both editions. Disease also played its part, though the dispersed nature of the Beothuk people may have mitigated the effect of European diseases until other factors combined after the middle of the eighteenth century to concentrate their population into a denser pattern. See Ingeborg Marshall, "Disease as a Factor in the Demise of the Beothuck Indians," Culture I: 1(1981): 71-77. A revised version of this paper, with some corrections, was subsequently published in Carol Wilton (ed.), Change & Continuity: A Reader on Pre-Confederation Canada (Whitby: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1991), pp. 138-149.


The Mi'kmaq

One recurring – and controversial – explanation for the Beothuk extinction is that the Mi’kmaq Indians were hostile to the Beothuk and contributed to their demise. But before we go further on this question, we must consider who the Mi'kmak actually are.

That the Mi’kmaq are indigenous to Nova Scotia is accepted by all. However, the Mi'kmaq maintain that, at the very least, they also included Newfoundland as part of their hunting territory; see Charles A. Martijn, "An Eastern Micmac Domain of Islands," in William Cowan (ed.), Actes du vingtième congrès des algonquinistes (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1989), pp. 208-231. Their visits to Newfoundland, and the technology which made it possible, are examined in several essays in Charles A. Martijn (ed.), Les Micmacs et la mer (Montreal: Recherches amérindiennes au Québec, 1986), including Norman Clermont, "L'adaptation maritime au pays des Micmacs," pp. 11-29, Ingeborg Marshall, "Le canot de haute mer de Micmacs," pp. 29-48, Charles A. Martijn, "Voyages des Micmacs dans la vallée du Saint-Laurent, sur la côte-nord et à Terre-Neuve," pp. 197-223, and Ruth Holmes Whitehead, "Navigation des Micmacs le long de la côte de l'Atlantique," pp. 225-232. However, there are those who insist that the Mi'kmaq are truly indigenous to Newfoundland – that their range of habitation extended across the Cabot Strait to include a substantial part of the island of Newfoundland; see Frank Speck, Beothuk and Micmac (New York, 1922; reprinted, New York: AMS Press, 1981) and, more recently, Michael G. Wetzel, Decolonizing Ktaqmkuk Mi’kmaw History (M.Laws thesis, Dalhousie University, 1995). A more succinct statement on the theme that the Mi'kmaq domain included southern Newfoundland appears within Charles Martijn’s essay-length assessment of Ingeborg Marshall’s book, A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk, appearing in Newfoundland Studies XII: 1+2 (Spring and Fall 1996), pp. 105-131 and, more recently, in “Early Mi’kmaq Presence in Southern Newfoundland: An Ethnohistorical Perspective, c. 1500-1763,” Newfoundland Studies XIX: 1 (Spring 2003; Special Issue on “The New Early Modern Newfoundland: to 1730"): 44-102. Brandon Morris picks up on the idea that the Mi’kmaq had a strong association with Newfoundland and maintains that strong French, Mi’kmaq and Acadian social, economic, and cultural relations persisted between the Mi’kmaq, who began to settle in the Bay D’Espoir region on Newfoundland’s South Coast, and the French and Acadians who resettled Saint-Pierre and Miquelon following the return of those islands to France in 1763; see “those two insignificant Islands”: Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, and Social and Cultural Continuity in Northeastern North America, 1763-1793 (MA thesis, University of Saskatchewan, 2012).

Not everyone accepts the view that the Mi’kmaq were an indigenous people of Newfoundland. A much more conservative position is that the Mi’kmaq were immigrants from Nova Scotia who did not come to Newfoundland in a sustained manner until historic times. According to this view, the first significant effort by Mi’kmaq to settle in Newfoundland did not occur until the early 1760s, in the region of Hermitage Bay and Bay D’Espoir. Circumstances were such that a number of them soon shifted their efforts to Bay St. George on the west coast, although some did settle permanently at Conne River in Bay D’Espoir; see Dennis Bartels and Olaf Uwe Janzen, "Micmac Migration to Western Newfoundland," Canadian Journal of Native Studies X: 1(1990): 71-94; available on-line at available on-line at <http://www.brandonu.ca/library/cjns/10.1/bartels.pdf>. The initial attempts by the Mi’kmaq to establish themselves in Bay D’Espoir is the focus of another paper by Olaf Janzen, "The Royal Navy and the Interdiction of Aboriginal Migration to Newfoundland, 1763-1766," International Journal of Naval History VII: 2 (August 2008) [e-journal: <http://www.ijnhonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Janzen.pdf>]; reprinted in Olaf U. Janzen, War and Trade in Eighteenth-Century Newfoundland (“Research in Maritime History,” No. 52; St. John’s, NL: International Maritime Economic History Association, 2013), pp. 173-192.  The argument that the Mi’kmaq were recent arrivals is reinforced by the absence of any archaeological evidence in support of their presence before the arrival of Europeans. For example, in “Patterns in Precontext Site Location on the Southwest Coast of Newfoundland,” Northeast Anthropology No. 68 (Fall 2004), pp. 41-55, Tim Rast, M.A.P. Renouf, and Trevor Bell report on the results of archaeological work in the vicinity of Burgeo which “suggest that late Recent Indians were eventually attracted [there] by a seasonal European presence that provided iron and other European materials” (p. 51).

In any case, by the nineteenth century, the Mi'kmaq were unquestionably an established fixture of island society; see Ralph Pastore, The Newfoundland Micmacs: A History of Their Traditional Life (St. John's: Newfoundland Historical Society, 1978), and "Indian Summer: Newfoundland Micmacs in the Nineteenth Century," in Richard Preston (ed.), Papers from the 4th Congress, Canadian Ethnology Society (Ottawa: National Museum of Man, 1978), pp. 167-178.

The link between the arrival of the Mi'kmaq and the extinction of the Beothuk was made soon after the last Beothuk had died; see Dennis Bartels, "Time Immemorial? A Research Note on Micmacs in Newfoundland," Newfoundland Quarterly LXXV: 3 (Christmas 1979): 6-9. Ingeborg Marshall is one of the few scholars to maintain that hostilities between the two people were extensive and lasting and that the Mi'kmaq therefore contributed to the Beothuk decline. However, as indicated above, the conclusions that she presented in support of this argument in "Beothuck and Micmac: Re-examining Relationships," Acadiensis XVII: 2 (Spring 1988): 52-82 are somewhat tempered in her new monograph. For a good, single-volume overview of the Mi'kmaq in Newfoundland, see Doug Jackson; ed. Gerald Penney, "On the Country": The Micmac of Newfoundland (St. John's: Harry Cuff, 1993).

The history of aboriginal Newfoundland is not limited to the Beothuk and Mi'kmaq; Labrador has a substantial aboriginal population. Their history, however, is discussed elsewhere in this essay's treatment of Labrador as a distinct region.

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