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One of the most important Indigenous individuals of the past 500 years was a young woman who only lived until her late-20s but who would preserve the culture and stories of her people as their last representative.
Her name was Shanawdithit and her story begins around 1801 when she was born near a large lake on the island of Newfoundland. Unlike farther to the west where the only Indigenous interactions with Europeans were with explorers and fur traders, Shanawdithit’s people, the Beothuk, were some of the first to meet Europeans centuries previous. As a result, due to the growing settlement on the island, violence from the new arrivals and their invisible diseases, the population of the Beothuk was dwindling.
I would like to take a step away from telling the story of Shanawdithit to tell the story of the Beothuk. The people who would become the Beothuk would migrate down from Labrador to Newfoundland around 1 AD, with the ancestors of the Beothuk consisting of three cultural phases, each lasting around 500 years. It is believed by some historians that the Indigenous the Vikings encountered around 1000 AD were ancestors of the later Beothuk people. The Beothuk culture would appear around 1500 AD, just as Europeans were starting to arrive on the shores of North America. Living primarily in the Notre Dame and Bonavista Bay areas, it is believed that at the time of European arrival, around 2,000 Beothuk existed. The people lived in independent, self-sufficient family groups of 30 to 55 people. Their main source of food were caribou, salmon and seals, along with the harvesting of plant species. During the fall, the Beothuk would set up deer fences that ran 48 to 64 kilometres long, used to drive caribou to hunters who were waiting with bow and arrows.
When Europeans arrived, the Beothuk chose to avoid contact and moved farther inland as the number of European settlements grew. One reason for this may have been because in 1500, Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real was the first to encounter the Beothuk and he promptly captured 57 to sell as slaves. The Europeans that arrived had a negative view of the Beothuk, something the Beothuk would feel back towards the new arrivals. European fur trappers would put down trap lines and disrupt caribou hunts, while also pillaging the stores, camps and supplies of the Beothuk. The Beothuk would sometimes steal traps to reuse the metals, and occasionally ambush European settlements. These encounters often led to violence and with their superior weapons, the settlers typically had the upper hand.
As Europeans arrived, and the Beothuk moved inland, they had their food sources of caribou, fish and seals but continued emigration deprived the Beothuk of seal and fish, which led to overhunting of caribou, thereby decreasing the population on the island. Moving from traditional lands to ecosystems that could not support them, this led to the starvation of the Beothuk. It is believed there were 350 Beothuk left in 1768 and by the 19th century, Beothuk numbers had dwindled heavily due to diseases, violent encounters with other Indigenous and settlers, and the loss of access to important food sources.
This brings us back to Shanawdithit.
As I mentioned, she was born on the island around 1801 at a time when her people were nearly gone. As a young child, Shanawdithit would deal with violence first hand from settlers when she was shot by a white trapper while washing venison. She would suffer for some time from the injury but recovered.
In January 1811, she was on the shore of Red Indian Lake when the Beothuk met with Lt. David Buchan and his party. Buchan and his men had marched into the interior of Newfoundland to establish contact with the Beothuk. This expedition would end in a terrible misunderstanding that resulted in the deaths of two of his men.
Around the time she turned 18, tragedy would strike her family again. In the fall of 1818, a small group of Beothuks captured a boat and some fishing equipment. Sir Charles Hamilton, the Governor of the Colony, authorized an attempt to recover the stolen property. On March 1, 1819, John Peyton Jr., the son of a man who had led a raid into a Beothuk camp in 1781 that killed several of the people, left to find the Beothuk. He would find a dozen Beothuk who quickly fled, including Shanawdithit’s aunt named Demasduit, who had with her a baby. She attempted to run through the snow but the raiding party caught up to her. She begged for mercy as a mother and her husband, Nonosbawsut, attempted to prevent her capture and was killed. Demasduit was captured and her baby died two days later. Peyton and his men were acquitted of any murder. On Jan. 8, 1820, she would die from tuberculosis. At this point, it was estimated 31 Beothuk remained.
In the spring of 1823, Shanwadithit’s father fell through the ice, bringing more tragedy to her life. By this point, most of her extended family had died from starvation, illness, attacks and exposure. In April of that year, Shanawdithit, along with her mother and sister, encountered trappers near Badger Bay. All three women were taken to St. John’s where both her mother and sister soon died of tuberculosis.
At this point, the British renamed Shanawdithit as Nancy April and she became a servant in the Peyton home where she learned English. The government had hopes of using her as a bridge between the settlers and the Beothuk but she refused to leave on any expedition.
On May 29, 1827, Bishop Inglis arrived in St. John’s and it was there that he would meet with Shanawdithit. The meeting is described as such, quote:
“Here the bishop met Shanawdithit, a Beothuk girl who had lived for four years with the family of Mr. Peyton, the local magistrate and owner of fishing stations. She is considered the last of the Beothuk tribe of Indians.”
In September of 1828, she was relocated to the home of William Cormack. Cormack was an explorer, author and philanthropist who had become the first person of European descent to journey across Newfoundland, which he wrote about in 1824. In 1827, he founded the Beothuk Institute to study and preserve the Indigenous culture of the island. It was with Cormack that Shanawdithit began to talk about her people and make drawings of her people and culture.
Cormack would write, “We have traces enough left only to cause our sorrow that so peculiar and so superior a people should have disappeared from the earth like a shadow.”
He would later write about Shanawdithit, quote:
“Shanawdithit is now becoming very interesting as she improves in the English language and gains confidence in people around. I keep her pretty busily employed in drawing historical representations of everything that suggests itself related to her tribe, which I find is the best and readiest way of gathering information about her.”
In early 1829, Cormack would go to England to share materials about the Beothuk people. Cormack was likely one of the few settlers to show Shanawdithit any kindness and she returned his kindness by giving him a lock of her hair and two stones from Red Indian Lake, symbols of all that remained of the territory that the Beothuk had once inhabited.
Generally, Shanawdithit was in good spirits in during the last years of her life but she would occasionally grow quiet and disappear into the woods for days at a time. When she would return, she was generally happier for a time. She was also a highly gifted artist, able to create patterns and designs by biting birchbark and carving combs out of caribou horns. She would also draw, allowing her to communicate with her English captors.
At this point, Shanawdithit moved into the home of the Attorney General of the Colony, James Simms. She remained in his home for nine months but her health began to get worse. William Carson, a doctor in the colony, began to tend to her but she would pass away on June 6, 1829 from tuberculosis. An obituary was printed in the St. John newspaper on June 12, 1829. It stated, quote:
“She died of consumption, a disease which seems to have been remarkably prevalent amongst her tribe, and which has unfortunately been fatal to all who have fallen into the hands of the settlers.”
Her death was also reported in the London Times on Sept. 14, 1829, saying quote:
“Shanawdithit, supposed to be the last of the Red Indians or Beothuks. 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 accidently killed in 1819 at the Red Indian Lake in the interior while endeavoring to rescue his wife from the party of English who took her.”
The obituary also mentions the Beothuk, stating quote:
“This tribe, the Aborigines of Newfoundland presents an anomaly in the history of man. Excepting a few families of them, soon after the discovery of America, they never held intercourse with the Europeans by whom they have ever since been surrounded, nor with the other tribes of Indians, since the introduction of fire arms amongst them.”
Cormack would write later, quote:
“The British have trespassed in this country and have become a blight and scourge to a portion of the human race, under their power a defenseless and once independent proud tribe of men have been extirpated from the face of the Earth.”
After her death, a postmortem was performed and her skull was sent to the Royal College of Physicians in London to study. Her remains were buried at the St. Mary the Virgin Church in St. John’s. Her skull was later given to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it was destroyed during the German Blitz bombing of London during the Second World War. Her final resting place, in a terrible twist to the story of her people, was lost in 1903 when railway construction came through.
The skulls of her aunt and uncle had also been sent to Europe, residing at the National Museum of Scotland until an effort was begun by the Miawpukek First Nation in Newfoundland to have the remains returned. In 2019, an agreement was reached to return the remains.
Today, Shanawdithit is honoured throughout Canada but especially in Newfoundland. She is seen as vital to the preservation of the culture and knowledge of the Beothuk people, and without her the historical accounts of the Beothuk would have been lost to time. In 2000, she was recognized as a National Historic Person. Her citation reads, quote:
“Shanawdithit is remembered as the last of the Beothuk. Seized by English settlers in 1823, this young woman never regained her freedom. She taught her captors much of what is no known of the decline and dispersal of her people, even though she held no hope for their survival. Aided by her sketches, she described encounters between the British and the Beothuk, including the capture of her aunt, Demasduit. Shanawdithit died on June 6, 1829 and was buried in St. John’s. Her legacy gives a unique insight into the final chapter of her people’s history.”
A statue depicting Shanawdithit, designed by Gerald Squires, was erected at the Beothuk Interpretation Centre near Boyd’s Cove at the same time. A plaque was also erected at St. John’s Bannerman Park in 2007.
In 1851, the Newfoundlander, a local paper, called her the Princes of Terra Nova and in 1999, the Telegram voted her the most notable Indigenous person of the past 1,000 years. In that poll, she received 57 per cent of the votes.
There are claims that the Beothuk survived in the region of Twillingate, Newfoundland and formed unions with other Indigenous and settlers. In 1910, a 75-year-old Indigenous woman named Santu Toney claimed to be the daughter of a Mi’kmaq mother and Beothuk father and she would record a song in the Beothuk language. As she was born in 1835, this lends evidence to the belief that some Beothuk survived after the death of Shanawdithit, the last full-blooded Beothuk.
One interesting aspect of the story of the Beothuk and Shanawdithit comes in the fact that in 2010, European researchers found a mitochondrial DNA sequence in Iceland that may have originated in North America. One explanation for this could be an intermarriage between an Indigenous woman and a Viking. While only a few dozen people in Iceland have this DNA sequence, it could be the last vestiges of the Beothuk people.
Information comes from The Beothucks or Red Indians: Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Heritage Newfoundland, Biographi, Windspeaker, Atlantic Canada to 1900