|Newfoundland, Canada's youngest province, has been inhabited for thousands of years
and was the setting when the first Europeans met the first "westerners". The
Vikings first landed in North America well before Christopher
Columbus was even born. When they arrived they met the Beothuk Indians of, what is
now called, Newfoundland and Labrador. (The site of the oldest Viking settlement in North
America is at L'anse Aux Meadows on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland.)
The story of the Beothuk is both fascinating and controversial... and it
certainly is one of the oldest Mysteries of Canada.
The Beothuk were a tall people with dark eyes and black hair. The origin of the Beothuk
is not firmly established although it is generally believed that they are distant
relatives of the Algonquin and that they came to Newfoundland, from Labrador, across the
18 kilometer wide Strait of Belle Isle.
Beothuk living sites and burial grounds abound in Newfoundland. It is believed that
they inhabited the land for almost 2000 years.
The Beothuk were first seen from distance. From the time they were
"discovered" they developed what could
be called a well-deserved, white-man phobia. Between 1497, the landing of John
Cabot at Newfoundland, and 1610, the first settlement by Europeans (John Guy in Cupids,
Conception Bay), the land of the Beothuk was exploited for its lumber and fish. Some
Beothuk were captured and sent to Europe as slaves or were put on exhibit as curiosities.
By the 1700's communities were being built all over Newfoundland, driving the Beothuk
further away from their native grounds and away from their natural way of life. Their fear
of the white-man kept them out of sight but not out of range of diseases (primarily
tuberculosis) brought to the island by the Europeans, to which they had no immunity.
Their isolation and fear of settlers wrote the final chapter of the Beothuk people. In
1823, three sick and starving Beothuk women were found by furriers. Of these, only one
survived their immediate malady. Shanawdithit (left) was twenty years old at the
time. She lived the remaining six years of her life in St John's. When she died of
tuberculosis in 1829, no more Beothuk Indians were found in Newfoundland.
The Beothuk people were extinct.