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What happened to the Beothuk Indians?

Bruce Ricketts

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.

Special notes on this "mystery".

There are not a lot of books written on the subject of the Beothuk... but there is a lot of controversy.  Was the fate of the Beothuk a "natural" outcome of the colonization of the New World?  Or were they killed off deliberately?

Like other aboriginal peoples of North America, the Beothuk were slowly driven inland by the encroachment of settlers. But unlike the others, they had nowhere to go... they were on an island.

There are a number of people who have come forward since this story was published, claiming to be of Beothuk descent.  While there is no record of "intermingling" of Beothuk and "others", who is to say that none happened? 

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