The Beothuk were an indigenous culture in Newfoundland, off the coast of northeastern Canada. The Beothuk culture originated in the sixteenth century, but its ancestors go back further still. Today, the Beothuk are extinct, as they fled their traditional hunting grounds and starved. The last Beothuk is believed to have died in 1829.
People first migrated from Labrador to Newfoundland around 1 AD. These cultures were distinct but related to the Beothuk culture, which would emerge around 1500 AD.
These proto-Beothuk groups are believed to have had contact with Norse explorers upon their arrival in Newfoundland around 1000 AD. The Norse referred to natives as skraelings, similar to Greeks referring to non-citizens as barbarians. The arrival of John Cabot opened the floodgates on European contact a few centuries later.
Little is known about Beothuk history, but various anecdotes about their culture have been unearthed due to archaeology.
The Beothuk largely ate caribou, salmon and seals, following the migrations of these animals in order to survive. While they did not have formal “chiefs” like other First Nations peoples, they were nonetheless organized into hunter-gatherer bands. They lived in conical homes known as manateeks, made with birch. Manateeks had fireplaces and hollows dug out for sleeping during the winter.
As winter ended, Beothuk painted their bodies using natural red ochre pigments. This was part of a ceremony celebrating springtime, and carried with it a rite of passage – children were marked with the pigment to welcome them into the tribe. Houses, canoes, and tools were all also painted with ochre.
There were very few Beothuk at the time of the larger European arrival after 1500, perhaps as few as 2,000. Unlike other First Nations and Native Americans, the Beothuk avoided Europeans, migrating away from them. Moving inland away from the sea tragically ensured their extinction, as they had lost two of their three primary food sources. Caribou was over-hunted, leading to under-nourishment and starvation.
Starvation was not the only factor that killed the Beothuk. They came into conflict with other First Nations from other islands and Labrador, sometimes violently. They suffered from viruses like smallpox, brought by Europeans, because they had no immunity. And while there were no massacres or wars like in other parts of the New World, there were violent encounters with Europeans.
Nonosbawsut is the last known - indeed, the only known - leader of the Beothuk, leading a small group of Beothuk who lived near Red Indian Lake, in central Newfoundland. Though sometimes referred to as a chief, his position was more akin to that of a headman or simply a leader. He is known to have had at least two encounters with European expeditioners and fishermen, the last of which resulted in his death.
Leader of a Dying People
Little is known about Nonosbawsut's early life. He was born at a time when the Beothuk numbered fewer than 100 total. Unusually for a Beothuk, Nonosbawsut had a bushy beard. Nonosbawsut was a physically imposing man, clocking in at about 6'7.5" tall. His bravery and devotion to his people were also remarkable, especially considering the odds he faced; it was perhaps these attributes which got him elected as headman of his tribe in the first place. He is known to have ruled the Beothuk for a long time before his death.
The Buchan Encounter
On January 24th, 1811, David Buchan, a Scottish naval officer, embarked on an expedition to find some of the last remnants of the Beothuk people. On the shores of Red Indian Lake, Buchan and two other marines discovered Nonosbawsut and his band. Nonosbawsut understandably feared the worst, but Buchan's intentions were good; to prove this, he left his fellow marines at the Beothuk camp as a sign of good faith and took Nonosbawsut and a few other Beothuk back to his own camp to gather some presents. Nonosbawsut, still fearing for the safety of his tribe, fled with the other two Beothuk, and managed to convince the tribe that Buchan and his men were out for blood. As such, Buchan's two marines were beheaded, and the Beothuk dispersed, abandoning the camp.
The Death of the Last Headman
Unfortunately for Nonosbawsut, his lifestyle - namely, raiding seasonal fishing and trapping settlements for tools and supplies - did not go over well with the Europeans. Charles Hamilton, the governor of Newfoundland, authorized expeditions to recover stolen property, albeit with the condition of attempting to invite friendly relations. John Peyton Jr., a fisherman, had had some items stolen by the Beothuk, and so he took the opportunity to recover what was his. Accompanied by his father, John Peyton Sr., the "butcher of the Beothuk", as well as eight other men, he set off along the Exploits River to Red Indian Lake. John Peyton Jr. accidentally scared a Beothuk woman who was part of the camp he was after, and ended up giving chase and capturing her. This woman was Demasduit, Nonosbawsut's wife. Nonosbawsut, witnessing this scene, angrily decided to save her by confronting these men, even if it meant his own life would be lost.
He broke off a pine branch and held it out to the men as a symbol for peace. He tried to untie his wife, but was prevented from doing so. He persisted, continuing to try to untie Demasduit from the silk handkerchief which had been used to restrain her until Richard Richmond, one of the Europeans, stabbed him in the back with a bayonet. Nonosbawsut turned and noticed John Peyton Sr., the man who had massacred dozens of Beothuk; Nonosbawsut wrestled him to the ice and attempted to kill the elder Peyton with a tomahawk, but was stopped before he could when Richmond shot him in the head, killing him instantly. Nonosbawsut's newborn son, his only child, died two days after he did, and his wife, Demasduit, died of tuberculosis eleven months later.
Peyton's men were later absolved of the murder by a grand jury in St. John's, which concluded that their attempt to reclaim their stolen property was without malice. Nonosbawsut's body was covered in boughs and placed in a sepulchre on the foundation of his wigwam with the bodies of Demasduit and their son. In 1828 the sepulchre was discovered by William Cormack, founder of the Beothuk Institution. He took several items, including Nonosbawsut's skull, which was sent to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Judgement of History
Nonosbawsut is remembered as a brave leader, who did what he could in his struggle to aid his starving people; his devotion to his people and his ultimate sacrifice to save his wife and infant son have earned him this honor. While the Beothuk people only outlived Nonosbawsut by ten years - the last Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died in June 1829 - he did absolutely everything he could and then some to forestall the destruction of his people.
The Demon’s Head, also called the Algonquin Ballista, was an ancient weapon used by the Algonquin people of north-western North America. The ballista is a circular stone inclosed by a hide tied to a short stick. Although the Demon’s head has been used by many Algonquian tribes, it was first documented by the Norse colonists. The ballista was documented as making a thunderous noise upon hitting the ground or a canoe; obviously showing the weight such a weapon would posses. Because the Demon’s Head was such a heavy weapon, it required a couple people to throw one. The Algonquin Ballista was probably used from quite early on in Algonquin history, but the use of them was stopped sometime before the age of European colonization began. A formidable weapon of mini-mass destruction, the Demon’s Head lives on through the Norse epics of Vinland.
The last Beothuk, Shanawdithit, was asked to draw all the parts of her culture while in captivity. One of these drawings show 6 two meter high stakes, each with a shape at the top. Of these six, only three have been truly confirmed, with one being a tentative guess. The three are a whale’s tail, a fishing boat, and a half moon. Historians have made a tentative guess that the fourth symbol depicts a ritual of song and festival. The use of these stakes is still unknown, and Shanawdithit did not provide any other information on them.