The Extinction Of The Beothuk Indians

Beothuk Indians, who became extinct in 1829, were established in Newfoundland. Their extinction my be caused by colonialization of their homeland.

The Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland were not among the great tribes of the Americas; however, two points of history distinguish them.

First, members of the Beothuk tribe were probably the first native Americans met by Europeans, the early Vikings. Indeed, at least one Viking settlement has been discovered in Newfoundland which far pre-dates the voyages of Columbus and Amerigo de Vespucci.

Second, the Beothuk have joined a handful of other small tribes in the Western Hemisphere which have become extinct. These would include the Neutrals of the Niagara Falls peninsula area and the Lucayans to the south. The fate of the Beothuk was as much a result of inherent flaws in their culture as incursions by Europeans. If anything, these incursions hurried the inevitable.

The Beothuk were an insular, aggressive tribe, which at its peak likely numbered no more than 1000 individuals. By the numbers, without the introduction of outsiders their gene pool was unlikely to support their continuance. Their insularity, or isolationism, was reportedly such that intermarriage outside the tribe was taboo. Beothuks taken into slavery by other tribes showed no interest in escape to return to their families; most notably, Beothuk women. An assumption was that they would be put to death upon return.

Beothuk contact with other native Americans before the European arrival - the Micmac, Montagnais-Naskapi, and Dorset Eskimos; was usually aggressive. This chipped further at their meager population base. By the time of the European arrival, the Beothuk were concentrated in the less hospitable northern half of Newfoundland. The Micmacs had occupied the south.

The Beothuk were traditionally hunters and fishers, living mostly in extended family units rather than large encampments. Most of the year they lived inland, either in the forests or following the caribou herds, with hunting providing much of their food. In the Summer and early Fall they would gather at river mouths for the fishing. At these times the families came together, perhaps to share news and trade or arrange marriages and carry out other celebrations. The arrival of the Europeans dramatically changed this pattern.

The Europeans established year round fishing camps, then permanent posts, usually in the deep quiet bays and at the river mouths. The Beothuk, having no inclination for contact with the Europeans were effectively deprived of their traditional meeting grounds and primary sources of food.

Contacts over the years were few. Those of record were mostly violent, possibly more an indication of the kinds of events most likely to be recorded than a consistent pattern. Avoidance was more the norm. Clearly, however, the Beothuk were unwilling to trade. To the end, they eschewed firearms, which, at least, could have improved their hunting capacity.

Brief contacts with the outside were sufficient to introduce small pox and tuberculosis into the Beothuk camps. Based on what researchers have learned of the diseases, the Beothuks' living conditions were very conducive to rapid spread of communicable diseases, particularly tuberculosis.

Most of the time the Beothuk lived in tepee structures known as mamateeks. These were circular structures with a fire pit in the middle. Close around the fire pit were indentations dug and shaped for sleeping purposes. In winter, interior walls were lined with hides for insulation. The entire family shared a mamateek.

Combined with these overcrowded quarters was their poor diet, made more so by their reluctance to attend at their coastal meeting places. Starvation became a factor in the last decades of the Beothuk, but more often the people's weakened state had opened the way for disease first.

The years between 1750 and 1810 seem to have been the most critical. During that period, certainly on mainland Labrador, the caribou herds changed their traditional migratory paths. The Newfoundland caribou herds were a main source of winter food for the Beothuk. Added to this dilemma, the winters of the period, according to records, were extraordinarily severe. To indicate the extent of the disaster, on the mainland only the intervention of the Hudson Bay Company staved off widespread famine among the Montagnais-Naskapi. Notwithstanding, nearly fifty percent of their population died. For the Beothuk there was no such intervention, nor willingness to seek it.

The last Beothuk of record, a woman named Shanawdithit, died of tuberculosis in St. John's, Newfoundland in 1829, perhaps as much a victim of her own culture as of circumstance and colonialism.

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