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Death of Shanawdithit and the Beothuk

This story was initially published in 1998

On June 6, 1829, Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, died in St. John's, Newfoundland. Much of what we know of Beothuk practices, belief and language is due to her work with William Epps Cormack and the records she left behind.

Watercolour of a Beothuk Woman, presumably Shanawdithit

Watercolour of a Beothuk Woman
presumably Shanawdithit

© Newfoundland Museum

The Beothuk were the Aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland at the time of European contact. Their ancestors had occupied the island for more than 2,000 years. They spoke an Algonkian language that was distinct from others in Labrador and Quebec. The Beothuk are further distinguished by their unique birchbark canoes, which had high-end sections and flared sides, and by their carefully carved pendants of animal bone, antler and teeth.

The first Europeans to come into contact with the Beothuk were probably seasonal fishermen in the 16th century. Even in later periods, the Beothuk did not develop trading alliances with Europeans, preferring instead to pilfer European materials such as iron and nets from fishing stations.

Beothuk necklace consisting of decorated bone carvings and an animal tooth.
© Newfoundland Museum

Conflict between the Beothuk and Europeans grew out of competition for food resources. By the 18th century, settlers began to monopolize Newfoundland’s coast, especially the mouths of all salmon rivers. Food became scarce, as the Beothuk’s diet consisted of fish and many coastal animal species. To compensate, the Beothuk increasingly hunted caribou and established camps in the interior of the island. European disease, aggression by local inhabitants and limited foodstuffs began to take their toll, and when Shanawdithit, her mother and sister were found in a starved condition in 1823, there were few Beothuk left.

For the last six years of her life Shanawdithit lived with European families, first in Twillingate with the family of Magistrate John Peyton. There, she built a 53 cm replica of a Beothuk birchbark canoe. In 1827, wealthy Newfoundland patrons founded the ‘Beothick Institution’ in order to better communicate with the Beothuk. The institution’s president, William Epps Cormack, brought Shanawdithit to St. John’s in 1828. In St. John’s, she sketched aspects of Beothuk culture and compiled a list of 150 Beothuk words and phrases. Though she died of tuberculosis just a year later, the information Shanawdithit provided has helped historians and other academics better understand Beothuk traditions and culture.

In 2000, Shanawdithit was designated a person of national historic significance for teaching her captors much of what is now known of Beothuk society and the last chapter of her people’s history from a Beothuk perspective.

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