This Week in History


In Search of Family

For the week of Monday July 12, 1999

On July 12, 1823, British authorities brought Shanawdithit, her mother and sister, back to Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland, in a futile attempt to reunite them with their Beothuk people.

Watercolour of a Beothuk Woman presumably Shanawdithit

Watercolour of a Beothuk Woman
presumably Shanawdithit

© Newfoundland Museum

When Europeans first arrived in Newfoundland in the 16th century, the Beothuk were a small nation of Aboriginal people numbering no more than 2000. The survival of their traditional way of life depended on the sea and coastal animals, but European settlers pushed the Beothuk away from the shoreline. Conflicts with settlers and starvation eventually resulted in their extinction. Some settlers recognized the true plight of the scattered Beothuk. In 1822, for example, William Epps Cormack made the first recorded land crossing of Newfoundland in an attempt to locate and save the Beothuk.

In the spring of 1823, suffering from severe hunger, Shanawdithit, along with her mother and sister, were taken captive around Notre Dame Bay and placed in the care of the district magistrate, John Peyton Jr. He returned them to Notre Dame Bay and left them ashore at Charles Brook with presents, hoping to promote better relations with the Beothuk. Shanawdithit, however, never found her people and lost her mother and sister to tuberculosis. She returned to John Peyton Jr. and spent the next five years as a servant and member of his household.

Sketch by Shanawdithit, ca. 1826

Sketch by Shanawdithit, ca. 1826
© Newfoundland Museum

In 1827, the 'Beothuk Institute' was established with the support of Cormack and many wealthy Newfoundland patrons. The next year, the 'Institute' took Shanawdithit from the Peyton household and brought her to St. John's. In the care of Cormack, Shanawdithit spent the remainder of her life recording the way of life and culture of the Beothuk. Through her drawings, we gain a better understanding of the Beothuk. Sadly, the efforts to save the dying Beothuk came too late. Shanawdithit died on June 6, 1829. With her, the last known Beothuk flame was extinguished.

A plaque at St. John's recognizes the historical importance of the Beothuk. An important Beothuk archaeological site at Boyd's Cove, Newfoundland, and William Epps Cormack, have also been recognized as being of national historic significance.

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