In spring 1823 Shawnadithit, her sister and mother were taken captive by the furrier William Cull. The authorities decided to return them to their people as emissaries of peace, loaded them with presents, and left them at the mouth of Charles Brook with a small boat.
All three women were sick with the consumption that was a plague among the Beothuk. Shawnadithit’s sister died and soon it was obvious that her mother was dying too. Shawnadithit took her mother to a sandy point by the waters of Red Indian Lake, held her in her arms and sang her people’s last lament. She sewed her body into a blanket of birch bark, buried her and set out alone for the coast, stumbling out at Notre Dame Bay. She knew now that she was the last of her people.
The Beothuk were a semi-nomadic people who wintered around the shores of the beautiful lakes of the interior of Newfoundland, where they hunted caribou and other game. In the spring they would paddle off downriver to the coast to hunt seal and salmon, fashioning most of what they needed along the way. They built unique conical birch houses called mamateeks which featured double layers of birch and moss insulation.
In 1500 the Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real had the first encounter with the Beothuk, capturing 57 of them to sell as slaves. The Beothuks’ habit of covering themselves with red ochre gained them the name “Red Indians," which was later applied to all the tribes of North America.
In other parts of Atlantic Canada, the French and English needed First Nations partners in order to carry on the fur trade. In Newfoundland the Europeans were there to fish, which put them into direct conflict with the Beothuk. Oblivious to the need for the salmon to spawn upriver, the fishermen erected weirs across the mouths of the rivers. Beothuk caught raiding the weirs were killed.
Cut off from the coast and from the salmon, forced to hide in the interior where white trappers exterminated the beaver, marten and sable, and decimated by disease, the Beothuk population dwindled to a mere few hundred by the mid 18th century.
In 1792 Magistrate John Bland carried out an investigation of several killings around Twillingate, where it was reported that Beothuk were “shot down like deer." Bland predicted accurately that the English, like the Spanish before them, “will have affixed to their character the indelible reproach of having extirpated a whole race of people."
Shawnadithit was a witness to the final encounters between her dwindling people and the expeditions sent out to capture Beothuks alive. She saw the capture of Demasduit and the brave attempt of her husband Nonosbawsut to rescue her in March 1819. Enraged at his wife’s kidnap, Nonosbawsut charged at the intruders until they killed him.
Shawnadithit lived for a while in obscurity as a domestic at Exploits. Though she was clearly intelligent, there was no attempt to encourage her to speak of her experiences. In St John’s there was a growing concern that all knowledge of the Beothuk would be lost. William Epps Cormack, the peripatetic explorer and humanitarian, brought Shawnadithit to St. John’s under the auspices of the Boethick Institution. She learned English and showed a gift for drawing. Her maps, drawings and stories are the last records of the language and customs of her doomed people.
When Cormack left Newfoundland, Shawnadithit responded to his kindness by giving him a lock of her hair and two stones from Red Indian Lake, tiny symbols of all that remained of the great territory in which the Beothuk once prospered. She died shortly after, on June 6, 1829, of tuberculosis, “the cough demon" that had victimized so many of her people.
The story of the Beothuk is surely one of the saddest chapters in Canadian history, made personal and melancholy by the story of Shawnadithit herself. As Cormack wrote, “the British have trespassed in this country and have become a blight and a scourge to a portion of the human race; under their power a defenceless and once independent proud tribe of men have been extirpated from the face of the earth." James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.