Beothuk Tribe

Beothukan Family, Beothuk Indians (from the tribal or group name Béothuk, which probably signifies ‘man,’ or ‘human being,’ but was employed by Europeans to mean ‘Indian,’ or ‘Red Indian’; in the latter case because the Beothuk colored themselves and tinted their utensils and arms with red ocher). So far as known only a single tribe, called Beothuk, which inhabited the island of Newfoundland when first discovered, constituted this family, although existing vocabularies indicate it marked dialectic differences. At first the Beothuk were classified either as Eskimauan or as Algonquian, but now, largely through the researches of Gatschet, it is deemed best to regard them as constituting a distinct linguistic stock. It is probable that in 1497 Beothukan people were met by Sebastian Cabot when he discovered Newfoundland, as he states that he met people “painted with red ocher,” which is a marked characteristic of the Beothuk of later observers. Whitbourne 1 who visited Newfoundland in 1622, stated that the dwelling places of these Indians were in the north and west parts of the island, adding that “in war they use bows and arrows, spears, darts, clubs, and slings.” The extinction of the Beothuk was due chiefly to the bitter hostility of the French and to Micmac invasion from Nova Scotia at the beginning of the 18th century, the Micmac settling in west Newfoundland as hunters and fishermen. For a time these dwelt in amity with the Beothuk, but in 1770, quarrels having arisen, a destructive battle was fought between the two peoples at the north end of Grand Pond. The Beothuk, however, lived on friendly terms with the Naskapi, or Labrador Montagnais, and the two peoples visited and traded with each other.

Exasperated by the petty depredations of these tribes, the French, in the middle of the 18th century, offered a reward for every head of a Beothuk Indian. To gain this reward and to obtain the valuable furs they possessed, the more numerous Micmac hunted and gradually exterminated them as an independent people. The English treated the Beothuk with much less rigor; indeed, in 1810 Sir Thomas Duckworth issued a proclamation for their protection. The banks of the River of Exploits and its tributaries appear to have been their last inhabited territory.

De Laet 2 describes these Newfoundland Indians as follows: “The height of the body is medium, the hair black, the face broad, the nose flat, and the eyes large; all the males are beardless, and both sexes tint not only their skin but also their garments with a kind of red color. And they dwell in certain conical lodges and low huts of sticks set in a circle and joined together in the roof. Being nomadic, they frequently change their habitations. They had a kind of cake made with eggs and baked in the sun, and a sort of pudding, stuffed in gut, and composed of seal’s fat, livers, eggs, and other ingredients.” He describes also their peculiar crescent shaped birch-bark canoes, which had sharp keels, requiring, much ballast to keep them from overturning; these were not more than 20 feet in length and they could bear at most 5 persons. Remains of their lodges, 30 to 40 feet in circumference and constructed by forming a slender frame of poles overspread with birch bark, are still traceable. They had both summer and winter dwellings, the latter often accommodating about 20 people each. Jukes (Excursions, 1842) describes their deer fences or deer stockades of trees, which often extended for 30 miles along a river. They employed pits or caches for storing food, and used the steam bath in huts covered with skins and heated with hot stones. Some of the characteristics in which the Beothuk differed from most other Indians were a marked lightness of skin color, the use of trenches in their lodges for sleeping berths, the peculiar form of their canoes, the non domestication of the dog, and the dearth evidence of pottery making.

Bonnycastle 3 states that the Beothuk used the inner bark of Pinus balsamifera as food, while Lloyd 4 mentions the fact that they obtained fire by igniting the down of the bluejay from sparks produced by striking together two pieces of iron pyrites.

Peyton, cited by Lloyd, declares that the sun was the chief object of their worship. Carmack’s expedition, conducted in behalf of the Beothic Society for the Civilization of the Native Savages, in 1827, failed to find a single individual of this once prominent tribe, although the island was crossed centrally in the search. As they were on good terms with the Naskapi of Labrador, they perhaps crossed the strait of Belle Isle and became incorporated with them.Citations:

  1. Whitbourne, Chappell, Voy. to Newfoundland, 1818,[]
  2. De Laet, Novus Orbis, 34, 1633[]
  3. Bonnycastle, Newfoundland in 1842[]
  4. Lloyd, Jour. Inst., IV,1875[]


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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