Saturday, April 22, 2017

Shanawdithit, Last of the Beothuk

A few days ago I talked about the Mi'kmaq, an Indigenous group in Newfoundland that were actually "native" to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The Beothuk, however, were the true natives of the Island province, able to trace their arrival to Newfoundland about 2000 years ago. They encountered the vikings when they arrived in 1000 AD (in the Norse sagas they referred to them as "skraelings"). They hunted and fished, lived and died on the Island for nearly twenty centuries. Their numbers were never large, peaking at around 2000 individuals in the 1500s.

And then the Europeans showed up and ruined everything.

It's the same story from everywhere else in the Americas. The Europeans brought new diseases which the Beothuk had no defence against. They cut off their traditional hunting and fishing lands. In some cases they actively warred and fought against the natives, and the Beothuk could not compete with the numbers and the superior technology of the Colonials.

The unusual detail with the Beothuk however, is that it is one of the rare instances where we can pinpoint the exact moment of the extinction of an entire race.

Beothuk iron tools. The Beothuk did not trade much with European settlers, but instead scavenged and recycled discarded objects.

Shanawdithit was born in Newfoundland in 1801, and by that time her people's traditional way of life was already dying, and their numbers dwindling rapidly. Most of her family members died of illness and starvation while she was young, and in 1819 her aunt, Demasduit, was captured by the English and brought to "civilization" in hopes that she could become a bridge between the Beothuk and the English. She refused, claiming that her people would sacrifice her if she returned, which may have been true; by this time the Beothuk knew that contact with the English would bring them disease, and they could not take any more chances.

Desmaduit died of tuberculosis in 1820. At that time it is believed there were only 31 Beothuk left.

Beothuk birch bark canoe. The high sides may have been for stability in rough water.

Shanawdithit, her mother and her sister were taken by the British in 1823 after the death of her father. Her mother and sister died of tuberculosis shortly thereafter, but Shanawditit held on for several more years. She came to St. John's, the capital of the Island, and worked as a maid and even learned to speak English. The government continued to hold out hope that she could be used as a connection to the native people, a people who quietly died out while Shanawditit lived in captivity. After she finally passed away of tuberculosis on June 6, 1829, no other Beothuk were ever seen on the island again. She was, very literally, the last of her people.

In recent years genetic tests on the remains of Shanawdithit and Demasduit have indicated that while they have distant relationships to the Mi'kmaq, the Beothuk DNA is indeed unique and does not appear anywhere else. They are a separate and distinct line of the human race that we watched and documented - not to mention helped - driven to extinction in the 1800s.


My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.

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