The Beothuk people of Newfoundland were the first native Canadians to come in contact with Europeans — and they were the first to pay the ultimate price for that contact.
By 1829 — only 332 years after John Cabot (or Giovanni Caboto or Giovanni Chabbote or Zoane Cabboto or whatever) had arrived on their shores — the Beothuk were extinct as a First Nations people.
They had tried their darnedest not to become extinct: With every advance of Europeans along the Newfoundland coastline, the Beothuk had withdrawn from interaction with the newcomers.
During the first century of contact, there had been an ebb and flow as transitory European fleets set up temporary coastal camps during fishing season and then returned home with that season’s catch. As the Europeans left, the Beothuk would move back to what had been their traditional hunting-fishing territory, scavenging tools, metal, rope, nets, canvas and other useful bits and pieces left behind by the interlopers.
When unavoidable contact did occur, it usually ended badly with one or both sides left brutalized and increasingly antagonistic. The European fishermen generally saw the Beothuk as murderous, thieving savages and the Beothuk saw the Europeans as a plague of alien invaders.
(The Beothuk, by the way, are the source of the term “red Indian”: A central part of Beothuk social, cultural and religious practice was to cover their bodies, clothes, homes, boats, even implements, with red ochre earth. Since the early Europeans still considered North America part of “the Indies” they called the ochred Beothuks “red Indians” and the phrase became generally, if inappropriately, applied to subsequent native groups the Europeans encountered.)
As the 16th Century turned into the 17th Century, transitory European settlement in Newfoundland became more permanent and widespread and the Beothuk withdrew even further from contact — ending up, for the most part, trying to survive in the interior, increasingly cut off from the seals, salmon and other sealife that were a principal source of food and material for them.
The Beothuk were never a large population during their 2,000-year history in Newfoundland. Most expert guesstimates put the best-case total at no more than a few thousand people, divided into bands of a few dozen clansmen that usually lived and hunted independently of other bands. Some estimates put the number of Beothuks in Newfoundland as low as 500-800 when John Cabot arrived.
In any case, the population became smaller and smaller through the 1600s and 1700s as the Beothuks died in increasing numbers from European attacks, starvation and — most devastatingly — the effects of European diseases from which they had no immunity … diseases like smallpox, measles and tuberculosis.
Modern historical research tends to downplay the early 20th-Century view that the Beothuk were systematically hunted to extinction by Europeans. The starvation and disease that were visited on the Beothuk by European encroachment were a more devastating killer, but several violent confrontations in the early 1800s destroyed the last semblance of organized, cohesive band communities among the Beothuk.
After that, there were only a few broken families trying desperately to survive against overwhelming odds.
In the spring of 1823, English fur trappers found three starving Beothuk women — a mother named Doodebewshet (spelled variously) and her two daughters — at Badger Bay on the east coast, where the women had gone in search of mussels. It was said a male Beothuk was also with them but he, in his weakened state of starvation, fell through the ice and drowned while trying to save the women from the trappers.
Most accounts of the women’s capture have two of them dying soon after of tuberculosis (consumption, as it was known at the time) and the third, a daughter named Shanawdithit (again, spelled variously), held in captivity until she too died of TB in St. John’s in 1829.
That’s not quite how it happened.
The three women were taken by the trappers to Magistrate John Peyton at his compound on North Exploits Island. Peyton had had several earlier run-ins with the Beothuk, sometimes resulting in Beothuk deaths (for which Peyton stood trial on one occasion — and was found not culpable), but he also knew government policy was now committed to Beothuk survival.
So in June 1823, after they were somewhat recovered, Peyton took the three women by schooner to the colony’s capital at St. John’s. There the decision was made to send the women back to their people with gifts and provisions in an attempt to get the remaining Beothuk to come to the coast where they could be supplied and receive help.
Peyton sailed back up the coast with women and in July 1823 set them ashore at Charles Brook with provisions and a small boat so they could try to find their people again.
The women did find their old encampment but no signs of survivors and so returned to the coast on foot. Their health was much worse by the time they reached Peyton’s compound at Exploits Bay: Within days of each other, the mother, Doodebewshet, and one of her daughters (whose Beothuk name was never known) died.
The only survivor, Shanawdithit, was nursed back to health and taken into Peyton’s household where she remained for the next four years.
In September 1828, Shanawdihit — the last known surviving Beothuk — was taken to St. John’s where she was placed in the care of the newly (belatedly) formed Beothuk Institute and its president, the merchant-philanthropist (a contradiction in terms, some Newfoundlanders would say) William Cormack.
For the next few months, Cormack worked closely with Shanawdihit to record her knowledge of the Beothuk people, their culture and language. It is from this period and the drawings that Shanawdihit made for Cormack that much of our scant knowledge of the Beothuk comes.
When Cormack left Newfoundland the following spring, Shanawdihit was transferred to the household of the colony’s attorney-general, James Simms. By this time Shanawdihit’s health was very poor and, despite the close attention of a doctor named William Carson, she died of tuberculosis on June 6, 1829.
Shanawdihit’s death marked the extinction of Newfoundland’s Beothuk people — a tragic, terrible end to the short (about three centuries), destructive interaction between Europeans and Newfoundland’s first First Nation.
But there’s more — much more, I’m afraid — to the story.
And the next part is what this blog post is really about. The foregoing was just preamble to give you background information about the Beothuk.
Because John/Giovanni/Zoane Cabot/Caboto/Chabotte was not the first European to “discover” Newfoundland.
Half a millennium before John Cabot’s arrival, we know the Vikings had established an outpost on the shores of northern Newfoundland and had had contact — often violent — with the local population, the Beothuk.
The story of the Norsemen’s expeditions to Newfoundland is well known through the Viking Sagas — even down to documented dates — but hard evidence of their presence in North America was missing until little more than 50 years ago.
The archeological site of the principal (perhaps only) Viking settlement — a palisaded enclosure with three timber-and-sod longhouses, a number of workshop outbuildings and nearby ironworks and boatyard — was discovered near L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland by Norwegians Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad in 1960.
The find has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Parks Canada has built replicas of what the archeologists say would have stood on the spot 1,000 years ago.
(L’Anse aux Meadows, by the way, is an English corruption of the French name L’Anse aux Meduses — Jellyfish Cove.)
So here’s what we know, based on the Viking Sagas, extensive modern historical research and physical evidence:
The Viking presence in Newfoundland was part of a steady westward thrust by the Norsemen who sailed out of the mists of Scandinavia to make their mark on the known and unknown world from roughly 800 AD to 1100 AD.
While the Vikings were terrorizing and pillaging (and often colonizing) Europe from Britain to Byzantium to Russia , they were also pushing west across the North Atlantic — first to Iceland, which they settled about 874 AD, followed by Greenland a hundred years later and finally Newfoundland about 1,000 AD.
One of the Norsemen who settled in Iceland was a chieftain named Erik Thorvaldsson (better known as Erik the Red). Erik was convicted in 982 of killing several of his neighbour’s sons and kinsmen in a feud and was banished from the Iceland colony for three years as punishment.
So Erik sailed away in his longboat with his wife, three sons, daughter and a score of loyal kinsmen and spent the next three years exploring the coast of Greenland (which Erik the Red named so enticingly as a merchandising ploy, sort of like Shady Acres or Hollywoodland) and choosing prospective sites for future settlement.
When his banishment concluded, Erik returned to Iceland and recruited a large number of pioneer families to settle his new colony in Greenland. In 985 Erik headed back to Greenland with an armada of Viking longships and hundreds of settlers.
Of the 25 longships that set out, 14 made the voyage successfully and Erik founded two settlements which eventually grew to about 5,000 people and survived on the south coast of Greenland for the next 500 years.
Of the 11 longships that didn’t reach Greenland, some turned back to Iceland, others sank and one, captained by a young fellow named Bjarni Herjolfsson, was blown off course in a great storm and ended up off a relatively low-lying, heavily forested coast quite unlike the geography of Greenland with its fiords, mountains and glaciers.
Bjarni turned his ship northeast and eventually found his compatriots building their new homes on the coast of Greenland.
Now one of the (many) things that Greenland was lacking was a plentiful supply of timber, so Bjarni’s description of a heavily wooded land a few weeks sail southwest of Greenland was enticing.
One of the people most interested in Bjarni’s tale was Erik the Red’s son, Lief (which would make him Leif Eriksson — Leif, son of Erik — but he’s better known as Leif the Lucky).
Leif got sidetracked by a few things — serving time as a leader-in-training at the Viking court of Norway’s King Olaf, marrying a woman named Thorgunna, having a son named Thorkell and converting to Christianity among other things — before returning to his father’s realm in Greenland.
There Leif hooked up with Bjarni Herjolfsson again, bought Barnji’s longship and — with Barnji at the tiller and a crew of 35 — headed off to find the land of trees about 1002 (it may have been 1001 or 1003, but 1002 is the best bet).
Backtracking on Bjarni’s course from 15 years earlier, Leif first came to a place he dubbed Helluland (land of flat stones) which was probably Baffin Island. Leif’s next landfall is believed to be the forested coast of Labrador which he named Markland (land of woods).
Although one of his principal interests was wood, Leif wanted to see what was over the horizon and kept going south. His next landfall was the best so far. Two days’ sail from Markland, Leif’s longship entered a natural harbour with grassy meadows rolling off to forests.
This he called Vinland. There is a lot of speculation on the name — some sources saying Leif found a type of wild grapevine growing in the area; others that one of Leif’s uncles on the expedition got rip-roaring drunk on the fermented juice of berries he found there; and the one I favour (although it’s the least interesting) is that the word “vin” is actually a different “vin” meaning pasture or meadow in old Norse. Complicating matters is the fact that scientists have, in recent years, found evidence of vine growth around L’Anse aux Meadows.
Be that as it may, Leif liked his Vinland and set up camp there, calling the settlement either Leifsbudir (Leif’s storehouse) or Straumfjord, depending of the Saga consulted. The crew wintered there, feasting on salmon, doing a little more coastal exploring and filling their longboat with chopped timber.
That spring (probably 1003), Leif and his crew returned to Greenland with their load of lumber, tales of Vinland’s riches and plans to return with a larger expedition. On the return voyage, Leif rescued a disabled, adrift ship, saving its crew and — as was the custom of the time — acquiring its cargo for himself. That is supposedly how Leif got the nickname “Lucky.”
Shortly after Leif returned to Greenland, his father, Erik the Red, died when the colony was hit by a plague and Leif became chieftain.
As such, Leif had to remain in Greenland and did no more voyaging to Vinland, but he retained ownership of it and therefore sanctioned all future expeditions to the area — and took a cut of the profits from returning ships.
Leif ruled the Greenland colony for another two decades, inserting himself into Viking politics in Iceland and Scandinavia, organizing further exploratory and colonizing ventures to Vinland, and dying at about the age of 50. He was succeeded by his son Thorkell sometime around 1020 or shortly thereafter.
The Viking Sagas describe Leif as a large, powerful man with a strong personality, wisdom and great generosity — but then that’s the kind of thing most royal chroniclers say about their subjects, even if they were, in reality, nasty, mutant toads.
But let’s return to 1004 when Leif sent a larger expedition back to Vinland, led by his brother Thorvald who had accompanied him on the first voyage. Piloted by Bjarni Herjolfsson again.
For most of the next decade, the Newfoundland outpost was a permanent settlement with longships operating a shuttle service to home base in Greenland and others exploring further south — at least as far as present-day New Brunswick and probably further, even as far as present-day New York City.
Those were exploratory voyages, however, and the longships would usually return to Leifsbudir/L’Anse aux Meadows for winter quartering.
And there in Leifsbudir/L’Anse aux Meadows, the semi-European Vikings met the native Beothuk of Newfoundland 500 years before John Cabot and succeeding generations of European mariners descended on their land.
There are numerous accounts of meetings with the Beothuk in the Viking Sagas — but they are called “skraelings” in the Sagas.
“Skraeling” has come to be interpreted as “foreigner” or “barbarian” (sort of like “farang” in Thai) but its origin in the Old Norse dialect is difficult to pin down. The most likely source is from a word meaning “skin” since the Beothuk dressed primarily in animal skins, unlike the Vikings who wore mainly woven wool clothes (although they would add robes of animal fur for warmth or display on occasion). The word “skraeling” in modern Danish and Norwegian means “weakling” but that is apparently an add-on from 17th-Century German and has no connection to the Viking word. (I’m just taking the word of experts on this — I barely know English, let alone Danish, Swedish or German.)
“Skraeling” later came to also mean the Thule people, ancestors of the modern Inuit, but the term was applied to the Beothuk 200 years before the Thule and Norsemen came into contact in Greenland.
But back to the Beothuk.
The Sagas record both amicable and hostile encounters between Vikings and Skraelings — but most of the meetings were bad affairs.
The first encounter was an out-and-out massacre of sleeping Beothuk by Vikings in the spring of 1005 after Thorvald’s expedition returned to L’Anse aux Meadows. The Norsemen quickly paid for their brutality.
According to the Greenlander Saga, the Vikings were exploring the coastline when they spotted nine Beothuk sleeping under three skin boats on shore. The Vikings mounted a strandhogg — a ferocious, lightening raid — on the Beothuk, killing eight.
But the ninth escaped and soon returned with a war party armed with bows and arrows in “large numbers of boats made of skin,” as the saga says.
The Skraelings attacked the Viking longship, forcing the Norsemen to flee — but not before several, including the Viking leader Thorvald, were killed by arrows.
Despite their leader’s death, the Thorvald group remained at L’Anse aux Meadows for another year before returning to Greenland.
In 1006, another of Leif’s brothers, Thorstein, returned to Newfoundland and surrounding waters but stayed less than a year. Thornstein apparently had no contact with the Beothuk.
In 1009, the most ambitious colonization attempt began when a larger group with whole families and some livestock made the journey from Greenland to Vinland on three longships to expand the outpost. This is the group that built the stockaded settlement with three residential longhouses now replicated on the site.
The number of settlers in this expedition has been put at anywhere between 65 and 250, although the figure of 160 seems to be most widely accepted.
The first meeting between the new colonists and the Beothuk actually went quite well, with the Beothuk exchanging furs for red cloth (the Beothuk’s favourite colour) which they wrapped around their heads.
The Vikings and Beothuk lived in a state of uneasy peace for a while … but you know how this is going to end, don’t you?
A Beothuk was caught one day trying to steal weapons, according to the saga, and he was killed on the spot.
The L’Anse aux Meadows encampment was soon under attack, this time by Beothuk armed with stone slings as well as bows and arrows.
The Greenlander Saga adds some juicy bits at this point: Firstly, the Beothuk deployed a very strange weapon of terror — a blue-black spherical object that was launched through the air from a long, swinging pole. The mysterious object made a howling, hideous noise as it landed among the Vikings, panicking them.
Secondly, as the Viking men fled back toward the encampment in terror, the saga says a pregnant Viking woman, Freydis (apparently Leif’s half-sister), bared her breasts, grabbed a sword and rallied the menfolk to repel the attack. That’s what the saga says.
Whatever actually happened, that was the end of any kind of positive relationship between the Beothuk and the Vikings.
The colonists held on a bit longer but Leif finally ordered them to return to Greenland and abandon the Newfoundland settlement — only a decade after Leif had first ventured to L’Anse aux Meadows.
Viking ships would return to Vinland and Markland over the next couple of centuries, mainly for wood, but as far as is known there were no other attempts at settlement.
Now this is where it becomes intriguing.
When the Vikings returned to Greenland and later Iceland, there is a very good chance they took at least one Beothuk with them, probably as a captured slave. And that Beothuk — a woman, it’s believed — started a bloodline of Beothuk-Viking Icelanders.
How could we possibly know that?
Because a couple of Icelandic geneticists and National Geographic magazine say so, that’s why.
They don’t actually make the Beothuk connection — that’s for you and I to affirm — but they are investigating the very real probability.
Here’s a bit of what National Geographic had to say on its website Nov. 23, 2010:
“Five hundred years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, a Native (North) American woman may have voyaged to Europe with Vikings, according to a provocative new DNA study.
“Analyzing a type of DNA passed only from mother to child, scientists found more than 80 living Icelanders with a genetic variation similar to one found mostly in Native (North) Americans.
“This signature probably entered Icelandic bloodlines around A.D. 1000, when the first Viking-AmeriIndian child was born, the study authors theorize.
“Historical accounts and archaeological evidence show that Icelandic Vikings reached Greenland just before 1000 and quickly pushed on to what is now Canada. Icelanders even established a village in Newfoundland, though it lasted only a decade or so.
“The idea that a Native … woman sailed from North America to Iceland during that period of settlement and exploration provides the best explanation for the Icelanders’ variant, the research team says.
“‘We know that Vikings sailed to the Americas,’ said Agnar Helgason of deCODE Genetics and the University of Iceland, who co-wrote the study with his student Sigrídur Ebenesersdóttir and colleagues. “So all you have to do is assume … that they met some people and ended up taking at least one female back with them.”
The story goes on to say:
“Through genealogical research, the study team concluded that the Icelanders who carry the Native (North) American variation are all from four specific lineages, descended from four women born in the early 1700s.
Those four lineages, in turn, likely descended from a single woman with Native American DNA who must have been born no later than 1700, according to study co-author Ebenesersdóttir … but history and genetics suggest the Native (North) American DNA arrived on the European island centuries before then, study co-author Helgason said…
“At least one lineage’s variation has mutated in a way that would likely have taken centuries to occur, the researchers say.
This unique signature suggests that, in Helgason’s words, the Native American DNA arrived in Iceland at least “several hundred years” before 1700.”
Now for the really important part:
“Despite the evidence, for now it’s nearly impossible to prove a direct, thousand-year-old genetic link between Native (North) Americans and Icelanders.
“For starters, no living Native (North) American group carries the exact genetic variation found in the Icelandic families.
“But of the many known scattered versions that are related to the Icelandic variant, 95% are found in Native (North) Americans. Some East Asians, whose ancestors are thought to have been the first Americans, carry a similar genetic pattern, though.
“The Inuit, often called Eskimos, carry no version of the variant—a crucial detail, given that Greenland has a native Inuit population.
“Helgason speculates that the precise Icelandic variation may have come from a Native (North) American people that died out after the arrival of Europeans.”
So there you have it: This particular genetic pattern is almost exclusively related to Native North Americans but does not exactly match any living native group and is not carried at all by Innuit. The researchers speculate that it may come from a native people that “died out after the arrival of Europeans.”
Let’s see, that would be … counting on one finger the number of extinct First Nations peoples in Eastern North America … yep, that would be Newfoundland’s Beothuk.
You will be glad to know (I hope) that despite National Geographic’s very limited (North — my add, again) American focus on the story, the Beothuk connection has not been overlooked and is being actively pursued.
The Icelandic researchers and colleagues in Britain are conducting comparison tests on DNA samples from the skulls of two Beothuk that were donated to the Royal Museum of Edinburgh in 1827 by William Cormack. (Remember Cormack, the “philanthropic merchant” who, so many paragraphs ago, took in Shanawdithit, the last Beothuk, for a few months before abandoning her to others when he returned to Britain shortly before her death?)
The particular DNA strand they are chasing is identified as C1e.
The full report of the Icelandic research group was published in the November 2010 edition of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
I’m not going to pay a fortune to access the full report (which I certainly wouldn’t understand anyway). But here’s what the accessible abstract on the study says:
Although most mtDNA lineages observed in contemporary Icelanders can be traced to neighboring populations in the British Isles and Scandinavia, one may have a more distant origin. This lineage belongs to haplogroup C1, one of a handful that was involved in the settlement of the Americas around 14,000 years ago. Contrary to an initial assumption that this lineage was a recent arrival, preliminary genealogical analyses revealed that the C1 lineage was present in the Icelandic mtDNA pool at least 300 years ago. This raised the intriguing possibility that the Icelandic C1 lineage could be traced to Viking voyages to the Americas that commenced in the 10th century. In an attempt to shed further light on the entry date of the C1 lineage into the Icelandic mtDNA pool and its geographical origin, we used the deCODE Genetics genealogical database to identify additional matrilineal ancestors that carry the C1 lineage and then sequenced the complete mtDNA genome of 11 contemporary C1 carriers from four different matrilines. Our results indicate a latest possible arrival date in Iceland of just prior to 1700 and a likely arrival date centuries earlier. Most surprisingly, we demonstrate that the Icelandic C1 lineage does not belong to any of the four known Native American (C1b, C1c, and C1d) or Asian (C1a) subclades of haplogroup C1. Rather, it is presently the only known member of a new subclade, C1e. While a Native American origin seems most likely for C1e, an Asian or European origin cannot be ruled out.
(Ignore that last part — it’s just there to cover their asses, like a medicine bottle that warns “May cause hiccups.”)
When all is said and done, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that the rare Icelandic DNA strands and the samples taken from the skulls of Beothuuk chief Nonosabasut and his wife Demasduit in Edinburgh are a match.
And when that match is confirmed, the Royal Museum of Edinburgh should give those skulls to members of the four Icelandic families who represent the only surviving descendants of the extinct Beothuk First Nation of Newfoundland.
After so much wrong, it’s probably the right thing to do.