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Beothuk Extinction as an Example of the Genocide Against Native Peoples

Beothuk Extinction as an Example of the Genocide Against Native Peoples

History of the original inhabitants of North America is full of both glorious and tragic pages that not only cause admiration but also make people think and reevaluate the role of the state and its influence on the people who live in it. History of Canada is especially interesting in this respect because it is the country where the Native peoples have special status; it is the country that was inhabited by more than a millennium before the first European colonial expeditions. However even such a long termed possession of the lands did not help Native peoples to survive and brought many of them to extinction. The tragic extinction of the Beothuks is rather often used as the best example of mercilessness of the invaders who used all possible means of driving people from their native lands. We state that the extinction of the Beothuks was, without a doubt, a very tragic event in the history of Canada but it was not a pre-planned genocide against the Native population.

There is no consensus among historians concerning the causes and consequences of the ultimate extension of Beothucks. Even less clear whether this ethnic group totally disappeared or there are some still living descendants of Beothucks. It is traditionally believed that the year 1829 when the last representative of this group died marked the end of Beothucks’ era and became the most outrageous manifestation of the hostility of the whites towards Native peoples. By far, this is one of the most tragic events that took place in the history of Canada and its citizens. This tragedy was researched in numerous publications but still every year there appear many new facts that introduce new dark spots and demand further researches that would shed light on the factors that led to the extinction of the whole ethnic group of people. Such researchers as R.T. Pastore emphasize that there were several groups of invaders such as Europeans, Micmacs, and Inuit who deprived Beothucks of vitally needed resources and in this way they contributed to their extinction and Europeans were not the most aggressive group of invaders. In his turn, Douglas T. Robbbins states that the extinction of the Beothucks was not a planned action; it was a great tragedy of this ethnic group because instead of developing trade relations, they withdrew inland and got into isolation that brought them to extinction. Actually, their dying was their own fault, because the environmental resources of the island were impoverished and Beothucks could not satisfy their needs only by means of the available resources. Partially, this idea is supported by Leslie Upton who claims that exactly their withdrawal and eliminating of the contacts with other groups of settlers was the main factor that contributed to their dying out.

At the same time, we argue that the lack of natural resources and ultimate withdrawal of Beothucks were important but not crucial factors. The most important factor was the tactics of violent elimination of the Native peoples that was aimed at grasping their territories. Beothucks died because of many factors including, hunger and diseases brought by Europeans, but it is also impossible to deny that a huge amount of Beothucks were mercilessly killed.

According to Leslie Upton “The relationships between whites and Beothucks passed through three well-defined stages. The first lasted from 1500 to 1612 and was marked by occasional kidnapping, casual trade and sporadic pillage and mutual retaliation. The second stage began when Beothucks withdrew into the interior. The Beothuck strategy of withdrawal has no parallel elsewhere in the region and its cause cannot be known. The third and final stage began in the middle of the eighteenth century …The resulting competition saw the extermination of the Beothucks.”[1]

The original inhabitants of North America and Beothucks did not become an exception left very little information about their existence and culture primarily because of the fact that they did not have written accountancies. However, archeological evidence suggests that the native peoples “migrated from Siberia to Alaska via a land bridge known as Beringia toward the end of the last ice age at least 10,000 years ago. As many as 10 million people may have gradually spread across the continent in search of more favorable hunting and fi shing sites. To these fi rst peoples, North America was truly a boundless frontier; their freedom of movement was restricted only by geographical barriers or by clashes with more powerful enemies.”[2] It was estimated that up to 500,000 people spread over the territory of modern Canada. These were people belonging to different ethnic groups and speaking the languages belonging to 11 linguistic families. More than 53 of these languages currently exist among the Native people of Canada. [3] Though the languages were different, the nomadic way of life and tribal organization of the communities united all first inhabitants.

As for Beothuks it is believed that they migrated to North America as early as in 1AD. They settled on Newfoundland, the island that had beneficial natural conditions and that enabled them to live peacefully for several centuries. They lived predominantly around Bonavista Bay and Notre Dame Areas. They lived in extended and relatively independent family groups comprising from 35 to 50 people. So far there is no consensus about the number of Beothuks living at the time of European colonization. According to the scholars who worked in the 19th and 20th centuries there were more than 2,000 people, however recent researches indicate that this number was much smaller and the number of Beothuks did not increase 500 people. They way of living did not differ much from the rest of tribes. They were hunter-gathering people, who lived in mamateeks—conical dwellings that were grouped in a circle. During winter seasons they were fortified. The usual material for the dwellings was birch bark. In the centre there was a fireplace and around it were hollows dug in the land specially for sleeping. Bark was used for making canoes that had V-shaped bottom. The most usual food was caribou, salmon and seal, they followed seasonal migration patterns and this added some new products[4]. Caribou was definitely the most important animal for Beothuks, because it provided them with food and skins that were widely used. Fall was the most important season because they organized mass hunting and stored up meat for winter. It is interesting that Beothuks knew how to preserve the surpluses of food. Since winters were severe they also hunted fur-bearing animals and constructed fur clothes for winter. These clothes kept warmth and enabled them to survive even when the temperatures were very low.

An attributive feature of Beothuks was red ochre with which they painted their bodies, dwellings, weapons, canoes and all other objects. Red ochre became in this culture a very important cultural concept that marked ethnical identity and that was used in all celebrations and rituals. For instance, when a newborn child appeared in the tribe his or her body was covered with ochre and it meant that this child was welcomed into the community. In case a Beothuk was not wearing ochre it meant that this person was punished and even exiled. No wonder that this feature allowed Europeans to call native inhabitants of Newfoundland as “Red Indians.” The tribe was governed by the chief and it was a harmonious society. In general, Beothuks elaborated their own culture that was full of various rituals and presented its own mode of life that was not hostile to the newcomers and this became one of the reasons that brought this ethnic group to complete extinction.

Beothuks had contacts with Europeans as early as around 1000 AD, but these contacts were not numerous and did not cause any serious consequences for them. Everything changed in the 15th century when soon after the arrival of John Cabot, thousands of Europeans rushed to North America. As a rule they settled on the lands that had good conditions and that had been settled by the Native people. However, unlike other tribes that had conflicts with the newcomers, Beothuks avoided all possible contacts with the invaders. They left their camps and moved inland. While the European settlements grew, Beothucs were forced to move further and further into the middle of the island. Consequently, they got deprived of coastal fishing and hunting sites and this caused food shortage at first and then starvation of the people. Together with hunger Europeans brought new diseases that were incurable for Beothuks[5]. The first disease that caused numerous deaths was smallpox that became a real disaster for all Native people. However, even more dangerous was tuberculosis that took life of the last survivors. The exact number of the Beothuks who died from measles, smallpox or tuberculosis is unknown, but it is obviously that once a member of this group caught any of these viruses or bacteria, the disease got quickly spread, because they had no immunity against it. Furthermore, diseases contributed to hunger because the Beothuks were unable to hunt and this devastated all their resources.

The deficiencies of law and order adversely affected not only the English settlers but also the native Beothuk population of Newfoundland. As the fishing industry and settlement extended along the eastern and southern coasts, the Beothuk preferred to withdraw into the interior. Limited access to their long-standing coastal fishing and hunting sites led to severe food shortages. Beothuk efforts to access these coastal areas often resulted in violent clashes with the fishermen and settlers, who felt unrestrained by legal sanctions. Those Beothuk who did not fall victim to starvation and English brutality succumbed to tuberculosis, resulting in the death of the last known Beothuk survivor in 1829.[6]

At the same time, it is not right to state that the Beothuks were all that ideal. They returned to their former camps and stole various metal objects. If they were able to ambush Europeans they did it and this caused mutual violence on both sides. As a number of researchers state “The Beothuk took steps to resist and adapt to European encroachment. They retaliated against European use of their resources by stealing fishing nets, destroying river dams, boats, and other property, and sometimes attacking their European competitors.”[7] However, Europeans had a more developed technology and the most important factor was their firearms. Unlike other Native people the Beothuks were not inclined to adopt this technology and that is why they were killed during these encounters. Still, Donald Holly argues that even despite hostility and unwillingness to adapt new skills, the Beothuks learned many useful things from the European settlers. First of all, they borrowed new hunting practices and the ways of food preserving.

It is necessary to mention that not only Europeans but also other Native groups caused constant pressure on the Beothuks. For instance, they were constantly fighting with Mi’kmaq ( or Micmac) and Inuit migrants. In the 19th century was a wide-spread myth introduced by William Epps Cormack according to which he Micmacs were responsible for the extinction of the Beothuks because they received money for every killed Beothuk.

All in all, such factors as lack of food and usual fishing and hunting sites, infectious diseases, violent encounters with the invaders caused a complete extinction of the Beothuks that took place in 1829. The last representative of this tribe was Shanawdithit, whose death marked the end of the Beothuks’ history.

The most important question concerning the extinction of the Beothuks is whether this extinction was a manifestation of the genocide against a definite group of the Natives or whether this extinction became a huge tragedy that was caused by natural reasons and some peculiarities of the Beothuks mentality and culture. So far this question does not have a clear answer. On the one hand, there are scholars who prove that the government of Canada did not initiate special missions aimed at murdering the Beothuks. Furthermore, they indicate that the Beothuks died out mainly because of starvation that was caused by their deliberate moving inside of the island. On the other hand, it is impossible to deny that all the negative issues were connected with the European settlers, who forced the Beothuks to leave their lands and who killed them absolutely mercilessly. As the example, it is possible to cite Bruce Alden Cox who states that “English fishermen and settlers killed most of the approximately 1,000 Beothuks living in Newfoundland in the late 18th and 19th centuries.” [8] In this way he also demonstrates that the so-called “mercenary myth” according to which Micmacs were motivated to kill the Beothuks by the French colonial authorities. Ralph Pastore also supports the version that the Micmacs did not kill the Beothuks and that it was the fault of the Englishmen. One more supporter of the idea that the extinction of the Beothuks was a well-planned genocide is Marjorie G Forrest who compares this extinction with the most merciless campaigns aimed at complete devastation. Not less radical in his conclusions is Peter Such.

In our opinion, extinction of the Beothuks can hardly be called genocide. We completely agree with the definition of genocide given by William Rubinstein who states that genocide is “the deliberate and intentional killing of all or most of a specified group of people simply because they are members of that group and for no other reason.”[9] According to this definition, the extinction of the Beothuks was hardly genocide. People representing this group were not killed intentionally in the result of the operations initiated by the government or any other powerful group. Judging by the materials analyzed in this paper the most essential reason that caused their extinction were natural ones. It is true that the Beothuks died because of hunger and diseases but nobody infected them intentionally and nobody took away food they managed to hunt. Many deaths were caused by the isolation of these people and their unwillingness to take help from the other ethnic groups. Furthermore, there is historic evidence that the settlers and then the government wanted to improve the relations with the Native inhabitants but almost in all cases these initiatives failed. The Beothuks remained isolated and hostile and this was the main cause of their extinction.



[1] Upton, Leslie F.S. The Extermination of the Beothucks of Newfoundland. (Canadian Historical Review 58, no. 2 (1977)), 135

[2] Riendeau, Roger. “A Brief History of Canada, Second Edition”. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007, 7.

[3] Dickason, Olive P. “Canada’s First Nations: A History of the Founding Peoples from Earliest Times.”Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2002.

[4] Marshall, Ingeborg. “History and Ethnography of the Beothuk” McGill-Queen’s Press, 1996, 3.

[5]“Disease as a Factor in the Demise of the Beothuk Indians.” (Change and Continuity: a reader on pre-confederation Canada. Ed. Carol Wilton. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1992. 138-49), 139.

[6] Riendeau, Roger. “A Brief History of Canada, Second Edition”. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007, 83.

[7] Higgins, Jenny & Lambert, Carolyn. “Extinction of the Beothuk.” Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage, 2008. Accessed June 10, 2013. http://www.heritage.nf.ca/aboriginal/beo_extinction.html

[8] Cox, Bruce. “Native People, Native Lands: Canadian Indians, Inuit and Métis.” McGill-Queen’s Press, 2002, 33.

[9] Rubinstein, William. “Genocide and Historical Debate: William D. Rubinstein Ascribes the Bitterness of Historians' Arguments to the Lack of an Agreed Definition and to Political Agendas". History Today 54, no. 4, 36.



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