Tag Archives: Beothic

“The last relics of an interesting family, the original peoples of Newfoundland”

Archival Moment

November 18, 1830

 “The last relics of an interesting family, the original peoples of Newfoundland”

Photo Credit: The Rooms A-17-110-Shanawdithit

Photo Credit: The Rooms A-17-110-Shanawdithit

In the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburg  the remains of two Beothuk people Demasduit and her husband — a chief named Nonosabusut — have been stored at the museum for years. The pair are the aunt and uncle of Shanawdithit, the last known member of the extinct Beothuk people, who died in St. John’s in 1829.

The remains were taken from a burial site in Newfoundland and shipped to the Royal College of Physicians, London for study, and later ended up at the museum in Edinburgh.

The remains of Demasduit and Nonosabusut were not the only Beothuk that found their way to Scotland for study.

On November 18, 1830 the scull and scalp of Shanawdithit (also known as Nancy and Nance April) the last known survivor of the Beothuk’s was sent to Scotland.

In a letter to the Private Secretary of the Governor of Newfoundland, Sir Thomas John Cochrane, the well know St. John’s physician, Dr. William Carson wrote:

“I send you for His Excellency the scull and scalp of Nancy Beothic inclosed in a tin case. I have put into the case a scroll, copy of which I have inclosed for His Excellency’s information.”

Dr. Carson continued in his letter to describe Shanawdithit:

The skull and scalp of Nancy Beothic Red Indians Female, who died at Saint John’s, Newfoundland,  June one thousand and eight hundred and twenty nine.  At, twenty eight. She was tall, and majestic, wild, and tractable but characteristically proud and suspicious, cautious. “

He then continued to describe the Beothuk people:

“The Red Indians differed in appearance, language, and manners from the Esquimaux and Micmac Tribes, who inhabited the neighbouring shores of Labrador and Acadia. Many ascribed to them an European origin.”

Dr Carson was aware that the remains of Shanawdithit ‘s  aunt and uncle,   Demasduit and Nonosabusut  had already been sent to  England.  He wrote:

“These the last relics of an interesting family the original peoples of Newfoundland are presented by the kindness of His Excellency Sir Thomas John Cochrane Governor, to the Royal College of Physicians…”

Shanawdithit’s remains were later sent the Royal College of Surgeons in London where it was destroyed by the bombings during the Second World War.

The rest of Shanawdithit’s body is believed to have been buried in St. John’s.

In 1997 a monument in her honor was erected, a life-sized bronze sculpture of Shanawdithit, created by Newfoundland artist Gerald Squires.   The bronze image now stands in Boyd’s Cove near the remains of a site of one of the largest Beothuk communities found by archeologists to date, a lasting memorial to Shanawdithit, the last of the Beothuk people.

IN 2007, Shanawdithit, was honoured with a plaque recognizing her as a person of national historic significance. The plaque is in Bannerman Park, St. John’s.

Recommended Archival Collection:  At the Rooms  the Office of the Colonial Secretary  GN2.2,  the Office of the Colonial Secretary served as the official repository for Newfoundland state records and as the registry for varied legal and statistical documents, the collection includes extensive holdings relating to all aspects of Newfoundland political, economic, community and social life. The original letter written by Dr. William Carson can be found in GN2.2  1830  Volume 2 page 325

Recommended Archival Collection: Search the Rooms online database for descriptions of our archival records and view thousands of digital photographs. https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections in the search bar type Beothuk.

Recommended Exhibit: From This Place: Our Lives on Land and Sea Level 4, The Husky Energy Gallery.  Four Aboriginal Peoples—Innu, Inuit, Southern Inuit and Mi’kmaq—have lived in Labrador or on the island of Newfoundland for centuries. Europeans (livyers) settled both places beginning in the 1600s. This exhibition showcases how the province’s peoples connected and are connected, and how different cultures shape this place.


They disappeared from the earth like a shadow…


October 2, 1827


Photo Credit: Drawings by Shanawdithit showing spears, water buckets, cups, a dancing woman, a devil Source: Library and Archives Canada/C-028544 © Public Domain nlc-683

They disappeared from the earth like a shadow…

On October 2, 1827, William Cormack, described as an explorer, agriculturalist and merchant in St. John’s, formed the ‘Beothic Institution’, for the purpose of opening a communication with, and promoting the civilization of the “Red Indians of Newfoundland.”

Cormack, had become alarmed at the decimation the Beothuk people and culture, and began searching the Newfoundland wilderness for the Beothuk. In 1823 he heard that a young Beothuk woman Shawnadithit (Nancy April) had been captured,  one of only a few Beothuk with whom to communicate. He immediately sought her out to learn about the Beothuk culture.

Shawnadithit, in effect, became the Beothuk Institution, supplying Cormack with  some of his only first-hand information on the tribe.  Cormack wrote:

“We have traces enough left only to cause our sorrow that so peculiar and so superior a people should have disappeared from the earth like a shadow… Shawnadithit is now becoming very interesting as she improves in the English language and gains confidence in people around. I keep her pretty busily employed in drawing historical representations of everything that suggests itself relating to her tribe, which I find is the best and readiest way of gathering information from her.”

Many prominent citizens subscribed to become members of the Institute.

Cormack subsequently set off with three native guides to explore the area around the Exploits River and Red Indian Lake where the Beothuk were known to have lived but found the country deserted. As a last resort a native search party was sent to the region of Notre Dame and White Bays under the auspices of the Beothuk Institution.

No Beothuk were encountered, as Cormack had feared they were on the verge of extinction.  With the death of Shawnadithit in 1829, Cormack wrote,  they had “disappeared from the earth like a shadow…”

On 2 October 1997, 170 years after its inception, the Beothic Institution was revived as the Beothuk Institute. Its mandate was to arrange for the erection of a statue of a Beothuk woman to commemorate the Beothuk people, and to promote public awareness of the Beothuk and other aboriginal peoples of the province. The idea of a statue came from Newfoundland artist  Gerald Squires, who had a vision of a female Beothuk in the Bay of Exploits, and wanted to honour the spirit of her people. He was commissioned to create the statue. It was poured in bronze by artist Lubin Boykov and unveiled at the Boyd’s Cove Provincial Historic Site in July 2000.

Since then the Beothuk Institute has sponsored the publication of a booklet on the Beothuk, provided essays on the Beothuk  and has initiated a study of Beothuk DNA.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives read MG 257 consists of a vocabulary of the Native Red Indians language, from Mary March / compiled by the Rev. John Leigh, 1819-1820, composed of words learned from Demasduit (Mary March), a female Beothuk captured by John Peyton, Jr., at Red Indian Lake, on 5 March 1819. Fonds consist of one booklet, with 17 sheets and cover.

Recommended Website:  At the Rooms Provincial Museum see Museum NotesThe Beothuks  By Ralph T. Pastore  http://www.therooms.ca/museum/mnotes1.asp

Recommended Film: Shanaditti : Last of the Beothuks. Directed by Ken Pittman; produced by Rex Tasker and Barry Cowling. Montréal: National Film Board ofCanada, 1982. 20 min., 22 sec.

Recommended Reading:  Marshall, Ingeborg. The Beothuk of Newfoundland: A Vanished People.St. John’s, 1989.