October 2, 1827
“THE RED INDIANS OF NEWFOUNDLAND.”
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 Notes – The 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.