Trial by Fire: the End of the Beothuk

Traces of a mysterious fire, recently discovered, signal the beginning of the end of the indigenous culture.

Published August 27, 2015

When a Beothuk person died, the community carried their body to one of the small islands off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. There they would paint the remains with ochre, and bury them with provisions for a journey: a miniature birch bark canoe, a change of clothes, and some dried food. To equip the dead’s soul for passage to the afterlife, the family left pendants of a bird’s foot, an outstretched bird tail, and a wing feather, representing the different forms of seabird travel required to navigate the passage to the next world.

For about 500 years, the indigenous Beothuk’s ancestors thrived in coastal Newfoundland. But in the 1500s, their grip on the land started to slip with the arrival of European fishermen. Around 1660, a blaze raged at the intersection of two Beothuk and European settlements. The fire sparked just as tensions were hitting their peak. Not long after, the Beothuk abandoned their ancestral coastal homelands and moved inland.

Whether the fire was set intentionally is something we may never know, says archaeologist Donald Holly, whose recent excavations in Newfoundland’s Trinity Bay unveiled the charred remnants of the blaze. But the fire seems to encapsulate the two cultures’ decayed peace. And the timing, says Holly, certainly is suspicious.

Since 2009, Holly and his colleagues have been working to uncover the remains of encampments in Stock Cove, a part of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland that was continuously inhabited since at least the 8th century—first by the Dorset people, then by the Beothuk, and finally by Europeans.

For about 200 years after their first contact, the Beothuk had an ongoing, if sometimes tense, relationship with European colonialists and migrant fishermen, says Holly.

At first, when the fishermen were only coming to Newfoundland seasonally, the Beothuk fared well. The hunter-gatherers, who had traditionally relied on stone tools, scavenged metal from abandoned or shipwrecked boats. Meanwhile, European fishermen didn’t often venture near the Beothuk’s camps. For a while, the two cultures coexisted, with encounters often including friendly trade and shared meals.

Eventually, though, the relationship soured, with misunderstandings, kidnappings, and even gunfire, says Holly.

Digging at Stock Cove, Holly and his colleagues found the expected archaeological remains: notched projectile points, animal remains, bottle glass, and tobacco pipes. But standing out amid it all was the sign of fire. On two separate sites roughly 300 meters apart a layer of charcoal and heat-cracked rock suggests a forest fire ripped through the region.

“It’s an odd coincidence,” says Holly. “We’re not sure what’s going on with the fire, but this was the mid-1600s, which was a critical time for the Beothuk getting out of there.”

One hundred fifty years after their first arrival, European fishermen switched in earnest from seasonal visits to permanent encampments. This put a lot of stress on the Beothuk and effectively cut off their access to the coast. While there was intense fighting at times, Holly feels it wasn’t the main cause of the Beothuk’s demise. “What really did them in was taking their livelihood,” he says.

In the years after the fire, the Beothuk pressed inland and tried to adapt to the difficult living in Newfoundland’s interior. They threw an enormous amount of energy into trying to adapt: they built big villages, caribou fences, and storehouses. It wasn’t enough.

With their population dwindling, those who didn’t die of starvation and disease quietly joined neighboring indigenous groups. Still, even after the Beothuk had been forced into the interior, their spiritual lives lay on the coast. For hundreds of years, the Beothuk still carried their dead on long journeys to the shore. That is, until 1829, when the last Beothuk person—a woman named Shanawdithit—died in St. Johns, and there was no one left to carry her.