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A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk

by Ingeborg Marshall

I learned a little about the Beothuk while attending public school on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve. I heard stories of Indians who had been killed by the English a long time ago, who were hunted like animals, and for whom a bounty for capture was offered. I learned that these Indians had eventually all been killed, that we knew little about them, and because of their death, could never learn anything more.

My teachers had some of the details wrong.

Ingeborg Marshall has written a highly readable history of the Beothuk of Newfoundland. Admittedly, at 640 pages, her book appears formidable to both the average and academic reader alike. Her book is in two parts: the first is a history of the Beothuk from the first European encounter in the 1500s to their demise in the 1800s; the second is an ethnographic description of Beothuk culture.

Drawing from a variety of sources, Marshall constructs a history of the encounter between the Beothuk and the English, Dutch, French, and Micmac. It is a story about indigenous peoples whose elements are now familiar to most Canadians: an aboriginal people initially seeks peaceful co-existence and over time is seen as a competitor for the natural resources on their land, a hindrance to trade and development (in this case both furs and fishing), and eventually as souls for missionaries to convert. As the English began to settle in Newfoundland and to claim its resources, the Beothuk began to move north, away from their original homelands. Eventually, they succumbed to starvation, disease, and the hazards of a continued state of warfare in defense of their resources and lands.

Marshall readily admits that she had a difficult task: to construct a history of a people who have not existed for 160 years, who had no written language, and with whom there was little sustained contact after the first 30 years or so. The Beothuk had learned quickly that they could not trust the English who had arrived on their shores. They spent much of the next 200 years evading the English, waging a form of guerrilla warfare on the invaders. I found it ironic that much of what we know of the Beothuk comes from the writings of English seamen, as well as early colonizers and a few captured Beothuks, including the famous Shanawdithit. Marshall is clear that we will probably never know what the Beothuks thought or how they viewed the newcomers. Yet much has been inferred from their actions, if we have the Beothuk psychology right.

I must admit that I approached this book with a great deal of trepidation. I looked at the stack of pages and wondered if I could struggle through them. I expected a dry recitation of archeological and anthropological evidence, accessible and interesting only to academics. That is not what I found. This is a fascinating book for two reasons: the first is that it tells the story of the Beothuk and clears up many of the misconceptions of my early education; the second is that it is an excellent example of the craft of the historian in bringing together information from diverse sources to construct a highly readable and plausible story.