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Paul Sparkes: Lest we forget

Life-size Beothuck figures with canoe, displayed at the interpretation centre, Boyd’s Cove, Notre Dame Bay. Also worth seeing here, a diorama of how the site of the Beothuck community or encampment may have looked in real life. The tiny, engaging figures are true works of art.
Life-size Beothuck figures with canoe, displayed at the interpretation centre, Boyd’s Cove, Notre Dame Bay. Also worth seeing here, a diorama of how the site of the Beothuck community or encampment may have looked in real life. The tiny, engaging figures are true works of art. - Paul Sparkes photo

If you can forget about the demanding nature of a walk through woods enveloped in a steam bath, then your imagination may well allow you to visualize Beothuck people foraging for berries among these trees. There are soft mosses all around for a child’s bed and dried branches bestowed by the Great Spirit for your comforting fire.

While one of our founding peoples may have wrestled with their surroundings, struggled against winter and relished campfire smoke as relief from stouts and other biting flies, we tend to think of them more poetically today, as living in harmony with nature. And no doubt, to a large extent, they did.

In our library of material on the Beothuck people we must not forget Dr. Keith Winter’s book “Shananditti” (1975). In it he mentions two notorious killers of our indigenous people, one “Rogers” and the other, “Noel Boss”. The latter apparently killed 99 Beothucks in his time and was known to express the wish that he could kill one more to even out his record.

Today, you take a winding “very rural” 2.5-km. road (its width might be described as adequate for one-and-a-half cars to pass) off our highway 340 and ultimately find yourself at the Boyd’s Cove Beothuk  Interpretation Site. Unexpectedly you’re suddenly in a parking lot. On a humid July day, your walk through woods trailing away from the Interpretation Centre can be sapping, boardwalk or not.

Some 1.5 kms. beyond the centre, you reach the presumed site of a Beothuck community (encampment) of three centuries ago. I let imagination take me there for quickly returning to the Centre as torrential rain hit, I took the shelter of the indoor displays purely out of deference to my camera lens.

A note on Mary March

A day later at my desk and keyboard, I flipped through the 4 ½-pound book on “the Beothucks or Red Indians” written by James Howley just over a century ago. I was looking for any small descriptive “cameo” about those people, now so long lost to us.

In 1820, a ship’s captain (Hercules Robinson) wrote from memory of some things told him by a Rev. Mr. Leigh with whom Mary Mary (“Demasduit”) lived on Fogo Island shortly after she was captured in 1819 and taken away from her husband and companions. Here is an extract from Capt. Robinson’s account:

“She would sometimes, though rarely, speak fully to Mr. Leigh and talk of her tribe ... Mr. Leigh is of opinion there are about 300 in number. Polygamy does not appear to be practiced. They live in separate wigwams. Mary’s consisted of 16 – the number was discovered in a rather curious manner. She went frequently to her bedroom during the day, and when Mr. Leigh’s housekeeper went up she always found her rolled in a ball apparently asleep, at last a quantity of blue cloth was missed, and from the great jealousy that Mary shewed about her trunk suspicion fell upon her. Her trunk was searched and the cloth found nicely converted into 16 pairs of moccasins, which she had made in her bed. Two pair of children’s stockings were also found, made of a cotton nightcap (Mr. Leigh had lost one) but Mary answered angrily about her merchandise ... at last in the bottom of the trunk the tassel of the cap and the bit marked J.L. were found. Looking steadfastly at Mr. Leigh she pointed to her ‘manufacture’ said slowly ‘yours’ and ran into the woods. When brought back she was very sulky and remained so for several weeks. She hoarded clothes, trinkets and anything that was given her and was fond of dividing them into 16 shares.”

Killers
In our library of material on the Beothuck people we must not forget Dr. Keith Winter’s book “Shananditti” (1975). In it he mentions two notorious killers of our indigenous people, one “Rogers” and the other, “Noel Boss”. The latter apparently killed 99 Beothucks in his time and was known to express the wish that he could kill one more to even out his record. Rogers’ sad record was something over 60 of the people. Boss apparently died when crossing Gander Lake on the ice, while burdened with six, heavy wildlife traps. He broke through the ice and drowned. 

In the introduction to his 160-page account, Winter wrote “the story of the life and death of Shananditti is symbolic of the tragic fate of the Beothuck Indians of Newfoundland”. She was the last-known survivor “of a nation of about 50,000 people who lived in peace on the 42,734 square miles of the island of Newfoundland” ... and they “suffered more from their contact with the Europeans than did any other native people in North America from disease, theft, massacres, starvation and well-meaning governors’ schemes.”

Copies of Winter’s book are still readily available. Visit BookFinder.com

At the Boyd’s Cove centre I studied a plaque of Beothuck projectile points, some of them dating to the time of the Matthew’s appearance off our east coast. If the Beothucks had known about that visit, it would surely have become a black mark on their calendar.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: paul.sparkes@thetelegram.com

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