SHAWNADITHIT (Nancy, Nance April),Beothuk; b. c. 1801, daughter of Doodebewshet; d. 6 June 1829 in St John’s.
Shawnadithit was the last known survivor of the Beothuks or Red Indians, the aboriginals of Newfoundland. A member of one of their small and rapidly dwindling family groups, she was the niece of Demasduwit*’s husband, Nonosbawsut. As a child and young girl she witnessed several of the final documented encounters between her people and expeditions dispatched or authorized by the British and colonial officials to establish friendly relations; as herself a captive, she was the source of much of what is known about the customs, language, and last days of her people.
In January 1811 she was present at the meeting on the shore of Red Indian Lake with Lieutenant David Buchan* and his party which ended in tragic misunderstanding. In the summer of 1818 she was with the Indians who pilfered John Peyton Jr’s salmon boat and cargo at Lower Sandy Point, on the Bay of Exploits. She observed the capture of Demasduwit and the killing of Nonosbawsut by Peyton’s party in March 1819 and witnessed the return by Buchan of her aunt’s body to the deserted encampment at Red Indian Lake in February 1820. In the spring of 1823 Shawnadithit, her sister, and their mother, Doodebewshet, in a weakened and starving condition, were taken by the furrier William Cull at Badger Bay, her father falling through the ice and drowning after a desperate attempt at rescue. Cull brought the three women to magistrate Peyton’s establishment at Exploits, on the more northerly of the two Exploits Islands, and Peyton himself sailed with them to St John’s by schooner in June. It was quickly decided by Buchan, acting in the absence but with the authority of the governor, Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Hamilton*, that the women should be returned to their people with presents as speedily as possible; and in July Peyton left them at the mouth of Charles Brook with provisions and a small boat to make their way back to any survivors of their group. Unsuccessful, the three later returned on foot to the coast; the mother and sister, desperately ill, died within a few days of one another, and Shawnadithit was taken into Peyton’s household.
For the ensuing five years, Shawnadithit remained with his household at Exploits (not, as sometimes assumed, at Twillingate to which he removed at a later date); she seems to have been kindly treated. With the founding of the Boeothick Institution by prominent citizens of St John’s and Twillingate, supported by interested patrons outside Newfoundland, she was brought to St John’s under the auspices of that organization in September 1828. There she resided with the president of the institution, William Eppes Cormack*, the peripatetic explorer, merchant, and philanthropist. It is to her that we owe much of the data written down by Cormack: she is one of the prime witnesses to the Beothuk language, the customs of her people, and the events and general condition of the tribe in the final years when their numbers had fallen to perhaps less than a score. She was gifted with pencil and sketch-book, and her drawings (frequently reproduced) are especially valuable. Moreover, as the last of her people, Shawnadithit has naturally figured largely in popular accounts, the steady stream of which shows little sign of either abating or improving.
Insight into the historical truth about the Beothuks and their relationship with Europeans must start with the recognition that this small branch of the Algonkian people probably numbered less than 2,000 when they were first encountered in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were hunters and fishers who depended largely upon the caribou of the interior in winter, and the fish and marine mammals of the coast in the warmer months. Aside from an account of their tentative meeting with John Guy*’s colonists in 1612, little is known about their relations with Europeans until the last half of the 18th century. Before that time, the Beothuks seldom caught the attention of record-keeping white men, for the Europeans who went to Newfoundland did so to fish, not to convert Indians to Christianity, or to enlist their support in colonial wars, or to trade with them for furs. Indeed, the Beothuks were unusual among the native peoples in North America in that it was not always necessary for them to exchange furs or skins for highly valued manufactured goods. Newfoundland was a fishing colony above all else, and this fact meant that the seasonally vacant premises of migratory English fishermen were a rich source of iron tools, canvas sails, and the like. By the latter part of the 18th century, however, an increasingly permanent English resident fishery made it difficult to carry out this sort of pilferage without retaliation.
There is little doubt that such retaliation, both justified and otherwise, did contribute to the eventual extinction of these unfortunate people. Yet a more important factor was the growth of a white population along the coast which denied the Beothuks easy access to the marine resources upon which they were seasonally dependent. Archaeological work has suggested that by the end of the 18th century the Beothuks had been forced to rely too much upon the resources of the interior, a difficult place to live, especially without firearms. If the Beothuks were malnourished as a result of enforced dependence upon the meagre wildlife of the island’s interior, they would have been that much more vulnerable to European diseases, the great killers of all New World peoples. It is quite possible that this susceptibility, more than any other factor, was responsible for their doom. Indeed, historian Leslie Francis Stokes Upton has calculated that if the Beothuks experienced anything like the population decline suffered by native groups elsewhere, their extinction could be explained solely as a result of loss through disease.