The Bay of Exploits and adjacent areas of Notre Dame Bay is well known as being the last refuge of the Beothuk Indians, an indigenous population of people that many believe to be extinct. Unlike other aboriginal populations, the Beothuk tried to avoid European contact and there was plenty of conflict as the Europeans established settlements around the coast of Newfoundland. Most encounters, with the exception of a few, were unfriendly in nature and there are many reports of killings on both sides.
There were more encounters as the English settlers began to pursue the rich resources of fish, timber and fur in the Bay of Exploits and the Beothuk were forced to retreat from the coast during the summer months when gathering food was so critical for their survival.
There were some who believed that over time, friendly relations could be established between the settlers and Beothuk but most attempts failed, such as the most documented and tragic encounter which occurred on Red Indian Lake in March of 1819.
With the permission of Governor Hamilton, an expedition led by entrepreneurs John Peyton Jr and his father, proceeded up the Exploits river to Red Indian Lake where they came to a Beothuk winter camp. Peyton junior was authorized to locate and retrieve personal items that he believed were stolen by a Beothuk raiding party back in September and to bring back a Beothuk person as a first step in establishing amicable relations. The expedition went quickly awry when an Indian chief, Nonosabasut came to the defense of his wife, Demasduit, who was being taken by Peyton and his men. Nonosabasut was shot and killed while trying to prevent the capture of his wife. Demasduit, who was later renamed Mary March by the English, was brought to live in Twillingate and then later to St John’s. Attempts were made to return her to her people but she died of tuberculosis before that was possible. The remains of Desmasduit were returned to Red Indian Lake shortly after she died and placed beside those of her husband Nonosabasut. A few years later, a Scottish explorer, William Cormack removed the skulls of both Damasduit and Nonosabasut and brought them to a museum in Scotland where they remain to this day. For years, attempts to have the skulls returned to Newfoundland were unsuccessful but continued persistence by native leaders and governments have initiated renewed interest and its very likely that the transfer will take place in the near future. We will update this document with any new developments.
The last known living member of the Beothuk people is believed to be Shanawdithit, a niece of Demasduit. After living with John Peyton jr on Exploits Island for a period of time she was later moved to St John’s where she died of tuberculosis. The sketch at the top of this page was drawn by Shanawdithit and depicts the tragic death of Nonosabasut at Red Indian Lake. More of her drawings can be seen on display at the Rooms museum in St John’s.
Many books have been written about the Beothuks their way of life and their interactions with early Europeans. Some of our favorites include:
The history and ethnography of the Beothuk by Ingeborg Marshall
River Thieves by Michael Crummey
River Lords by Amy Louise Peyton
The last Beothuk by Gary Collins