Historical Context: Disappearance of the Beothuk
Shawnadithit was Beothuk, an Indigenous people who once lived in what is now Newfoundland. With the establishment of more permanent European settlement on their territory in the 18th century, the Beothuk increasingly found themselves forced onto smaller areas of land, where their access to food and traditional resources was reduced. Tuberculosis, and other diseases brought by the Europeans to North America, significantly reduced the Beothuk population. So too did conflict. In one noted instance in March 1819, Shawnadithit observed European traders capture her aunt, Demasduwit (also spelled Demasduit), and murder her uncle, Nonosbawsut (or Nonosabusut), at Red Indian Lake, in the western interior of Newfoundland. (See also Slavery of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Sick and starved, the Beothuk died out in 1829 with the death of Shawnadithit. While some claim that the Beothuk escaped total extinction by marrying into other Indigenous nations, such as the Mi’kmaq, these theories do not negate the legacy of Shawnadithit as a record keeper of Beothuk history.
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In the 1820s, a Scottish explorer took the skulls of Demasduwit and Nonosbawsut, as well as what were likely related burial items, and brought them to Edinburgh, Scotland, where they were eventually housed at the National Museum of Scotland. Indigenous peoples, notably the Mi’kmaq, in association with the Canadian government and the Newfoundland and Labradorgovernment, have made attempts to repatriate the remains. In January 2019, National Museums Scotland reached an agreement with the federal government to arrange for the transfer of the remains back to Canada.
Shawnadithit and the Europeans
In April 1823, Shawnadithit, her mother and her sister, all starving, were captured by English furriers at Badger Bay and taken to St. John’s by merchant and magistrate John Peyton Jr. There, the women were supposed be placed under the care of Governor Charles Hamilton. However, he was in England at the time of their arrival and, because the women were in poor health, Captain David Buchan, who was acting on Hamilton’s behalf, decided to release them, after first ensuring they received medical attention. Given gifts to present to their people — peace offerings — Peyton left them at Charles Brook, located on the western side of the Bay of Exploits and north of Exploits River. Shawnadithit and her family searched but could not locate any surviving Beothuk in the area. During this time, the health of Shawnadithit’s mother and sister worsened. They soon died, likely the result of complications from tuberculosis. All alone, Shawnadithit was taken into the home of John Peyton Jr. at Exploits, where she worked as a household assistant for five years. It was there that English settlers renamed her Nance or Nancy April.
Recording Beothuk History
In 1828, Shawnadithit was brought to the Beothuk (then spelled “Boeothick”) Institution in St. John’s, an organization formed the year prior as a means of protecting what remained of Beothuk culture. Listening to Shawnadithit speak about her people, the institution’s president, William Eppes Cormack, recorded valuable information about the language and customs of the Beothuk. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.) Shawnadithit also drew valuable sketches of Beothuk settlements, tools and people, as well as maps of territory. (See also Indigenous Territory.) Her record remains some of the only information about the Beothuk.
Sick with tuberculosis, Shawnadithit died on 6 June 1829. She was buried in a cemetery in St. John’s. Her skull was sent for scientific research to London, England, where it is believed to have been destroyed during the Second World War.