The people who were murdered for fun

Newfoundland’s proud and peaceful Beothuck Indians are extinct today because, for more than two centuries, a favorite sport of the island’s whites was hunting the natives like big game

HAROLD HORWOOD October 10 1959

The people who were murdered for fun

Newfoundland’s proud and peaceful Beothuck Indians are extinct today because, for more than two centuries, a favorite sport of the island’s whites was hunting the natives like big game

HAROLD HORWOOD October 10 1959

The people who were murdered for fun


Newfoundland’s proud and peaceful Beothuck Indians are extinct today because, for more than two centuries, a favorite sport of the island’s whites was hunting the natives like big game


THE story of the Newfoundland Indian-hunters is one of the most brutal and little-known chapters in the history of Canada. Fishermen from England and France who colonized the island in the seventeenth century found it already inhabited by a race of tall, fair Indians, who called themselves “Beothucks” (pronounced Bay-oh-thucks). They were a gentle and peaceful people, who at first welcomed the white settlers as friends. Nevertheless, within a few years they were being hunted and shot as remorselessly as the wolves and caribou which roamed the interior barrens.

Beautiful Alexander Bay, lying partly within Terra Nova National Park on Newfoundland’s east coast, is a spot where Beothuck stone tools may still be dug from the sands by souvenir hunters. Until recently this serene stretch of landlocked water was known as “Bloody Bay,” because its waters once ran red with the blood of Indians slain there by white men.

The Beothucks, who were never armed with

any weapons deadlier than bows and arrows, were hunted first because they were considered a nuisance, and later for the sport of pursuing and killing such elusive game. A Beothuck came to be regarded as the finest “big game” prize the island of Newfoundland had to offer, and it was a common saying among the fishermen that they would rather shoot an Indian than a caribou.

During the early years of the Indian-hunting period northern Newfoundland was settled by outlaws. Government of the colony was arranged to favor a floating population of fishermen from western England. These people arrived each spring and left each fall with cargoes of fish. They were forbidden to take up permanent residence in the island, and ships’ captains were subject to a fine for each person they failed to bring back to England.

Every ship then carried a number of women crew members—usually from four to six. Both men and women continued on page 36

continued on page 36

The people who were murdered for fun

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“There was no law; ïf a man stole from you it gave you the right to hunt him down and kill”

lived lives of semi-slavery under indenture to their fishing “masters,” and were often glad to escape, even to the wild life of the Newfoundland coast. So the island was gradually populated with families of deserters. The British navy was sometimes sent to round up such deserters, and as late as 1800 a few of them were caught and hanged from the yardarm of a British man-o’-war.

In the wild northern parts of the island, to which these people fled, there was, for more than a century, no law whatsoever — no courts or police, nor any churches or schools. The settlers lived by catching salmon and trapping fur. They dressed mostly in sealskins, making their own boots, mitts and caps. There are people still living who remember wearing sealskin trousers as children. They lived by their guns — shooting their own meat at all seasons: seals in the spring, ducks and geese in summer and fall, caribou and partridge in the winter. They traveled by dog team whenever the bays were frozen or the inland barrens were covered with snow. In summer they traveled by water, and traded with the more civilized parts of the colony in their home-built "bully boats”—decked, tub-shaped sailing craft.

Since women were scarce, some of the fishermen took Eskimo wives from southern Labrador, for at that time the Eskimos still ranged southward as far as the Strait of Belle Isle. Besides deserters there were a few escaped criminals, pirates and other adventurers. There was a small sprinkling of French, but except on the west coast of the island, the French element was in time wholly absorbed by the English. The great majority of the people of the north were from "West Country" ports—Bristol and Devon and Poole. They spoke a clipped English dialect which may still be heard in a few places, and is almost wholly unintelligible to an outsider. It has colored the speech of northern Newfoundland so that even today it is still possible to tell a Notre Dame Bayman by his accent, wherever you may meet him in the world.

Trouble was inevitable between people so rough and lawless as the settlers and people so simple and unsophisticated as Beothucks and there were clashes almost from the beginning. The organized killings began in 1613 and lasted until 1823. It is doubtful if any other native tribe anywhere suffered such systematic persecution for so long a time. During the first hundred and fifty-six years the murder of a Beothuck was not even a crime punishable by law and, even after the government declared Tt a breach of the King's peace, to be punished by hanging, the Indian-hunters continued to operate with complete impunity-. No one was ever punished for killing a Beothuck.

This is how it started: John Guy of Bristol, who had founded the first official English colony in Newfoundland, established friendly trade with the Beothucks in 1612. and made an agreement to return by ship at a certain time the next summer to exchange trade goods for all the furs the tribe could collect.

Word was passed from band to band that winter, and all the Beothucks sent trading representatives, loaded with caribou hides and small furs. Several hundred Indians waited at the appointed place in Trinity Bay while the time for the meeting came and passed. About a week after Guy’s expected arrival a ship sailed into the bay and hove to in the lee of the point where the Beothucks were gathered. Thinking Guy had returned, they began a wild celebration, dancing on the shore, launching their canoes, and paddling excitedly toward the vessel.

Into the midst of this sudden rejoicing fell sudden death. The Indians were met with a broadside of grape shot, which ripped their boats, killed some of the men, and sent the rest fleeing into the forest in panic, believing that the men who had made a treaty of trade with them the year before had turned traitors and murderers. Forever afterward the natives had a superstitious dread of firearms, and one or two white men armed with muskets could easily put a hundred Beothucks to flight.

The ship, of course, had no connection with Guy. The men on board supposed that the natives on the beach were doing a war dance, and assumed that those in the canoes were launching an attack. They congratulated themselves on having successfully beaten off the “murderous redskins.”

“Let’s go hunt Indians”

Even this terrible mistake might have been put right in time, had it not been for a growing enmity between the two races. This enmity sprang from totally divergent views on property. The English and French were fiercely jealous of their possessions. In their eyes a man’s stature was measured almost entirely by what he owned. To the Beothucks a man's stature was measured by his success in the hunt and his wisdom in the tribal council. "Personal property” to them meant only clothes, fire stones, and amulets. All other property was more or less public.

So the Beothucks started "borrowing” gear from the white men's fishing stages, just as they would borrow hunting gear from another Indian’s camp. The white men organized expeditions to take back their lost property by force. To the uncivilized fishermen it seemed almost a law of nature that a man had a right to kill anyone who stole from him. either to shoot the culprit on the spot, or to hunt him down and shoot him later. This was an era when children were being sent to the gallows in Europe for stealing loaves of bread.

Thus the organized Beothuck-hunts began. The profit motive was soon added to the motive of revenge, for a raided Indian camp often yielded hundreds of caribou hides and other valuable furs. But what started as a dispute over property soon turned into a bloody and cruel sport. Settlers used to refer to the number of “head of Indians” they had killed, and the phrase ”go look for Indians” became a sporting byword similar to “go look for

partridge.” Successful hunters cut notches on the butts of their guns to keep tally of the number of “head” they had killed. It was decided quite early in the game that a woman or a child counted equally with a man and deserved a full notch.

So for more than two centuries the Beothucks were hunted from cove to cove, from river to river, and from thicket to thicket, the trappers and fishermen vying with one another to see who could kill the most, sometimes bringing home the severed hands of their victims to hang on their walls as trophies.

In a lifetime of killing Indians some of the musket-toting settlers rolled up an impressive total. One man named Rodgers, living at Twillingate, boasted that he had killed sixty Beothucks. This man’s last successful Indian-hunt took place in 1817, when he and two other white men ambushed a party of nine. They maimed all but one of the Indians by discharging three loads of buckshot “into the thick of ’em.” The one who was still able to run dived into the water and tried to swim to a nearby island. But Rodgers launched his canoe, gave chase, and killed the man in the water with an axe.

Meanwhile his friends were using their axes to finish off the other Indians, who were squirming in their blood on shore. All nine corpses were left in a heap, and the bones later viewed by a government agent, to whom Rodgers recounted the adventure. He was not punished, or even brought to trial, for his part in this atrocity.

Rodgers, with sixty notches on his gun butt, was far from being the most successful Beothuck-killer, however. A trapper named Noel Boss claimed that honor, with ninety-nine men, women and children to his credit. He almost succeeded in killing his hundredth victim — a little girl named Shananditti, whom he hit with

a load of buckshot as she fled across the Exploits River. She escaped, wounded, into the woods, and lived to become famous, several years later, as “the last Beothuck.” Boss, the most successful man-hunter Newfoundland ever produced, later fell through the ice of Grand Lake and drowned, much to the sorrow of his many friends in Notre Dame Bay.

Until recently most of the stories of Indian - hunting in Newfoundland were based upon traditions handed down for many generations in the families of settlers. However, when the archives of the first Earl of Liverpool went on sale, a most important paper came to light. Now known as “the Liverpool manuscript,” it contains long, first-hand accounts of the Indian-hunters’ adventures. Compiled in 1792, it shows that the stories preserved by word of month were in no way exaggerated.

A master fisherman and his “shareman” once surprised a Beothuck mother on a beach, as she carried her four-yearold boy on her back. They both fired at once, the double load of swan shot hitting her in the loins. She collapsed, and crawled into the woods, holding one hand over the mortal wound. The two fishermen then made off with her child.

They sold the boy, and he was sent to England where he was exhibited at several fairs in Poole and other western towns, for an admission price of tuppence. He was named John August, as August was the month in which he was captured. Later he was sent back to Newfoundland, and became the master of a fishing boat at Trinity. But like most Beothucks who tried to live in civilization, he caught tuberculosis. He died at thirty-eight.

Another boy, about seven years of age. captured in June when both his parents were murdered, was taken to Twillingate.

He was named Tom June, and grew up to be a successful fisherman. He was in his early twenties when he lost his life in a drowning accident at Fogo.

These examples of children’s lives being spared were the exception and not the rule. Most fishermen believed in "killing the nits with the lice,” as they used to phrase it. So after shooting a party of Beothuck men and women, they would round up the children and cut their throats. Atrocities of this sort are on the

written record, attested by British naval officers sent on expeditions to Notre Dame Bay during this period.

Several cases of complete indifference to the sufferings of wounded children are recounted in the Liverpool manuscript:

John Moore of Trinity and a hunting party “surprised” a woman and two children in the woods. The woman knelt and exposed her breasts, as was the custom of Beothuck women when giving themselves up to death. The hunters killed her

and wounded the two children, who ran into the bushes and hid. They made a search and found one child, “which died on one of the men's shoulders before they reached the brook.”

Thomas Taylor, a merchant from Bay of Exploits, Richard (Double Dick) Richmond, and William Hooper in July, 1791, went to Charles Brook to hunt Indians, and found a single meotick, as the Beothucks called their birch - bark tents. Two women escaped into the woods, but they shot a man, who was running away with a little boy in his

arms. The man died instantly. The child was hit in the legs but not killed. In the meotick they found a young girl, and later sold her to a merchant at Poole. But “the little wounded boy we left to perish, because we thought he would not recover of his wounds.” The little girl, who was sold to the English merchant, died within a year.

Though most Beothucks were killed singly or in small parties, there were some killings which rank as full massacres. It was the custom of fishermen and trappers, whenever they came upon an Indian

village, first to loot it of everything of value, and then to burn the meoticks, with all their contents. The greatest recorded exploit of this nature was undertaken by two men from Notre Dame Bay, who made a winter journey of more than a hundred miles to destroy the headquarters of the tribe at Red Indian Lake.

They took the Beothuck village completely by surprise, as the people lay asleep in the early morning. More than a hundred men. women and children were driven out on the frozen lake. Except for a few who had snatched up their

sleeping furs as they ran, the Beothucks were stark naked. They retreated into the woods before the musket fire of the two white men, who then loaded a sledge with everything they cared to take from the meoticks, and finished by setting fire to everything that remained. The tribe of naked Indians was left to die of exposure and starvation in the dead of winter.

The largest massacre of Beothucks took place near Hants Harbor, Trinity Bay. There a group of fishermen, armed for hunting, managed to trap a whole tribe of Beothucks, driving them out on a peninsula which juts into the sea. They followed the panic-stricken Indians until they were crowded to the last inch of land, against the salt water, and there proceeded to slaughter them with their guns. Those who rushed into the sea were shot as they tried to swim, and those who knelt and pleaded for mercy were shot as they knelt. The carnage did not stop until they had murdered every man, woman and child. They did not make an exact count of the number killed, but reported it to be “about four hundred.” ■

The fishermen even invented what amounted to a new sort of weapon, especially for Indian-hunting. It consisted of a shotgun loaded with a double charge of powder and a handful of pistol balls. The murderous effect of such a weapon at close range can easily be imagined.

John Peyton Sr. of Twillingate led an expedition up the Exploits River in 1781 and “killed and wounded a great many of the Indians.” They used weapons of the sort described above, Peyton’s own gun being loaded with thirty-six pistol balls. This particular expedition was highly profitable since “we brought away near sixty deerskins and what else we found worth taking.”

The Indians fought back

There is a special little touch of brutality in John Peyton’s own account of this expedition. He refused to say how many people he had killed on the trip, but admitted that he found in one of the meoticks a man so badly wounded that he was unable to stand. A broken steel trap was lying on the floor beside this man. "And when we entered the wigwam the wounded man sat on his breech and defended himself with the remaining part of the trap. I wrested it from him and beat out his brains with it.”

In the early stages of this “war” the Beothucks fought back. They once organized a party of eighty men and descended upon the French fishermen of northern Newfoundland, who had armed a sloopof-war for the express purpose of driving the Beothucks off the coast. At St. Julicn's the Indians found a boat's crew piling fish, and killed seven of them. Cutting off the heads as trophies (the Beothucks seldom took scalps) they crossed the hill into the next cove, where they killed nine more Frenchmen.

Sixteen of the Indians then dressed in the fishermen's clothes, and next day appeared at Croc Harbor. There they found twenty-one men working at their fish, and slew the lot of them. They stuck the thirty-seven heads on poles, and went back to the woods. Not a single Beothuck had been killed in the raid.

But this was the only time they appeared in a large war party. Subsequently they confined themselves to individual acts of retaliation against notorious Indian-hunters. Thomas Rowswell Sr., the leader of numerous Indian-hunts in Notre Dame Bay, was ambushed. His son. John Rowswell. who became a famous Beothuck-hunter in his turn, was also caught and killed, and his head stuck

upon a pole beside his own fishing stage. But another son, Thomas Rowswell Jr., befriended the Beothucks, and was befriended in turn by the Indians, who gave him presents of hunting bows, canoes, and numerous stone artifacts.

So far as is known, the Beothucks never molested any man who had not taken up arms against them first. And in the whole two hundred years of their slow extermination by the whites, they never harmed a white woman or a white child.

Late in the 18th century the Government adopted a “save the Beothucks” policy, but, apart from issuing proclamations, nothing was done until 1800. In that year a reward of fifty pounds sterling was offered to “him that shall bring a Red Indian captive.” The plan was to entertain the captive in St. John's at government expense and then send him home, loaded with presents, and bearing the message of the white man’s newfound good will. It was a plan which had worked well for Cartier a century and a half earlier in the St. Lawrence basin.

Fifty pounds seemed a fortune to the rude trappers of Notre Dame Bay, many of whom had never seen cash in their lives. It was sufficient inducement to send many a party into the woods to hunt live Indians. The net result was merely to add a new incentive to Indian-hunting. No one ever managed to take a Beothuck man alive, but five women were taken at one time or another, and the reward claimed. However, none of those women ever got back to the tribe. One was murdered by her captor on the way back, and the other four died of tuberculosis while in captivity.

Indeed, the government policy of taking captives was made the excuse for killing the last important Beothuck chief and his brother, at a time when their leadership seemed to have halted the tribe's slow march toward extinction. It happened in 1819, when John Peyton Jr., son of the man who beat the Indian s brains out with the steel trap, led an expedition to Red Indian Lake to take captives. Peyton surprised a small group of Indians out on the ice of the lake and managed to overtake one woman and seize her. This happened to be Demasduit, the wife of the chief, Nonosbawsut. 1 he chief tried to rescue his wife, but was stabbed in the back with a bayonet and then shot through the chest. His brother, who also made a gallant rescue attempt, was cut down by a musket ball.

Nonosbawsut was a magnificent, bearded giant of a man. They measured him where he lay dead on the ice-. He was six feet, seven and a half inches tall. His widow died after less than a year in captivity. Peyton and his gang were brought to trial for this murder and abduction, but the jury ruled that they had acted in self - defense. Peyton was appointed a magistrate, held court in Twillingate and lived to a ripe old age as “the first citizen of the north.”

The last Beothucks were killed and captured in 1823, when the tribe was reduced to seventeen. The remnant were starving that winter, and with the approach of spring a small party, consisting of a man and his daughter, his sister and his two nieces, set out for the coast, to give themselves up to the white men, in the hope of receiving food.

On the coast they separated, the father and daughter going one way, the woman and her two daughters another. The man and the girl met two trappers named Curnew and Adams near a place called New Bay. The man approached them in an attitude of supplication. One of them raised his musket and shot the Indian

through the chest with a ball. He collapsed on the snow, and died without a sound.

His daughter then came forward slowly, opening the deerskin robe which covered her breast. She sank to her knees and tore her dress to the waist. She remained in this attitude, eyes turned upward. hands holding back the torn (laps of deerskin, while the two men drew nearer, raised their guns, and shot her through the heart. Like her father, she died on the snow without a sound.

The other three women found a second

hunting party headed by William Cull, a famous Indian-hunter who had discovered that a live Indian was worth a lot more than a dead one. He took them captive and claimed the hundred and fifty pounds reward. The old woman and her elder daughter died that summer. Indeed, they w'ere not far from death w'hen captured by Cull. The younger girl was taken to Twillingate and became a domestic servant in the home of John Peyton Jr., where she lived for five years. This girl was Shananditti, the last of the Beothucks, for the tw'elvc people left in

the woods had completely disappeared.

In 1828, when Shananditti was dying of tuberculosis, she was taken to St. John’s. There, between bouts of illness, she recorded what she knew of the history and mythology of her people. She died in hospital in the spring of 1829. Though, like all her people, she had lived and died a pagan, she was nevertheless buried in the Church of England graveyard on the south side of St. John’s.

Her grave was later dug up to make w'ay for a new road, and even her bones were lost. ^