Chapter 2: Two Models of Commercial and Diplomatic Encounters—Wabanaki and Beothuk

This chapter explores aspects of the encounter between neighbouring Indigenous peoples on the Atlantic coast and Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the Beothuk and the member nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy, we can see different strategies for engaging with foreigners and different contexts in which they did so. One irrefutable lesson in this comparison is that the meeting between Indigenous peoples and Europeans did not follow a single trajectory.

The Wabanaki World

Everything known about the Wabanaki peoples ca. 1500 indicates a network of rich cultures based on abundant natural resources. This confederacy of related Algonquian-speaking peoples—including the Abenaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq, and Wolastoqiyik (a.k.a. Maliseet)—emerged in the 1600s, bringing together complementary economies specializing primarily in fisheries, farming, and hunting. Theirs was a large territory, stretching from what is now the state of Maine through the whole of the Maritimes, along the south shore of the St. Lawrence through the Gaspé Peninsula, and across Cabot Strait to the South Coast and the central parts of Taqamkuk (a.k.a. Ktaqamk, Newfoundland) as well. The influence of the Wabanaki Confederacy was felt hundreds of kilometres from their heartland as a trading network and, after contact, as a persistent military force. A culture of seasonal mobility—the sort of movement that expanded the range of resources that might be tapped as well as social and political interactions—defined the Wabanakiak world.

While most members of these related communities foraged for a wide variety of foods, their economic order left little to chance. Inland hunting communities made use of large controlled burns to create open spaces that would attract game. Outer shore populations specialized in open-sea fishing (including for swordfish) and sea mammal hunts. Some communities in the southwest of the region were farmers of the “three sisters.” While the Iroquoian peoples specialized in agriculture and traded to outsiders for meat and fur, the Wabanaki Confederacy was much more self-sufficient and included complimentary resource strategies.

Of the Wabanakiak peoples, the Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, and Wolastoqiyik have figured largest in Canadian history. They were very active participants in trade in their principal territories. They also played a key role in the successes and defense of the French colony, Acadia, and remained a thorn in the side of British imperial efforts in the region. They were not the first peoples in the Northeast to encounter Europeans, but they may, in all likelihood, claim the longest relationship. Basque whaling and sealing expeditions first arrived in the region in the 1500s; they were frequently intercepted by Mi’kmaq fleets setting out from Unima’ki (a.k.a. Cape Breton). Trade inevitably occurred. It would take nearly two hundred years before the Wabanaki would begin to seek formal agreements with newcomers. Their territory was bisected by colonial and then national boundaries, but their anti-British/pro-revolutionary position in the 1770s and ’80s means that they continue to straddle imaginary geo-political lines dividing Canada and the United States.

The Beothuk harvested discarded metal—such as nails—left behind on their beaches by touring European fishing fleets, and repurposed it into fishing, sewing, and other implements. Doing so meant they had little need to engage in a structured fur trade. Source: Beothuk Tools, metal, IMG2009-0063-0140-Dm, Canadian Museum of History, accessed January 15, 2019,

The Beothuk Saga

The Beothuk are best known to modern scholars and the public at large as a disappeared population and culture, which does an injustice to their millennia-long occupation of Newfoundland. They were resourceful and tough. We know, for example, that they shrugged off the hazards of open-ocean canoeing to reach tiny Funk Island, where they could harvest large quantities of bird flesh, eggs, and feathers annually.[1] We know, as well, that their spiritual beliefs were closely tied to bird symbols and artifacts, that they buried their dead on offshore islets—even if they had to carry corpses out of the Newfoundland interior in order to do so—and that they didn’t last for more than fifteen hundred years in this territory by living hand-to-mouth. They did well, feasted, and celebrated. According to one affecting Spanish report, “they laugh considerably.”[2]

Having said that, the Beothuk fared poorly after contact, and poorly at the hands of historians. The source of the descriptor “red Indians” (so called because of their use of body paint), the Beothuk never integrated into a trans-Atlantic trade network and were viciously persecuted by Europeans. The last known individuals who self-identified as Beothuk died in the early nineteenth century. The archaeological record indicates a retreat from the coast beginning in the eighteenth century as European fishing and land crews competed with Beothuk for foreshore positions and resources. Around Trinity Bay, in the rather chilling words of one study, “we have evidence for a vibrant Beothuk presence in antiquity, overlaid by scorched earth and European artifacts.”[3]

Thoroughly dehumanized in the eyes of European fishing fleets in the seventeenth century, the Beothuk were hunted for decades, despite imperial injunctions against the practice. Representations of the Beothuk reflect the function they served in settler society’s emergent narrative: bloodthirsty and treacherous savages, barbarians, stealthy, reclusive, primitive. These storylines were used to justify colonial violence and Indigenous dispossession and to legitimize colonial settlement. At the same time, foreign observers from the sixteenth century on were often struck by Beothuk ingenuity, technological skill, and strategic ability. These were, after all, a people for whom the fur trade held no appeal: they could obtain iron for free from seasonally-abandoned cod drying racks, and taught themselves how to cold-hammer and the basic blacksmithing skills needed to fabricate tools and weapons from salvaged metal.

Beothuk history is as important and revelatory for its uses and misuses as it is for its detail. A “shadowy people” as far as European intruders are concerned, their near-invisibility became an asset to storytellers among the newcomers. They could be anything that anyone wanted to project onto them. No Euro-North American spent as much time in close contact with a member of the Beothuk nation as W. E. Cormack. He was, depending on one’s perspective, Shanawdithit’s host or captor in St. John’s. And yet, Cormack allegedly thought the Beothuk were Scandinavians. This, and the subsequent discovery of abandoned Viking settlements at L’Anse aux Meadows, helped sustain for the better part of two centuries the myth of Beothuk as non-Indigenous peoples. And, of course, if they weren’t Indigenous then—the logic runs—they couldn’t have been dispossessed. This kind of argument or discourse is an example of what has been called “moves to innocence,” a strategy for exculpation of settler society.[4] Who the Beothuk were, what they did, how they experienced contact, and why they eventually disappeared are important and worthy of study. But it is to the uses of the Beothuk that one is constantly drawn as well.

Widely-read non-academic histories such as Barbara Whitby’s The Last of the Beothuk (its title a play on the much more famous The Last of the Mohicans) position the last known Beothuk—a young woman named Shawnadithit—as a merciful and forgiving Christ-figure who carries the stories of her people and the sins of her oppressors off into eternity. Colonist handwringing inevitably follows such accounts. Other versions tend to caricature the Beothuk as “archaic,” a stunted branch of Indigenous cultures, one that—by dint of its insularity and challenging environment—was set up for failure.[5] An 1848 play entitled Ottawah, the Last Chief of the Red Indians of Newfoundland, offers an example from popular (Euro) culture of the ways in which European culpability in the Beothuk disaster has been dodged. The story pits the Mi’kmaq against the Beothuk, with a young couple caught in between. It has been likened to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it has affinities as well with Romeo and Juliet (and, anachronistically, West Side Story) in that it concludes with the tragic death of the two lovers. What is significant about this play is that it casts the Mi’kmaq as foreigners in Newfoundland and the cause of the Beothuk extinction.[6] This construction of the narrative shifts the blame away from the Europeans, whose depredations against the Indigenous people of Newfoundland and sanctioned murders were continuous features of imperial intrusion. This theme of Mi’kmaq culpability and European innocence persisted in popular discourse throughout the twentieth century.

Did the Beothuk disappear? Mi’kmaq accounts suggest that some married into the Mi’kmaq population along Newfoundland’s south shore and in the interior.[7] Similar connections seem to have been forged between the Beothuk and the Innu (a.k.a. Montagnais and Naskapi), the third Indigenous peoples with a toehold on the island of Newfoundland. The language and way of life may have ceased rather sharply, but the genetic legacy of the Beothuk percolates on.


The western Atlantic before 1700 was predominantly an Indigenous foreshore, and parts of it remained dominated by Indigenous peoples’ fleets for much longer. Whether whaling, fishing, or hunting seals, auks, and otters, the Inuit, Innu, Beothuk, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and their neighbours plunged nets and spears into the rich inshore waters and harvested food across the “domain of islands.” Whatever European empires may have thought or claimed, the French and British were not much more than guests or interlopers in this realm until the eighteenth century. In the hundred years that followed, the Mi’kmaq and the Beothuk in particular would confront imperialism and colonialism in different ways and with different outcomes. More of those themes are taken up in later chapters.

Just as Eastern Woodlands peoples were coming to terms with what was, by 1700, an indisputably permanent European presence, the peoples of the far west were beginning to feel a change in the commercial climate as well. The next chapter considers the trading realm of the Plains, parklands, and lowlands, and explores some of the ways in which the many and varied Indigenous peoples of the region interacted from the 1500s to the 1800s.

Additional Resources

The following resources may supplement your understanding of the topics addressed in this chapter:

Augustine, Stephen. “Negotiating for Life and Survival.” In Living Treaties: Narrating Mi’kmaw Treaty Relations, edited by Marie Battiste, 16-23. Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press, 2016.

Cook, Peter. “Dr. Peter Cook Question 2 – Depiction of Aboriginal People in Early Travel Writing.” TRU, Open Learning, November 17, 2015. Video, 5:01.

Gespe’gewa’gi Mi’gmawei Mawiomi. Nta’tugwaqanminen: Our Story: Evolution of the Gespe’gewa’gi Mi’gmaq. Black Point, NS: Fernwood, 2016.

Gilbert, William. “Beothuk-European Contact in the 16th Century: A Re-evaluation of the Documentary Evidence.” Acadiensis XXXX, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2011): 24–44.

Nicholas, Andrea Bear. “The Role of Colonial Artists in the Dispossession and Displacement of the Maliseet, 1790s–1850s.” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue des études canadiennes 49, no. 2 (2015): 25–86.

Pastore, Ralph T. “The Collapse of the Beothuk World.” Acadiensis XX, no. 1 (Autumn 1990): 52–71.

Patterson, Stephen. “Eighteenth-Century Treaties: The Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy Experience.” Native Studies Review 18, no. 1 (2009): 25–52.

Prins, Harald E. L. “Children of Gluskap: Wabanaki Indians on the Eve of the European Invasion.” In American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega, edited by Emerson W. Baker, Edwin A. Churchill, Richard D’Abate, Kristine L. Jones, Victor A. Conrad, and Harald E. L. Prins, 95–117. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Upton, L. F. S. “The Extermination of the Beothuk of Newfoundland.” Canadian Historical Review LVIII, no. 2 (June 1977): 133–53.

Walls, Martha Elizabeth. No Need of a Chief for this Band: The Maritime Mi’kmaq and Federal Electoral Legislation, 1899–1951. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010. See esp. pp. 35–37.

Wicken, William, and Michael Lanphier. Mi’kmaq Treaties on Trial: History, Land, and Donald Marshall Junior. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

  1. Todd Kristensen, “Wings and a Prayer,” Canada's History 94, no. 1 (February/March 2014): 29–34.
  2. L.F.S. Upton, “The Extermination of the Beothuk of Newfoundland,” Canadian Historical Review LVIII, no. 2 (June 1977): 136.
  3. Donald H. Holly Jr., Christopher B. Wolff, and John C. Erwin, “Before and After the Fire: Archaeological Investigations at a Little Passage/Beothuk Encampment in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland,” Canadian Journal of Archaeology 39, no. 1 (2015): 24.
  4. Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1–40.
  5. Donald H. Holly Jr., “A Historiography of an Ahistoricity: On the Beothuk Indians,” History and Anthropology 14, no. 2 (June 2003): 127.
  6. University of Guelph, Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project, “Ottawah, the Last Chief of the Red Indians of Newfoundland,” accessed July 4, 2017, a_ottawah.cfm.
  7. Donald Holly, Christopher Wolff, and John Erwin, “Before and After the Fire: Archaeological Investigations at a Little Passage/Beothuk Encampment in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland,” Canadian Journal of Archaeology/Journal Canadien d’Archéologie 39 (2015): 1–30. See also Chief Mi’sel Joe and Christopher Aylward, “Beothuk and Mi’kmaq: An Interview with Chief Mi’sel Joe,” in Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk, ed. Fiona Polack (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 117–32.


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Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada Copyright © by John Douglas Belshaw; Sarah Nickel; and Dr. Chelsea Horton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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