The Algonquian-speaking Beothuks, who reached Newfoundland in about 200 AD, were seminomadic, spending the summer on the coast and moving inland during the winter. They were the first North American Aboriginal peoples to be contacted by English explorers, who came to describe them as “Red Indians” from their habit of covering themselves with red ochre, perhaps as some sort of fertility ritual or simply to keep the flies off. Neither side seemed to need or want anything from the other, and even after three hundred years of coexistence, hardly anything was known about the Beothuks. As settlers spread north from the Avalon Peninsula in the eighteenth century, they began to encroach on the Beothuks’ ancient hunting grounds, pushing them inland. By the early 1800s, settlers’ attitudes had hardened and the Beothuks who hadn’t succumbed to European diseases were casually slaughtered. Some white settlers organized expeditions into the interior to catch one or two alive, but the last seen member of the tribe, a young woman named Shanawdithit, died of tuberculosis aged 29 in 1829. She spent the last years of her life in the protective custody of the attorney general in St John’s, and it was here that she built a small model of a Beothuk canoe and made ten simple drawings of her people and their customs. No other Beothuks were ever found; she is considered the last of her people.

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