March 13, 2016–Shanawdithit, Beothuk Mapmaker
Shanawdithit was the last known living member of the Beothuk people of Newfoundland, Canada. She was born in 1801 near a large lake, at a time when the Beothuk were in decline and crisis.
Beothuk lands and way of life had dwindled due to European invasion, sickness and conflict. In Shanawdithit’s time her people had been cut off from the sea, which was their main food source, and European trappers considered them theives.
As a young child, Shanawdithit witnessed all of this first hand, and it is largely through her, that any knowledge of how the Beothuk were and what happened to them has survived. Shanawdithit, herself, was shot by a white trapper while washing food in a nearby river. She survived the wound.
In 1819, Shanawdithit’s aunt, Demasduwit was captured by the British and taken away. Her body was later returned, but the Beothuks had already fled their homes. In 1823 a white trapped named William Cull captured her, along with her mother and three sisters. Her father died in a desperate attempt to rescue them when he fell through the ice. With most of her extended family dead, William Cull took the women to St. John’s Newfoundland, to give them over to the British. It was there that Shanawdithit’s mother and sisters died of tuberculosis.
At St John’s, the British renamed her Nancy April, and took her to Exploits Island where she worked as a servant and learned some English. Beginning in September 1828 she lived for some time in the household of William Eppes Cormack, a Scots emigrant, who founded the Beothuk Institution to study the tribe and drew funds from it to help support Shanawdithit.
It was during this time that she took up her pencil and sketch book. Shanawdithit made drawings of her memories and life among her people. She also made maps detailing the history of the Beothuks as she had experienced it. The maps show a geography of pain and loss and disappearance.
Cormack recorded much of what she told him about her people and added notes to her drawings. Shanawdithit stayed in Cormack’s care until early 1829. The government hoped she would become a bridge to her people, but she refused to join any expedition, saying the Beothuks would kill anyone who had been with the Europeans.
Cormack eventually left Newfoundland and returned to Great Britain taking many of his materials on the Beothuks. Shanawdithit was cared for by the Newfoundland attorney general, James Simms. She spent the last nine months of her life at his home, having been in frail health for a number of years and in 1829 Shanawdithit died in a St John’s hospital after her long fight with tuberculosis.
And of course, there is a final insult to be endured forever. St John’s hospital gave Shanawdithit’s skull to the Royal College of Physicians in London for study. The rest of her body was buried in the graveyard of St. Mary the Virgin Church on the south side of St. John’s, Newfoundland. In 1938 the Royal College of Physicians gave her skull to the Royal College of Surgeons. It was then lost in the bombing of London in World War II.
Shanawdithit is widely known among Newfoundlanders. In 1999 The Telegram readers voted her the most notable aboriginal person of the past 1,000 years.