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´╗┐Title: Report of Mr. W. E. Cormack's journey in search of the Red Indians in Newfoundland
Author: Cormack, W. E. (William Epps), 1796-1868
Language: English
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Read before the Boeothick Institution at St John's, Newfoundland

Pursuant to special summons, a meeting of this Institution was held at
St John's on the 12th day of January 1828; the Honourable A.W.
Desbarres, Vice-Patron, in the chair. The Honourable Chairman stated,
that the primary motive which led to the formation of the Institution,
was the desire of opening a communication with, and promoting the
civilization of, the Red Indians of Newfoundland; and of procuring, if
possible, an authentic history of that unhappy race of people, in
order that their language, customs and pursuits, might be contrasted
with those of other tribes of Indians and nations;--that, in following
up the chief object of the institution, it was anticipated that much
information would be obtained respecting the natural productions of
the island; the interior of which is less known than any other of the
British possessions abroad. Their excellent President, keeping all
these objects in view, had permitted nothing worthy of research to
escape his scrutiny, and consequently a very wide field of information
was now introduced to their notice, all apparently highly interesting
and useful to society, if properly cultivated. He was aware of their
very natural anxiety to hear from the president an outline of his
recent expedition, and he would occupy their attention farther, only
by observing, that the purposes of the present meeting would be best
accomplished by taking into consideration the different subjects
recommended to them in the president's report, and passing such
resolutions as might be considered necessary to govern the future
proceedings of the Institution.

The President, W.E. Cormack, Esq. then laid the following Statement
before the meeting.

Having so recently returned, I will now only lay before you a brief
outline of my expedition in search of the Boeothicks or Red Indians,
confining my remarks exclusively to its primary object. A detailed
report of the journey will be prepared, and submitted to the
Institution, whenever I shall have leisure to arrange the other
interesting materials which have been collected.

My party consisted of three Indians, whom I procured from among the
other different tribes, viz. an intelligent and able man of the
Abenakie tribe, from Canada; an elderly Mountaineer from Labrador; and
an adventurous young Micmack, a native of this island, together with
myself. It was difficult to obtain men fit for the purpose, and the
trouble attending on this prevented my entering on the expedition a
month earlier in the season. It was my intention to have commenced our
search at White Bay, which is nearer the northern extremity of the
island than where we did, and to have travelled southward; but the
weather not permitting to carry my party thither by water, after
several days delay, I unwillingly changed my line of route.

On the 31st of October 1828 [Sic: 30th of October 1827] last, we
entered the country at the mouth of the River Exploits, on the north
side, at what is called the Northern Arm. We took a north-westerly
direction to lead us to Hall's Bay, which place we reached through an
almost uninterrupted forest, over a hilly country, in eight days. This
tract comprehends the country interior from New Bay, Badger Bay, Seal
Bay, &c.; these being minor bays, included in Green or Notre Dame Bay,
at the north-east part of the island, and well known to have been
always heretofore the summer residence of the Red Indians.

On the fourth day after our departure, at the east end of Badger
Bay-Great Lake, at a _portage_ known by the name of the Indian Path,
we found traces made by the Red Indians, evidently in the spring or
summer of the preceding year. Their party had had two canoes; and here
was a _canoe-rest_, on which the daubs of red-ochre, and the roots of
trees used to fasten or tie it together appeared fresh. A canoe-rest
is simply a few beams, supported horizontally, about five feet from
the ground, by perpendicular posts. A party with two canoes, when
descending from the interior to the sea-coast, through such a part of
the country as this, where there are troublesome portages, leave one
canoe resting, bottom up, on this kind of frame, to protect it from
injury by the weather, until their return. Among other things which
lay strewed about here, were a spear-shaft, eight feet in length,
recently made and ochred; parts of old canoes, fragments of their
skin-dresses, &c. For some distance around, the trunks of many of the
birch, and of that species of spruce pine called here the Var (_Pinus
balsamifera_), had been rinded; these people using the inner part of
the bark of that kind of tree for food. Some of the cuts in the trees
with the axe were evidently made the preceding year. Besides these, we
were elated by other encouraging signs. The traces left by the Red
Indians are so peculiar, that we were confident those we saw here were
made by them.

This spot has been a favourite place of settlement with these people.
It is situated at the commencement of a _portage_, which forms a
communication by a path between the sea-coast at Badger Bay, about
eight miles to the north-east, and a chain of lakes extending westerly
and southerly from hence, and discharging themselves by a rivulet into
the River Exploits, about thirty miles from its mouth. A path also
leads from this place to the lakes, near New Bay, to the eastward.
Here are the remains of one of their villages, where the vestiges of
eight or ten winter _mamateeks_ or wigwams, each intended to contain
from six to eighteen or twenty people, are distinctly seen close
together. Besides these, there are the remains of a number of summer
wigwams. Every winter wigwam has close by it a small square-mouthed or
oblong pit, dug into the earth, about four feet deep, to preserve
their stores, &c. in. Some of these pits were lined with birch-rind.
We discovered also in this village the remains of a vapour-bath. The
method used by the Boeothicks to raise the steam, was by pouring water
on large stones, made very hot for the purpose, in the open air, by
burning a quantity of wood around them; after this process, the ashes
were removed, and a hemispherical frame-work, closely covered with
skins, to exclude the external air, was fixed over the stones. The
patient then crept in under the skins, taking with him a
birch-rind-bucket of water, and a small bark-dish to dip it out,
which, by pouring on the stones, enabled him to raise the steam at

At Hall's Bay we got no useful information from the three (and the
only) English families settled there. Indeed we could hardly have
expected any; for these, and such people, have been the unchecked and
ruthless destroyers of the tribe, the remnant of which we were in
search of. After sleeping one night in a _house_, we again struck into
the country to the westward.

In five days we were on the high lands south of White Bay, and in
sight of the high lands east of the Bay of Islands, on the west coast
of Newfoundland. The country south and west of us was low and flat,
consisting of marshes, extending in a southerly direction more than
thirty miles. In this direction lies the famous Red Indians' Lake. It
was now near the middle of November, and the winter had commenced
pretty severely in the interior. The country was everywhere covered
with snow, and, for some days past, we had walked over the small ponds
on the ice. The summits of the hills on which we stood had snow on
them, in some places many feet deep. The deer were migrating from the
rugged and dreary mountains in the north to the low mossy barrens and
more woody parts in the south; and we inferred, that if any of the Red
Indians had been at White Bay during the past summer, they might be at
that time stationed about the borders of the low tract of country
before us, at the _deer-passes_, or were employed somewhere else in
the interior, killing deer for winter provision. At these passes,
which are particular places in the migration lines of path, such as
the extreme ends of, and straights in, many of the large lakes,--the
foot of valleys between high or rugged mountains,--fords in the large
rivers, and the like,--the Indians kill great numbers of deer with
very little trouble, during their migrations. We looked out for two
days from the summits of the hills adjacent, trying to discover the
smoke from the camps of the Red Indians; but in vain. These hills
command a very extensive view of the country in every direction.

We now determined to proceed towards the Red Indians' Lake, sanguine
that, at that known rendezvous, we would find the objects of our

Travelling over such a country, except when winter has fairly set in,
is truly laborious.

In about ten days we got a glimpse of this beautifully majestic and
splendid sheet of water. The ravages of fire, which we saw in the
woods for the last two days, indicated that man had been near. We
looked down on the lake, from the hills at the northern extremity,
with feelings of anxiety and admiration:--No canoe could be discovered
moving on its placid surface in the distance. We were the first
Europeans who had seen it in an unfrozen state, for the three former
parties who had visited it before, were here in the winter, when its
waters were frozen and covered over with snow. They had reached it
from below, by way of the River Exploits, on the ice. We approached
the lake with hope and caution; but found to our mortification that
the Red Indians had deserted it for some years past. My party had been
so excited, so sanguine, and so determined to obtain an interview of
some kind with these people, that, on discovering, from appearances
every where around us, that the Red Indians--the terror of the
Europeans as well as the other Indian inhabitants of Newfoundland--no
longer existed, the spirits of one and all of us were very deeply
affected. The old mountaineer was particularly overcome. There were
every where indications that this had long been the central and
undisturbed rendezvous of the tribe, where they had enjoyed peace and
security. But these primitive people had abandoned it, after having
been tormented by parties of Europeans during the last eighteen [Sic:
thirteen] years. Fatal rencounters had on these occasions
unfortunately taken place.

We spent several melancholy days wandering on the borders of the east
end of the lake, surveying the various remains of what we now
contemplated to have been an unoffending and cruelly extirpated
people. At several places, by the margin of the lake, are small
clusters of winter and summer wigwams in ruins. One difference, among
others, between the Boeothick wigwams and those of the other Indians
is, that in most of the former there are small hollows, like nests,
dug in the earth around the fire-place, one for each person to sit in.
These hollows are generally so close together, and also so close to
the fire-place, and to the sides of the wigwam, that I think it
probable these people have been accustomed to sleep in a sitting
position. There was one wooden building constructed for drying and
smoking venison in, still perfect; also a small log-house, in a
dilapidated condition, which we took to have been once a store-house.
The wreck of a large handsome birch-rind canoe, about twenty-two feet
in length, comparatively new, and certainly very little used, lay
thrown up among the bushes at the beach. We supposed that the violence
of a storm had rent it in the way it was found, and that the people
who were in it had perished; for the iron nails, of which there was no
want, all remained in it. Had there been any survivors, nails being
much prized by these people, they never having held intercourse with
Europeans, such an article would most likely have been taken out for
use again. All the birch trees in the vicinity of the lake had been
rinded, and many of them and of the spruce fir or var (_Pinus
balsamifera_, Canadian balsam tree) had the bark taken off, to use the
inner part of it for food, as noticed before.

Their wooden repositories for the dead are what are in the most
perfect state of preservation. These are of different constructions,
it would appear, according to the character or rank of the persons
entombed. In one of them, which resembled a hut, ten feet by eight or
nine, and four or five feet high in the centre, floored with squared
poles, the roof covered with rinds of trees, and in every way well
secured against the weather inside and the intrusion of wild beasts,
there were two grown persons laid out at full length on the floor, the
bodies wrapped round with deer-skins. One of these bodies appeared to
have been placed here not longer ago than five or six years. We
thought there were children laid in here also. On first opening this
building, by removing the posts which formed the ends, our curiosity
was raised to the highest pitch; but what added to our surprise, was
the discovery of a white deal coffin, containing a skeleton neatly
shrouded in white muslin. After a long pause of conjecture how such a
thing existed here, the idea of _Mary March_ occurred to one of the
party, and the whole mystery was at once explained[B].

In this cemetery were deposited a variety of articles, in some
instances the property, in others the representations of the property
and utensils, and of the achievements, of the deceased. There were two
small wooden images of a man and woman, no doubt meant to represent
husband and wife; a small doll, which we supposed to represent a child
(for _Mary March_ had to leave her only child here, which died two
days after she was taken): several small models of their canoes; two
small models of boats; an iron axe; a bow and quiver of arrows were
placed by the side of _Mary March's_ husband; and two fire-stones
(radiated iron pyrites, from which they produce fire, by striking them
together) lay at his head; there were also various kinds of culinary
utensils, neatly made, of birch-rind, and ornamented; and many other
things, of some of which we did not know the use or meaning.

Another mode of sepulture which we saw here was, where the body of the
deceased had been wrapped in birch rind, and with his property, placed
on a sort of scaffold about four feet and a-half from the ground. The
scaffold was formed of four posts, about seven feet high, fixed
perpendicularly in the ground, to sustain a kind of crib, five feet
and a-half in length by four in breadth, with a floor made of small
squared beams, laid close together horizontally, and on which the body
and property rested.

A third mode was, when the body, bent together, and wrapped in
birch-rind, was enclosed in a kind of box on the ground. The box was
made of small squared posts, laid on each other horizontally, and
notched at the corners, to make them meet close; it was about four
feet by three, and two and a-half feet deep, and well lined with
birch-rind, to exclude the weather from the inside. The body lay on
its right side.

A fourth, and the most common mode of burying among these people, has
been, to wrap the body in birch-rind, and cover it over with a heap of
stones, on the surface of the earth, in some retired spot; sometimes
the body, thus wrapped up, is put a foot or two under the surface, and
the spot covered with stones; in one place, where the ground was sandy
and soft, they appeared to have been buried deeper, and no stones
placed over the graves.

These people appear to have always shewn great respect for their dead;
and the most remarkable remains of them commonly observed by
Europeans, at the sea-coast, are their burying-places. These are at
particular chosen spots; and it is well known that they have been in
the habit of bringing their dead from a distance to them. With their
women, they bury only their clothes.

On the north side of the lake, opposite the River Exploits, are the
extremities of two deer fences, about half a mile apart, where they
lead to the water. It is understood that they diverge many miles in
north-westerly directions. The Red Indians make these fences to lead
and scare the deer to the lake, during the periodical migration of
these animals; the Indians being stationed looking out, when the deer
get into the water to swim across, the lake being narrow at this end,
they attack and kill the animals with spears out of their canoes. In
this way they secure their winter provisions before the severity of
that season sets in.

There were other old remains of different kinds peculiar to these
people met with about the lake.

One night we encamped on the foundation of an old Red Indian wigwam,
on the extremity of a point of land which juts out into the lake, and
exposed to the view of the whole country around. A large fire at night
is the life and soul of such a party as ours, and when it blazed up at
times, I could not help observing, that two of my Indians evinced
uneasiness and want of confidence in things around, as if they thought
themselves usurpers on the Red Indian territory. From time immemorial
none of the Indians of the other tribes had ever encamped near this
lake fearlessly, and, as we had now done, in the very centre of such a
country; the lake and territory adjacent having been always considered
to belong exclusively to the Red Indians, and to have been occupied by
them. It had been our invariable practice hitherto to encamp near
hills, and be on their summits by the dawn of day, to try to discover
the morning smoke ascending from the Red Indians' camps; and, to
prevent the discovery of ourselves, we extinguished our own fire
always some length of time before day-light.

Our only and frail hope now left of seeing the Red Indians lay on the
banks of the River Exploits, on our return to the sea-coast.

The Red Indians' Lake discharges itself about three or four miles from
its north-east end, and its waters from the River Exploits. From the
lake to the sea-coast is considered about seventy miles; and down this
noble river the steady perseverance and intrepidity of my Indians
carried me on rafts in four days, to accomplish which otherwise, would
have required, probably, two weeks. We landed at various places on
both banks of the river on our way down, but found no traces of the
Red Indians so recent as those seen at the portage at Badger Bay-Great
Lake, towards the beginning of our excursion. During our descent, we
had to construct new rafts at the different waterfalls. Sometimes we
were carried down the rapids at the rate of ten miles an hour or more,
with considerable risk of destruction to the whole party, for we were
always together on one raft.

What arrests the attention most while gliding down the stream, is the
extent of the Indian fences to entrap the deer. They extend from the
lake downwards, continuous, on the banks of the river at least thirty
miles. There are openings left here and there in them, for the animals
to go through and swim across the river, and at these places the
Indians are stationed, and kill them in the water with spears, out of
their canoes, as at the lake. Here, then, connecting these fences with
those on the north-west side of the lake, is at least forty miles of
country, easterly and westerly, prepared to intercept all the deer
that pass that way in their periodical migrations. It was melancholy
to contemplate the gigantic, yet feeble efforts of a whole primitive
nation, in their anxiety to provide subsistence, forsaken and going to

There must have been hundreds of the Red Indians, and that not many
years ago, to have kept up these fences and ponds. As their numbers
were lessened so was their ability to keep them up for the purposes
intended; and now the deer pass the whole line unmolested.

We infer, that the few of these people who yet survive, have taken
refuge in some sequestered spot, still in the northern part of the
island, and where they can procure deer to subsist on.

On the 29th November we were again returned to the mouth of the River
Exploits, in thirty days after our departure from thence, after having
made a complete circuit of about 200 miles in the Red Indian

       *       *       *       *       *

I have now stated generally the result of my excursion, avoiding, for
the present, entering into any detail. The materials collected on
this, as well as on my excursion across the interior a few years ago,
and on other occasions, put me in possession of a general knowledge of
the natural condition and productions of Newfoundland; and, as a
member of an institution formed to protect the aboriginal inhabitants
of the country in which we live, and to prosecute inquiry into the
moral character of man in his primitive state, I can, at this early
stage of our institution, assert, trusting to nothing vague, that we
already possess more information concerning these people than has been
obtained during the two centuries and a-half in which Newfoundland has
been in the possession of Europeans. But it is to be lamented that
now, when we have taken up the cause of a barbarously treated people,
so few should remain to reap the benefit of our plans for their
civilization. The institution and its supporters will agree with me,
that, after the unfortunate circumstances attending past encounters
between the Europeans and the Red Indians, it is best now to employ
Indians belonging to the other tribes to be the medium of beginning
the intercourse we have in view; and indeed I have already chosen
three of the most intelligent men from among the others met with in
Newfoundland to follow up my search.

In conclusion, I congratulate the institution on the acquisition of
several ingenious articles, the manufacture of the _Boeothicks_, some
of which we had the good fortune to discover on our recent
excursion;--models of their canoes, bows and arrows, spears of
different kinds, &c. and also a complete dress worn by that people.
Their mode of kindling fire is not only original, but as far as we at
present know, is peculiar to the tribe. These articles, together with
a short vocabulary of their language consisting of 200 to 300 words,
which I have been enabled to collect, prove the Boeothicks to be a
distinct tribe from any hitherto discovered in North America. One
remarkable characteristic of their language, and in which it resembles
those of Europe more than any other Indian languages do, with which we
have had an opportunity of comparing it,--is its abounding in
diphthongs. In my detailed report, I would propose to have plates of
these articles, and also of the like articles used by other tribes of
Indians, that a comparative idea may be formed of them; and, when the
Indian female _Shawnawdithit_ arrives in St John's, I would recommend
that a correct likeness of her be taken, and be preserved in the
records of the institution. One of the specimens of mineralogy which
we found in our excursion, was a block of what is called _Labrador
Felspar_, nearly four one-half feet in length, by about three feet in
breadth and thickness. This is the largest piece of that beautiful
rock yet discovered any where. Our subsistence in the interior was
entirely animal food, deer and beavers, which we shot.

       *       *       *       *       *

"_Resolved_,--That the measures recommended in the president's report
be agreed to; and that the three men, Indians of the Canadian and
Mountaineer tribes, be placed upon the establishment of this
institution, to be employed under the immediate direction and control
of the president; and that they be allowed for their services such a
sum of money as the president may consider a fair and reasonable
compensation: That it be the endeavour of this institution to collect
every useful information respecting the natural productions and
resources of this island, and, from time to time, to publish the same
in its reports: That the instruction of _Shawnawdithit_ would be much
accelerated by bringing her to St John's, &c.: That the proceedings of
the institution, since its establishment, be laid before his Majesty's
Secretary of State for the Colonial Department, by the president, on
his arrival in England.

(Signed) "A.W. des BARRES, Chairman and Vice-Patron."


[Footnote A: Since my return, I learn from the captive Red Indian
woman _Shawnawdithit_, that the vapour-bath is chiefly used by old
people, and for rheumatic affections.

_Shanawdithit_ is the survivor of three Red Indian females, who were
taken by, or rather who gave themselves up, exhausted with hunger, to
some English furriers, about five years ago, in Notre Dame Bay. She is
the only one of that tribe in the hands of the English, and the only
one that has ever lived so long among them. It appears extraordinary,
and it is to be regretted, that this woman has not been taken care of,
nor noticed before, in a manner which the peculiar and interesting
circumstances connected with her tribe and herself would have led us
to expect.]

[Footnote B: It should be remarked here, that Mary March, so called
from the name of the month in which she was taken, was the Red Indian
female who was captured and carried away by force from this place by
an armed party of English people, nine or ten in number, who came up
here in the month of March 1809.[Sic: 1819] The local government
authorities at that time did not foresee the result of offering a
reward to _bring a Red Indian to them_. Her husband was cruelly shot,
after nobly making several attempts, single-handed, to rescue her from
the captors, in defiance of their fire-arms and fixed bayonets. His
tribe built this cemetery for him, on the foundation of his own
wigwam, and his body is one of those now in it. The following winter,
Captain Buchan was sent to the River Exploits, by order of the local
government of Newfoundland, to take back this woman to the lake where
she was captured, and, if possible, at the same time, to open a
friendly intercourse with her tribe. But she died on board Captain
B.'s vessel, at the mouth of the river. Captain B., however, took up
her body to the lake; and not meeting with any of her people, left it
where they were afterwards likely to meet with it. It appears the
Indians were this winter encamped on the banks of the River Exploits,
and observed Captain B.'s party passing up the river on the ice. They
retired from their encampments in consequence; and, some weeks
afterwards, went by a circuitous route to the lake, to ascertain what
the party had been doing there. They found _Mary March's_ body, and
removed it from where Captain B. had left it to where it now lies, by
the side of her husband.

With the exception of Captain Buchan's first expedition, by order of
the local government of Newfoundland, in the winter of 1810, [Sic:
1815] to endeavour to open a friendly intercourse with the Red
Indians, the two parties just mentioned are the only two we know of
that had ever before been up to the Red Indian Lake. Captain B. at
that time succeeded in forcing an interview with the principal
encampment of these people. All of the tribe that remained at that
period were then at the Great Lake, divided into parties, and in their
winter encampments, at different places in the woods on the margin of
the lake. Hostages were exchanged; but Captain B. had not been absent
from the Indians two hours, in his return to a depot left by him at a
short distance down the river, to take up additional presents for
them, when the want of confidence of these people in the whites
evinced itself. A suspicion spread among them that he had gone down to
bring up a reinforcement of men to take them all prisoners to the
sea-coast; and they resolved immediately to break up their encampment
and retire farther into the country, and alarm and join the rest of
their tribe, who were all at the western parts of the lake. To prevent
their proceedings being known, they killed and then cut off the heads
of the two English hostages; and, on the same afternoon on which
Captain B. had left them, they were in full retreat across the lake,
with baggage, children, &c. The whole of them afterwards spent the
remainder of the winter together, at a place twenty to thirty miles to
the south-west, on the south-east side of the lake. On Captain B.'s
return to the lake next day or the day after, the cause of the scene
there was inexplicable; and it remained a mystery until now, when we
can gather some facts relating to these people from the Red Indian
woman _Shawnawdithit_.]

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