Newfoundland Natives and Early European Invaders

Newfoundland is the world’s sixteenth-largest island and Canada’s fourth-largest. During the more than six centuries of European exploration prior to the establishment of the English colony at Cuper’s Cove in 1610, who lived on the island and utilized its resources included the Beothuk, Mi’kmaq, and Dorset Inuit. The Europeans—Norse, Basque, French, Portuguese, and English—came to the island as explorers, fishermen, and whalers.

The Norse:

 The first recorded contact between the Newfoundland Natives and Europeans came in 986 when the Norse (Viking) voyager Leif Eiriksson, sometimes called “the lucky,” visited and settled an area called Vinland on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Archaeologists have excavated a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows which dates to this time. The Vikings had some encounters with Native Americans who they called Skraelings (probably Beothuk.) The colonies were eventually abandoned, due in part to opposition from the Native Americans. According to archaeologist David Hurst Thomas in his book, Exploring Ancient Native America: An Archaeological Guide:  “Native Americans had temporarily won out because of superior numbers and an unsurpassed knowledge of the American northland and how to survive in it.”

In the Handbook of North American Indians T.J. Brasser writes:  “The effects of Norse contacts on the natives of Newfoundland during the early part of the eleventh century must have rapidly faded away as a bad dream.”

According to one story, Leif and the other Viking warriors fled their village and cowered behind some rocks when the Skraelings attacked. Freydis Eriksdottir, then nearly nine-months pregnant, tore open her blouse to expose her breasts, then picked up a shield and sword dropped by the fleeing Vikings, and counter-attacked. She succeeded in repelling the attack and defending the brave Viking warriors.


By 1450, Basque whalers were establishing temporary camps on Newfoundland (there are some reports that the Basque were there much earlier). These camps provided the Inuit with more access to European goods.

Writing about the Basque whalers in 1543, William Fitzhugh, writing in Cultures in Contact: The European Impact on Native Cultural Institutions in Eastern North America, A.D. 1000-1800, reports:  “Each summer this operation brought large numbers of ships and larger numbers of whaleboats (shallops) into harbors where whales were hunted, blubber was rendered, and—at the end of the whaling season, in late fall or early winter—casks were prepared for shipment to Europe.”

Twenty to thirty ships would operate in the waters around the island. This operation would involve about 2,000 men who would hunt the whales in small boats, and then tow the dead animal to the shore station where it would be butchered. Native groups were attracted to the whaling camps because of the possibilities for trade. When the crews left in the fall, the natives would plunder the whaling stations for iron, shallops, and other items.


By 1481, English fishing ships from Bristol were working off the coast of Newfoundland. According to some accounts, fish drying camps were established at the shore and there may have been some contacts with the Beothuk.

Italian sea captain John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) sailing for the English king Henry VII explored the coast of Newfoundland, Labrador, and Nova Scotia in 1497 and claimed these lands for the English. Like Columbus, Cabot may have been confused and thought that he was in Asia. His commission from Henry VII was to conquer, occupy, and possess the lands of heathens and infidels.

Cabot made no contact with native people, but did find their fishing nets and some other tools. John Day, an English merchant in Bristol, wrote to Christopher Columbus after Cabot’s return and reported:  “…they found a trail that went inland, they saw a site where a fire had been made, they saw manure of animals which they thought to be farm animals, and they saw a stick half a yard long pierced at both ends, carved and painted with brazil, and by such signs they believe the land to be inhabited.”

In his report, Cabot noted that this area—called Brazil and assumed to be an island—had been discovered earlier by English ships sailing from Bristol.

The English would later use Cabot’s landing in their claim of ownership of North America. Russell Shorto, in his book The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America, writes:  “By the logic of the concept of ‘discovery,’ when the foot of an explorer made contact with soil that had not previously been settled by humans whom Europeans regarded as having a proper civilization, that soil, and all soil stretching out from it for as far as the metaphysical aura of discovery could be made to stretch, came under the flag of the explorer’s sponsoring nation.”

Over 400 European fishing boats gathered off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1578. About 50 houses were built along the shore as a part of their fish-drying stations. The Europeans returned home in the fall with their dried catch. The Beothuk, having had bad experiences with the Europeans, minimized contact, but did manage to steal from the Europeans. Ethnologist T.J. Brasser reports:  “The extremely unfavorable stereotype that Europeans developed of the Beothuk reflects the fact that these Indians were considered a nuisance and of no economic value whatsoever.”


In 1472, the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador were explored by a Dano-Portuguese expedition with two Danish sea captains—Diderik Pining and Hans Pothorst—along with João Vaz Corte-Real. They followed the old Viking route to the area. In a chapter in North American Exploration, Robert Fuson writes:  “In fact, the Portuguese name ‘Labrador’ may have been a result of this voyage, and Newfoundland was afterward called Terra do Bacalhau (Land of the Codfish) for many years.”

While there are some scholars who are skeptical about the claims of this voyage, Fuson also writes:  “These events are well documented and are fully accepted by scholars in Portugal and Scandinavia.”

In 1501, the Portuguese began capturing Beothuks to export to Europe as slaves. Gaspar Corte-Real described these people as having “manners and gestures most gentle.” The Portuguese found that the Beothuk had a broken Italian sword and a pair of Venetian silver earrings, probably acquired from the early expeditions of John Cabot.


In 1507, Norman fishing vessels captured seven Beothuks in Newfoundland and brought them back to France.

Ancient Newfoundland and Labrador

The eastern Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador was not only the first area of North America encountered by Europeans, but it also had a long history of aboriginal occupation. The province includes one of Canada’s largest islands—Newfoundland—and the mainland area of Labrador. Described below are some of the archaeological sites which document the aboriginal settlement of the province.

By 6,000 BCE, native people had begun to occupy the rugged mountainous coastline area in Labrador.

In 5,580 BCE, the body of a twelve year old child was buried in a low artificial mound in Labrador. The body, covered in red ochre, was laid in a prone position with the head turned to the west. The grave was about three feet deep and was covered with earth and stones. Grave goods included stone and bone spear points, ochre and graphite stones with a pestle to grind them for making paint, a walrus tusk, a bone pendant, and a flute made from a bird bone.

In 5,300 BCE, on the present-day border between Quebec and Labrador, the body of an adolescent was laid face down between two fires. Around the body’s neck was a bone pendant and a whistle with three stops. A number of objects were placed next to the body: a walrus tusk, a harpoon, some stone and bone weapon points, three stone knives. In addition, red ochre, graphite pebbles, and an antler tine—materials needed to make the ochre into paint—were also buried with the adolescent. The grave was covered with a stone slab and two short rows of upright slabs were set up above the grave. These were then covered with sand and boulders to form a burial mound.

By 5,000 BCE, a way of life that archaeologists call the Maritime Archaic Tradition had developed in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador, and Maine. Subsistence activities focused on sea mammals such as seals (harp, ringed, harbor, gray, and bearded seals), walrus, porpoises, and whales. They were also taking fish and sea birds. In the southern Maritimes and New England they were harpooning swordfish.

The Maritime Archaic people were equally at home on the sea coast and the interior. During the early spring, the Maritime Archaic people were on or near the coast where they could easily take the sea mammals on the pack and landfast ice. In the summer, the sea mammals were less available, but the people stayed on the coast to fish—particularly for Atlantic salmon—and to take birds. At the first snow, they withdrew from the coast to inland hunting locations where they hunted caribou, moose, and elk.

With regard to the stone tools used by the Maritime Archaic people, archaeologist James Tuck, in his chapter in the Handbook of North American Indians, reports:  “Stone was manufactured into spears and lances as well as into axes, adzes, and gouges, which in turn bespeak a heavy woodworking industry, the products of which probably included frames for shelters, weapon and tool handles, boats, dugout canoes, and wooden bowls.”

Spirituality at this time included hunting magic (evidenced in the wearing of charms and amulets) and a well-developed burial ceremonialism. Burials involved the use of red ochre as well as many grave offerings. Graves tended to be oriented toward the east.

In 5,000 BCE, gravediggers in Labrador made a circular pit more than 30 feet in diameter at the L’Anse-Amour site near the Strait of Belle Isle. They placed the body of a child about 12-13 years old in the pit. In The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians: Before the Coming of the Europeans, Philip Kopper reports:  “They lit fires on either side of the body, which was covered with a flat rock and provided with knives or spear points of stone and polished bone; a cosmetic kit of red ochre, graphite paint stones and antler pestle to grind the paint; a walrus tusk; a bone pendant; a bird-bone whistle and a harpoon point. The grave was heaped with sand and then covered with three layers of boulders.”

In 3,350 BCE, Indian people established a coastal village at what is now called the Gould Site in Newfoundland. Their tool kit included gouges for woodworking, projectile points, and fish spears.

In 2,450 BCE, people living along the coast of Newfoundland began a practice of elaborate burials which included offerings of tools, animal bones, carved animal effigies, and small, white quartz pebbles. The offerings were covered in red ochre which would lead archaeologists to call them the Red Paint People. The offerings show that their economy and lifestyle was oriented toward the deep sea. Their tool kit included woodworking tools for making houses and boats, finely made bone and ivory fishhooks, harpoons, lances for hunting whales and walrus, and fish spears.

In 2,400 BCE, more than 100 people were buried at Port au Choix in Labrador. The burials included an equal ratio of men and women. In his book Prehistory of the Americas, Stuart Fiedel reports:  “The bodies had been coated with red ochre, and were provided with tools and ornaments.”

Among the grave offerings were ground slate bayonet points which may have been used for whale hunting. Other tools included harpoons, barbed bone fishing spears, and slate woodworking tools.  Stuart Fiedel also reports:  “The dead were also provided with daggers made of walrus ivory, caribou bone and antler, and with bone awls, needles, tubes, combs, hairpins, whistles, and pendants.”  Shell beads were sewn onto skin garments.

By 800 CE, the Point Revenge culture began to develop in Labrador. According to William Fitzhugh, in his chapter in Cultures in Contact: The European Impact on Native Cultural Institutions in Eastern North America, A.D. 1000-1800, these people “probably spoke a variety of Algonquian languages, used canoes rather than kayaks, painted their bodies and tools with red ocher, and hunted caribou in the interior during the winter and caught fish, birds, and seals on the coast during the summer.”

In making their stone tools, the Point Revenge people used Ramah chert which is found in Ramah Bay in northern Labrador. This chert was also traded to peoples to the south and is found in sites in Novia Scotia, New Brunswick, and New England.

In Labrador, the Late Dorset Eskimo began to establish themselves north of the Port Revenge cultures by 900 CE. According to William Fitzhugh:  “Late Dorset peoples inhabited coastal locations throughout the year and made use of the entire northern coast, including the region around Ramah Bay.”

Like the Point Revenge people, they were using Ramah chert for making their stone tools. Unlike the Point Revenge people, however, they used kayaks rather than canoes. They also had richly developed shamanistic and secular art traditions.

By 1,000 CE, Thule culture groups began to migrate into Labrador from Alaska. They were practicing a maritime adaptation which focused on hunting large marine mammals, particularly the bowhead whale. According to Susan Kaplan, in her chapter in Cultures in Contact: The European Impact on Native Cultural Institutions in Eastern North America, A.D. 1000-1800:  “The newcomers arrived with dog-drawn sleds, large skin boats (umiaks), and single-man boats (kayaks). With this equipment people and heavy gear could be transported long distances with speed.”

In the fall and winter, the people lived in small, subterranean houses built out of stone, sod, wood, and whale bone. During the whaling season, several settlements would pool their resources in a cooperative endeavor. In the fall, the people would hunt caribou using fences and drives. In the spring they would fish using stone weirs to entrap the fish.