While the Town of Botwood is geographically confined within a small area, its history is reminiscent of a community ten times its size. Botwood’s history has not only played an important role in the development of Newfoundland, but also that of the world. Presented here is a semi-brief synopsis of Botwood’s history, from its early days in the 1800’s, to the waning days of World War II.
Botwood’s Early History
Long before the settlement now known as Botwood was established, another group of people were traversing through the area: The Beothuk Indians. The Beothuk Indians were the first North American Indians to be encountered by European explorers. The custom of painting their bodies, clothing, and practically everything they owned with red ochre led to the early explorers calling them the Red Indians. This misnomer was subsequently applied to all North American Tribes. They were a hunting and gathering people who maintained a yearly cycle of movement between the coast and the deep interior.
As a steady tide of European explorers ventured to Newfoundland in search of resources and began to establish settlements throughout the province, clashes with the native peoples of the land were almost inevitable. Open conflict and retaliation with the new white intruders reduced the Beothuk population and their hunting territories. Unfortunately, the long period of contact with Europeans, coupled with the introduction of tuberculosis, influenza, and other white diseases decimated their numbers as they did with most North American Native groups. Sadly, the Beothuk population could not withstand the onslaught and were among the first native people to become extinct.
It was during this period that settlers established the community of Ship Cove, situated at the mouth of the Bay of Exploits. A sheltered harbour, ample fishing grounds, and its close proximity to large woodland areas made the location ideal for a settlement. It was also at this time that the Beothuk population was dwindling, and had become dangerously low. The Newfoundland Government decided to send expeditions into the wilderness to find these Red Indians and bring them back into society, in an effort to teach them the English language and introduce them to some of the amenities of the Western World.
An expedition, led by John Peyton Jr., was organized to recover items stolen by the Beothuk, as well as to capture one of the Indians. On March 5, 1819 the small group came across a small encampment of Indians, and managed to capture a sole female, named Demasduit. Demasduit managed to give her child to her husband, Nonasabasut, who fled into the forest. He returned to rescue his wife and in the ensuing scuffle he was bayoneted and shot three times.
Demasduit, approximately 23 years old, was renamed by the English settlers with the month of her capture in mind, as the more famous Mary March. Mary March who spent months with various dignitaries throughout Newfoundland as she was taught about the civilized world had unfortunately taken ill, and the Government’s ultimate goal, to establish relations with the Beothuk was in jeopardy. Captain Buchan, aboard the H.M.S. Grasshopper, was charged with the safe return of Mary to her people at Red Indian Lake. Mary, however, died of tuberculosis while on board ship in the Ship Cove harbour at 2pm on January 8, 1820.
Her coffin was taken up the river to Red Indian Lake and left for her people to find. It was subsequently found and buried next to her husband and child. The story of Mary March is a tragic one. She is remembered not for what she did but for what was done to her. Her story and particularly the incidents at the time of her capture encompassed the host of misunderstandings between the settlers and the Beothuk Indians.
The people who lived or worked in the Exploits River area between 1750-1830 came from varied backgrounds, from fishermen to military to clergy. The furring and salmon industries were closely linked during the early settlement of the area, the fur trade being a secondary source of income for the settlers. In summer, they resided on the coast for easy access to the salmon rivers but wintered inland in the more wooded, protected areas, hunting and fur trapping hare, fox, wolf, beaver, otter, and martin cat.