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Finding the Site

  The descriptions of Russell’s Point left us by John Guy and Henry Crout provide a window into what was happening on the point on October 26, 1612. We know, for instance, that there were three Beothuk “houses” there, two covered in caribou skins and the other in an old sail. Crout and Guy also mention a number of items that they saw including a copper kettle, a fur gown, seal skins and a fishing reel. However, it was a combination of documentary and archaeological evidence that allowed us to construct a more detailed picture of what took place at Russell’s Point over the more than six hundred years that the Beothuk and their ancestors occupied the site.  
  It is clear that one of the main things the Beothuk were doing was hunting caribou. We have already mentioned finding caribou bones and teeth at the site and John Guy tells us that “this time of the yeare they live by hunting” and mentions seeing twelve caribou hooves from animals that had been “latlie killed” at the site. Until around 1900 the winter range of the western Avalon caribou herd lay in the broad valley that stretches south from the south end of Dildo Pond towards St. Mary’s Bay. In the spring at least a part of this herd moved north to their calving grounds on the barrens of the Bay de Verde Peninsula and in the autumn, around the time of the first snow fall, they returned to their winter grounds. Caribou tend to follow well established routes during their migrations and these caribou trails can sometimes be hundreds of years old. Henry Crout recorded seeing such a trail during his journey overland from Cupers Cove to Trinity Bay in September of 1612 and we now know that Crout saw this “pathe which made show ... [that]... much deer had passed”, as he put it, in a valley that runs from the New Harbour Barrens in the northeast to the north end of Dildo Pond in the southwest. Any caribou moving south along this route during their fall migration likely would have either passed along the eastern side of Dildo Pond or swam down it.  
  So, Russell’s Point was located along a major caribou migration route and during a few weeks every autumn the Beothuk would have had access to hundreds of animals as they passed south towards their wintering grounds. Most of these were probably killed from canoes as they swam down the lake and floated ashore to be butchered. Three hundred and sixty-eight stone arrowheads have been recovered from Russell’s Point. This is almost half of all the stone points yet found on sites occupied by the Beothuk and their ancestors and attests to the importance of hunting at the site. One can only imagine how many more arrows must have been lost in the waters of Dildo Pond over the more than six hundred years that the hunt was being carried out.

If the fall caribou migration was what attracted the Beothuk to Russell’s Point in the first place, then was the site just a temporary hunting camp used by hunters for a few weeks every autumn or was it a base camp? Archaeologists have developed a number of ways of distinguishing between hunting camps and base camps and when we look at the data from Russell’s Point using these techniques, it soon becomes clear that the site was a base camp occupied by family groups during the fall and winter.

  Masakazu Tani has suggested that since hunters using a site for only a few weeks each year probably would not produce enough waste to require organized dumping, the presence of middens (or garbage dumps) at a site is a good indicator of long term occupation. Two large middens were uncovered at the north end of Russell’s Point. Both David Hurst Thomas and James Chatters have pointed out that since base camps are places that hunters leave from and return to with game taken in a wide range of different locations, some many miles from the base camp, the middens at these camps should contain bones from animals that could not have been hunted from that location. The caribou bones found at Russell’s Point are almost certainly from animals hunted near the point but the bones of beaver, seal and muskrat have also been found and these must have been hunted elsewhere and brought back to camp.
  James Chatters has also suggested that another feature of a base camp is the presence of storehouses and other storage facilities. However, since stores of meat tend to attract predators, it might make more sense for them to be near base camps rather than on them. While no evidence of such features was found at Russell’s Point, there is documentary evidence to suggest that a storehouse once stood nearby. Guy mentions seeing, “a new Savadge house almost finished, which was made in a square forme with a small roofe...”. This ‘house’ appears to have been located roughly half a mile (800 m) north of the camp near where the “broad way” left the lake and ran down to Savage Harbour. We know that the Beothuk did not live in square houses but they did build square structures for storing caribou meat. One such storehouse was drawn by Shanawdithit and, according to the caption accompanying the drawing, it measured 10 feet (3 m) across and 4 feet (1.37 m) high from base to wall plate and contained, “dried venison, in birch bark boxes or packages to keep during the winter”. The structure reported by Guy was probably a similar type of storehouse. Its location, roughly half way between the base camp and the bottom of Dildo Arm, would have made it equally accessible from either the point or the salt water.

Another clue is provided by the types of arrowheads found at the site. Ralph Pastore has suggested that the smaller, often crudely made arrowheads found on many Beothuk sites are children’s points and were used by them to practice archery. As such, their presence on a site can be a valuable aid in determining site function since children are more likely to be present at base camps than at hunting camps. A large number of the arrowheads found at Russell’s Point are of this type and, if Pastore is correct, provide clear evidence that Russell’s Point was a base camp occupied by men, women and children.

  The evidence for a fall and winter occupation also comes from a number of different sources. We know from the documents that the site was occupied during the fall of 1612 and, if the square structure described by Guy was a storehouse, that in itself suggests that the Beothuk were planning a long stay. Crout also tells us that the site was not occupied in July of 1613 because the Beothuk were “gone all abroad a coasting ... for Eggs and birds”. The beaver bones recovered from the site also provide important evidence. Most of these are from relatively young animals that can be classified as either juvenile or immature and such animals would probably have been hunted in either the fall or winter.

The Beothuk, like most hunters and gatherers, were a migratory people. This does not mean that they moved aimlessly over the landscape. Instead, their existence depended on a series of seasonal movements precisely timed to take advantage of resources that they knew would be available at a particular place for only a short time each year. During the fall, the Beothuk who occupied this part of Trinity Bay would have moved inland to Russell’s Point to prepare for the caribou migration. When these animals appeared they would have been hunted either from canoes in the water or on the shores of the lake and the meat stored for the winter. The stored meat would free the band from any immediate threat of hunger. Women, children, the elderly and infirm could then remain safely at the base camp while hunters would be free to pursue other game, such as beaver, at a more leisurely pace. With the coming of spring, these people would have moved back to the coast to take advantage of the wide range of resources, such as seals, caplin and salmon, that was available there during the spring and summer months.


Exactly how long after 1612 the Beothuk camp at Russell’s Point continued to be occupied we cannot say. Documentary evidence indicates that the site was still in use in the fall of 1619. In a letter written by Thomas Rowley to Sir Percival Willoughby from Cupers Cove on September 13 of that year, Rowley states that he and a Master Hill will soon be leaving for the “bottome of trinyty bay” to trade with the Indians. As late as 1639 Sir David Kirke referred to the bottom of the bay as “a place always frequented with the natives” and one radiocarbon sample recovered from the site indicates that there was still some activity there in the 1650s if not later. However, the Beothuk occupation of the site could not have continued much beyond this.

By this time, small year-round English settlements had been established farther out Trinity Bay in places like Old Perlican and in 1662 a French colony was established at Placentia. Undoubtedly colonists from both these areas would have made trips into the bottom of Trinity and Placentia Bays to cut timber, hunt and trap. We know that by at least the 1670's, English settlers from the Avalon’s Southern Shore were trapping in the interior of the Avalon to the south of Russell’ Point and as early as 1662 Indians from Canada (probably Mi’kmaq) were hunting and trapping in the area. It seems unlikely that a small Beothuk population could have withstood such intrusions for long.

Images (left to right, top to bottom) 1. Artist’s depiction of the Beothuk hunting caribou in the waters off Russell’s Point. Cliff George, 2004. 2. Looking southwest across the Grassy Gullies towards the bottom of Trinity Bay. Henry Crout saw a caribou trail here on September 3, 1612. 3. Some of the arrowheads recovered from Russell’s Point (Photo by John Bourne). 4. Reproduction of a Beothuk arrowhead attached to the shaft. Caribou sinew would have been used to fasten the head to the shaft (Reproduction by Tim Rast used with permission). 5. Drawing of a Beothuk storehouse by Shanawdithit  from J.P. Howley 1915. 6. A Ramah chert arrowhead from Russell’s Point. Ramah chert is found only in northern Labrador and must have been traded down the Labrador coast and into the island. 7. Mapping the midden in the northeast corner of the site. 8. This tiny arrowhead and many more like it from Russell’s Point were probably used by Beothuk children to practice archery. 9. Stone knives from Russell’s Point. 10. Looking south across Russell’s Point, 1995. 11. Beothuk hunting caribou in Dildo Pond. Detail from “Red Ochre Dream” by Cliff George, 2004.