A Risky Voyage To Find The Elusive Beothuks
Winter was not far off 400 years ago when a group of men in the tiny settlement at Cuper’s Cove, Conception Bay, set sail around the Bay de Verde Peninsula to try finding the Beothuk people. It was October, 1612, two years after the plantation had been founded as a foothold in Newfoundland for English merchants seeking wealth from the resources of the New World. Establishing trade with the native people would be a step in that direction, and the elusive Beothuks were believed to be in Trinity Bay.
During the previous two years at what is today the town of Cupids colonists, led by merchant and governor John Guy of Bristol, had erected buildings to live in. They also had built several boats and a small sailing bark which they named Indeavour. Small boats likely had been built by seasonal fishermen before the 17th Century, but Indeavour may have been the largest decked sailing vessel constructed on the island, and even in what is now Canada, up to that time.
The bark and one of the smaller shallops, or chaloupes, were chosen for the voyage to Trinity Bay on the other side of the peninsula by John Guy and about a dozen men from the tiny settlement.
But British pirate Peter Easton had made his base at Harbour Grace, a few miles down the coast from Cuper’s Cove, and he was making life difficult for the fishing fleet on the Grand Banks by stealing their cargoes for profit, and their crews for his own fleet. He hadn’t yet harassed Guy’s settlement and the governor wanted to keep a low profile, so the voyage around the Bay de Verde peninsula was delayed until Easton had departed to the Caribbean to raid Spanish galleons.
It wasn’t until Oct. 7 that the expedition set sail. Today’s calendar is 13 days ahead of the dates recorded by Guy and his colonists, so we can imagine the risks they ran with near-winter weather, the limitations of their boats, and the rugged, uninhabited coastline they followed.
The voyagers arrived at Easton’s unoccupied fort late that first night and, finding a captured ship full of salt at anchor there, spent the next nine days storing the precious cargo ashore. Autumn was at its worst when they departed from their next stop at Bay de Verde on Oct. 18. It was blowing from the northwest and snowing as the boats beat into the wind to round the tip of the peninsula. The shallop succeeded but Indeavour had to return to her last anchorage for another night. Next day she made it, but a wind change forced the bark right across Trinity Bay to today’s Catalina where she lay stormbound for two more days.
Both boats met again at Mount Eagle Bay, present-day Hopeall, where they spent a day exploring that bay and its grassy island. Their second morning there dawned sunny and calm so the shallop towed the bark further up Trinity Bay past three islands and into a large arm (where Dildo is now located). Upon exploring the shoreline, colonists found evidence of the natives and a wide path into the woods, but no people. Guy decided to continue sailing west across Trinity Bay but the wind was against them so they returned to their anchorage.
This time, a party was sent up the trail through the woods and a lake was discovered about a mile inland. Distant campfires were burning and at twilight people were seen paddling a canoe to an island in the lake, now known as Dildo or Blaketown Pond. Guy and his men inspected the campsite while spending three days in the area but failed to make contact with the natives.
On Oct. 30 the boats left what Guy had named Savage Harbour and tried to make their way westward against contrary winds, rough seas and fog. Eventually on Nov. 3 they sailed into today’s Bull Arm and their luck began to improve. First, the shallop found nine native dwellings in a cove (possibly Stock Cove) while Indeavour sailed on to a larger cove (Great Mosquito Cove) where the boats spent the night at anchor. Over the next two days the colonists sailed to the end of the arm and explored an encampment and a portage overland to Placentia Bay, but still they saw no people.
After returning to the boats on Nov. 6 smoke from a campfire further out the arm was spotted and both boats sailed towards it, stopping when the natives were seen at last. The two groups approached each other cautiously, meeting on a beach, exchanging gifts and eventually sharing a meal. The elusive Beothuk had been found.
Guy and his party were not able to make contact again but were optimistic about future trading and started to build a cabin on Frenchman’s Island for that purpose. But the weather was getting colder and ice began forming on the arm so a few days later Indeavour and the shallop begin a long and dangerous journey back to Cuper’s Cove.
After spending the first two nights windbound at Heart’s Content, the boats sailed on for Bay de Verde. The shallop was towing a Beothuk canoe taken from their meeting with the natives. In a strong wind and rough seas they put into Old Perlican for the night, abandoning the canoe there on Nov. 14 and proceeding around to meet Indeavour at Bay de Verde. The shallop was asked to help retrieve the bark’s anchor and was sunk in the process. The crew got safely ashore but Indeavour was unable to rescue them in the onshore wind and hazardous rocks. As daylight faded, the helpless shallop crew watched as the bark drifted away before the wind.
It took nine days for the shallop crew to make their way to Cuper’s Cove. After slogging along by foot with no shelter or food except what they could get off the land, they found an abandoned boat at Carbonear and used it to reach the colony.
Meanwhile Indeavour, blown about in the autumn gales, became lost until the crew realized they had drifted down the Atlantic shore as far as Renews. Continuing to fight the winds, the bark made it back to Bay de Verde days later. For the last leg down Conception Bay to Cuper’s Cove it still had to seek shelter at Bell Island and wait for a favourable wind to get home. Indeavour made it safely, but well after the shallop crew’s arrival. It was 50 days since the vessels had set out from the colony.
For more information about Cuper’s Cove and the Indeavour voyage, including maps, click here.