The Beothuk & the Hant’s Harbour Wall

On Monday May 27, 2013, the CBC Radio show Crosstalk held a call-in show for members of the general public to speak with Dr. Ingeborg Marshall and ask her questions about the Beothuk. It was an excellent show. For those of you who are not familiar, Dr. Marshall is the expert on the Beothuk and their culture, having studied their culture for many years. She has published several papers on the Beothuk and wrote the book A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk.

A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk
A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk

During the show the topic of a stone wall in Hant’s Harbour was brought to the attention of Dr. Marshall. A caller described the wall as being ~150 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet high. The caller also described an arrangement of stones they interpreted as a stone pulpit in front of a grassy field. Dr. Marshall was asked if these constructions were made by the Beothuk. Dr. Marshall did not believe they were constructed by the Beothuk because there is no prior evidence that the Beothuk constructed walls of stone or stone pulpits. She did state that the Beothuk made fences for hunting caribou. Archaeologically we also know they sometimes made hearths (fireplaces) of arranged stones and occasionally lined the outside of their tents with cobbles to hold down the edges of their tents. Archaeologists cleverly refer to these cobble arrangements as ‘hold-down’ rocks. Archaeologically we also know they sometimes made depressions and built their tents over the depressions.

James P. Howley, who knew almost as much about the Beothuk as Dr. Marshall, wrote the book The Beothuks or Red Indians, the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland in 1915 and described the Beothuk caribou fences like this:

The deer fences we found erected on the banks of the Exploits are situated in places the most proper for intercepting herds of these animals, as they cross the river in their route to the southward, on the approach of winter, and against the return of mild weather, when they wander back to the northward. They have the best effect when there is a beach about twenty feet wide and from thence a steep ascending bank. Along the ridge of this bank the Indians fell the trees without chopping the trunks quite asunder; taking care that they fall parallel with the river and guiding every fresh cut tree so as to coincide with and fall on the last. The weak parts of the fence are filled up with branches and limbs of other trees, secured occasionally by large stakes and bindings; in short, these fences and our plashed hedges are formed on the same principles, differing only in their magnitude. They are raised to the height of six, eight, or ten feet, as the place may require, so that, the steepness of the bank considered, they are not found to be forced or overleaped by the largest deer.
Those fences near Slaughter and Fatal Isles, and the other most frequented places, are from half a mile to half a league in length; only discontinued here and there for short distances where the ill-growth of the woods does not favour such works. The Indians are here at no loss, for their knowledge of the use of sewels supplies this deficiency, and completes their toils. At certain convenient stations they have small half-moon breastworks, half the height of a man (by the furriers called gazes), over which it may be presumed, they shoot the deer passing between the water-side and the bank, deterred by the sewels, and disabled by means of the fence from entering the wood, until an opening clear of these obstructions may present itself.
Their sewels are made by tying a tassel of birch rind formed like the wing of a paper kite, to the small end of a slight stick about six feet in length. These sticks are pricked into the ground about ten or a dozen yards apart, and so much sloping, that the pendant rind may hang clear of its support, in order to play with every breath of wind. Thus, it is sure to catch the eye of the deer, and to make them shun the place where it stands.
Howley 1915 pages 30 & 31

The following drawings and photo illustrate Beothuk caribou fences and a house pit.

Trees cut to form a caribou fence. (Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage)
Trees cut to form a caribou fence. (Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage)
Sewels: Sticks with birchbark strips dangling from the top. The drawing was part of the title to John Cartwright's map of the Exploits River, 1773.
Sewels: Sticks with birchbark strips dangling from the top.
The drawing was part of the title to John Cartwright’s map of the Exploits River, 1773.
The author sitting on the edge of a Beothuk housepit on the Exploits River
The author sitting on the edge of a Beothuk housepit on the Exploits River

In 2010, I had the opportunity to visit Hant’s Harbour and see the stonewall. Access to the wall is via a walking trail at the north end of the community that stretches from Hant’s Harbour towards New Chelsea following along the coastline. It includes several features including various rock mounds, clearings and vegetable garden drills.

Hant's Harbour trail
GPS tracklog is the yellow line following the Hant’s Harbour trail. Noted are the start point of the wall, European garden vegetable drills, and a rock mound near the end of the trail.

The trail is just a little less than 1.5 km long running from the northeast end of the community of Hant’s Harbour to a small-unnamed cove to the northeast. Much of the trail is very well worn and likely part of an old trail system that would link communities along the coast.

Hant's Harbour Trail
Hant’s Harbour Trail

Unusual small mounds of rock start showing up next to the trail just before its mid-point. These mounds seem to be natural and there are a lot of them in seemingly no particular order. They do not appear to be connected with anything else that seems to be cultural and no artifacts were seen in or around the mounds. No test pitting was conducted.

Near the mid-point of the trail a low rock wall appears near the side of the trail. At times, the wall nearly disappears, in other places it is quite distinct measuring nearly a metre high. The wall is not neatly constructed but rather appears to be haphazardly piled stones. It continues next to the trail for ~200-300 metres. At several places along the trail the forest cover parts to reveal large clearings. Some of these clearings are certainly the result of anthropogenic activities giving the appearance of places where structures once stood. Faint garden vegetable drills were noticed in a few of the clearings. In one of these clearings, the wall appears to form an L shape. In another area just off the trail, clear vegetable garden drills are noticeable. At one point, the trail runs through the rock wall. It does not appear as though the trail has disturbed the wall but rather that the wall was built to allow the trail. Several small pieces of very fragmented ceramic were surface collected in this area. All are very recent dating to the 19th or 20th century. None of this material was collected.

 Rock wall is visible on the left and right sides of the trail.  The gap in the wall through which the trail goes is visible.
Rock wall is visible on the left and right sides of the trail. The gap in the wall through which the trail goes is visible.
One of the small clearings along the trail.
One of the small clearings along the trail.
Recent ceramics found near the gap in the stone wall.
Recent ceramics found near the gap in the stone wall.

Most of the trail runs through a typical evergreen forest, well above and away from the coast. Near the end of the trail is the most noticeable of the rock mounds encountered along the trail. Large, mostly tabular shaped rocks were used to construct the feature; no beach cobbles were visible in the feature. The obviously manufactured feature is ~80-90 cm high; ~3 metres long at its base and closer to ~2 metres long near its top. Its general shape is oblong. The centre of the feature has a small depression in the top and gives the impression of a root cellar though it does not appear to be near a dwelling. More 19th or 20th century ceramics were surface collected near the mound. They are all small very fragmented pieces; most are white wares, some with black transfer printed decorations. There are also a few pieces of refined earthenware with a brown fabric and dark brown glaze. None of this material was kept. There is a second, much smaller mound of rocks ~2-3 meters to the northeast. This less defined mound looks more like a pile of rocks.

Mound near the end of the trail.
Mound near the end of the trail. Shovel for scale.
Mound showing depression on the top. Shovel for scale.
Mound showing depression on the top. Shovel for scale.
Ceramics from the mound area.  The date on this photo is incorrect.
Ceramics from the mound area. The date on this photo is incorrect.

Given the fact that the Beothuk rarely used stone to build with and the presence of the 19th & 20th century ceramics, we can safely conclude that the Hant’s Harbour wall and its associated mounds and vegetable garden drills were made by Europeans.


16 thoughts on “The Beothuk & the Hant’s Harbour Wall

  1. The section of stone wall was dismantled in 2009 by workers constructing the “D’Iberville Trail”; prior to then the wall was intact. The stones removed from the wall are clearly seen beside it. The rock structure closely resembles a “rock igloo” which appears in a photograph taken by a Moravian missionary in the Okak area of Labrador at the beginning of the twentieth century. The stone wall resembles a “deer lane”, many of which are found in Northern Labrador and other parts of Northern Canada. The mounds and features, numbering more than 40, are not natural but man-made. An observation suggesting that the area was a “wintering place” for the residents of Hants Harbour is obviously incorrect; traces of vegetable cultivation are evident. The European occupation of the area probably began in the early to mid 1800s and continued until around the early 1900s when the residents moved to Hants Harbour or New Chelsea. If the stone structures can be attributed to the activities of European settlers of 200 years ago, then the question is: “What activities?” The remains are not typical of Beothuck culture. Are they perhaps the remains of another culture predating the Beothuck?

    1. Good morning
      It’s too bad the wall was partially dismantled. I don’t recall seeing that in 2010 when I was there. If something likes this happens in the future, you can inform the people that the wall and associated mounds and garden drills are protected by the Historic Resources Act and that the Provincial Archaeology Office should be contacted.
      The rock mounds and structures in Okak were made by Inuit. The closest Inuit site is, arguably, near L’Anse aux Meadows. There have never been Inuit near Hant’s Harbour. Many of the rock mounds I saw appeared natural to me and I have seen my share of man-made rock mounds in the nearly 20 years I have been practising archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador.
      These rock structures do not predate the European occupation of the area as is evidenced by the gardens you and I reference and the ceramics I found in the area in 2010. “The European occupation of the area probably began in the early to mid 1800s and continued until around the early 1900s when the residents moved to Hants Harbour or New Chelsea.” Yes I agree with this statement, they made the rock wall and a few of the mounds.
      “Are they perhaps the remains of another culture predating the Beothuck?” – No. On the Island, neither the Maritime Archaic Indians, the Palaeoeskimos nor the Recent Indians constructed these types of rock features. Later Europeans did construct these types of features. I’ve seen similar walls several times in places where Europeans kept animals or were clearing the land for cultivation. The few rock mounds that are man-made maybe the remains of small structures, root cellars or something similar. Or they may just be a pile of stones left from clearing land. All evidence points to European construction for these features.
      Thanks for the comment. If you have any questions or evidence to prove otherwise I’d be happy to look at it.

      1. Thanks for your reply. Since your visit we have continued to explore the area and have found further evidence of an occupation that we recognized, from the beginning when the first structures were discovered, was not Beothuck, even though the bifaces found in the area are probably Beothuck (Recent Indian). We are not accepting that the remains are European; they are definitely man made and, if made by Europeans, what was their function? A collapsed root cellar is usually a mound of earth with some rocks protruding. There are now more than 40 structures positioned by GPS. When I made representation to The Town of Hants Harbour officials suggesting that they request an archaeological examination from your department, I emphasized that they should keep the Heritage Society informed; they did not, and you were not shown many of the structures. Since you had decided prior to your visit, from viewing the photo, that the structure was “not aboriginal”, I thought it best to further evaluate my observations Dorset remains have been identified in Old Perlican and, I believe, at Stock Cove in Bull Arm. Might the Dorset have established a permanent base camp in some area of Trinity Bay? The fact that an Inuit presence has not been discovered on the Southern part of the island does not mean that it does not exist, and did the present day Inuit not evolve from earlier Eskimo cultures? Your input is greatly appreciated. Again, thanks for the courtesy of your reply.

      2. HI
        I’m happy to have this conversation with you.
        The site you are referring to is at Custer’s Head. The site was occupied by people of the Recent Indian culture (possibly Beothuk ancestors).

        You are certainly welcome to believe that the stone features are something other than European. You know that I will respectfully disagree, I would happily change my opinion if you have any physical proof. Unfortunately, neither of us can identify their specific function right now. I suggest that because they look like stone walls, stone root cellar foundations and other stone features that I have seen at other recent European sites that they were made by Europeans. You are correct, often root cellars are “usually a mound of earth with some rocks protruding.” There is not a lot of soil in the area of these features hence they are not completely or partially covered. Hence every where you look you see mounds.
        When I visited the stone features in 2010 I went along with members of the Heritage Society and you were there as well. That day in June you suggested many of the same groups were responsible for the construction of these stone features. I respectfully disagreed with you then and I do so now.

        Dorset sites have been found in several places in Trinity Bay, it is part of my job to know where these sites are. The Dorset did not build stone walls like the ones in Hant’s Harbour, but Europeans did build stone walls like the ones in Hant’s Harbour.

        The Inuit presence on the Island is questionable at best. Many archaeologists would argue that of the 8 historic period sites on the Island identified as Inuit most if not all are just as likely European sites.

        The fact that an Egyptian presence has not been discovered on the Southern part of the island does not mean that it does not exist either, but it is just as unlikely as an Inuit stone feature at Hant’s Harbour.

        The Inuit Culture did not evolve from earlier Eskimo cultures. The people of the Inuit culture were part of a late migration from the west across the Arctic into northern Labrador at around ~800 years ago. At that time they are known archaeologically as the Thule culture, but they are Inuit ancestors. There were earlier Palaeoeskimo cultures (Pre-Dorset, Groswater, Dorset) in Newfoundland and Labrador but there is no evidence they were related to the Inuit.

        If you would like another opinion on the stone features you have found you can go to the Facebook page of the newly formed Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeological Society and place pictures of the stone features and ask for their opinion.

        As I said previously, there is no physical evidence that these stone features were made by anyone other than Europeans.

      3. Thanks again for your valued input. I, too, really enjoy this exchange of ideas. I had previously considered most of the points you mentioned above. The Heritage Board and I had no input into what sites to show you during your visit; there are many others that you have not seen. I still hold my position that the structures cannot be placed in a European context. I am not attributing them to any particular aboriginal culture but just posing questions and raising possibilities. Resolving the mystery is more important than being right. If you happen to be coming this way at any time, I could show you another area about 5 minutes walk from Custer’s Head Road. Thanks for the FB link.

      4. Hi
        The first stone mound you posted on NL Archaeological Society FB is intriguing. I would like to take a closer look at that. I will not be able to get out this week and I have a work trip planned for next week. The following week I am in the office for just three days, July 2-4. The following week I am on holidays. Perhaps the week of July 15. I’ll contact you and see if you are available.


  2. In view of your busy schedule, I have to thank you again for your continued interest . Let me know any time. If it’s OK with you, I’ll have a couple others with me. My GPS is broken, If you have a one, I could show you other sites which are obscured by vegetation, all within the same area.

  3. Hi there,
    I just came across these blogs and find them interesting. I will be in Hant’s Harbour next week as my husband is taking a boat building course, leaving me free to explore the area.
    How would I find out more about what to see about the history and archaeology in the area?

    1. Hi,
      It’s a beautiful area.

      There are a couple of websites to help you out, this one is about Tourism.

      The Newfoundland And Labrador Archaeological Society just released their brief report about the Hant’s Harbour walls.

      The Provincial Archaeology Office Annual Review has a brief report on 2 visits the Hant’s Harbour walls in the 2010 & 2013 volumes.

      You are also within a short drive of the Provincial Historic site of Cupids

      There is lots to do in the area.

      1. Thanks! I had no idea what would be in the area. I’ve been poking about those links that you sent, and I will be plenty busy. Thanks so much. I am super excited to go there.

      2. You are very welcome. I believe Grant Tucker also gives guided tours of the European constructed Hants Harbour walls & features too. They are worth seeing.

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