Archaeology and the Beothuk at Indian Point, Red Indian Lake: Part 1

The history of Red Indian Lake is intimately tied to the aboriginal occupation of the Island of Newfoundland. Based on artifacts recovered we know the site was used by Archaic, Pre-Inuit and Recent Period period peoples. As well, there is plenty of evidence for Beothuk and Mi’kmaq use of the lake in the historic period. Evidence for most, if not all of these peoples were found at or near Indian Point on the northeast arm of the lake, just southwest of the town of Millertown. In fact, the Beothuk occupation was thought to be so significant that in 1978 the site was designated a National Historic site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

Initially, I planned to write a single post on just the Beothuk occupation of the point, but the more I looked at it the more I realized what a long relationship the point has had with archaeology. The post became more of a history of research at Indian Point than about just the Beothuk occupation. What follows is the first half of this history, the second half will be posted in two weeks.

Unofficially, archaeology began at the point with Frank Speck in 1914. I say unofficially for two reasons. First Speck was actually an American ethnographer, not an archaeologist, who, in his own words, made a ‘…pilgrimage, to Red Indian Lake and Exploits river, the country of the Beothuk, in the hope of resurrecting some traditional or material traces of their existence.‘ Because of his focus on ethnological work, Speck spent very little time at Indian Point. He did record seeing at least seven, what he called, ‘…wigwam-pits…’ at the point. The second reason I wrote that archaeology unofficially began with Speck is that he recorded that the Mi’kmaq told him they would ‘…frequently dig in these Red Indian wigwam-pits and find curious iron implements – knives, axes, traps, and the like…‘ (Speck 1922).

By 1914 the site was probably already damaged by logging and the construction of a dam at the head of the lake on the Exploits River. Both of these activities were initiated by Louis Miller, the founder of Millertown (Taylor n.d.).

Lookout Tree.
The Lookout Tree. According to Speck the Beothuk used the large tree in the middle of the photo as a lookout point, to watch for approaching caribou. This story must have been told to him by locals or the Mi’kmaq. Cut logs from the Millertown logging operation can already be seen on the beach near the tree (Speck 1922).

In 1925, eleven years after Speck’s visit, the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company finished the construction of a much larger dam at the junction of Red Indian Lake and the Exploits River. In the late 1960s, archaeologist Helen Devereux interviewed several of the older residents of Millertown. None of them could recall the look-out tree referred to in the photo above. The dam had altered the water level of the lake so that the tree and portions of Indian Point were flooded and eroded (Devereux 1970).

In 1962 the site was rediscovered by local avocational archaeologist Don Locke.  Locke was knowledgeable and genuinely cared about understanding the Beothuk. He did his ‘testing and excavation’ with the best of intentions, including the building of a replica Beothuk village and interpretation centre. Without Locke’s early work our knowledge of Indian Point would be considerably less than it currently is. His first investigation of the point came in 1967; he excavated parts of the point over three summers. During his work, he recovered thousands of lithic pieces (mostly flakes) and numerous historic artifacts. He also identified what he thought were five longhouses, 11 housepits and two rock fire beds (I believe these were fireplace middens). He thought the site was much larger but had been heavily impacted by erosion and heavy equipment that had been on the point to build landing skids for tug boats that had been on the lake. He also found cultural material east of the pond/road on the map below.

Locke's map of Indian Point features (1975).
Locke’s map of Indian Point features (1975).

J. Garth Taylor, an anthropologist, and ethnologist surveyed parts of Red Indian Lake and the Exploit’s River for the National Museum of Canada in July and August of 1964. The focus of this project was the archaeological identification of the Beothuk. The project was under the direction of Miss Helen Devereux of the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto (Taylor 1064).

Taylor interviewed Mr. James Beaton of Badger about the change in the water level of Red Indian Lake. Mr. Beaton was more than eighty years old at the time of the interview and had traveled the lakes and streams of the region for the better part of his life. He felt very strongly that any Beothuk encampments that may have been on the shore of Red Indian Lake could not possibly have survived the construction of the Exploits Dam. Unfortunately, I think Taylor allowed the opinion of Mr. Beaton to influence his opinion on what remained of Beothuk sites in the area (Taylor 1064).

In reading Taylor’s report he seems to have put very little effort into looking for Beothuk sites. During a visit to Indian Point in July of 1964, Taylor writes the visit ‘…confirmed everything that Mr. Beaton said. Only a gravel shoal remains to remind the observer of what was formerly an important Beothuk campsite. Nothing suggestive of former occupation could be found, either on the exposed portion of the shoal, or in the seven test-pits dug along the top of the bank which was once the base of the Point‘ (Taylor 1964). Compare this with the fact that two years prior Don Locke found a massive site with several house features and middens.

With Don Locke showing her the location of the site, Helen Devereux became the first archaeologist to conduct work at Indian Point in 1969. She returned to the site for full-scale excavation from June 26 to August 27, 1970. Her work focused on the origins and relationships of the Beothuk. One of the first things she noticed was the level of destruction that had taken place from construction, erosion, and looting, stating ‘…artifact collectors have visited the site and dug for artifacts for the last 50 years‘ (Devereux 1970).

Devereux seems to have done an excellent job of assessing and excavating portions of the site. Just as importantly her report is very well written with a lot of detail. Part of her goal was to identify who occupied the site and when it was used (i.e. precontact period, historic period or both). In the end, she does clearly identify that the site had both a precontact Beothuk ancestor occupation and a historic Beothuk occupation. In fact, she recovers enough charcoal from locality A3 to produce an early historic period Beothuk date of 1595±100 AD (I-6562). She goes to great lengths to explain her excavation methodology and explains in detail her reasoning for why she felt some features were precontact while others were historic. Fortunately for us, most of her work was concentrated in the now eroded north end of the site, this area of the occupation is now totally gone. What follows are some of the more important features investigated.

Map showing the location of Devereux’s various localities at Indian Point (1970).

Area A3 contained a historic Beothuk hearth feature which was seven feet long and two feet wide and contained a concentration of fire-cracked rock, charcoal and bone mash, all of which was about three inches deep. They recovered a piece of iron, perhaps part of a trap in the hearth (Devereux 1970).

Area A3 also contained precontact features including two hearths and three dense concentrations of fire-cracked rock, one fire-cracked rock concentration and one unburned bone concentration. One of the two hearths contained two small corner-notched projectiles, two chert flakes, and one hammerstone. Other features in this level also contained other precontact artifacts (Devereux 1970). Today, corner-notched projectile points are diagnostic of the archaeologically recognized Little Passage complex, the people of that cultural complex are the direct precontact ancestors of the Beothuk.

A3 South contained an incomplete circular embankment, the outside diameter of which was about 26 feet. Unfortunately, the south and east sides of the embankment were not discernible. Either it was originally incomplete or had been more recently removed. Devereux recorded that the embankment itself is smoothly rounded, about five feet across, and has a maximum elevation of about 18 inches above the surrounding natural surface. In the centre of the feature were a number of definite lumps and hollows. Unfortunately, she did not have a lot of time to thoroughly investigate the feature. The interior had fire-cracked rocks, flakes, and bone. Devereux speculated the feature was the remains of a precontact circular housepit or perhaps subsurface storage pits (Devereux 1970).

Locality A4 contained a historic Beothuk hearth, which was about four feet in diameter and contained fire-cracked rocks, charcoal, bone fragments, and several metal artifacts. A small plain brass button was also recovered in this locality (Devereux 1970).

Locality A4 also contained precontact features including one small hearth, two concentrations of fire-cracked rock, of which one was disturbed, a diffuse midden of fire-cracked rock with calcined bone, and a concentration of broken rock with a chert core and flakes (Devereux 1970).

Map showing the location of Devereux’s various localities at Indian Point (1970).

One of the precontact concentrations of fire-cracked rock consisted of a compact tightly interlocked fire-cracked rock crust with chert flakes. Below the fire-cracked rock lay a three-inch layer of black humic soil containing fire-cracked rock, chert flakes, and burned bone. According to Devereux, the distribution of materials in this feature indicates that burned bone and chert are distributed concentrically and exclusively, except in a limited transition area. Burned bone occurs centrally and chert peripherally in the feature and beyond it. Based on the description it seems the bone was dumped in the fire while flint-knapping (chert tool making) occurred on the outer edges of the fire (Devereux 1970).

Devereux’s B5 feature was a historic Beothuk hexagonal housepit which measured 25 feet by 20 feet with the long axis oriented east-west. The pit portion of the house had a maximum depth of 1.5 feet below the surrounding surface. She describes the pit as: ‘The side walls lie below the natural level of the ground and are represented by smooth slopes 9 in. in height. Their top edge is flush with the natural surface of the ground: there seems to be no mounding up or fill around the perimeter of the depression. The walls slope downward and inward so that the perimeter of the depression is greater at the top edges of the walls than at the base. The wall slope is less discernible in the area of what is probably the doorway.‘ Inside the house, she found a large central hearth with fire-cracked rock and burned bone concentrations. She also recovered one piece of iron, and identified a red ochre patch inside, and identified several exterior concentrations of fire-cracked rock and caribou bone (Devereux 1970).

Devereux's B5 hexagonal Beothuk housepit (1970).
Devereux’s B5 hexagonal Beothuk housepit (1970).

The B5 locality also had a precontact occupation as indicated by the presence of a dense concentration of fire-cracked rock covering an area eight feet long and six feet wide. This deposit also contained flakes and burned bones (Devereux 1970).

B4 was another precontact feature consisting of an extensive deposit of fire-cracked rock with a lower red ochre deposit. According to Devereux, the whole feature was the richest source of artifacts on the site which was dug by an artifact collector several years previously. The collector recovered projectiles, knives, scrapers, stone hammers, chert flakes, and cores. The red ochre deposit consisted of two parallel but irregular lines oriented northeast-southwest. ‘The eastern line of red ochre stain was longer and more intense in colour than the west line. It was 22 feet long and about 16 inches wide. Two feet to the west, the west line measured about eight feet long and 18 inches wide.’ Devereux speculated the ochre stain ‘…would be congruent with the plan of an upturned canoe‘ (Devereux 1970).

In locality D4 there was a feature containing a large concentration of fire-cracked rock (more than 4000 pieces) as well as stone tools and flakes. The whole feature measured approximately 10 feet in either direction and was roughly triangular in shape (Devereux 1970).

In 1978 Ingeborg Marshall made a brief stop at Indian Point ‘…to see previously excavated sites and get an idea of the terrain.’ She noted a lot of destruction and looting to the site including that the Price (Nfld.) Pulp and Paper company was using the small lagoon at the north end of the point ‘…to tie up company boats. An access road to the lake and a launching pad have been bulldozed across the site.’ Further, she noted that the various dams built at the head of the lake had raised the water level which had continued to erode the shoreline by as much as 30-60 metres inland. ‘Also the use of Red Indian Lake for transportation of logs destined for the paper mill has led to the accumulation of stray logs on the shores. When the water level rises, such as happens in spring, the logs pound against the banks of the shore and cause them to collapse.‘ Marshall also found that the site was still suffering from looting. Despite all the erosion and looting Marshall still found a stone point and several small flakes (Marshall 1978).

Photos from Marshall 1978 showing ongoing erosion at the site.
Photos from Marshall 1978 showing ongoing erosion at the site.
Pulp logs on the shore of Red Indian Lake the constant movement of which helped destroy large areas of the site. (Sproull-Thomson)
Pulp logs on the shore of Red Indian Lake the constant movement of which helped destroy large areas of the site (Sproull-Thomson).

Artifacts found at Indian Point over the years.

In 1980 the Historic Resources Division, Department of Culture, Recreation and Youth began a multi-year project simply entitled the Beothuk Project. The purpose of the early phase of the project was to locate, test, delimit and document Beothuk (and other) archaeological sites. The rest of the Indian Point story will be told in the next post in two weeks.

Devereux, Helen
1970  A Preliminary Report on the Indian Point Site, Newfoundland ‑ A Stratified Beothuck Site.

Locke, Donald
1975  Historic and Prehistoric Site ‑ Indian Point Site #1.

Speck, Frank G.
1922 Beothuk and Micmac. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York.

Taylor, Albert
n.d.  Indian Point.

Taylor, J. Garth
1964 An Archaeological Survey of Red Indian Lake and the Exploits River.

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