Four Mile Rapids – 2016

Consulting Archaeologist Laurie McLean was contracted by Newfoundland and Labrador’s Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO) to direct a number of Beothuk-focussed field projects in 2016.  One of these took place at a site on the shore of the Exploits River and two projects took place at Red Indian Lake.  Retired Grand Falls-Windsor outfitter Don Pelley and Grand Falls-Windsor resident Penny Wells assisted in this research.

Laurie McLean, Author


Author:  Laurie McLean, Archaeologist
Date of Report:  2016

The author and Don Pelley spent six days in June assessing the condition of the Four Mile Rapids site (DfAv-01) which is located on the bank of the Exploits River a few kilometers east from Grand Falls-Windsor.  This site had been identified and partly excavated by amateur archaeologist Don Locke in 1967 (Locke Field Notes).   Locke reported three Beothuk housepits there and collected iron, lead and tin artifacts (McLean 1990).  Locke found caribou bone in each of the housepits.

The term housepit refers to a depression in the ground left from Beothuk domestic structures and store houses.  Beothuk excavated the envisioned interior of these buildings to depths that varied from a few centimeters to over 50 centimeters and deposited the earth around the perimeter, forming a foundation.  Most housepit foundations were composed of soil, but a few built in rockier localities had sub-walls of mounded boulders.  A wooden frame was then anchored to poles embedded in the foundation.  The frame was usually covered with birch bark although sails from European ships and caribou hides were sometimes used as well.  Beothuk housepits manifest a variety of shapes, including ovate, round, square, rectangular, pentangular and hexagonal.  Octagonal housepits were historically described, but have not been found in the archaeological record (Marshall 1996:356).  Early housepits were round or oval-shaped, indicating conical structures stood over the pits.  This suggests that early Beothuk living on the coast, roughly dating to the late sixteenth-early seventeenth centuries, transferred the design of precontact wigwams, which did not incorporate subsurface interiors, to slightly larger pit houses.  Many of the later Beothuk housepits, found throughout the Exploits Valley, were more angular, ranging from four-sided to multi-sided.  One-hundred-fifty-five housepits have been found in the Exploits Valley and 33 were identified on the coast of Bonavista Bay and Notre Dame Bay.  The author and Don Pelley have re-identified 52 of the Exploits Valley housepits and have found at least two that was not previously reported (see below).  PAO archaeologist Ken Reynolds re-identified another Exploits River housepit in 2013.

Brief visits to the Four Mile Rapids site by professional archaeologists since the 1960s did not re-identify all three housepits.  Vegetation growth, erosion and recent construction complicated quick identification of the housepits.  Pelley and the author had briefly visited the site previous to 2016, noting a number of depressions that looked like Beothuk housepits, but could not be confirmed without excavating them to check for the presence or absence of artifacts.  When they returned to the site in June, 2016 they saw six housepit-like depressions.  One-hundred-thirty-seven test pits were excavated throughout the site last summer to determine the distribution of artifacts, should any be present.  Caribou bone, charcoal and fire-cracked rocks were recovered from the interior of three depressions confirming the presence of central hearths inside three housepits. The latter are dispersed in a 50 meter linear distribution along a natural berm three to four meters above the river.  Tools were not found inside the housepits, following a common pattern throughout these inland features.  This may be attributable to the previous amateur excavations and other illegal digging which removed most, if not all, of the artifacts.  Also, Exploits Valley housepits appear to contain much smaller tool kits than occurred in Beothuk houses found on the north coast.  Further excavations are required to test this observation.

Plate 1:  Tin kettle/coffee pot found on the tree-covered slope south from Housepit 1

A tin kettle/coffee pot found on the tree-covered slope south from Housepit 1 (Plate 1) may have been left at the site by its mid-eighteenth century Beothuk inhabitants or by Europeans.   A tin fragment was previously recovered from Housepit 1 at Four Mile Rapids and three others came from this site or Two Mile Island-1 (DfBa-02) (McLean 2016:18; 1990:np).  Incomplete records prohibit assigning a definite site of origin.  Two tin fragments were found at Boyd’s Cove (DiAp-03) (McLean 1989:128; Pastore 1983:137; 1984:98, 102).

European settlers were aware of the Beothuk’s use of tin objects.  The latter were seen at a Beothuk camp in 1810 (Howley 1915:69) and philanthropic expeditions in 1808, 1811 and 1819-20 carried tin implements as presents for Beothuk (Ibid:67, 72, 112, 117).  The suggested mid-eighteenth century date for this site is supported by housepit morphology and site location.  One of the Four Mile Rapids housepits is oval-shaped while the other two are hexagonal (Plates 2, 3).  They range from 16.4 m2 to 22.6 m2 in size, making them among the smallest of 82 housepits that have been measured.  The oldest Beothuk housepits occur at the Beaches site (DeAk-01), Bonavista Bay where a 19.48 m2 oval-shaped housepit was radiocarbon dated to the late sixteenth-early seventeenth century (McLean 2015:2).  By the mid-1700s Beothuk were decreasing their use of coastal Newfoundland and were spending longer portions of the year in the Exploits Valley as a means of avoiding contact with Europeans.  Current research suggests that many of their early interior-located homes were similar to those used on the coast, consisting of circular or oval-shaped housepits big enough to accommodate a single family.  Hexagonal housepits possibly represent early angular variations of older round to oval house forms.  Although much larger rectangular housepits are among early Beothuk housepits at Boyd’s Cove, built between 1650 and 1720 on the coast of Notre Dame Bay, these are exceptional.   Large rectangular houses became more common at subsequent Exploits Valley sites where they are associated with the breakdown of traditional Beothuk families, resulting in decimated families sharing larger houses.  Some of these, possibly dating to after 1800, were built further apart from each other than had previously occurred and at increased distance from the river, suggesting the desire to hide from Europeans.

A final consideration in tentatively dating the Four Mile Rapids housepits concerns John Cartwright’s map which depicts his 1768 expedition up the Exploits River to Red Indian Lake (Cartwright 1768).  This illustration shows 15 Beothuk structures over a 10 kilometer distance on the north side of the river below the Grand Falls (Ibid; McLean 2016a:8).  The Four Mile Rapids site is located within this area although Cartwright’s map shows two Beothuk houses where the three-housepit Four Mile Rapids site occurs.  A third housepit may have been built here following Cartwright’s visit or he may have confused the distribution of Beothuk structures.  Nonetheless, Cartwright’s map is a good general summary of mid-eighteenth Beothuk in the Exploits Valley, but it must be carefully interpreted.  Archaeological research provides a good means of realizing the map’s potential to Beothuk studies.

Pelley and the author were also given the task of re-identifying three housepits briefly referred to on a hand-drawn map, presumed to be created by Don Locke, in the possession of the PAO.  These housepits were shown on top of a rocky ridge on the opposite side of the river and a little upstream from the Four Mile Rapids site.  These features could not be found in 2016, but a small stone artifact showed that early Beothuk or precontact people had briefly stopped in the vicinity of the reported housepits.  The crew also discovered a late nineteenth-early twentieth campsite where Mi’Kmaq or settlers had killed and butchered a caribou.  This was situated on a high terrace overlooking the suggested housepit location.

Plate 2:  Don Pelley standing on the south wall of Housepit 3, Four Mile Rapids (DfAv-01)


Plate 3: Housepit 1, Four Mile Rapids (DfAv-01).