Beothuk canoe model at the Canadian Canoe Museum, made by Francis Warren. Photo Robert Holtzman
The Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland were completely exterminated by the early 19th century by a combination of direct, conscious oppression by European settlers (and, to an extent, by Micmac people in Newfoundland) and by diseases unwittingly brought to them by Europeans. Because the Beothuk attempted, in the majority of cases, to avoid all contact, including trade, with Europeans, little is known of them. They did build quite distinctive birch bark canoes, of which certain details are known. Others, however, will probably remain forever mysteries.
Beothuk canoes were from 15' to 20' long, and almost a pure V-shape in cross-section throughout their entire length, with just a bit of rounding off of the apex. They had dramatic sheer both fore and aft, and amidships the gunwales rose in an even more dramatic hump, a feature that I'll discuss below. The boats were amazingly deep (for canoes) between the humped gunwales (or "wings"), which were held apart by a particularly long thwart.
With their V-bottom, the canoes would have been extraordinarily unstable were it not for another unique aspect of the Beothuk design: they relied on interior ballast, in the form of stones. These were covered by battens and moss, skins, or some other soft material for the comfort of the paddlers. With their stone ballast, they would have been quite stable in their intended use, which was coastal and even offshore waters. The Beothuk took their canoes as much as 40 miles offshore to collect birds and eggs from smaller islands -- further than any other bark canoes used by Native Americans. They were not used for inland waters.
It may be presumed that they were also used to hunt sea mammals, as the Micmac did in their "rough water" canoes, which also had a humped gunwale (although not nearly so dramatic). In both cases, the raised gunwale amidships would have helped keep out water in rough conditions, while the lower sheer fore and aft of amidships provided clearance for the crew to wield their paddles. The Beothuk's V-bottom and great flare would have given the boat tremendous secondary stability (much like a Banks dory), which would have come in handly when hoisting a captured seal or porpoise over the side.
Beothuk canoes were unique among North American bark canoes in having a backbone. Not a keel, but a keelson, laid inside the bark covering and below the ribs, provided longitudinal strength. Most other construction details followed standard American Indian practice, with the possible exception of the gunwales, more on which below. Like other bark canoes, they had sheathing against the inside of the bark, held in place by bent ribs, and were lashed together with split spruce roots. As cedar was unavailable in Newfoundland, spruce took its place for the sheathing and ribs.
There is some disagreement about whether the bottom was deeply rockered or straight. A sketch from 1768 (below) shows the rockered interpretation, and the artist described the boat as being like a "half moon" in profile, "nearly, if not exactly, the half of an ellipse."
Sketch by Lieut. John Cartwright, 1768, in the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador. Illustration taken from The Beothuk, by Ingeborg Marshall, Breakwater Books
Three grave models have been found, however, which show a straight bottom with a distinct break where the ends rise from it, and the last surviving Beothuk, a woman named Shanawdithit, made a model in 1826-27 (shown below) that also had these attributes. Although boat models made by indigenous people are often inaccurate, I'd say the straight bottom seems more likely.
Model by Shawandithit; photo from The Beothuk, by Ingeborg Marshall
Another design feature about which there is some disagreement is the shape of the gunwales. The grave models referred to above had the gunwales rising to a smooth curved hump amidships. Shanawdithit's model, in contrast, shows the gunwales rising to a point amidships, as does another model held by the Royal Scottish Museum which, according to Kenneth G. Roberts and Philip Shackleton in The Canoe, was also of Beothuk origin. This is further supported by the 1768 sketch above, and by the accompanying description that noted the sharp angle and stated that the gunwales were formed of two pieces joined in the middle. One more bit of support appears in a very bare description dating to 1612 that compared the Beothuk canoe to the wherries of the Thames River in England. Although this description doesn't refer specifically to the sheerline or the gunwales, the "broken" sheer of the Thames wherries is perhaps their most obvious visual characteristic.
Adney concluded that the humped version was the correct one (see image below), saying of the "broken" interpretation: "This hardly seems corrrect since such a connection would not produce the rigidity that such structural parts require, given the methods used by Indians to build bark canoes." He speculates that the 1768 observer saw a damaged canoe, in which the humped gunwales had been broken, creating the sharply pointed sheer.
Reconstruction of a 15' Beothuk canoe in The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983. (Click for larger image.)
I cautiously disagree with Adney's conclusion. He seems to be ignoring the unique construction feature of the keelson which, I believe, would impart the necessary longitudinal rigidity to the structure, reducing or eliminating the stress on the gunwales which, in other bark canoes, provide the majority of longitudinal strength. The preponderance of evidence, I believe, points to the pointed gunwales.
One more interesting feature to note in Adney's reconstruction is the nearly vertical post extending above the stems at both ends. This was used, he says, to raise the ends when the boat was inverted on the ground for use as a shelter. Raising the ends would have been necessary, even with their extreme rise, because of the equally extreme rise of the sheer amidships.