CULL, WILLIAM, fisherman, trapper, and lumberman; fl. 1792–1823 in Newfoundland.
William Cull belongs to a group of English pioneers who began exploiting resources in the inner reaches and river estuaries of Notre Dame Bay during the late 1700s. Though few in number compared to the migrants and settlers who engaged in the cod and seal fisheries at outer bay locations, these frontiersmen – furriers, salmoniers, and woodsmen – pushed into the domain of the native Beothuk Indians in the basins of the Exploits and Gander rivers and Indian Brook. The result for them has been a somewhat unenviable reputation in Newfoundland history. Their occupational pursuits entailed contact, competition, and conflict with the dwindling remnants of the island’s ill-fated aboriginal Indians. They came to regard these natives as thieves of implements and food supplies, and consequently as a threat to survival. Some observers and writers have concluded that these fishermen-trappers waged a deliberate and systematic campaign to exterminate the Beothuks; others have maintained that factors such as European diseases were more prominent in their demise. That the settlers did commit numerous atrocities against the Beothuks and were, directly or indirectly, a prominent factor in their decline and eventual extinction, is admitted by all scholars and professional writers.
Like many of his contemporaries in Notre Dame Bay, Cull probably came from the vicinity of Poole in Dorset, England, although it is possible that he was a native Newfoundlander. In 1792 he worked for Harry Miler, trapping beaver and fox on Northern Arm Brook and Peters River which flow into the estuary of the Exploits. In 1796 he was employed as a furrier by John Peyton, who also paid his passage on a visit to England. As the accounts of John Slade and Company – merchants of Poole with establishments at Fogo and Twillingate – attest, from 1797 onward Cull was an independent entrepreneur. He delivered to the Slades some sealskins and codfish, but mostly salmon and furs. Occasionally he cut and sold wood products, as in 1823 when he sold them an amount valued at £140.
Although he earned his livelihood chiefly on the mainland of Newfoundland, Cull had his principal residence in Barr’d Islands, a settlement on the north side of Fogo Island. When the Reverend John Leigh, one of the first Anglican missionaries in the area, visited there in August 1821, William Cull and his wife Mary presented seven children for baptism. The records also show that five Cull adults, all from Barr’d Islands, were baptized, and that two other Cull nuclear families resided there.
It is in the context of documented English-Beothuk contacts for the period 1791–1823 that William Cull attracts special attention. Indeed his activities together with those of Peyton and others have been associated most prominently with the legends, myths, and controversies, as well as with the scholarly assessments, of the Beothuks. Cull’s own place comes from his having captured four of the eight members of the tribe who fell into European hands between 1758 and 1829, and from his activities as an emissary and guide hired by Newfoundland governors to establish amicable relationships with the Beothuks during the early 1800s.
In 1792 George Christopher Pulling, a naval officer, made a survey of relations between the Beothuks and fishermen-furriers on the northeast coast. Among his informants was William Cull who stated that he had been disturbed by Indians while furring the previous spring. Cull did not openly admit to having harmed the natives but did say that on one occasion when two Indians were lurking around he would have shot at them if he had had the opportunity. Pulling’s opinion was that Cull, like many of the other furriers, thought little of killing Indians.
The circumstances of Cull’s capture of an Indian woman in 1803 are related in several different sources which vary somewhat in substance and opinion. One source claims that Cull seized the woman “when she was paddling in her canoe a short distance from the mainland for the purpose of getting birds’ eggs from an island.” Cull took his captive, described variously as a “young female,” “about 50 years of age,” and by Cull himself as “the old Indian woman,” to St John’s in order to collect the bounty which had for some years been offered “for capturing and establishing friendly relations” with the Indians. After she had spent some time in St John’s where she was given presents, Cull was instructed to return her to her people whom it was hoped she could convince of the good intentions of the white people. Cull kept the woman at his home on Fogo Island for nearly a year but in August 1804 took her up the Exploits River “as far as we possibly could, for want of more strength; and there let her remain ten days. . . . When I returned,” he stated, “the rest of the Indians had carried her off in the country.” He also noted his desire to have little more to do with the Indians unless the government would ensure payment to hire men and expressed the common prejudice of white settlers in the area who “do not hold with civilizing the Indians.”
In the fall of 1809 Cull was engaged by Governor John Holloway to lead a winter expedition into “Red Indian” (Beothuk) country. Setting out on 1 Jan. 1810, he was accompanied by six settlers from Notre Dame Bay and two Micmac Indians. They traversed the Exploits River, then frozen, and moved inland some 60 miles in four days, near to Red Indian Lake. The party found plenty of evidence of Beothuk activity: buildings, large fences for hunting deer, food supplies, and dressed furs. They caught a glimpse of two Indians, who eluded them and evidently spread an alarm to others in the vicinity, whereupon Cull decided to return, citing as reasons “want of bread and some difference of opinion among the party.” The difference of opinion probably was rooted in a fear of ambush.
The following year Cull was appointed chief guide to an expedition arranged by Governor Sir John Thomas Duckworth* and headed by Lieutenant David Buchan*. The Buchan expedition was the most ambitious attempt ever made to establish contact with the Beothuks. Cull guided a party of 28 men, mostly armed marines, from the Bay of Exploits up the Exploits River over the route he had taken the year before and then some ten miles beyond. Near Red Indian Lake a part of the expedition surprised a group of Beothuks but events that followed resulted in the murder by the Indians of two members of Buchan’s party. One scholar has suggested that Buchan erred by taking furriers such as Cull, “those inveterate enemies of the poor Red man.”
Cull’s capture of three Indian women in the spring of 1823, like his taking of a Beothuk 20 years earlier, occurred by chance. He and some of his men encountered an Indian man and an old woman. The woman gave herself up and several days later led Cull to where her two daughters – one 20, the other about 16 – were in a starving condition. Cull placed the three in charge of John Peyton Jr, a magistrate. All succumbed to tuberculosis, the third, Shawnadithit, dying at St John’s in 1829. She was the last known survivor of her people.
Like his early years Cull’s later life is cloaked in some obscurity. He apparently died in Newfoundland some time in or after 1831 and left behind a large progeny.
BL, Add. ms 38352. PANL, P7/A/6, 1796–1831. USPG, C/CAN/Nfl., 3, reg. of baptisms for the parish of Twillingate, Nfld., 1816–23 (copy at PANL). Public Ledger, June 1831. Howley, Beothucks or Red Indians. F. W. Rowe, Extinction: the Beothuks of Newfoundland (Toronto, 1977).