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The Taking of Demasduit

For the Week of March 7, 2016

In March of 1819, the Beothuk woman Demasduit was living in captivity in Twillingate, Newfoundland. The Beothuk, who were the island’s indigenous people, had long avoided contact with European settlers but still felt the effects of European disease, competition for resources and, especially, pursuit. By the time of Demasduit’s capture, there were very few Beothuk still alive.

Portrait of Demasduit, painted by Lady Hamilton, 1819
© Library and Archives Canada, acc. no. 1977-14-1
On March 1, John Peyton Jr., a shipyard owner, led a group of men to Demasduit’s campsite in Newfoundland's interior in order to recover goods stolen from fishing stages. The Governor of Newfoundland, Sir Charles Hamilton, hoping to educate a Beothuk to act as intermediary, also granted Peyton the right to capture. When Peyton’s group entered the camp, most of the Beothuk fled. But Demasduit, who had recently given birth, lagged behind and was captured. Her husband’s attempts to free her were misunderstood as hostile and he was shot and killed.

Demasduit was placed in the care of Reverend John Leigh in Twillingate, and was given the name Mary March after the month in which she was abducted. In the 19th century, the Beothuk were often considered by Europeans as “savage” and uncivilized. Demasduit played a role in changing this stereotype. While living with Leigh she learned some English and provided much of what is now known about the Beothuk language, some 180 words. It is from Demasduit that we know the name “Beothuk.” She was eventually taken to St. John’s, where her intelligence and gentle nature prevailed.

“The Taking of Mary March on the North side of the lake,” sketch by Shanawdithit depicting Demasduit’s capture
From: James P Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians, (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1915), 240, facing.

Demasduit never gave up hope that she might see her child again. Governor Hamilton sent two search expeditions to bring her back to her people, but neither group met any Beothuk. On January 8, 1820, around the age of 24, Demasduit died of tuberculosis during the second expedition. Demasduit’s niece, Shanawdithit, was taken and brought to Twillingate in 1823. It is from her that we know of the death of Demasduit’s child two days after its mother’s capture, and of the final days of the Beothuk.

March 8 is International Women’s Day. For her contribution to our knowledge of the Beothuk and her role in changing European attitudes, Demasduit is designated as a person of national historic significance. To learn about Shanawdithit, also a person of national historic significance, read In Search of Family. To learn more about the Beothuk and the early settlement of Newfoundland read, Death of Shanawdithit and the Beothuk, and The First Permanent Settlement on Newfoundland in the This Week in History archives.

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