Happy new year! Last month, it was announced that the Mary March museum would be renamed after her Beothuk name Demasduit. Demasduit (depicted above in an 1819 portrait) lived from c. 1796 to 1820. How did her name come to be Anglicised, and what is the importance of recognising her Beothuk name after this Mary March of time?
As described by Ingeborg Marshall in her 1996 book A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk, the early 19th century saw a rise in clashes between English settlers and the Beothuk in Newfoundland. The latter pilfered traps and fishing equipment as well as boats given the pressures of settler colonialism on their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. John Peyton Jr., a salmon fisher and fur trader, complained in 1818 that his loaded boat was stolen one night and found rifled. He petitioned the governor of Newfoundland in St. John’s for permission to seize a Beothuk captive as a form of retaliation and redress. This settler was caught napping, so was determined on kidnapping.
On March 1, 1819, with the governor’s permission, he headed out with his father and eight furriers on a kidnapping expedition. Four days later they came up across a group of Beothuk by what is still unfortunately known as ‘Red Indian Lake’ in the western interior: they grabbed one woman, and in the ensuing struggle, a Beothuk man was fatally shot. Peyton claimed that the woman sought mercy by exposing her breasts and that the party were threatened by the Beothuk man with an axe; he made no mention of the killing. One of Peyton’s men, however, recalled that the woman, Demasduit, was ill and weak and carrying a child; her husband Nonosabasut took the child and tried to rescue her, but was then shot. This account was confirmed by another Beothuk woman and witness, Shanawdithit, who reported that the infant died two days after Demasduit’s abduction. Peyton nevertheless insisted that he had sought good relations with the Beothuk, and a grand jury ruled that that murder was committed in reasonable self-defence. The colonial justice system was, unsurprisingly, in-jury-ous to the Beothuk.
Demasduit was placed under the care of Reverend John Leigh, had her clothes changed to English garb, and renamed Mary March after the month in which she was captured (an unsubtly traumatic nomenclature). She tried several times to escape to the woods, but was recaptured. The Europeans reported that she became somewhat reconciled to her situation. She was removed to St. John’s, where her portrait was painted by the governor’s wife. Demasduit became an object of exotic curiosity: the English enjoyed her pleasing manners, and hoped that she could act as an intermediary between them and her own people. The Beothuk were understandably mistrustful: given the English delusion that a ‘sympathetic’ captive could resolve longstanding colonial conflicts, the Beothuk would have seen them as mad as March hares.
Some English in St. John’s revised their attitudes about the ‘Red Indians’ and even conceded the cruelty of their behaviour towards the Beothuk, who had a prior title to the island. Thus, Demasduit was deployed as a mediator to improve settler-Beothuk relations. She was suffering from consumption, however, and was unable to accompany the parties sent out to contact the Beothuk as well as reluctant to take on this role. Demasduit may have sensed that such attempts could meet at best with March-inal success.
Demasduit died suddenly on Jan. 8, 1820: 202 years ago today. The commander of the expedition to the Beothuk, Captain David Buchan, decided to convey her remains to her former residence despite the treacherous conditions on the ice. On Feb. 11, they came upon a burial hut containing the remains of her husband Nonosabasut, and left her corpse in the tent along with her coat and presents. Shanawdithit reported that a Beothuk party retrieved her coffin and removed it to a cemetery they had built for her husband. By 1820, the search for further Beothuk was suspended, and the tribe had diminished to an estimated 27 people. Shanawdithit died in 1829; some Beothuk may have survived, but the tribe was extinct. Tragically, the Beothuk disappeared due to colonial violence and settlement, diseases brought by Europeans, and some inter-tribal rivalry (from Mi’kmaq migrants and Labrador Inuit)–despite the futile and tardy expeditions to contact those who dared to March to a different tune.
Till next time,
Early Modern Newfoundland-grab Studies Program