Two hundred years ago today, John Peyton of Twillingate and his party abducted a Beothuk woman, Demasduit. Her husband Nobosbawsut was killed while trying to protect her. Shortly after, her child died. Demasduit’s captors called her Mary March. They took her to Twillingate, then St. John’s. Too late, they decided to take her back to her people. She died January 8, 1890 on board HMS Grasshopper.
In April 1823, Demasduit’s niece Shanawdithit was captured. Her mother and sister, who were abducted along with her, died of tuberculosis soon after. Shanawdithit lived another six years and taught her captors much about her people – their language and way of life. She died on June 6, 1829, believed to be the last of the Beothuk.
In 1966, nearly a century and a half after Demasduit was captured, Harry Cuff wrote about Annie Gabriel White of Stephenville. She said her great-grandfather was a Beothuk man named Gabriel. Annie and Richard White were the parents of the late chief Benedict White of Stephenville.
Great-Grandchild of a Beothuk, by Harry Cuff 1966
For years, most of those who have written about the Beothucks have been repeating, with apparent acceptance, the story that there were only thirteen Beothucks living at the time of Shawnadithit’s capture in 1823. The basis of this story is the report that Shawnandithit told this to W. E. Cormack. But giving full credit to the nomadic Beothucks for having had a thorough knowledge of the island, even the slightly sceptical reader would be inclined to question the reliability of a census for a 42,000 square mile area, given by a twenty-five year old woman, a century and a half ago.
Fifteen years ago when I began teaching Newfoundland history in Grand Falls (deep in Beothuck territory), I encouraged my students’ speculations about the actual fate of the Beothuck race. Having sparked their interest with a tale passed along to me by a friend who had been in conversation with a west coast Micmac, whose grandfather reputedly had shot a Beothuck on Red Indian Lake about the year 1850, it was necessary to curb the desire of some of the more romantic souls to organize an expedition to cross the Exploits River and seek a remnant of the Beothuck race. A more familiar story which served to intensify our historical cynicism was that of a white man who had been captured by Beothucks, married a Beothuck girl and fathered her child but escaped and return to live in a white settlement. Might not this have happened in reverse, we wondered? Might not a Beothuck man have married a white (or Micmac) woman and settled in a white community to raise a family, some member of which might be alive today?
Last month I talked to a woman who states with pride that her great-grandfather was a full-blooded Red Indian, i.e., a Beothuck. Mrs. Richard White, a resident of Stephenville, told me her grandfather, Joe Gabriel, never tired of telling her that he was the son of a full-blooded Beothuck named Gabriel who came from the interior of the island to Grand River in the Codroy Valley, where he married a Micmac girl. Mrs. White, whose picture accompanies this article, traced her ancestry as shown below.
Gabriel (full-blooded Beothuck) —m— Full-blooded Micmac girl
Joe Gabriel—married—Miss Gillam
Fred Gabriel —married — Margaret Cormier
Anne Gabriel (Mrs. Richard White)
Is it possible that among the many descendants of Gabriel, there can be found some of the unique physical characteristics of the Beothucks?
During the interview I was told another fascinating story by Mrs. White’s husband—a story related to him about the year 1920 by Paul Benoit, then a man in his nineties, who had been told the story when a boy by John Young, an old Micmac trapper. Young, when in his prime, set out on a hunting trip one fall travelling by sea from Journois Brook to the mouth of the Humber, thence by canoe to Sandy Lake and overland to a place later called Mary March Brook. There he met some white hunters from Notre Dame Bay who were looking for Beothucks. Young joined them, and shortly thereafter they came upon a Beothuck couple. The male Beothuck fired several arrows at his pursuers, who finally had to shoot him in defence, and they then attempted to capture the woman. She shot two arrows at them, but in trying to escape, she broke her snowshoe strap, and she was captured with four arrows remaining in her “caribou pouch.” Despite her advanced state of pregnancy, the Beothuck woman was restrained only with difficulty, and had to be lashed to a sleigh, which event hastened the birth of her child. Related in the 1920’s before Dick White had heard the Mary March story, it bears a startling resemblance to the better-known story of John Peyton’s capture of Mary March in 1819.
Mr. and Mrs. White related these stories (which we have not attempted to verify) to the writer and Melvin Rowe, CBC News Director, during a social evening in Mr. Rowe’s home. We feel that a search for similar tales among the remnants of the Micmac race would yield rich dividends.
The Beothucks or Red Indians by James P. Howley 1915 has many accounts of the capture of Demasduit and subsequent encounters with Beothuk. See especially pp 91-129.
According to Ben White, Joseph Gabriel’s parents were Andre “Teesh” Gabriel and Mary Ann Hall. His wife was Ester Mary Rachel Gillam.
Mr. Cuff, publisher and author, died in August 2013 at the age of 85.
- See my Sylvester Joe for more on the journey that W. E. Cormack made across the island in 1822 with a Mi’kmaq guide.