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BUCHAN, DAVID, naval officer, colonial administrator, judge, office holder, and Arctic explorer; b. 1780 in Scotland; m. 1802 or 1803 Maria Adye, and they had at least three children; d., apparently at sea, some time after 8 Dec. 1838.

In 1806 David Buchan was appointed lieutenant in the Royal Navy and two years later, as a convoy officer for the fishing fleet, he began his long association with Newfoundland. In October 1810 Governor John Thomas Duckworth* chose him to lead an expedition into the interior of the island with the aim of making contact with the Beothuks, the small native Indian tribe the government was anxious to protect. With a party of 27, mostly from his schooner Adonis, Buchan headed west along the Exploits River on 13 January with supplies and gifts loaded on heavy sledges. Struggling against bad weather and icy conditions, the party glimpsed increasing signs of the Indians’ presence until on 24 January some members finally arrived at the Beothuks’ wigwams on Red Indian Lake.

Although neither side spoke the other’s language, relations between them appeared to be amicable. To cement these new relations Buchan decided to retrieve the gifts he had left with the rest of his party at a camp 12 miles down the river. Four Beothuks accompanied him on the trip and two marines remained behind. When Buchan returned two days later, he discovered the bodies of the marines. The Indians had dispersed. Concerned about the safety of his party, Buchan decided to end his mission to the Beothuks. “I could not . . . entertain any hope of securing their persons without bloodshed, which would frustrate all future expectation of their reconciliation and civilization, the grand object in view,” he remarked. The exhausted group retraced their steps and reached the Adonis on 30 January. A second expedition was undertaken from 4 to 19 March. Its progress was obstructed by heavy storms and its members suffered from exposure. When they reached an Indian storage-wigwam pierced by arrows, Buchan deduced that the Beothuks were still inimical and retreated to the coast.

In December 1813 Buchan commanded the Adonis in the convoy to England and in 1815, as captain of the Pike, he briefly occupied Saint-Pierre. He was acting governor of Newfoundland during the winters of 1815–16 and 1816–17, when famine struck the colony and St John’s endured three major fires. He once again travelled in the convoy during the fall of 1817.

Having been raised to the rank of commander on 13 April 1816, Buchan was placed in charge of the Dorothea on 15 Jan. 1818 to prepare for a polar expedition. Probably through the interest in Arctic exploration of John Barrow, second secretary in the Admiralty, Buchan was provided with elaborate orders to find a passage through the ice at the North Pole and then to sail through Bering Strait into the Pacific Ocean. A second vessel, the Trent, was commanded by John Franklin. After their two whaling ships had been strengthened, Buchan and Franklin left from the Thames on 25 April. Struggling through pack-ice most of the summer, the ships skirted the western and northern harbours of Spitsbergen, probing into channels wherever the ice parted. In July the vessels were jammed at 80°34′ N, the most northerly point they were to reach. After three strenuous weeks of trying to free them, the expedition finally gained open water.

Buchan then turned west towards Greenland, but a gale forced the vessels back into the ice at the edge of the field. Within four hours they were so badly damaged that the expedition had to be abandoned. After making repairs at a quiet harbour in Spitsbergen, Buchan again headed west, examining the pack-ice until the expedition was within 12 leagues of Greenland. When the weather threatened once more, he at last turned back and reached the Thames safely on 22 Oct. 1818. Although a route across the pole had not been found, many scientific, cartographic, and natural history observations were successfully carried out by specialists assigned to the ships.

Returning to Newfoundland the next year as captain of the Grasshopper, Buchan served again as senior officer in the absence of the governor during the winter. On 8 Aug. 1819 he received from Governor Sir Charles Hamilton a new assignment concerning the Beothuks. A woman, Demasduwit*, had recently been captured by whites and it was Buchan’s duty to continue the attempt to reunite her with her people. However, she died of tuberculosis before he could make any move. Buchan then determined to transport her body to a Beothuk camp and on 21 January once again ascended the Exploits River. After placing her body, her possessions, and some gifts in a special tent at Red Indian Lake, the party continued west for three days. Although they saw signs of the Beothuks, they did not encounter any. The expedition regained the Grasshopper on 29 Feb. 1820. Three years later Buchan once more acted humanely towards the Beothuks. Three women, including Shawnadithit*, had been brought to St John’s. As senior officer, Buchan ordered magistrate John Peyton Jr of Twillingate to make every effort to return them to their homes.

While serving as senior officer when the governors were not in residence, Buchan also acted as an itinerant judge, or naval surrogate, in the outports. In 1820 he was involved in a set of controversial cases. He and the Reverend John Leigh* sentenced two fishermen, Philip Butler and James Lundrigan*, to be flogged. On information subsequently filed by the fishermen, both surrogates were charged with trespass for assault and false imprisonment, but they were acquitted. Buchan was promoted captain in the Royal Navy on 12 June 1823, but, back in England that fall, was taken off the active list. Seeking some sort of employment from the colonial secretary, he was appointed high sheriff of Newfoundland on 1 March 1825. He was to remain in that position until after the introduction of representative government in 1832, officially resigning on 27 Aug. 1835.

After various tours of duty during 30 years in a rapidly changing Newfoundland, Buchan must have become involved with the East India Company, for he is last heard of on one of its ships, the Upton Castle, which sailed from Calcutta on 8 Dec. 1838.

William Kirwin

David Buchan never published accounts of his expeditions to make contact with the Beothuk Indians. They were obtained from his reports in Admiralty sources and printed, with various modifications, in the following works: [David] Buchan, “Mr. Buchan’s expedition into the interior of Newfoundland,” [ed. John Barrow], in Barrow, A chronological history of voyages into the Arctic regions . . . (London, 1818; repr., intro. Christopher Lloyd, New York, 1971), app., 1–23; “Narrative of Captain Buchan’s journey up the River Exploits, in search of the native Indians, in the winter of 1810–11,” Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 30 July, 6, 13 Aug. 1861; Charles Pedley, The history of Newfoundland from the earliest times to the year 1860 (London, 1863), 482–502; and J. P. Howley, The Beothucks or Red Indians: the aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge, Eng., 1915; repr. Toronto, 1974, and New York, 1979), 72–90, 121–26.

Nfld. Public Library Services, Provincial Reference and Resource Library (St John’s), David Buchan, journal. PRO, CO 194/50–93. John Barrow, Voyages of discovery and research within the Arctic regions, from the year 1818 to the present time . . . (New York, 1846), 49–61. F. W. Beechey, A voyage of discovery towards the North Pole, performed in his majesty’s shipsDorotheaandTrentunder the command of Captain David Buchan, R.N.; 1818 . . . (London, 1843), 1–211. Edward Chappell, Voyage of his majesty’s shipRosamondto Newfoundland and the southern coast of Labrador, of which countries no account has been published by any British traveller since the reign of Queen Elizabeth (London, 1818), 185–87, 248–50, 259-60. Lloyd’s register of British and foreign shipping (London), 1838–39. W. L. Clowes, The Royal Navy; a history from the earliest times to the present (7v., London, 1897–1903), 6: 508. B. D. Fardy, Captain David Buchan in Newfoundland (St John’s, 1983). [This work is a readable account, but it is not historically accurate.  w.k.] C. R. Fay, Life and labour in Newfoundland (Toronto, 1956). Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. (1895), 384–411. F. G. Speck, Beothuk and Micmac (New York, 1922; repr. 1981), 49–50. Edward Curran, “David Buchan – explorer,” Nfld. Quarterly, 52 (1953), no. 1: 26–28. L. F. S. Upton, “The extermination of the Beothucks of Newfoundland,” CHR, 58 (1977): 133–53; “A portrait by Shanawdithit,” Nfld. Quarterly, 73 (1977), no.2: 44.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

William Kirwin, “BUCHAN, DAVID,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/buchan_david_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/buchan_david_7E.html
Author of Article:   William Kirwin
Title of Article:   BUCHAN, DAVID
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   May 24, 2024