Manitoba History: Reverend John West’s Collection: Much to Celebrate
by Laura Peers
Reverend John West arrived in Red River in 1820 to work as the first Protestant minister in Rupert’s Land. This autumn marks the 175th anniversary of his arrival and of the church he established, which became the Cathedral Church of St. John in Winnipeg. John West left yet another gift to the people of Manitoba: a small but wonderful collection of Aboriginal artifacts which he collected, or was given, during his years in Red River. These were passed down for over a century in West’s family, and then, through an amazing series of events, they were given back to St. John’s Cathedral. Now on loan to the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, the early date and unusual nature of these objects make them of great importance to students of Manitoba history. 
John West acquired these artifacts through his close connections with Aboriginal people in Red River. He began to recruit Aboriginal children for a school at Red River as soon as his ship landed at York Factory in 1820, and even as he made the challenging journey south to the young colony. While at Red River West baptised, married and buried the uniquely multicultural population of the fur trade, which included some Ojibwa and northern Cree families and the wives of early fur traders. West lost no opportunity to make contact with Aboriginal people around the settlement, and his diaries record many meetings with Chief Peguis. He may well have been given several of the items in his collection by the Aboriginal people he knew; others he undoubtedly asked or traded for, either directly from Aboriginal people or from non-Aboriginal families who owned them. They were all acquired between his arrival in 1820 and his departure in 1823, which makes the collection very rare: it is seldom that Aboriginal artifacts have such precise dates and locations attached to them. The collection is also much earlier than most items in museum collections, which were acquired at the end of the nineteenth century, and provides a valuable reference point for evaluating later materials and styles.
Reverend West died in England in 1845. For over a century the artifacts were handed down in the family until 1954, when John Taylor, an RCAF serviceman en route back to Winnipeg after a stint in France, wandered into the cathedral in Stanford, England, while waiting for his plane. The rector of the cathedral, Canon L. P. Field, noticed Taylor’s Canadian uniform and welcomed him, and on learning that Taylor was from Winnipeg made the startling announcement that he [Canon Field] was the grandson of Reverend John West. Taylor made the equally suprising reply that he was going home to teach in the successor to the very school that John West had founded in 1820, and before he left for his plane, Field had given him West’s manuscript journal and other documents to take with him back to St. John’s in Winnipeg. After further correspondence between Canon Field and the archivist of St. John’s Cathedral, Field also donated West’s collection of Aboriginal artifacts in 1956. The materials have been in the Cathedral since then, until recently when they were loaned to the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature for conservation and safekeeping.
In style and materials, all of the pieces are first-quarter nineteenth century, which means they are not of a type usually associated with Red River, where the later Métis and Aboriginal floral style is better known. Rather, these objects belong to a slightly earlier era, from the time of the establishment of the Red River Settlement in 1812 through the arrival of large numbers of northern Cree migrants in the 1820s and 1830s, when Red River was first becoming an amazingly diverse ethnic and racial melange. These artifacts exhibit Ojibwa, Assiniboin, northern or Swampy Cree, Great Lakes and Plains influences, reminding us that people from all of these groups and regions either lived around or had relatives in the Red River Settlement at that time.
In other ways, the items are typical of their place and time. The collar of blue and white beads was a popular design from Lake Superior to the Rockies during the first half of the nineteenth century. The grizzly claw necklet was also an item prized by both Aboriginal people and collectors, and small beaded bags like the one in the collection with a tinkler-cone fringe typically held everything from little mirrors to ration tickets right through the nineteenth century across the Plains. The quilled belt with the Thunderbird motifs has a very Great Lakes feel; and since the Ojibwa migrated from the Great Lakes west into the Red River area in the late 18th century, it makes perfect sense for such an object to turn up in Red River during West’s stay there.
Other items in the collection include an intriguing strap or panel in three parts, with a fringed central quilled strip; and a rectangular woven beadwork panel that may have been intended as a Bible cover. If this is a Bible cover, it is a nice counterpoint to another item in the collection: the grizzly claw necklet, which was given to West in the context of the awe and ceremonialism with which Ojibwa people regard bears. West’s journal entry describes receiving the necklet, a rare instance of documentation for early collections. It also says much about West’s attitudes toward these materials and about the manner in which Aboriginal people regarded West and why they parted with such special objects. West wrote:
West, of course, was a man of his times, and an English missionary who saw his purpose in Red River as being partly to convert Aboriginal people to Christianity. As he shows in this diary excerpt, he saw the objects he collected as exotic curiosities, and Ojibwa behaviour and attitudes towards bears and bear claws as examples of what he would have called “heathen superstition.” West’s collection, and his words, remind us that the histories of these objects are inseparable from such social and political contexts; they also remind us that such gulfs are slowly and painfully being bridged. In the last few decades, all major Christian churches have issued apologies to Aboriginal people. Many churches, including the Anglican church, now incorporate Aboriginal ceremonialism as part of the service of worship for Aboriginal congregations.
These rare artifacts provoke other thoughts and questions, especially about the Aboriginal people from whom West acquired them. The bear claw necklace was very special to the man who gave it to West, but as he implied, it could be re-made the next time the man killed a bear. The pipe bowl in West’s collection, its incised decorative lines still bearing traces of red ochre, may have been given to West by Peguis along with a request for West to take a message to Church officials in England; Peguis gave similar pipes and messages to George Simpson and other officials. If the beaded panel is a Bible cover, it was likely the gift of a convert.
West’s journal entry about the necklace provides another clue about why Aboriginal people would have given these items to him. The owner of the necklace referred to West as a “chief” in his address to the bear spirit. If Aboriginal people thought of West as a chief, as a person of ability and power, they did so in a dual, traditional way. On the one hand, it meant that they believed West had spiritual power: West’s successors in Red River noted that Aboriginal people sometimes brought their sick children to be baptised because they hoped that the missionary’s “medicine”his spiritual powerwould cure them. On the other hand, it meant that they shrewdly understood that officials such as West occupied positions of social and political power in Red River, and hoped that they did so in England, that they might be able to intercede for them and help them to accomplish their own goals. Some of these items were given to West out of respect, others out of hope or thanksgiving, others out of diplomacy; all of them were given in an Aboriginal framework, which West probably never fully understood.
We are only beginning to understand the meanings these objects had to their Aboriginal owners, and the reasons for their being given to West. John West’s collection is teaching us a great deal: about what early Red River was like, about the dreams and agendas of the peoples who lived there, about an extraordinary man who worked incredibly hard for something in which he believed fervently, about the equally extraordinary responses of the Aboriginal peoples with whom he came in contact. Reverend John West would be astonished that his little collection had found its way back to Red River; that the church he founded should be celebrating its 175th anniversary would surprise him less, though he would find it most gratifying. Both St. John’s Cathedral and John West’s collection are wonderful legacies.
1. The author gratefully acknowledges the permission granted by the Cathedral Church of St. John to photograph and study Reverend John West’s collection; the assistance of Maureen Dolyniuk, Archivist for the Cathedral Church of St. John; and the kind cooperation of Dr. Katherine Pettipas, Department of Native Ethnology, and the photography staff at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature.
2. Reverend John West, The Substance of a Journal During a Residence at the Red River Colony, British North America, In the years 1820-1823. Vancouver: Alcuin Society, 1967 (1824), pp.171-172.
Page revised: 1 January 2016Back to top of page