Memorable Manitobans: James Evans (1801-1846)
Born in Kingston-upon-Hull, England, the son of a sea captain. His wife was Mary Blithe Smith of L’Original, Lower Canada. He came to Canada in 1823, joining his parents who had emigrated to Lachute, Lower Canada. He taught school for a few years and then moved to Upper Canada, and in 1828 became a teacher in the Indian school at Rice Lake. Before coming west his time was spent in work with the Indians at Credit Mission near Toronto, at St. Catharines where he was ordained in 1833, at Guelph and at Sarnia. His Ojibwa syllabary was refused for publication in Toronto in 1836, and he had it published in New York in 1837.
In 1840 George Simpson, anxious to limit the activities of Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries, agreed with the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society to allow three of that denomination in the Northwest. Evans was appointed General Superintendent of North West Indian Missions stationed at Norway House. He named his mission “Rossville” in honour of Donald Ross, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was at Rossville that the work for which he is chiefly remembered was accomplished, the invention of the syllabic alphabet for the Cree language. It has less than fifty characters, was easily mastered by both Indian and non-Indian, is still in use, and has been adapted to other native languages. It gave the Crees their first written language.
In his earliest efforts, using tea-lead to carve type, lamp black for ink, birch bark for paper and a disused fur press, he printed hymns and prayers. A printing press and type were later sent to him from England. At the same time he taught reading,writing, arithmetic, and music, and the rudiments of farming and gardening. He became involved in conflict with Hudson’s Bay Company officials over his insistence on Sunday observance and his attempts to teach agricultural pursuits to the Indians.
In 1844 a gun he was handling accidentally discharged and killed Thomas Hassall, an Aboriginal member of his party. Contemporaries blamed the accident for a change in Evans’s personality, and there were subsequent rumours of sexual abuse of young Indian girls that were never proven. He was recalled to England in 1846, where died of a heart attack in London on 23 November 1846.
His major work was The Speller and Interpreter, in Indian and English, for the Use of the Mission Schools, and Such As May Desire to Obtain a Knowledge of the Ojibway Tongue (1837).
“The man who brought the bible to the Crees,” Winnipeg Free Press, 29 October 1966.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 10 December 2022