Memorable Manitobans: John West (1778-1845)
Born in Farnham, Surrey, England in 1778, and educated at St. Edmund’s Hall, Oxford. He was ordained a priest of the Church of England by the Bishop of London on 20 December 1804. After spending fifteen years in various curacies in England he was appointed chaplain to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1819 and left for Red River in May 1820, fully committed to evangelization of Indigenous people rather than service to the settlers.
He arrived at the Red River Settlement on 14 October 1820, and gave his first service the following day. One of his first works was the erection of a school in a log cabin in Kildonan (St. John’s) with George Harbidge serving as schoolmaster, teaching Christianity and practical subjects. Unlike the earlier education scheme recommended by Lord Selkirk, however, he did not emphasize the need to remain in touch with Native skills. The schoolhouse also served as a church. West upset the settlers by opposing marriage “according to the custom of the country,” and forcing some Company officers to formalize their relationships with Indian and Métis women. He refused to baptize an illegitimate child.
He wrote The Substance of a Journal during a Residence at the Red River Colony, British North America; and Frequent Excursions among the North-West American Indians, in the years 1820, 1821, 1822, 1823 (1824) and A Journal of a mission tothe Indians of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and the Mohawks on the Ouse or Grand River, Upper Canada. (London, 1827).
He travelled widely across Rupert’s Land, but the fur traders became fearful that his evangelization would ultimately harm the fur trade. He went home in 1823, supposedly temporarily, but he never returned. He published his journal in 1824. In 1825-1826 he visited eastern Canada on behalf of the New England Company. West spent the remainder of his life as rector of Chettle, Dosetshire, England, becoming a domestic chaplain to Baron Duncannon in 1831, to which was added the adjoining Parish of Farnham in 1834.
The last years of his life were devoted to work among English gypsies. West died on 31 December 1845. There are papers at the Archives of Manitoba.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 11 February 2023