James Evans, 1801-1846

James Evans was born in 1801 in Hull, England and was named for his father, a merchant captain. Although eager to enter a similar career when he was young, James Evans was discouraged from the sea by the experience of sailing with his father, and was to return to his studies after only two voyages.

  In 1820 Evans’ family moved to La Chute, Québec, while James remained in England to try his hand at business. When he later emigrated in 1822, he taught at L’Orignal and met the woman he would wed, Mary Blithe Smith. After two years the couple moved to Augusta, Upper Canada, where James made the decision to enter into missionary work.

  In 1827, James Evans received the responsibility of the mission post at Rice Lake1. After a year there were some 40 native students, half of whom could read English. Evans himself was becoming familiar with the local languages, and wrote in Ojibwa, and in 1830 was preaching sermons in the local Ojibwa language. By 1831, Evans had produced an original orthography and the beginnings of a writing system for the native languages to replace the only current representation for the language which was in the Latin script. As the Ojibwa were being taught both in English and in their own tongue, it was confusing for them to use the same script, especially as English .

  Through his study of the language, Evans realized that the Ojibwa language could best be represented through just nine sounds, which are: a, ch, k, m, n, p, t, s, and y all of which can be combined with the basic vowels in four variations: ai, chi, ki, mi, ni, pi, ti, si, yi and so on for the vowels e, i, o, u. It was probably also around this time that Evans first considered a new syllabic writing system as being the ideal way to render the Algonkian languages.

  In 1837 Evans was able to publish some of his first translations. He had a spelling book printed for him in New York that year; hymns and music. Unfortunately the speller (Speller and Interpreter in English and Indian) was rejected by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1838. The lack of sanction and funding from the Bible Society did not, however, prevent the use of the syllabic speller and accompanying works by either Evans or his assistant Thomas Hurlburt.

  In 1840, after two years of expedition and missionary work around Lake Superior, Evans was appointed to the post of General Superintendent of the North West Indian missions. To take up his new post, he moved to Norway House, on the shores of Playgreen Lake about 650km north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, arriving there in August of 1840.

. . . . . .

Norway House is strategically situated near the head of the Nelson River, which empties Lake Winnipeg and a number of smaller lakes into the Hudson Bay, and was a major waterway route for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The settlement was built c. 1819 by Norwegian carpenters on behalf of the HBC and at the time of Evans arrival served as headquarters to Governor Simpson when he was in the area.

  The spring following Evans arrival, he decided to locate his new mission outside of the fort as the conditions within the fort did not suit the interests of religion. He chose a small island some 3km from the main fort and named it ‘Rossville’ for his new friend, the chief factor of Norway House, Donald Ross.
 Evans employed locals to help in the construction, and over that summer built a small church and about 20 houses for the new residents. During this first year, Evans educated himself in the customs and language of the Cree. He determined that the language had 36 principal sounds and a few affixes for which he adapted a syllabic writing system he originally devised for Ojibway, of nine basic shapes which when rotated on their axis could be used to represent each syllable. Being a student of phonography1 , he was no doubt familiar with many of the efforts of others to improve, adapt or invent new systems of writing. Only 3 years previous in 1837, James Frere had devised a new alphabet for the illiterate and the blind based on a series of simple shapes. Thomas Lucas devised a writing system for shorthand notation used for embossing books for the blind. Also in 1837, Isaac Pitman published his ‘Stenographic Sound Hand’—a phonetic shorthand system where all characters may be represented with a single pen stroke of either straight or curved lines. (1837 seems to have been a busy year.) There are other possibilities as to the inspiration behind the development of the system, perhaps including South Asian scripts such as Brahmi and Devenagari, but it is likely a combination of sources that led to the semantics of the forms as well as the forms themselves.

  It was during the autumn of 1840 that Evans began his efforts at producing type so that he could print using his newly developed writing system. The Hudson’s Bay Company refused to transport printing presses and requisite materials into their territory for fear that their hold on the natives would be lost through some dissemination of information contrary to their own motivations. It is also doubtful that at the time Evans would be able to convince his superiors that it was worthwhile funding the casting of new typefaces and all that that entails, having already been rebuked in 1837. So, faced with a long winter ahead, Evans began to collect scraps of lead from the lining of tea-chests, which were in abundance due to the large trade in tea between the fur traders and the natives, as well as bullets. He engaged in several experiments, but ended by carving the characters in the end-grain of oak wood, thus fashioning a matrix. Over this he placed a hollowed-out square of metal, into which was poured the molten lead. The newly cast character was removed from this, finished by filing and was then ready for composition. Ink was manufactured by mixing fine soot (or lampblack) with fish oil and a printing press was improvised by using a jack-screw press used by the fur trade to compress hides or blankets for shipment. It is unclear what was used for paper—perhaps birch bark early on—but this was probably impractical to manufacture on any but the smallest scale.

  Evans first printing was from a stereotype plate, a showing of the syllabary, on October 15th, 1840. By November 11th, he had succeeded in his manufacture of movable type and printed three hundred copies of the hymn ‘Jesus My All to Heaven is Gone’. In the following months he printed several other hymns, the Lord’s Prayer, and a small hymnbook with 16 hymns. By mid-June, 1841 he had printed approximately 5,000 pages of material.

  It was not until autumn of 1845 that permission was obtained and a printing press was delivered to Rossville. By this time Evans was too sick with a kidney disease as well as being burdened with a allegation of moral improprieties involving native women. It is possible that these were founded on rumours started by his enemies who saw some of his Christian principals —such as forbidding his canoemen to paddle on the sabbath— as contrary to commerce if it got into the heads of the native employees, York boat brigades and trappers—many of whom were becoming converts—to do likewise. Chief amongst his antagonists was the Governor of the Territory of Rupert’s Land, Sir George Simpson, who even went so far as to charge Evans with sedition and held a trial against Evans with himself as the judge.

  Evans probably did not get the opportunity to use the new press (in fact it was a rather over-used wooden press built in 1786). He had to return to England in the summer of 1846 to defend himself against the morals charge at the Wesleyan Methodist Assembly. Although he found opinion and many of his collegues against him upon his arrival in England, no evidence was found to prove the charges, and in the end Evans was exonerated both by the Assembly and by the Canadian Court. Publication of the conspiracy against Evans rallied support and bolstered interest in his work, and so many invitations to speak at church meetings and missionary gatherings were received. And although his health was dire, he refused to stop:

 "If I cease from active labours, and have an idle hour, there comes up before me the picture of the dying interpreter. I can not be idle. I must be busy. I can not stop"

On the 22nd of November, 1846, Evans gave a talk at a missionary meeting in his home town of Hull and died later that evening at a friend’s home.


See second article in History of Canadian Syllabics Series   Edmund Peck



Postscript : Perspective

It should be noted that while historical evidence favours Evans as the originator of the syllabic system, there are are other perspectives; some attribute the syllabic characters as a gift from the Creator Kisemanito to two Cree elders—Mistanaskowew, (Badger Bull) was from Western Canada and Machiminahtik (Hunting Rod), was from Eastern Canada. These two elders are said to have both received the knowledge of the syllabic characters at the same time, in their respective locations, and that from these elders the knowledge spread amongst the Cree nations.


1. Rice Lake is approximately 20km north of Coburg, Ontario, and south of Peterborough.


James Evans, 1801-1846: Bibliography

Bruce Peel
The Rossville Mission Press
(Montreal, Osiris, 1974)

Roger Burford Mason
Travels in the Shining Island
(Toronto, Natural Heritage Books, 1996)

cum grano salis:

Egerton R. Young,
The Apostle of the North: Rev. James Evans
(Toronto, Wm. Briggs, 1900)

John McLean
James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language
(Toronto, Methodist Mission Rooms, 1890)

Nan Shipley
The James Evans Story
(Toronto, The Ryerson Press, 1966)

Edited by K.J. Beaton
Birch Bark Talking: A Resume of the Life and Work of the Rev. James Evans.
(Toronto, The Board of Home Missions, 1940)

James Evans


“We are much pleased with the specimens of writing of the children of Rice Lake. It excels anything which we have seen at the Credit. From the experiment which has been made here and with you, it is most certain that the system adopted will be a valuable one in all our Indian schools and I think we shall endeavour to establish them in most places”

-William Case, Superintendent of the Canadian Methodist Church

Geopolitical division of Canada c.1850  Magnify image


1840: Moved to the Hudson's Bay Post of Norway House. Norway house is located at the intersection of the Nelson River and Playgreen Lake, at the northern tip of Lake Winnipeg. It was at the time a major centre for trade and administration for the Hudson's Bay Company and conveniently located on connecting waterways between the inland trading territories and the Hudson's Bay.
   Hudson's Bay Company History


One of several Cree orthographies


Frere's writing system for the blind c.1837  Magnify image


Lucas' writing system for the blind c.1837  Magnify image


Typefounding on the Frontier:
The Earliest Days at the Rossville Mission Press

A brief examination of some of the techniques that may have been employed by James Evans to cast type.



The Rossville Mission Press :
Hymnbook printed by James Evans, 1841

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