Norway House, Canada and Corunna, Spain – The Evans Family: War, Shipwreck, Missionary Work and the Cree Language

Large numbers of people from Hull and the East Riding emigrated to Canada in the nineteenth century and established themselves across the various provinces of that vast country. In April 1819 one Hull newspaper commenting on the rage for emigration, noted that two vessels had already sailed from Hull to Quebec that month with 310 passengers. Many others had already set off others followed in their wake. The Evans family were amongst the local families who settled in Canada over the next few years and one member of the family in particular, James Evans, has a had a remarkable and long lasting effect on the culture of the native people of North America.

Image of James Evans
Source: Manitoba Historical Society

James Evans father, also called James, had married Mary Garnett in Skirlaugh on the 13th July 1792. They subsequently had a large family which included sons James and Ephraim, who were born at the family residence in Skirlaugh in 1801 and 1803 respectively. The family also had a residence in Sculcoates and James was baptised in the parish church there in February 1801.

The Evans were a seafaring family. James Evans senior was a Hull sea captain who traded to the Baltic in the 1790s and early 1800s. This was the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: between 1793 and 1815 Britain was almost continuously at war with France and her various allies. Like other seafarers, Captain Evans, wittingly or unwittingly, was often caught up in this conflict. Like other sea captains, he had to contend not only with attacks from enemy privateers, intent on capturing his ship, but also press gangs, keen to force experienced crews into the Royal Navy. This was a hazardous time for those earning their living from overseas trade. Ships tried to minimise the danger by sailing in armed convoys but trading with distant ports remained an uncertain business thanks to the uncertainty of shifting strategic and military allegiances.

Captain Evans was certainly in the thick of things on several occasions. In late 1800, just before his son, James was born, he and his crew were detained in the Russian port of Cronstadt. All British ships in Russian ports were seized on the orders of the Czar and more than a hundred were taken at Cronstadt, including twenty five from Hull and four from Bridlington. Anticipating retaliation from the Royal Navy, the Russian authorities marched the British captains and their crews to places well away from the coast. As the news filtered back to Hull, Mary Evans, worried that her husband would never return, hurriedly christened her newly born son after his father but the next summer they were reunited when ship, captain and crew, sailed home after the embargo was lifted.

Captain Evans resumed his Baltic trading voyages but later in the war he took charge of Hull ships chartered by the Government as troop transports. He may well have been the Captain Evans in charge of the vessel, Hornby, which ferried soldiers from the 7th or Royal Fusiliers and the German Legion back to Hull in November 1807after the British successes in the Second Battle of Copenhagen which had included the surrender and brief occupation of the Danish capital city. Less than fifteen months later, he was certainly in charge of the Hull ship Triton, built by Benjamin Blaydes, which evacuated troops under fire from French carronades after the Battle of Corunna in the Peninsular War. The commander of the British troops, Sir John Moore, was killed in the final battle but the transport fleet, which included the Triton, rescued 26,000 men from the defeated British army and landed them at Portsmouth. James Evans seems to have stayed with the Triton for a number of years and in the summer of 1814 he was reported as taking the ship in convoy from Hull to St Petersburg.

The long war finally came to an end in 1815 after the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and the following year, James Evans became part owner and master of the Camperdown, a three masted ship built at Whitby in 1798. In this post-war period, the Baltic trade was depressed but the increasing rush of emigrants to Canada offered new business opportunities. In May 1817, James Evans sailed from what is now Queen’s Dock in Hull for the port of Mirimichi, New Brunswick, carrying his first cargo of emigrants, many from the East Riding. Later that year, he made a second trip across the Atlantic in the Camperdown, this time sailing to Pictou.

The migrant trade seems to have been lucrative but an Atlantic crossing was still fraught with danger. Evans and the Camperdown made another voyage to Pictou in 1818 but the return trip with a cargo of timber came close to disaster about 100 miles west of the River Shannon in Ireland. An enormous sea struck the vessel, everything was swept off the deck, the mate, cook and cabin boy were never seen again. The Camperdown filled with water whilst Evans and the surviving crew scrambled into the foretop where they sheltered whilst the storm raged around their stricken vessel. Conditions were atrocious, another crew member succumbed to exposure and the remainder expected their ship to sink beneath them at any moment. They endured three days of hell before the wind moderated a little. Gradually, the crew regained some semblance of control and the ship limped into Kilnrush and safety on the River Shannon with the deck only six inches above the waterline. The crew had lost virtually everything in their struggle to survive but were relieved by the Excise Officers from Kilnrush.

Despite their ordeal the Camperdown’s was soon pumped out repaired. The ship returned to Hull and soon fitted out for another voyage to Pictou. Although Evans nearly lost his ship he does not seem to have lost his eye for a business opportunity for whilst refitting in the River Shannon he must have made some assessment of the Irish migrant trade, for in June 1819 we find him taking the Camperdown from Limerick to Quebec with 256 passengers and a cargo of dry goods. Yet Evans may well have been pushing too hard: his ship had been very busy, making an estimated seven transatlantic crossings in a little over a year, to say nothing of near shipwreck. Certainly the crew seemed to have had enough for although we do not know the full story, there seems to have been some sort of mutiny by the crew in the St Lawrence River at the end of August 1819. Whatever actually happened on the ship is unclear but Evans seems to have regained control and was in command when the vessel returned to Hull on Christmas Day 1820. Yet this was probably been his last trip on the Camperdown and indeed one of his last voyages on a Hull ship.

For whatever reason or cause, Captain Evans, who by now had seen much of what Canada offered, decided to emigrate and settled that year with his wife and youngest son in Grenville, Lower Canada. His elder son, James Junior, stayed in Hull. Although he had harboured a desire to go to sea and had made a couple of trips across the North Sea with his father, the young James had been apprenticed to a Mr Fearne, Grocer, of Lowgate in Hull. Here he learned the complexities of the grocery business including accounting and shorthand, the latter of which was to prove extremely useful in later life.

James came out of his time in 1821 and soon followed the rest of his family to Canada where he soon married Mary Blithe Smith. Both James and his younger brother Ephraim were destined to become Methodist ministers. Although his mother seems to have been a staunch Methodist in Hull, young James later claimed to have seen the light at a Methodist summer camp in Canada. He also followed what he felt was his vocation to teach and around 1828 he was appointed to the charge of the mission and schools at Rice Lake in Ontario. Evans seems to have had a natural aptitude for languages and soon became quite proficient in Ojibway, the local native Indian language, and he began to translate religious and other works. He also spent his own money on printing these works. According to his obituary about ten of these scholars became missionaries who took the Christian message across the remote regions of North America.

Whilst at Rice Lake he was accepted as a probationer in the Methodist Episcopal Church and about 1835 James was appointed to the St Clair Mission where he continued his work. He and Thomas Hulburt were sent on a tour of the north shore of Lake Superior and beyond. They sailed in a small bark canoe with a Union Jack fluttering in the prow and travelled around two or three thousand miles over the next thirteen months by either canoe or dog sled through the worst of the Canadian winter. An extract from his journal, reprinted in the Hull packet in the 1840s, gives some idea of the journey:

Our encampment is made by scraping away the snow, cutting a few pine bushes and spreading them for a bed, and by turning before the fire, we can generally keep one side warm at a time. The first thing to do after arriving is to unharness the dogs, of which we have seven. The dogs are fed soon after arrival and a bed of brush made for them when, being weary after their day’s travel of from thirty to seventy miles, with a load of from 150 to 300 on each sled, they lie down…. our supper consist of some venison balls. These are made by chopping the meat and mincing it with a little tallow. I need scarcely say that these are frozen; for our milk, we carry in a bag, breaking off pieces as we require it. The men have a supply of pemcan, a kind of portable provision made of Buffalo’s meat, dried and pounded and mixed with a little tallow. The dogs are fed of the same but of an inferior quality, together with some frozen fish. The thermostat is7 1⁄2 below zero. Blowing fresh, wind North West.

In 1839 Evans met George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he agreed to open up Hudson’s Bay Company Territory to the Methodists. As a result, in 1840 James Evans became Superintendant of the Methodist Mission established at the settlement at the remote Norway House overseeing other missionaries working in the area. His family only reached their new home at Norway House after paddling by canoe for more than three thousand miles.

Over the next few years, James Evans and his family lived in settlements around the Norway House community. His proficiency with the Ojibway language enabled him to work on a written language for the local Cree Indians. He made good use of his shorthand training in Hull: the new syllabic alphabet he came up with was based on a series of rotating shapes. Many Cree soon mastered it after a few lessons. He also began a programme of translating and printing texts. Initially, he whittled crude matrices from wood and cast them in river clay but they proved too brittle. He then came up with the idea of casting characters from the lead foil used in the linings of tea chests. The Hudson’s Bay Company did not appear to have been keen on the idea of a printing press, perhaps, according to Burford Mason, ‘for fear that a better educated Indian community would prove more difficult to deal with and control.’ However, after his brother Ephraim brought his work to the attention of the English Wesleyan Mission Society in London, the Company agreed for him to receive a cast iron printing press and book quality paper from the Wesleyan Mission Society. Evans subsequently built at printing office at Norway House and from here the first books in the Cree language were printed.

Part of the syllabary of the Cree Language developed by James Evans

However, Evans’s work eventually brought him into conflict with the Hudson’s Bay Company officials. Amongst other things he criticised labour on the Sabbath and also challenged the monopoly practices of the company by backing the right of the natives to exchange furs and requested authorisation for them to give furs to the mission. It seems that some officials saw him as a troublemaker. The stresses and strains of his life were made worse when a gun he was carrying whilst on a canoeing trip accidentally discharged and killed his most trusted teacher and interpreter, Thomas Hassall, in 1844. He was also accused of misconduct and although cleared of what seem to have been trumped up charges, he never truly recovered from these shocks and his health deteriorated.

In 1846 he accepted an invitation to visit the Missionary Society in England. After arrival, he was keen to revisit Hull with his wife and stayed with relatives down Whitefriargate whilst giving a number of addresses on his missionary work across Yorkshire and Lincolnshire He was eager to return to his missionary work in Canada and to Norway House but this was not to be. In late November 1846 he crossed the Humber to preach at the Wesleyan Church in Keelby in north Lincolnshire and shortly afterwards he collapsed and died. His body was brought back to Hull and interred in the minister’s vault in Waltham Street Chapel.

Despite the trauma of his final years, Evans left an enduring legacy. In the words of Roger Burford Mason, ‘he not only developed a written script to transliterate the language of the Ojibwa and Cree Indians but was the first to print the language of one of North America’s indigenous peoples. Indeed, he was the first printer in Northern Canada.’ Versions of Evans’ alphabet are still in use.

James’s sudden death and interment in Hull in 1846 was not quite the end of the story. Many years later, Evans was still revered in Canada as ‘Keche Ayumeaookemow’ (the great missionary). During the Second World War, Waltham Street Chapel was gutted in the Blitz. It was decided not to rebuild the chapel as such and in 1955, when the site was being cleared, a decision was taken to cremate the 250 or so bodies buried there. At almost the same time an enquiry from Manitoba was received by the International Methodist Historical Society about the resting place of James Evans. The coincidence was surprising and arrangements were made to return his cremated remains to the Cree nation where they were reinterred at the Church at Rossville, where he had lived whilst ministering at Norway House. On his tombstone are written the words ‘He brought the light.’

Select Bibliography

Mona Baker and Kirsten Malmkjaer, Routledge Encyclopaedia of Translation Studies, (UK: Routledge 2001)

Bruce S. Elliott, Irish Migrants to the Canadas ( Canada: McGill – Queen’s Press, 2004)

Hull Packet, 23rd November, 1846.

Roger Burford Mason, Travels in Shining Island: The Story of James Evans and the Invention of the Cree Syllabary Alphabet (Canada: Dundurn Press, 1996)

John MacClean, James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language (Canada, originally published 1890, repr. Read Books, 2007)

Egerton Ryerson Young, By Canoe and Dog Train: Among the Cree and Saulteaux Indians (USA: Kessinger Publishing 2004)

The Times, 6th May 1955

On-line References e.php?&id_nbr=3376&&PHPSESSID=0jnoj5cm5lhfe9vaaj5cfr2kf2

Dictionary of Canadian Biography On Line 1836 – 1850 (Volume VII): Evans James