James Evans

Fonds number:
Title: James Evans
Dates of Material:
Inclusive: 1828–1988; Predominant: 1828–1846
91 cm of textual records
3 reels of 35 mm microfilm
1 reel of 16 mm microfilm
3 sheets of microfiche (64 images)
45 photographs: b&w
1 photograph: col.
2 photographs: b&w negatives
6 photographs: col. slides
1 postcard
3 artifacts
Introduction to the Collection

James Evans (1801–1846) was a Methodist minister, author, translator and developer of the Cree syllabic alphabet. Among the materials in the collection are correspondence and literary material, including articles, poems, and page proofs. Evans’s notebooks and his “Cree Syllabic Hymnbook,” a western Canadian “incunable,” is of significant interest to researchers of native North American history.

Accessing the Collection

There are two ways to access the collection:
University of Toronto Catalogue:
Contains published items by and about Evans held in the entire University of Toronto Libraries system, including items in the collections at Victoria University Library. There are electronic texts available—please see selected resources below.

Guide to the James Evans Papers:
A detailed finding aid for manuscript and transcript materials contained in the James Evans fonds.

Biographical sketch

James Evans (1801–1846) was a teacher, Methodist minister and missionary, linguist, and author. He was born in Kingston-upon-Hull, England, the son of James Evans, ship’s captain, and Mary–. He married Mary Blithe Smith in 1822, and they had two daughters, one of whom died in childhood. He died in Kelby, England.

Evans went to school in Lincolnshire, England. In 1822 he followed his parents to Lower Canada. He found employment as a teacher near L’Original, Upper Canada. About three years later he and his wife moved to Augusta Township on the St Lawrence River, where he converted to Methodism. He accepted an appointment to the Rice Lake School for Indian children in 1828. Ordained in 1833, he was appointed to the St Clair Mission (near Port Sarnia) in 1834. In 1838, the Canada Conference sent him on a tour of the north shore of Lake Superior. In 1839 he met Governor George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who in January 1840 agreed to support Methodist missionaries, named by the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in Britain, in its territory. Evans, who since his return to Upper Canada had been serving as minister at Guelph, was appointed to Norway House, Manitoba, in April of that year. However, his concerns for the native peoples, and his location at a main transfer point of the HBC brought him into conflict with company policy and practice, culminating in accusations of sexual misconduct and a request for his removal by Simpson in 1845. The Wesleyan Society invited him back to England, where he was tried before Methodist church authorities. He was acquitted of sexual improprieties. Evans died suddenly of a heart attack following a missionary rally in Lincolnshire in November 1846. In 1955 his remains were brought from England and reburied at Norway House.

During his career Evans studied several native languages. He devised a syllabary for the Ojibwa (1836) and Cree (1840) languages, which he used for teaching, translating and writing. He translated and printed portions of the New Testament, hymns and other material. He published his book 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 in 1837.

See: Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.

Custodial history

John Maclean obtained the 2 boxes of James Evans’ Cree Syllabic Type at Norway House in 1925. Egerton Young received the letter from Ephraim Evans to James Evans from Margaret Tindale, a descendant of Ephraim Evans, in 1953. Prior custodial history of this letter, the type, and all other textual and graphic records is unknown. Victoria University Archives acquired the 3 reels of 35 mm microfilm from the University of Western Ontario in 1986.

Scope and content

The fonds consists of records pertaining to James Evans’s activities as a minister and author, and to his personal life. The fonds includes correspondence, literary manuscripts including printed syllabics and copies of Evans’ Cree syllabic hymnbook, professional records, a diary of Evans’ missionary expedition in the lake Huron and Lake Superior region in 1838, a sketchbook containing pencil sketches and poems, photographs and other material. It also includes correspondence of his parents, and copies of records from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives held at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and microfilm copies of records from the papers of Rev. James Evans held at the University of Western Ontario in London.

Source of supplied title

Title based on contents of the fonds.


The fonds is stored in 12 boxes.

Immediate source of acquisition

Most of the records were acquired from Dr. John Maclean in 1940 including 2 boxes of James Evans’ Cree Syllabic Type; a letter from Ephraim Evans to James Evans (1842) was acquired from Egerton Young at an unknown date; a silk marker was acquired from Mrs. Ephraim Evans and Mary Ann Evans at an unknown date; a baptismal certificate written in Cree syllabic characters was acquired from J.P. Berry at an unknown date; Evans’ 1838 diary was transferred from the Peter Jones papers by Victoria University Library Staff in 1974; photocopies of Hudson’s Bay Company documents relating to James Evans were acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in 1938 at the request of F. Louis Barber; 3 reels of microfilm copies of material from the Rev. James Evans’ papers held at the University of Western Ontario were acquired from Victoria University Archives in 1990; photocopies of material relating to the Evans trial were acquired from Gerald Hutchinson in 1994; material relating to Travels in the shining island was acquired from Roger Burford-Mason in 1997.


The transcripts and photostats of correspondence in other repositories and in publications has not been fully arranged; files contain duplicates of records in other files.

Language of material

Most of the material is in English; some in Cree.

Location of originals

Individual files contain photocopies. See description in finding aid for location of originals.

Access restrictions

Restrictions on access: No restrictions on access.

Terms governing use and reproduction

Some of the material is available on microfilm which researchers are requested to use unless an enquiry can be satisfied only by consulting original documents. For further information contact the Chief Librarian.

Finding aids

File list available.

Related material

University of Western Ontario in London: Papers of Rev. James Evans (several call numbers).
Related biographical material, along with photographs of portraits and other documents, is held at Victoria University Archives.


No further accruals are expected.

General notes

Early Canadiana Online has digitized James Evans’s Collection of Chippeway and English Hymns for the Use of the Native Indians. It is also available through the University of Toronto Library’s eResources.

Simon Ager has created a web site named Omniglot—the guide to languages, alphabets and other writing systems. The pages on the Ojibwa and Cree writing systems include descriptions of James Evans’s role in creating the syllabaries for these languages.

Access points

Provenance access point: Evans, James, 1801–1846
Subject access points: Missionaries

Related special collections at Victoria University Library

Peter Jones

Canadiana Collection:
Northward Journal: a Quarterly of Northern Arts. The Diary of James Evans, July 11–August 30, 1838, Part one, no. 44, p. 5–26
The Diary of James Evans, September 4–November 20, 1838, Part two, no. 45, p. 5–20. Victoria (Pratt)

Related exhibitions at Victoria University Library
Related resources
  • Legend:
  • Pratt logo Available at E.J. Pratt Library
  • Emmanuel logo Available at Emmanuel Library
  • UofT logo UofT members only

Pannekoek, Frits. “The Rev. James Evans and the Social Antagonisms of the Fur Trade Society, 1840–1846.” Religion and Society in the Prairie West. Ed. Richard Allen. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1974. 1–18. AU Space (Athabasca University Insitutional Respository). UofT logo
Also available at Emmanuel College Library: BR575 .P7 R4 Emmanuel logo

Shipley, Nan. The James Evans Story. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1966.

The following resources are from Early Canadiana Online:

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 by James Evans UofT logo

A Collection of Chippeway and English Hymns for the Use of the Native Indians by James Evans UofT logo

James Evans, Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language by John Maclean UofT logo

Case and his Cotemporaries, or, The Canadian Itinerants’ Memorial: Constituting a Biographical History of Methodism in Canada, from its Introduction into the Province, till the Death of the Rev. Wm. Case in 1855 by John Carroll UofT logo

By Canoe and Dog Train among the Cree and Salteaux Indians by Egerton R. Young (Egerton Ryerson) UofT logo

Canadian Savage Folk: The Native Tribes of Canada by John Maclean UofT logo

Internet Archive

The following resources are online:

The Man Who Made Birch Bark Talk by Irene Craig. Manitoba Pageant, Vol. 4, No. 2, January 1959, p. [?].
Profile of Rev. James Evans who designed a Cree syllabics system

Cloven Hoof: Historical Drama and the Construction of Narrative Theology by Geoffrey Wilfong-Pritchard Theology Thesis (D.Min)—St. Stephen’s College, 1999.
Doctoral dissertation based on the life of missionary James Evans (PDF format, 12.5 megabytes)

Making Birch Bark Talk by Ross Mitchell MD. Manitoba Pageant, January 1964, Volume 9, Number 2.
Describes how Rev. James Evans came to invent Cree syllabics for the use of his students at Norway House.

The Rossville Scandal, 1846: James Evans, the Cree, and a Mission on Trial by Raymond Morris Shirritt-Beaumont
History Thesis (M.A.)—The University of Manitoba/University of Winnipeg, 2001 (PDF format, 10.8 megabytes)

A Collection of Chippeway and English Hymns, for the Use of the Native Indians. Translated by Peter Jones... To Which are Added a Few Hymns Translated by the Rev. James Evans and George Henry from the Making of America Collection from the University of Michigan Digital Library Production Service UofT logo

A Dictionary of the Hudson's Bay Indian Language by Henry Kelsey UofT logo

Special Interest Section on Aboriginal Archives: The Association of Canadian Archivists

Internet Archive