October 17

“I have struck off 250 copies of the hymn beginning ‘Behold the Saviour of Mankind,’ with a chorus for occasional use. My press is very rude, but I am anticipating better days.”

Thus reads the Journal kept by the Reverend James Evans, for this day in 1840. Many years later, the naturalist and author, Ernest Thompson Seton, wrote of Evans: “Take a map of North America and mark off the vast area bounded by the Saskatchewan, the Rockies, Hudson Bay and the Arctic Circle, and realize that in this region, as large as Continental Europe outside of Russia and Spain, one simple, earnest man, inspired by love of Him who alone is perfect love, invented and popularized a mode of writing that in a few years—in less than a generation, indeed—has turned the whole native population from ignorant illiterates to a people who are proud to read and write their own language.”

The Rev. Evans had journeyed to Canada in 1823, as a missionary preacher, and working among the Ojibway tribe he had developed a written language which would enable the Indians to understand more readily the Christian message, in addition to preparing them to meet the responsibilities of the encroaching civilization of the white man. Evans evolved a system of syllabics in which the Ojibway tongue could be written with nine signs. Eight of these represented consonants, while the ninth, with four variations, stood for the vowel sounds. Before he managed to secure financial assistance to develop this method further, he was sent into the wilderness territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

It was here that he encountered the Cree language, the standard tongue of the Northwest Indians. He soon found that the orthography he had developed for the Ojibways could readibly be adapted for the Crees. He was, however, a thousand miles from the nearest railroad and completely without the means to accomplish readily the task of setting up a press in order to project his ideas. Evans stripped some lead from the Hudson Bay Company’s tea chests, and “cut types in lead of two characters, and took molds in clay, chalk, putty, and other fruitless experiments.” He next attempted to manufacture a sort of stereotype plate. He finally hit upon a solution, which he described in his journal: “I have got excellent letters considering the country and the materials and at last they make a tolerably good impression. The letters or characters I cut in finely polished oak. I filed out one side of an inch square bar of iron the square of the body of type, and after placing the bar with the notch over the letter I applied another polished bar to the face of the mold and poured in the lead after that had been separately melted to harden it. These require a little dressing on the face and filing to a uniform square and length, and answer well.”

Evans next adapted a jack press, built to squeeze furs for shipment, and formulated ink from sturgeon oil mixed with chimney soot. For paper this indomitable man used birch bark, thus completing the entire printing process.

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