One of the
most significant and enduring achievements of James Evans was the
development of the Cree syllabary. With experience in the Ojibway language and traditions and
an extensive linguistic
knowledge, Evans devised a simple system that allowed the Cree
language to be written. The system was easy to understand and could be quickly
taught. Once he had devised a makeshift
printing press Evans printed his translations and the system rapidly
spread among the other missions and Hudson's Bay Company posts.
The following excerpts are taken from Evans' journal entries for 1840
and deal with the Cree syllabary and Evans'
attempts to build the printing press. They demonstrate the
adaptability and experimentation that was required in frontier life:
Sept. 15 . . . I commenced a school . . . about
twenty-five scholars anxious to learn. I am teaching them to read the
English and their own tongue.
Sept. 28 . . . For a fortnight I have been
endeavouring to cast type to print in the Cree language, but every attempt
has failed. I have no proper materials, neither type metal, nor any other
things requisite. I hope, however, to conquer the difficulties, and to
begin printing the Cree language in a few days or months at the furthest.
Sept. 30 . . . I cut types in lead of two
characters, and I took moulds of clay, chalk, putty, sand, and tried some
Oct. 30 . . . I cast a plate of hardened lead,
polished it, and commenced cutting the Cree alphabet, making a sort of
Oct. 15 . . . Last night I finished the alphabet
plate, and today printed a few sheets. Several boys know all the letters,
having written the alphabet for each; they are much pleased with their new
books, but not much more so than I am myself.
Oct. 19 . . . Several of the boys are beginning to
read the written hymns in the Cree character; I feel encouraged to print
them in a few days.
Nov. 11 . . . My type answers well. The hymn
beginning with 'Jesus my all to heaven is gone' is in the press. I have
today struck off three hundred copies of the first three verses.
Nov. 17 . . . I have today struck off two hundred
and fifty copies of the hymn beginning - 'Behold the Saviour of mankind'
with a chorus for occasional use, 'Hallelujah to the Lamb'
Dec. 3 . . . I printed the hymn-Blow ye the
trumpet, blow!' The Indians and children sing these well and several read
with fluency. The short time which is required to learn to read and write,
arises from there being no such thing as learning to spell, every
character in the alphabet being a syllable, so that when these are
learned, all is learned. Several boys and young men can write any word in
the language, seldom committing an error. I have now printed about two
thousand pages of the hymns, etc., and on my return from my winter tour,
by God's blessing, I shall print the Lord's Prayer, the Creed,
Commandments, and the first chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, not
forgetting the rules of our society."
Hutchinson, Gerald. Unpublished manuscript.