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EVANS, WILLIAM, farmer, agronomist, journalist, and author; b. 22 Nov. 1786 in County Galway (Republic of Ireland); m. secondly Jane Stephens (d. 1842) in Vaudreuil, Lower Canada, and they had one child; m. thirdly 19 Feb. 1844 Selina Wood in Montreal, and they had at least one child; d. 1 Feb. 1857 in Côte-Saint-Paul (Montreal).

William Evans arrived in Lower Canada in 1819, and soon settled at Côte-Saint-Paul to run a farm. At 33 he was already experienced, since in Ireland he had for some years managed a specialized operation to fatten livestock. Unfortunately nothing else is known about his early training and background. Until his death the pursuit of agriculture remained an important activity – Evans apparently never gave it up for long. He was one of the most dynamic farmers in the Montreal region. All of the 150 acres he owned at Côte-Saint-Paul in 1851 were under cultivation and he apparently also farmed about 40 additional acres in the same region. The abundance of his production, which was varied and included a certain amount of seed grain, placed Evans clearly above the average farmer at that time. In addition, the farm had 22 head of cattle, which he and his eldest son, William, looked after, no doubt with hired help since the household included five servants. He regularly put his theories into practice and carried out experiments; according to Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau*, his was a genuine model farm.

Evans apparently was not to have any significant source of income but farming. His other activities as agronomist and writer cost him more than they earned, to judge by the petitions he submitted to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada in the 1840s and 1850s to obtain money. Towards the end of his life he persuaded William to start a business in seed grain and agricultural implements. However, the extent to which he shared financially in this undertaking is unknown.

Evans began to gain renown from the time of his appointment as secretary of the Agricultural Society of the District of Montreal, which probably occurred in 1830. During the first half of the 19th century the reform of agriculture in Lower Canada was left to such bodies. The first, the Agricultural Society of Canada, had been founded in 1789, and in time a decentralized structure had developed with district organizations in Montreal, Quebec, Trois-Rivières, the Gaspé, and Saint-François. Having originally attracted for the most part merchants or gentlemen farmers, these bodies then tried to reach ordinary farmers through county associations. According to historian Vernon Clifford Fowke, the main problem of these societies was their failure to have much impact on the bulk of the farmers. This failure was probably attributable to several factors: the members were of British origin and, because of various barriers such as language and farming practices, their endeavours did not reach French Canadian farmers. As secretary-treasurer of the Montreal society, Evans soon sought to promote the creation of county associations. According to the Journal du cultivateur et Procédés de la Chambre d’agriculture du Bas-Canada, he was the first to suggest that in agricultural competitions there should be a separate class for French Canadians. The division of competitions into three categories – “Canadian practical farmers,” “British Canadians,” and “all competitors” – was necessary in order to attract French Canadian entrants, who had no chance of winning when competing with farmers of British origin. The organizing of these competitions was considered the agricultural societies’ prime task; it was thought that in this way emulation would be fostered, and thus, in the members’ view, progress would be achieved. Evans held his office for as long as the Montreal organization lasted, and then performed the same duties in the Agricultural Society of Lower Canada, which was founded in 1847. This society in turn disappeared, and Evans in 1852 became secretary-treasurer of the new Board of Agriculture of Lower Canada.

In addition to these activities of a quasi-official nature, Evans worked at various other levels. Because of his concern for the progress of agriculture, he turned to writing and in the 1830s tried his hand at agricultural journalism. In this period there was no periodical devoted to agriculture. He therefore contributed to the Montreal Gazette and the Montreal Courier, before attempting to launch his own publication. In May 1838 he began publishing the Canadian Quarterly Agricultural and Industrial Magazine, but because of a dearth of readers the journal ceased in August with the second issue. In 1842, while remaining in Montreal, Evans became the editor of the British American Cultivator, a monthly published in Toronto by William Graham Edmundson and John Eastwood. He occupied this post until April 1843, when financial problems forced Edmundson to take over as editor. In January of that year Evans had begun to publish in Montreal the Canadian Agricultural Journal, which included a French edition at irregular intervals and which under various titles lasted until 1868.

Evans also expressed his interest in agriculture through the publication of treatises. His first work, A treatise on the theory and practice of agriculture, came out in 1835 at Montreal. It consisted of five parts: the first surveyed the history of agriculture; the second, which was more theoretical, focused on the “science of agriculture”; the third and fourth dealt with the cultivation of various plants; and the fifth examined cattle raising. In this work as in others, Evans reiterated the necessity of systematic experimentation when making any innovation. In his opinion farmers should first try new ideas on a small scale before adopting them.

The assembly had voted funds for a French translation of his treatise, which appeared the next year. Evans provided a sequel in 1836 but this Supplementary volume, which completed his examination of questions related to the establishment of new farmers on their land, as well as of the conditions governing the development of agriculture in general, was not translated. The following year he published a further study dealing with instruction in farming, a matter of great importance in his view. Agricultural improvement by the education of those who are engaged in it as a profession took the form of a collection of 12 letters, which sought to demonstrate the interest that the farming community would have in better training. Finally, under the title Review of the agriculture of Lower Canada, with suggestions for its amelioration, Evans in 1856 published a series of his articles taken from the Montreal Gazette. These articles constituted a survey of Lower Canadian agriculture, and included suggestions for its improvement. His works bear the mark of a cultivated and well-informed mind. The authors he quoted in his treatise, from the economist Adam Smith to the English agronomist William Marshall, give eloquent testimony to his erudition. His repeated references to English, French, and American examples further show that he was familiar with the latest agricultural developments in other countries.

In Evans’s writings there is always a double preoccupation: the advancement of farming and the constant concern for placing agriculture in a wider socio-economic context. Thus the Supplementary volume contains not only a description of the British North American colonies, but also discussions about the price of land, problems of land clearance, transportation systems, and other subjects more directly related to farming.

A harsh observer of farm practices yet indulgent towards farmers, Evans never missed an opportunity to criticize what he saw as deficiencies in Lower Canada. His attitude may have been dictated by his conviction that agricultural production was basic to all economic development in the colony. By 1835 he had passed severe judgement on what would be called in the 20th century subsistence farming: “A farmer who systematically consumes each year the production of his land without establishing for himself any reserve of produce, useful improvements, or money, makes no kind of contribution to individual or national wealth.” In his treatise he also attacked the routine, persistent attachment to growing wheat, even though the harvests were by then meagre. He suggested that farmers should sow other cereals and vary their rotation of crops.

On 8 Aug. 1850 Evans testified before the select committee set up by the Legislative Assembly to inquire into the state of agriculture in Lower Canada. He listed the principal weaknesses in agricultural techniques as inadequate drainage, ineffective use of manure, shallow ploughing, insufficient weed control, and poor pasturage. In his 1856 collection of articles he again made mention of these elements, adding the problems of raising cattle and a few others of lesser magnitude. He also proposed that a network of small model farms be created, and suggested that the Province of Canada should follow the British government’s lead in instituting a system of loans to farmers to enable them to undertake major drainage projects. It can thus be seen that Evans was sound in his criticism of agriculture and that his notions of improvements were not impracticable. He fully realized that many transformations would come about in the long run, but for him this was no reason not to make a start on them.

Unfortunately, Evans’s influence was limited. Despite the constant care not to give offence to French Canadian farmers shown in all his writings, he did not succeed in changing farming practices. It may well be thought that, given the situation at the time, publishing treatises and newspaper articles was not the best way to reach the great majority of farmers. Evans himself was under no illusions, for shortly before his death he expressed serious doubts about the effects of his endeavours. However, his action was not futile, for agriculture in Lower Canada would enter upon a period of profound change during the second half of the 19th century. Evans did play an important role in the development of agronomy in Lower Canada. At a time when initial, halting steps were being taken in this discipline, he was a pioneer in gleaning knowledge and shaping practice.

Jean-Claude Robert

William Evans is the author of A treatise on the theory and practice of agriculture, adapted to the cultivation and economy of the animal and vegetable productions of agriculture in Canada; with a concise history of agriculture; and a view of its present state in some of the principal countries of the earth, and particularly in the British Isles, and in Canada (Montréal, 1835). A French translation was prepared by Amury Girod* as Traité théorique et pratique de l’agriculture, adapté à la culture et à l’économie des productions animales et végétales de cet art en Canada; avec un précis de l’histoire de l’agriculture et un aperçu de son état actuel dans quelques-uns des principaux pays, et particulièrement dans les Îles britanniques et le Canada (Montreal, 1836–37). Evans also wrote a Supplementary volume toA treatise on the theory and practice of agriculture, adapted to the cultivation and economy of the animal and vegetable productions of agriculture in Canada” (Montreal, 1836), as well as Agricultural improvement by the education of those who are engaged in it as a profession; addressed, very respectfully, to the farmers of Canada (Montreal, 1837); Suggestions sur la subdivision et l’économie d’une ferme, dans les seigneuries du Bas-Canada, avec divers plans et dessins (Montréal, 1854), also published in English as Suggestions for the sub-dividing and management of a farm in the seignories of Lower Canada, with plans and description of a farm, dwelling house, dairy, farm yard, and farm buildings; prepared for the local exhibition at Montreal, March, 1855 (Montreal, 1855); and Review of the agriculture of Lower Canada, with suggestions for its amelioration (Montreal, 1856).

ANQ-M, CE1-63, 26 déc. 1842, 19 févr. 1844, 1er févr. 1857; CE1-67, 27 janv. 1842. PAC, RG 31, A1, 1825, Montreal, city; 1851, Montreal, parish. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1844–45, 1848, 1849, 1850; Special Committee on the State of Agriculture in Lower Canada, Report (Toronto, 1850). Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada (Abbott Gibbs et al.), vols.4, 7–9. Farmer’s Journal and Transactions of the Lower Canada Board of Agriculture (Montreal), March, September 1857. J. F. W. Johnston, Notes on North America, agricultural, economical, and social (2v., Edinburgh and London, 1851), 1. Le Journal de Québec, 5 févr. 1857. Montreal Gazette, 3 Feb. 1857. Montreal Transcript, 5 Feb. 1857. Beaulieu et Hamelin, La presse québécoise, vol.1. Borthwick, Hist. and biog. gazetteer. Le Jeune, Dictionnaire. Montreal almanack, 1829–31. Montreal directory, 1842–57. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis; Sketches of celebrated Canadians. Terrill, Chronology of Montreal. Wallace, Macmillan dict. V. C. Fowke, Canadian agricultural policy; the historical pattern (Toronto, 1978). Firmin Létourneau, Histoire de l’agriculture (Canada français) (Montréal, 1959). Fernand Ouellet, Histoire économique et sociale du Québec, 1760–1850: structures et conjoncture (Montréal et Paris, [1966]). M.-A. Perron, Un grand éducateur agricole: Édouard-ABarnard, 1835–1898; essai historique sur l’agriculture de 1760 à 1900 ([Montréal], 1955). Normand Séguin, “L’histoire de l’agriculture et de la colonisation au Québec depuis 1850,” Agriculture et colonisation au Québec; aspects historiques, Normand Séguin, édit. (Montréal, 1980). P.-J.-O. Chauveau, “William Evans, l’agronome,” Journal de l’Instruction publique (Québec et Montréal), 1 (1857): 33–34.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Jean-Claude Robert, “EVANS, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 1, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/evans_william_8E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/evans_william_8E.html
Author of Article: Jean-Claude Robert
Title of Article: EVANS, WILLIAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1985
Year of revision: 1985
Access Date: September 1, 2014