PRITCHARD, JOHN, fur trader, politician, farmer, author, businessman, and teacher; b. 1777 in Shropshire, England; m. first, according to the custom of the country, a native woman, and they had at least one son, John; m. secondly 1816 Catherine McLean, and they had at least nine children; d. 1856 in the Red River settlement (Man.).
John Pritchard came to the Canadas in 1800 and on 20 Feb. 1801 signed up for a five-year term as clerk for Forsyth, Richardson and Company, a partner in the short-lived New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company). He was stationed on the Red River near Lake Winnipeg (Man.) until the union of the New North West Company and the North West Company in 1804. The following year he served as clerk for the NWC on the Souris River. That June he became lost on the prairies of what is now southwestern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan, where he wandered for 40 days without gun, knife, provisions, or clothing. He was rescued by passing Indians and cared for by a friend, John McKay* of the rival Hudson’s Bay Company. Probably late in 1805 Pritchard was sent to the Nipigon country where he remained for four years before being stationed once again in the Red River department.
In the spring of 1814 Pritchard offered little resistance to the group of men sent by Miles Macdonell*, governor of Assiniboia, which seized much of the supply of pemmican at Fort La Souris (Man.) on behalf of the Red River settlers. Pritchard was labelled a coward by his NWC superior, probably Duncan Cameron*, and left the company’s service soon afterwards. He had decided to settle at Red River but went first to Montreal, and while there contemplated going to London to warn Lord Selkirk [Douglas*], founder of Red River, about the perilous state of the colony. He sought out Colin Robertson* of the HBC for assistance in either travelling to London or returning to Red River to warn the colonists of an imminent attack by the Indians and Métis spurred on by the NWC. Pritchard left Montreal for Red River with three American axe-men on 17 Oct. 1814, undertaking the difficult journey via Moose Factory (Ont.), York Factory, and Norway House (Man.), mainly on snow-shoes.
While Pritchard was en route, Selkirk appointed him to the Council of Assiniboia. Pritchard arrived at Red River in April 1815 with one remaining companion, just in time to witness the arrest of Governor Macdonell and the dispersal of many of the colonists by the NWC. Although he remained behind and attempted to farm his newly acquired lot, the depredations of the Métis under the command of Alexander Greenfield Macdonell* forced him and the remaining settlers to leave. Together with Robertson, he was later able to persuade some of the colonists who had fled to Jack River House (Man.) to return to the abandoned settlement. He himself farmed and hunted at Red River for a year before being taken prisoner by the Métis during the massacre at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg) in 1816 [see Cuthbert Grant]. After the battle he was dispatched to Fort Douglas (Winnipeg) with a message from the Métis, asking for the surrender of the fort. The colonists were evacuated and the fort surrendered.
Pritchard was taken to Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.), the headquarters of the NWC, but was released after Selkirk’s arrival there. He presented Selkirk with a petition from 13 Red River settlers regarding the plundering of the settlement and the inadequate protection against the NWC. On his way back to Red River he was stopped at Rainy Lake by NWC men who threatened that “if he proceeded, he would be assassinated.” He went instead to Montreal where he testified at Robertson’s trial in May 1818. He was also subpoenaed as a witness at the trial in York (Toronto) in October of two Nor’Westers charged with the murder of Robert Semple*. Returning to Montreal in December, he made arrangements to travel to London to lay the case of the Red River settlement before parliament.
Pritchard reached his destination by 8 May 1819 and the following month he presented his petition to parliament, requesting protection for the Red River settlement from further aggressions by the NWC. That year a work was published in London containing accounts by Pritchard, Pierre-Chrysologue Pambrun*, and Frederick Damien Heurter of the attacks by the NWC. While in London, Pritchard also conducted an unsuccessful search for a schoolmaster for Red River and laid the groundwork with the governor and London committee of the HBC for the Buffalo Wool Company. This business was to be established as a subsidiary of the HBC and financed by the sale of 100 shares at £20 each; Pritchard was appointed its general manager. He returned to Red River via the annual ship to York Factory in 1820. A year later he had erected buildings at Pembina (N.Dak.) – close to the buffalo ranges – for the “manufacture” of buffalo wool and the tanning of buffalo hides for domestic and foreign markets. Although George Simpson, governor of the HBC’s Northern Department, was convinced of the feasibility of the plan, he had little confidence in Pritchard, writing to Andrew Colvile in 1821 that Pritchard was “a wild visionary speculative creature without a particle of solidity and but a moderate share of judgement.” Pritchard’s Buffalo Wool Company floundered for five years before the major flood of 1826 destroyed much of its inventory and persuaded its partners to quit. The HBC underwrote the company’s debt of £4,500.
After Pritchard’s return to Red River from England, he became a leading citizen in the young settlement. In the short history Glimpses of the past in the Red River settlement . . . , 1805–1836, a collection of Pritchard’s letters published in 1892, he described his farm as being “nearly sufficient for maintenance and clothing” in 1825. He also taught Sunday school and was reputed to have established day-schools for children of both sexes at Middlechurch and East Kildonan, without regard for their parents’ ability to pay. For these services the HBC paid him £25 per year. It is not known when he retired from teaching but he remained active as a councillor of Assiniboia until 1848, serving on the committees of economy and finance. He was also involved in the financially unsuccessful tallow company established at Red River in 1832.
John Pritchard was a small man who was not afraid to break new ground. The first half of his life was certainly more adventurous than the second but throughout he maintained a strong concern for the settlers of Red River and devoted himself to securing the welfare of its colonists.
John Pritchard is one of the authors of Narratives of John Pritchard, Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun, and Frederick Damien Heurter, respecting the aggressions of the North-West Company, against the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement upon Red River (London, 1819). His petition to the House of Commons appeared in Substance of the speech of Sir James Montgomery, bart., in the House of Commons, on the 24th of June 1819, on bringing forward his motion relative to the petition of Mr. John Pritchard, of the Red River settlement (London, 1819). Some of Pritchard’s letters are included in Glimpses of the past in the Red River settlement from letters of Mr John Pritchard, 1805–1836, ed. George Bryce (Middlechurch, Man., 1892); one of these letters, entitled “Lost on the prairies,” was published in the Beaver, outfit 273 (June 1942): 36–39.
PAC, MG 19, E1, ser.1, 3: 1255, 1257; 4: 1492, 1501; 8: 3260; 9: 3597; 14: 5518, 5578; 16: 6171; 18: 6967; 23: 8902; 24: 9178; 52: 20151. PAM, HBCA, A.1/52: f.74; D.5/1: ff.243, 263; E.10/1, 1; MG 7, B7; MG 9, A76, file 102. Andrew Amos, Report of trials in the courts of Canada, relative to the destruction of the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement on the Red River; with observations (London, 1820). Canadian North-West (Oliver), vol.1. S. H. Wilcocke, Report of the proceedings connected with the disputes between the Earl of Selkirk, and the North-West Company, at the assizes, held at York in Upper Canada, October 1818 (Montreal, 1819). H. V. Neufeld, “John Pritchard – unsung hero of the Red River settlement,” Winnipeg Free Press, 18 Jan. 1964: 18. Ray Tulloch, “Manitoba – the terrible, turbulent years; ‘a little toad’ they called him,” Winnipeg Free Press, 21 Sept. 1963: 28.