WEST, JOHN, Church of England missionary, teacher, and author; b. November 1778 in Farnham, Surrey, England, and baptized 18 December, son of George West and Ann Knowles; m. 2 Oct. 1807 Harriet Atkinson in Wethersfield, England, and they had 12 children; d. 21 Dec. 1845 in Chettle, England.
As John West’s father was an Anglican clergyman, the routine of the manse and the necessity of securing a gentlemanly calling probably influenced John’s vocational choice and education. Repeating a pattern set by his elder brother, he became a deacon on 13 Dec. 1804, was ordained on 21 Sept. 1806, and graduated from St Edmund Hall, Oxford, with an ma on 8 June 1809. Following his ordination he was assigned curacies in Essex, where he formed an acquaintance with the Reverend Henry Budd, an evangelical rector. West did not obtain a permanent benefice until collated to the rectory of Chettle, in Dorset, early in 1820. By that time, however, it appears that the attitudes of the evangelical movement had become a matter of personal conviction with West and he had already offered to serve the Church Missionary Society in the field.
Benjamin Harrison, a director of the Hudson’s Bay Company and a founding member of the CMS, appears to have been responsible for securing West’s appointment as HBC chaplain in 1819. The company’s London committee, anticipating that the trade war between the North West Company and the HBC would result in merger – it took place in 1821 – intended that surplus and retired servants from both companies, orphaned mixed-blood children, and others associated with the Protestant community in the west would have their spiritual requirements met in the Red River settlement (Man.), where schools, religious instruction, and pastoral care would be established by a chaplain in the company’s employ. West’s placement there also reflected the interest of Andrew Colvile and John Halkett*, executors of the estate of Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] and members of the London committee, in ensuring the progress of the settlement. As well, the committee believed that one of a number of missionary societies could be counted on for financial support if the mission were to include Indian children from the Red River region.
The first Protestant missionary to tour Rupert’s Land, West sailed for that territory on 27 May 1820 with George Harbidge, a school teacher, but left his wife and infant children behind, apparently with every intention of returning for them once a mission was firmly established. Emphasizing the evangelicals’ goal of mission to non-Christian natives instead of his duties as HBC chaplain, West noted in his journal that his orders from the company were “to reside at the Red River Settlement, and under the incouragement and aid of the Church Missionary Society, . . . to seek the instruction and endeavour to meliorate the condition of the native Indians.” Immediately after arriving at York Factory (Man.) in August, he visited Indian tents and observed a large number of orphaned mixed-blood and native children. He hastily drew up a plan calling for the care and education of indigent children at schools to be established in the Red River settlement. This plan he submitted to William Williams, resident governor of the HBC, for transfer to the London committee, but no action was taken. Convinced that his greatest opportunity for Christianizing lay in converting native children, West negotiated at York to have an Indian boy assigned to his care for his proposed Indian school in Red River. At Norway House he acquired another, a Swampy Cree orphan who was later christened Henry Budd*. West continued this practice throughout his stay in Rupert’s Land [see Thomas Hassall; Charles Pratt*] and, although the number of boys recruited remained small, he claimed to have established the practice whereby the “North American Indian of these regions would part with his children, to be educated in the white man’s knowledge and religion.”
Arriving at Red River in October 1820, West began a day-school a month later in a log cabin at Kildonan (Winnipeg) as a means of evangelizing the Indians of the region. The residents of nearby Red River began sending their children to the school, thereby shifting its emphasis toward satisfying the needs of the settlement’s permanent community. West stressed “civilization” as well as Christianity with his students and began delineating a program of religious and practical instruction which included teaching domestic skills to girls and horticultural and cultivation skills to boys. He planned to duplicate this effort for Cree-speaking, mixed-blood children but failed to draw sufficient financial support.
West had begun his ministry in Red River at a critical time. The residual hatred and distrust resulting from a decade of violence in the fur trade had created an uneasiness in the heterogeneous settlement. The frustration caused by uncertain crops, the fear of attack by the Sioux or their interference with the buffalo staple, and the difficulty experienced in adjusting the social values of a fur trade society to those of a settled community found expression in a conflict between settlers and the HBC over the company’s efforts to curtail illicit trade. In this conflict West was essentially neutral, but he was in a situation requiring resourcefulness and tact and was not flexible enough to adapt Church of England practices to suit his flock. Although attendance was steady at services, at a Sunday school established in Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) for the benefit of Indian wives and older children, and at the day-school, rapport between pastor and a variegated congregation was soon strained by his exclusiveness in administering communion and by his sermons. Nicholas Garry*, an HBC director, later noted that “West is not a good Preacher; he unfortunately attempts to preach extempore from Notes, for which he has not the Capacity, his discourses being unconnected and ill-delivered. He likewise Mistakes his Point, fancying that by touching severely and pointedly on the Weaknesses of People he will produce Repentance.” However, even though evangelicals like West did not believe that in a society of sinners all temporal evils could be eliminated, they did insist that on deliberate moral wrongs, which clearly contravened God’s law, no compromise was possible. West, for example, attacked marriage à la façon du pays as both immoral and socially destructive. To escape further rebuke, many of the company officers at the HBC’s posts and principal settlers in Red River who had married in that fashion responded, sometimes reluctantly, by formalizing their vows.
A number of the groups in the settlement had particular difficulties in responding to West. The Presbyterian Scots, who had been promised a clergyman of their own by Lord Selkirk, were unhappy with his unbending use of Anglican liturgy. He was clearly not received as warmly as his successor, David Thomas Jones, who would successfully employ pastoral visits and accommodate the Presbyterians’ biases. With the Swiss and De Meuron settlers West fared no better. At one point he offended everyone by refusing to baptize an illegitimate child. Except for several reportedly congenial visits with chief Peguis*, West largely ignored the Saulteaux residing at Netley Creek. He did, however, begin learning an unspecified Indian language while in the settlement. West did not interfere with the Roman Catholic missionaries, Sévère Dumoulin* and Thomas-Ferruce Picard* Destroismaisons, who reported his movements to their superiors, Joseph-Norbert Provencher* and Joseph-Octave Plessis*. His distribution of bibles in French and the news that he intended learning French from Destroismaisons excited fear that West might overstep the understood denominational boundaries in Red River, but nothing more came of his efforts.
West’s uneven record in the Red River settlement reflected a focus on the Indian and a preoccupation with all of Rupert’s Land rather than the settlement alone. To extend his ministry, he travelled by carriole to Brandon House and Fort Qu’Appelle (Sask.) in the early months of 1821, but his most extensive journeys were visits to York Factory during the summer months of 1821, 1822, and 1823. With the cooperation of Nicholas Garry, an auxiliary Bible society was formed at York in 1821, with the assembled officers of the company making a substantial subscription. The following year West was elated to learn that the CMS would bolster his mission efforts with money and by sending Elizabeth Bowden, a trained schoolmistress and George Harbidge’s fiancée, to teach and supervise the Indian girls at Red River. When John Halkett, a company director, was in Red River to persuade near-mutinous settlers to remain, West accompanied him first to Pembina (N.Dak.) and subsequently to York, pressing upon a sympathetic ear the interests of the broad mission. While in York in 1822, West met the northern expedition of Captain John Franklin, who had been exploring the Arctic since 1819 and who encouraged him to extend his missionary efforts north to the Inuit at Fort Churchill (Churchill). West went the following summer, travelling from York there and back on foot.
By 1822 the members of the council of the HBC’s Northern Department were growing fearful that West’s efforts to attract support for Indian schools from Red River to the Pacific and to draw natives into the Red River settlement would harm the fur trade. Governor George Simpson* reflected their view, objecting on practical grounds to problems of victualling permanent missions. West refused to compromise or appreciate that he required the support of the council as well as that of the London committee. He continued urging a strict observance of the Sabbath and attacking drunkenness. He allegedly threatened Simpson to get him to use his influence with the London committee to abolish the use of spirits, eliciting the governor’s criticism that the chaplain was “inclined to deal too freely in politicks.” With a trade in which spirits had important commercial, ceremonial, and therapeutic functions, such threats were not lightly dismissed. A planned appointment to the Council of Assiniboia was not confirmed before his residence in the settlement ended.
In June 1823 West left for England on what was to have been a temporary furlough, but his employment was terminated by the London committee early the following year. His position in Rupert’s Land had been undermined as much by his activist nature and failure to conciliate as by the less than propitious circumstances he faced in the settlement and by the inchoate policy of the HBC on missions. The ill-defined nature of his terms of employment as chaplain and CMS missionary also contributed to his difficulties. Nevertheless, by emphasizing service to the Indians and to all of Rupert’s Land, West began a practice of preparing native boys for Christian service and shaped the Anglican mission in the west for his successors, among them Jones, John Macallum, and William Cockran*.
West’s Journal, published in 1824, recounted and publicized his mission experiences. A second edition issued in 1827 included an account of an investigative journey taken in 1825–26 for the British and Foreign Bible Society and the New England Company [see Oliver Arnold*; Molly Ann Gell*]. West’s itinerary included stays in New York, Boston, and the company’s mission on the Kennebecasis River in New Brunswick, and brief visits to Fredericton and Annapolis Royal, N.S. Critical of the poor moral example and rapacity of the whites in charge of company operations in New Brunswick and discouraged by the unshakeable Roman Catholicism of the Indians, West through his report was partly responsible for the decision to discontinue the operations of the company there in 1826. Journeying inland from Albany, N.Y., he observed the missionary efforts in Upper Canada of the Methodists and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and recommended to the New England Company that a resident Anglican missionary be placed among the Mohawks on the Grand River [see Robert Lugger].
In England West continued to occupy the rectorship of Chettle, to which was added the parish of Farnham, Dorset, in 1834. He maintained a vigorous interest in missions in British North America and went to the Canadas in 1828 to assist in reviving interest in the British and Foreign Bible Society auxiliaries. West also devoted attention to the organization of agricultural workers emigrating to New South Wales (Australia), and was instrumental in establishing a National School in England. In 1834 he was appointed a domestic chaplain to Baron Duncannon, one of the authors of the Reform Bill of 1831. During the last years of his life he joined with other reform-minded clergymen and gentlemen in the establishment of a school near Chettle for the education and industrial training of gypsies. West died in December 1845 and was survived by four sons and two daughters.
[The author would like to thank Mr Jack Bridcut of Farnham, Surrey, Eng., and Mr Ian H. S. Stratton of Salisbury, Eng., for their assistance. r.a.w.]
John West is the author of The substance of a journal during a residence at the Red River colony, British North America; and frequent excursions among the north-west American Indians, in the years 1820, 1821, 1822, 1823 (London, 1824); the second edition (London, 1827) includes A journal of a mission to the Indians of the British provinces, of New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, and the Mohawks, on the Ouse, or Grand River, Upper Canada, which was also issued separately the same year. His other publications include A brief memoir of William B— . . . , with some remarks on the nature of true religion (2nd ed., Blandford, Eng., 1839); and Memoir of Mrs. John West, who died at Chettle, Dorset, March 23, 1839 (2nd ed., London, 1842), a fourth edition of which, published in London in 1866, includes a brief biographical notice of the author.
GRO (London), Death certificate, John West, 21 Dec. 1845. PAM, HBCA, A.1/52: ff.39–39d; A.5/6: 194; A.5/7: ff.128, 131d; p.236; A.10/2: ff.398–99, 404–5; B.235/a/5, 13 March 1823; D.4/3: ff.74–74d, 76d–77; D.4/8: f.15d; P337, files 4–8; P2543, esp. E. J. Lawson, “The unfulfilled: a study of John West, his family, friends and times, 1778–1845” (typescript). Surrey Record Office (Guildford, Eng.), Reg. of baptisms for the parish of Farnham, 18 Dec. 1778. Univ. of Birmingham Library, Special Coll. (Birmingham, Eng.), Church Missionary Soc. Arch., C, C.1/L.1, 1821–24; C.1/M.1, nos.3–5, 10–11, 13; C.1/O, corr. and journal of John West, 1822–23 (mfm. at PAC). Canadian north-west (Oliver), 1: 225, 638. Church Missionary Soc., Proc. for Africa and the East (London), 1819–24. Documents relating to northwest missions, 1815–1827, ed. G. L. Nute (St Paul, Minn., 1942). Nicholas Garry, “Diary of Nicholas Garry, deputy-governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1822–1835: a detailed narrative of his travels in the northwest territories of British North America in 1821 . . . ,” ed. F. N. A. Garry, RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 6 (1900), sect.ii: 139–40, 157. Gentleman’s Magazine, January–June 1839: 554; January–June 1846: 213–14. HBRS, 3 (Fleming). George Simpson, Fur trade and empire: George Simpson’s journal . . . 1824–25, ed. and intro. Frederick Merk (Cambridge, Mass., 1931). Sarah Tucker, The rainbow in the north: a short account of the first establishment of Christianity in Rupert’s Land by the Church Missionary Society (London, 1851).
Boon, Anglican Church. V. K. Fast, “The Protestant missionary and fur trade society: initial contact in the Hudson’s Bay territory, 1820–1850” (phd thesis, Univ. of Man., Winnipeg, 1984). J. E. Foster, “The Anglican clergy in the Red River settlement, 1820–1826”
© 1988–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Richard A. Willie, “WEST, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/west_john_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Richard A. Willie|
|Title of Article:||WEST, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||March 28, 2023|