Rossville, 1840

The following is an examination of some of the processes that James Evans may have used to cast type at the Rossville Mission.

28 September, 1840
‘For a fortnight I have been endeavouring to cast type, to print the Cree language; but every attempt hitherto made has failed. I have no proper materials, neither type-metal, nor any other thing requisite:I hope, however, to conquer the difficulties and begin printing the Cree language in a few weeks or months at the farthest’

30 September, 1840
‘I cut types in lead of two characters, and took moulds in clay, chalk, putty, sand, and tried some other fruitless experiments.’

Melting Equipment (urn & pourer). Small amounts of lead are melted in the pouring device, which when tipped releases the molten lead through a spout.


Carving the shape for a mould in the endgrain of oak, in the background the shape is roughed-out. The foreground shows the syllable with most of the material excised.


Finished mould


Melting the lead: Impurities in the metal are taken out while the lead is molten. Because the lead utilized was from bullets & tea-chests, it had been melted at lease once before. It is melted once more, allowed to cool and then melted a final time before being poured into the mould. This repeated melting is to harden the lead, although the most noticeable difference in hardness is after the initial melting. In traditional type-making, tin and antimony are added in small quantities to harden the metal, thereby extending its life in use. Considering the surfaces used in printing at Rossville, the type would have a limited life-span, but publications had been produced in limited runs. (The propane torch was doubtless unavailable to Evans, of course)

After pouring lead into an oak mould (with wire clamp still attached): The lead should not be a temperature too high above the melting point (373°c), lest it scorch the wood. Evans may or may not have also used clay as a matrix mould, after the initial casting and finishing of a lead sort.¹

Initial casting; here unfinished as pulled from the mould


The type is then filed down to even the sides and face of the type.


Initial smoke proofs from first two characters cast: Smoke proofs are made by holding
the face of the character to a candle-flame, which deposits a layer of fine soot which can
then be transfered to paper by pressure.


Ink was made of lampblack: the sooty substance that accumulates on the walls of the glass casing or other exposed surfaces of an oil lamp or candle. This may be ground to break down any large particles, and a small amount of oil added.


After some oil has been added. (Evans probably would have used a fish oil)





The type is then inked and an impression can be made. Evans used a screw-type press that was used by the fur trade to compress bales of furs for shipment.

November 11, 1840
‘My types answer well . . . I have got excellent type, considering the country and materials: they make at least a tolerably good impression. The letter or character I cut in finely-polished oak. I filed out of one side of an inch-square iron bar the square of the body of the type; and after placing the bar with the notch over the letter, I applied another polished bar to the face of the mould and poured in the lead, after it had been repeatedly melted in order to harden it. These required a little dressing on the face, and filing to the uniform square and length, and answer well.’ ²

Between the period of September and November, Evans produced the earliest printed syllabary from a stereotype plate (15 October, 1840). Later versions of this syllabary (as illustrated below) were produced with movable type. On or about the 11th of November, when the above entry was quoted to be from, the second item was reported to be printed using movable type: Hymn- Jesus My All to Heaven is Gone.


November 11, 1840
'I have to-day struck off three hundred copies of the first three verses, making a small page.'²

(Detail) Reproduction of  Syllabary dated 1841 (paper surface differs from that of the original): This syllabary was probably printed using movable type and was the first page of a Cree hymnary. There were 100 copies printed of the 16 page hymn book. At this point the long syllables are denoted by incising a line through the base character, by far the easiest method of differentiating the two, considering the technology. Later the system was altered and length was donoted by a diacritic mark (a dot above the base character).

Perhaps one of the first printing surfaces employed at Rossville was birch bark. It can be soaked in hot water or steamed to make it pliable enough to separate the layers, which remain flexible and create a reasonable printing surface, although each sheet is marred by several small openings. The bark should come from a live tree while the bark still retains it's natural oils. It is likely that if birchbark was used, it was used in a very limited manner; perhaps for items published as single sheets. No doubt the courseness of the paper used in some of these early printing efforts led people to believe it was birchbark was used. Surviving examples are all printed on varying grades of paper.

11 June, 1841
‘It is composed of nine letters varied to represent every sound in the language. Adapted to the Ojibway an all kindred dialects, to the Assinnibois, the Crees, Mushkegoes, the Black Feet near the mountains…indeed with some slight alteration…it is adequate to writing every language from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains. The men, women and children at Norway House write and read it with ease and fluency.’ 3



¹ The Rev'd Edgerton G. Young who was head of  Rossville Mission twenty years
after Evans said that after creating positive masters of the characters, Evans
made casts in clay and used these as moulds.

² Extracts from the Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine, 1843, which claims to be quoting
from Evans' journal.

³ Letter to Evans' brother

10 pixels nominal 12 pixels nominal (default) 14 pixels nominal 18 pixels nominal set text size from one of the above options
Tiro Typeworks