John Pritchard was born in 1777 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, the fifth of thirteen children born to Mary Harries and Samuel Pritchard. By 1801 he was in Montreal and had been engaged by the XY Company which later united with the North West Company. Between 1801 and 1814 he was employed as a clerk in various North West forts, including Red River, Souris River, Lake Nipigon, Pine Fort and Qu’Appelle. John had a country wife, Marie Sauvagesse, with whom he had two sons, William and John.
In 1814 John decided to retire from the North West Company and become a settler. At the NWC headquarters in Fort William, he learned of the planned destruction of the Red River settlement, so went to Montreal to inform Colin Robertson of the HBC. At Robertson’s urging, John undertook an epic journey back to Red River, travelling by canoe and on snowshoes via Moose and York Factories, in order to warn Gov. Miles Macdonell of the dangers. He left on 17 Oct 1814 and arrived at Red River on 15 April 1815.
Marie Sauvagesse declined to join John at Red River, so after a very brief courtship, he married Catherine McGilvray McLean on 11 May 1815. Catherine, from the island of Mull, Scotland, was the widow of Hector McLean (1) with whom she had a daughter Mary born June 1813. Those settlers who had not been persuaded by the NWC to leave for Upper Canada in June 1815, including John and Catherine, were soon forced by the Métis and NWC men to flee north to Jack River (Norway House). Encouraged and led by Colin Robertson, they returned to Red River in August to start again.
John was a witness to and survivor of the confrontation with the Métis at Seven Oaks on 19 June 1816. Captured by the NWC and imprisoned at Fort William, he was released when Lord Selkirk arrived. He then went to Montreal to testify at the NWC trials in 1818. In May 1819 he went to London to present a petition to the British Parliament regarding the events in the Red River Settlement. His statement and observations were published on 25 May 1820 and he returned to Red River in August 1820.
While in London, John had entered into an agreement with the HBC for the formation of The Buffalo Wool Co., of which he was to be major principal. It was hoped that buffalo wool would be a valuable export for the settlement but it was not well received by British weavers. The dull brown, greasy wool was difficult to work with and could not be dyed into fashionable colours. The company folded in 1824. Another venture, The Tallow Company, was also short-lived.
John first farmed at Point Douglas on land ultimately granted to him by Lord Selkirk in 1817. Later he moved to a lot on the east side of the Red River where he built “The Elms.” Catherine and John had ten children, in addition to Catherine’s daughter Mary McLean. A well-educated man, John taught his own and other children in a school he established in his home. John Pritchard School now stands on the site of “The Elms” at the corner of Whellems Lane and Henderson Highway.
John was appointed a Special Constable by Governor Simpson in 1823 and from 1822 to 1848 was a permanent Councillor of Assiniboia. In 1845 he was appointed to the Committee of the Economy. He received a lifetime annuity of £20 from the Hudson’s Bay Company for his services to the cause of religion and education in the colony. Catherine died in 1854 and John died in 1855. They are both buried in St. John’s Cemetery, Winnipeg.
(1) The McLeans had arrived at Red River in 1812 with the first party of Selkirk settlers. Hector died in 1813.