Charles John Griffin

The Flintlock gun

The Voyageur and his flintlock gun

I first ran into Charles John Griffin in the York Factory Express journals of 1849, when he came into the country West of the Rocky Mountains with John Charles’s incoming Columbia Express. At Jasper’s House, he and the other men intended for New Caledonia [Fort St. James] crossed the mountains by Leather Pass to the upper Fraser River. At Tete Jaune’s Cache, they met the boats that were awaiting them. When Charles John Griffin reached his new posting, he wrote a letter to Governor Simpson, which described his so-called hazardous journey across the continent from York Factory. The journey was:

…rendered much more so by the infeebled [sic] state of the miserable creatures who accompanied me, the long journey from Canada to here being more than they were capable of undergoing, however, by encouragement & perseverance we managed to surmount all our difficulties. [D.5/27, fo. 367, HBCA]

I was very amused by this, and I thought him a cocky young man! Griffin worked for a number of years in New Caledonia, where his presence was appreciated by Chief Trader Donald Manson. But George Simpson, Governor of the HBC, wanted Griffin in a more important position. You may wonder why Griffin was no important to Governor Simpson, but he was the brother of two important Montreal businessmen with whom Simpson had dealings. Simpson had also met Griffin at York Factory, where he been employed for a year or two. Simpson advised James Douglas that Griffin was “a fine young man & might be useful anywhere… I should, therefore, be glad that Griffin were brought more into notice & stationed either on Vancouver’s Island or at Ft. Vancouver, instead of being kept inland.” [D.4/43, fo. 114, HBCA]

Donald Manson resisted sending Griffin south, and he was still in New Caledonia in 1852 when the Fraser River salmon were scarce and starvation was likely. When Manson returned to Fort St. James with the incoming brigades of 1852, he found the stores empty of provisions:

Not one day’s rations at the place, no appearance of salmon in the River, and from the lateness of the season, but faint hopes of any eventually casting up. I therefore dispatched Mr. Griffin to the Babines [at Babines Lake] in order to procure a few for immediate use, and at the same time to ascertain what quantity I might depend upon from thence. On the 16th September he returned without having procured any and informed me that altho’ the natives of that place had a good many amongst them, still they refused to dispense of them unless we paid double the usual price — Fortunately, during Mr. Griffin’s absence a few Salmon made their appearance here… [D.5/36, fo. 323, HBCA]

Griffin arrived at Fort Victoria in early November 1852, having been sent south from Fort St. James after the New Caledonia brigades returned home, as is clearly stated below. Here is Douglas’s report:

By the arrival of Mr. Griffin from the Interior I have lately received intelligence from Stuarts Lake to the 17th Sept, from Alexandria to the 26th Sept, and from Thompson River to the 2nd October. Chief Trader Manson arrived safely at Stuart’s Lake with the outfit on 2nd September & soon afterwards sent off a party to Peace River for the annual supply of leather. Salmon were unusually scare in Fraser’s River &c Mr. Manson entertains fears that he will not be able to procure a sufficient quantity for the supply of the Company’s establishments… A gleam of hope is derived from Mr. Griffin’s report who states that after his departure from Stuart’s Lake from whence Mr. Manson’s letter is dated, he fell in with considerable shoals of salmon in Fraser’s River and observed a fair show of fish at every Indian Village on his route to Alexandria. [B.226/b/6, fo. 148, HBCA]

By 1854 Griffin was in charge of the Bellevue Sheep Farms on San Juan Islands [his journals are available here: ] Griffin was still there in 1855, when this incident happened, as it was he who reported to James Douglas. Douglas’s letter, below, was written in April 1855:

A party of American citizens under the direction of the Sheriff Barnes [of Whatcom county], lately landed on the Island of San Juan, and demanded payment in the name of the United States of America, of certain local taxes, amounting in all to the sum of about 80 dollars, which being refused they proceeded to seize and succeeded in carrying off with impunity all the valuable Rams, the only sheep within their reach [34 in number]…. The Americans were armed with a brace of Revolver Pistols each, and greatly outnumbered the Company’s men, who were armed with Indian guns, and would therefore have had no chance of close quarters, though at a long range more than a match for them. Such attempts may be repeated but probably with a different result. [B.226/b/13, fo. 3a, HBCA]

In July 1856, Douglas reported a case of cattle-lifting, on San Juan Island. “I have also had very lately an occasion to investigate a case of Cattle lifting committed on the Island of San Juan, but we did not succeed in discovering the delinquents, who are strongly suspected to have been a roving party of northern Indians.” But interestingly, Griffin is now a Justice — of the Peace, I presume:

The Otter was dispatched on that service with Justice Griffin, Captain McDonald and 16 voltigeurs, and visited all the Indian camps within 30 miles of San Juan. The inhabitants of one of those camps, about 30 half Cowegins, who are at variance with the rest of the Tribe, after a previous friendly meeting with Justice Griffin opened a sharp fire of musketry upon a few Cowegins who accompanied the Otter in their canoe as pilots; and several shots struck the vessel, but fortunately without doing any harm. As their fire was avowedly directed against the Cowegin pilots, none of whom was hit, Justice Griffin succeeded with much difficulty in restraining his party from returning their fire. This was commendable, though a shot or two among them would have done no harm, and taught them to respect our flag. [B.226/b/13, fo. 69, HBCA]

The voltigeurs mentioned above is Fort Victoria’s first police force, made up of voyageurs and retired employees. They were called the Victoria Voltigeurs, and are part of Fort Victoria’s history.

James Robert Anderson, son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson, met Charles John Griffin in 1859 or so, when his family moved north to Fort Victoria. This is what he wrote of the Pig War, which occurred when Griffin was still in charge of the Belle Vue Farm:

It was in the year, 1859, that on the island of San Juan, commonly referred to in those days as Belle Vue, that being the local name of the southern end, occupied from early days by the Hudson’s Bay Company, principally as a sheep run, and at that time in charge of Mr. Chas. J. Griffin, that a detachment of U.S. troops under the command of Captain Pickett landed on the Island and laid claim to it on behalf of the United States, as a sequel to a row abut a pig, it is said, between and American and one of our settlers. Immediately the news of the high-handed proceeding reached Victoria, preparations were made summarily to expel the impudent invaders. The Satellite and Plumper were cleared for action, the young bloods of Victoria volunteered for service and for the next few days nothing but war was the theme in Victoria. Wiser counsel prevailed, resulting in a joint occupation… [James Robert Anderson, Memoirs, in author’s possession]

Griffin’s friend, Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, described Griffin as a “splendid fellow — a rushing active spirited lithesome and blithesome fellow — a Canadian, at home with a canoe and horses — a sort of typical Canadian young man, with a French dash in him.” This is a wonderful description which gives a perfect image of the man, but as far as I know he was not French. He came from Montreal, however, and for years I thought of him as the perfect voyageur. But he was no voyageur — he was a clerk in the fur trade, though it seems he could out-paddle and out-perform any French or Metis voyageur around.

I also find that Bruce McIntyre Watson, in his invaluable three-volume book, Lives lived West of the Divide, has more to say of Griffin. In 1850-51 he was employed at Fort Langley before returning to Fort St. James. In 1852 he was back at Fort Langley [I say he passed through Fort Langley on his way to Fort Victoria]. For a very short time he was posted at Fort Simpson up the coast. In 1853 he was clerk in charge at the Bellevue Farms, where he remained until 1862. At that time he went on furlough, and remained in the east, dying a few years later in Ottawa. His birth-date is not known, but he seems to be a young man. Perhaps he was not.

An update: But someone does know how old he was, and where he was born, and that someone is the managers of the National Historical Park that now exists on the site of the old Belle Vue Sheep Farm. Charles John Griffin was Irish, born in Ireland in 1827, but brought up in Montreal. That means that when he came west with John Charles’s incoming York Factory Express, he was twenty-two years old — as I thought, a young man. If you want to learn more about him, and to see a photo of him, visit the NPS site, at  There is also a well-written history of this place, which was a part of Fort Victoria’s history.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Charles John Griffin

  1. Doug Halsey

    Hello Ms. Anderson,

    How very delightful to discover your website this morning, and particularly a post regarding Charles Griffin. I am with the National Park Service at San Juan Island National Historical Park and of course Mr. Griffin is very much of the part of the history here. If you could make one small correction, readers would have a much easier time finding Griffin’s Journals on the park’s website. The correct link would be .

    Prior to this I was posted at Ft. Vancouver National Historic Site for 15 years, and so, many of your stories and biographies are familiar to me, but a number are new. In particular I found the post about the grasses interesting. I also worked for a couple of years with Oregon State Parks at Champoeg St. Park, which is in an area of the Willamette River known as French Prairie, the West’s first retirement community, so-called because of the retired HBC employees living there, including Donald Manson.

    One of the people I worked with at Ft. Vancouver was David Hansen, their now retired curator, who told a story about his mother, Julia Butler Hansen growing up in Cathlamet and playing with the youngest Birnie child.

    Anyway, thank you for your articles, and I look forward to reading the newest ones as they are posted.

    Very Best Regards,

    Doug Halsey, Park Ranger
    San Juan Island NHP

  2. Beth Camp

    Thank you, Ms. Anderson, for posting such fascinating research on this period. I’m reading Paul Kane’s Wanderings of an Artist and wondering if Charles Griffin could be the same as the clerk Charles (no last name given) who traveled with Kane on his journey to Fort Vancouver in 1846. If you have Kane’s book, see page 97: “On that morning, we started at daybreak. Our party consisted of Mr. Lane and his wife, a young man named Charles, a clerk, who was going to a post on the west side of the Rocky mountains, a person of the name of M’Gillveray, and sixteen men.” The first source you note above states that Charles Griffin served as a clerk at York, making this a possible connection. Your earlier research helped me determine that Montrose McGillivray is the ‘M’gillveray’ referred to. The Charles referred to in Kane’s journals did turn back to Fort Assiniboine on Oct 15th due to bad weather. Sincerely, Beth Camp