John Charles 2

Whirlpool River

The Whirlpool River from Mount Hooker, August 8, 1978, looking toward Moose Encampment. Image from the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, Valemount Historical Society, & Kootenay Gallery of Art, History & Science, image 0047.1324

This post is a continuation of John Charles’s story. I began this story some time ago, as you may remember, and it began with this paragraph:

John Charles led out the York Factory Express to Hudson Bay in 1849. He did not make it home again, but was shot and killed at Campement d’Orignal, or Moose Encampment, on his way to Athabasca Pass.

If you want to read the first part of this tale, here is the link: 

A gentlemen named Sir Edward Poore accompanied this incoming York Factory Express as a passenger. Governor George Simpson informed the Board of Management at Fort Vancouver that “Sir Edward Poore, who accompanied by Messrs [Paul] Kane, Phillips, & Franklin, and a servant, propose to pass through the country to Fort Vancouver. You will be pleased to assist them with such supplies as may be necessary…” Phillips fell sick and did not come west. The artist Paul Kane was supposed to act as their Guide, but Poore and Kane argued and Kane also did not accompany the party west.

Poore and his friend, a Mr. Franklin, made their way to Carlton House from Red River with their First Nations guide. This part of the story is taken from his letter to his mother, written November 19, 1849 from Fort Vancouver, and found in the Poore Family Papers, Wiltshire & Swindon Archives. I did not do this research, by the way. The historian who found these letters is Daniel Kyba. Daniel, who is interested in the history of Jasper Valley, found my original blog post on my old site. He did all this research, and generously shared it with me! Amazing! 

So, Edward Poore writes to his mother of his journey west: “We came to Carlton House, a dirty little fort. From this we took 6 fresh horses, left the Indian and took 2 other men.” They passed through Fort Pitt and arrived at Edmonton House in time to join the Express, finding plenty of buffalo along their way. Still, he wrote, “This country is not what it is cracked up to be,” and he considered that it was a long way to travel without seeing anything worth seeing.

This next part is edited by me, to make it easier to read and understand. In the letter to his mother, Poore goes on to tell the story of John Charles’s death: 

In crossing the Mountain Portage a most melancholy accident happened [to] the gentleman in charge, a very agreeable person by the name of [John] Charles. One evening after camp a raven came and lit on a tree close by. Franklin took his rifle and missed it. I laughed at him…. “No, stop,” said Charles. “Let us all have a shot for a shilling a piece, the best to win.” There was an oldish man of the name of Young who had an American rifle. I had warned him as being a very dangerous one and apt to go off. (Franklin and I had plugged up the nipple partly through [word] and danger but he had got it off.) Charles said to him “come out and bring your old rifle and have a shot.”

They were standing around the fire, Charles with his back to it, Frederick with his face, two other young clerks and the cook. I had been to make a mark. As Young came out of the tent the rifle went off and shot poor Charles in the right breast. (Frederick was singed). He [Charles] fell nearly into the fire, which we put out and got the tent over him. He never spoke after, once he appeared to be sensible but directly after his face reassumed the same stupid look. He was in great pain, said “let me go” twice and “mercy” once. He also spoke what we took to be some words in Cree but we could not make them out. The only sentence he spoke was, “That was well done, Mr. Young.” He then sat up and looked round wildly and then died. He suffered about two hours. Next morning we rolled him in blankets and buried him, making after a small log house over him.  

Such was the culture of the Hudson’s Bay Company that Frederick Lewes, who was travelling with the incoming Express but not working for the Company, took charge of the party and brought it down to Fort Colvile. Alexander Caulfield Anderson was in charge of this fort at that time. On September 21, or shortly after, he had dispatched the boat upriver to Boat Encampment to meet the incoming Express, and it would only be after the boat returned to Fort Colvile that he would hear the news of John Charles’s death.

It is likely that one of the first things he would have done is send off a letter to John Charles’s brother, Thomas, who had worked under him at Fort Alexandria. Anderson also wrote a letter to Chief Factor John Lee Lewes, father of Frederick Lewes, telling him of his son’s good behaviour. Lewes wrote back, saying “I am very glad to hear that Frederick after this sad and melancholy fate of young Charles, so conducted himself as to meet with your approval. Pity it was that that stupid fellow, Young, had not got the shot in his own head. The jackass has destroyed a fine young man worth a shipload of unfeeling and careless Yankees…”

The copy of this letter is in James Robert Anderson’s Memoirs, found in the B.C. Archives. He was not even ten years old when the 1849 Express came in, but he remembered what happened, and wrote about it in later years. This is the tale that started the hunt for John Charles’s story:

The reference Mr. Lewes makes to the tragic death of young Charles happened in this way. John Charles, a brother of the late William Charles, was in 1849 coming over with a party to join the Company at Fort Vancouver, and one evening in camp on the Rocky Mountains a certain Mr. Young, an American, who had obtained permission to accompany the party, whilst displaying his gun, of which he was rather proud and it is said which he handled in quite an inexperienced manner, accidentally discharged it, the full charge entering John Charles’s body killing him instantly. The body was buried on the spot, but at the instance of his father, was some years after brought to Fort Vancouver and interred… [“Notes and Comments on Early Days and events in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon,” by James Robert Anderson]. 

The shocked party made its way across the mountains and down the river to Fort Colvile, where they told their story to Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Once past that place, the men of the incoming Express experienced another disaster. James Douglas reports on this in his letter to Governor Simpson, February 13, 1850:

The charge of the express was left to the Iroquois Guide [Michel Kaonasse], and the whole party was afterwards nearly lost in the Dalles above Fort Okanogan; one of the boats being dashed to pieces against a rock, on which the people affected a landing and remained in that situation upwards of three hours before the other boat, which was also hurt, was repaired and could proceed to their assistance.

This story is also contained in Sir Edward Poore’s letter to his mother: 

Two days [after leaving Fort Colvile] we ran up against a rock and crashed, and scrambled on the rock, 10 of us. The boat broke in two, and two men on the part of the boat that was left. It was just as much as the 10 men could do to stand on the rock it was so small. The other boat knocked a hole in herself and was just sinking when she got to land. There we were nearly 4 hours, the water nearly up to my knees all the time, very cold, the current about 15 miles per hour. They mended the other boat and with difficulty took us off…

On November 24, Eden Colvile, who was visiting Fort Vancouver at the time the Express came into the fort, wrote to Governor Simpson that “We have a large party here just now. Sir Edward Poore & Franklin arrived with the express… Poor Charles, you will see by my letter, has been shot by the Yankee ship builder Young. I am very sorry for it, for he was very well spoken of by everybody here. Young did not seem to take it much to heart.”

Peter Skene Ogden wrote to Governor Simpson on November 26, telling him of the arrival of the incoming Express at Fort Vancouver: “I have now to inform you of the arrival of the York Factory Express here on the 18th Instant [November] but I truly regret to state without its leader. Mr. John Charles, by the accidental discharge of Mr. Young’s Gun, was killed at Moose Encampment in the Rocky Mountain Portage. He survived but a short time after receiving the fatal shot. Any particulars that I have obtained regarding this melancholy event is herewith enclosed.”

In another letter to the Governor and Council, written in March 1850, Ogden said, “the expression made use of by the unfortunate Mr. Charles after receiving the shot has not been satisfactorily explained to me and leaves an unpleasant impression on my mind, nor did Mr. Young in my presence evince any feeling of regret.” Young owed the Company six months’ labour, but he disappeared from the records. The Company may have made it clear his services were not wanted.

From Edmonton House, John Rowand also reported on John Charles’s death. He wrote:

By the return of two of my men on the 12th November from Boat Encampment & Tete Jaune’s Cache, I was concerned to hear of the death of Mr. John Charles, who was accidentally shot by Mr. Young, one of the Columbia party, two days after having left Jasper’s House. It is impossible for me to give a correct account of the occurrence, as my information is merely from others who were not eye witnesses to the unfortunate affair. He survived about two hours after receiving the fatal shot, suffering the most excruciating pains, and perfectly insensible to everything around him.

On March 25, 1850, Governor Simpson wrote to the Board of Management: “I notice with much concern the melancholy death of Mr. John Charles — a young man of great promise — and also the continued desertion of the Company’s Servants.” As far as I know, that is all the Governor Simpson had to say of the matter. 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “John Charles 2

  1. Hugh Stephens

    What is remarkable is that in those days, with the rough justice of the frontier, there seems to have been no thought of bringing Young to justice for manslaughter or reckless discharge of a firearm. Death was death and that’s that. Anyway, since there was no prison system, I am not sure what an appropriate penalty would be. What did they do for theft, or assault or anything less than murder? Even in the case of murder not much seems to have been done as in the case of John McLougline, Jr.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      The only thing the HBC could do was send people home via the next year’s York Factory Express, which is what they did with the murderers of John McLoughlin Jr. Simpson, however, released them at Norway House so they weren’t punished. The HBC sent their own men north to forts such as Fort Simpson, where they could not get away. Other punishment (on the road) consisted of beating the men until they could get themselves up off the ground. But Young was an American and not an employee of the company (he owed them six months work to pay for his passage west). Plus which, it was considered an “accident,” and probably was. Personally, I think he just sneaked out of town, as he was on his way to the California gold fields. It might be interesting to follow this story up to see what actually happened, but I am not going to do it.