John Charles

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley
Flintlock Guns

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.

I always knew the story of John Charles’s death, as James Robert Anderson wrote about it in his memoirs. The mention follows a copy of a letter written to his father, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, from John Lee Lewes. Lewes wrote about his son, Frederick, who was travelling west with the 1849 express, and who must have witnessed this tragedy. This is what James says:

The reference Mr. Lewis 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’ body killing him instantly. The body was buried on the spot, but at the instance [insistence?] of his father, was some years after brought to Fort Vancouver and interred in the cemetery there. A useless, and as it turned out, a most unwise proceeding, as the last time I saw the grave it was in the parade ground of the U.S. troops garrisoned at Fort Vancouver and is now, I suppose, unmarked and unremembered.

James Robert Anderson, Notes and Comments on Early Days and Events in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, Mss. 1912, B.C.Archives

John Charles’s journal is in the British Columbia Archives, under his father’s dates and name. Which sort of works, I guess, as his father was also named John Charles. I found the transcript of his journal some years ago, and fell for him. What got me emotionally involved with this young man, who I knew almost nothing about, was the phrase he used when the Express was two days out of Fort Vancouver. On Thursday, March 22, he wrote:

Embarked in the boats at peep of day and put ashore at the lower end of the Cascade portage, where we discharged the boats and breakfasted.

It was the “peep of day” that was my downfall. Anyway, since first reading his journal I have learned a fair bit about him and his family. His father, John Charles Sr., was an HBC man who entered the service in 1799, and served in posts in the Churchill District and on the Nelson River. He was made Chief Trader in 1814, and Chief Factor in 1824. In 1835 he was at Oxford House, and in 1836 Chief Factor at York Factory. I know that he was involved with the investigation of the mysterious “York Factory Complaint,” in which his nephew, Joseph Charles died. (Joseph was the son of John Sr’s brother, George Charles, who entered the Company in 1785). For more information on the York Factory Complaint, see this post:

I always suspected that John Charles’s older brother was Thomas Charles, who worked under Alexander Caulfield Anderson at Fort Alexandria and at the Thleuz-cuz post in the 1840s. This is now confirmed. Thomas worked in New Caledonia for years, and retired to Victoria in 1872, residing in James Bay.

John Charles’s younger brother is William Charles, who at the time of his father’s letter, dated 23rd October 1850, was intending to join the Hudson’s Bay Company. William came to Fort Vancouver in 1853, and was posted for a number of years at Fort Hall and Fort Boise. In 1855 he came to Fort Vancouver (the HBC had been chased out of Forts Boise and Hall by the First Nations people during the Yakima War). He continued his career at Fort Victoria, Kamloops, and Fort Hope. William was made “inspecting Chief Factor” in 1874, and retired from the company in 1885. His house in Victoria still exists, and is now an antique store on Fort Street. It must have been a fancy house in its day — it had stained glass windows, and thirteen staircases!!

So, this is the family that John Charles came from. The other people in the 1849 story are John Lee Lewes and his son, Frederick. Chief Factor Lewes had travelled out with his family in the outgoing express under John Charles, but Frederick clearly decided to return to the Columbia district to join his brother, Adolphus, instead of going on to Australia. Frederick travelled west as a passenger in the incoming express, and so was a witness to John Charles’s death.

Another passenger in the incoming express is a British tourist named Sir Edward Poore, and his friends and one servant. They were on their way to Fort Vancouver, and joined the Express at Edmonton House. This group of men were travelling with a letter of permission written by Governor Simpson on the 15th of June, 1849, at Red River. Here is the letter from Simpson, that gives Poore permission to cross the mountains with the Express:

This will be handed to you by Sir Edward Poore, Bart., who accompanied by Messrs Kane, Phillips, and Franklin, and a servant, proposes to pass through the country to Fort Vancouver. You will be pleased to furnish him with such supplies as may be necessary for their journey, exchanging their horses and shewing them such attentions as may lie in your power. Any account that you may have against them you will be pleased to forward to Fort Vancouver where Sir Edward Poore’s draft in Canada will be taken…. [D.4.39, fo. 59, HBCA]

So far there are six passengers in this journey. One additional passenger in the incoming express was an American named Alexander Young. On the 30th of June, 1849, Governor Simpson wrote to the members of the Board of Management at Fort Vancouver, from Norway House, advising them that:

A person named Young who has long been resident and well known in Canada as a master [of] Shipbuilding, a shrewd, intelligent, man and an excellent tradesman, both theoretically and practically, applied to me this season for a passage across the continent with a view to his proceeding to California.  Considering it likely that he might be very useful in assisting in the repairs of the Steamer if they were done at any of our own establishments, in drafting and laying down a new Vessel or in laying the ways at the coal mine &c., I agreed to give him a passage in consideration of his rendering the Company six months service after his arrival at Fort Vancouver. [D.4/38, fo. 94, HBCA].

The coal mine mentioned above was on Vancouver’s Island, at Nanaimo. The Steamer mentioned was, of course, the Beaver — whether it was then at Fort Victoria, or Fort Nisqually, I am not sure. Young’s final destination was, of course, the California gold fields, which were in full swing at that time. The verbal agreement between Young and Governor Simpson was confirmed in a letter from Simpson to Young, dated 26th April, 1849. This letter read: 

In order to avoid any misapprehension hereafter I beg to state in writing my understanding of the Verbal arrangement entered into between us, viz. that the Hudson’s Bay Company afford you a free passage to Fort Vancouver, that it be optional with you to embark in the Canoes at Lachine or at the Sault de Saint Marie [sic], in the latter case you will have to defray your own expenses to the Sault. That in consideration of such free passage, you are to afford the Hudson’s Bay Company your services in the Capacity of ship Carpenter or in any other way in which they may be more useful, for a period of six months from the date of your arrival at Fort Vancouver, without pay or remuneration. The Company providing you with board and lodging during the time in question; at the conclusion of the first six months should you be disposed to remain in the Country and that the Board of Management require your further services, they will be authorized to enter into an engagement with you on such terms and for such period as may be agreed upon between you and them. [D4.39, fo. 50, HBCA].

So there are seven passengers travelling with John Charles’s incoming express, but not all of them all the way from York Factory. Excerpts from John Charles Express Journal will tell us when these men joined the incoming Express. He left York Factory on his return journey on Month July 17th:

The Saskatchewan boats being all ready by 6 o’clock this morning we left the Factory. F[rederick] Lewes and I being passengers in the boat steered by the Columbia guide…

In 1849, the Columbia guide happened to be this man:

He reached Norway House on Tuesday 7th August, and continued the journey the next day:

The Columbia boat was repaired this morning. An additional cargo for the Saskatchewan district was divided between the 11 boats for that district… Passengers in boats, viz. Messrs [John] Rowand & [John Edward] Harriott, Mr. & Mrs. Christie & Messrs [John?] Spencer and [James] Simpson for the Saskatchewan — Messrs Young, [Charles John] Griffin, [William?] Gladman, [Robert, Jr.] Logan, young [John] Fraser, Frederick Lewes and myself for Columbia and New Caledonia.

On September 13th the boats passed through Fort Pitt. The men began tracking the boats, and Charles’s journal says:

Monday 17th September, Tuesday 18th, Wednesday 19th, & Thursday 20th. We had beautiful dry weather during these four days. Men tracking from morning until night. Passed two camps of Freemen who were camped near the river sides. No animals of any sort to be seen.

That was his last journal entry. However, he passed through Edmonton House and Fort Assiniboine, and finally, Jasper’s House. Disaster struck a few days later, when he was accidentally shot and killed. The story will continue in the next John Charles post, which, when published, will appear here:

In the meantime, if you wish to order my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson. All rights reserved.