Saturday, June 30, 2012

William Charles, HBC Chief Factor

In the Colonist newspaper of July 25, 1948, well-known writer and historian J.K. Nesbitt began his story about William Charles, younger brother of John and Thomas Charles, of whom I have already written.
Nesbitt's story begins this way:
"There's an old house on the north side of Fort Street, just west of Cook, and around it is wrapped more glamorous Hudson's Bay Company history than any other residence on the island.
"It is the old Charles home and it's been standing since the mid-seventies [mid 1870's, of course]. In it lived William Charles, one of the widely known HBC figures of the province in early days.
"He was the son of a Hudson's Bay man, too, and his wife was the daughter of James Birnie, one of the outstanding HBC officials in Oregon and whose works are now a definite part of that state's history books."
Well, this last sentence is an exaggeration; I think the writer never knew James Birnie well.
He continues: "The Charles' home once stood in a acre of ground, extending back to View Street.
"Fort wasn't so wide in those days, and in front of the house was a high fence and a hedge of acacia trees that hid it from the street. It had fine gardens. Mrs. Charles had a way with flowers and her friends said she could make roses grow in cement blocks if she felt so inclined.
"History of the northwest -- that was the chief topic of conversation in the Charles home, but little did Mr. and Mrs. Charles know then that they would become part of the history.
"Both had traveled widely and as they grew older reminisced of trips they had made by canoe on wilderness waters and of frontier days in the vast Interior of this Province."

William Charles, fur trader and HBC employee, was born March 5, 1831 in Edinburgh when his father was on furlough, and was the son of John Charles and Jane Auld, mixed blood daughter of William Auld -- hence both he and his brothers were Metis.
William was descended from prominent HBC families: his father and maternal grand-father were both Chief Factors.
Like his brothers, he was educated in Edinburgh at the Hill Street School and at the University of Edinburgh.
Nesbitt says: "As a youth he had heard his father talk of his days in faraway Rupert's Land, and it was but natural he should decide his life would be spent in the great wilds of America."
Of course William lived with his father in Rupertsland, and so that sentence was not entirely true -- his familiarity with the fur trade must have come from more than his father's stories.
But Nesbitt writes of some interesting background on the Charles family, that I did not know:
"In 1854 [a different date is given below] he joined the Hudson's Bay Company and was eagerly welcomed, for it was recalled his father was among the members of the Hudson's Bay Councils -- those fur trading parliaments -- and sat at Red River in 1835 and 1839 when Duncan Finlayson presided, and again at Norway House in 1840 when the powerful Sir George Simpson was presiding officer.
"The name of Charles was a magic one in the annals of the company -- it is no wonder William Charles was doubly welcome.
"His grandmother, Charles, was a daughter of one of the high officials of the company at Fort York or Churchill, and it is believed today she was there at the time of the French invasion of Fort York, and it is said she was taken prisoner to France, but later returned to her family."
Well, that's interesting -- if anyone can confirm that I would like to hear the story!

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography online [author: Richard Mackie] tells us that William Charles left Scotland for the HBC's Columbia district and worked first for a merchant in Portland, Oregon.
Then in 1853 he joined the HBC at Fort Vancouver, as an apprentice clerk.
That autumn he was posted to Fort Hall on the Snake River, and in January 1855 he took charge of Fort Boise -- also in the Snake River country.
William Charles was forced to abandon Fort Boise in the fall of that year because of hostilities between the United States Army and Fort Vancouver, and he was transferred to Fort Vancouver.
In 1858 he arrived at Fort Victoria; soon after his arrival he married Mary Ann, one of 13 children of James and Charlot Birnie.
Mary Ann's sister, Betsy Anderson -- wife of Alexander Caulfield Anderson -- had already arrived in Victoria and in 1858 lived on a large piece of property only a short walk from the place where Mary Ann's house would later stand.

By the way, Betsy was born in 1822 and Mary Ann in 1839 -- Mary Ann was almost twenty years younger than Betsy.

From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography again:
"After being charged with Fort Hope (Hope, BC) in 1860, he was made chief trader in 1863 and the next year he was moved to Fort Yale. He remained in command there until 1866, when he returned to Fort Victoria.
"From 1868 to 1870 he ran Thompson's River post [Kamloops], which, he wrote, was "about the dullest place" he had ever been in.

The article continues: "Charles' work at Hope, Yale and Thompson's River is of considerable interest. In the 1850's the HBC abandoned the Columbia River route to the interior in favour of the Fraser River system."
Of course we know why that happened, and that it actually happened in 1848 and 1849.
"This reorganization was hastened by the Fraser gold rush of 1858, which turned obscure HBC posts into thriving settlements.
"The company placed steamers on the lower Fraser and on Kamloops Lake and entered the retail trade, selling hardware and food at all its posts in the gold districts. Joseph William McKay and Ovid Allard worked with Charles on these projects. The gold-rush thus transformed the HBC in British Columbia from a fur-trading to a retailing company decades before a similar charge was instituted in Rupert's Land."

Dates again differ in the two articles I have on hand -- one says that Charles returned to Victoria in 1870; the other states the year was 1874.
1870 is probably the correct date, as Richard Mackie, in his Dictionary of Canadian Biography article, says that William Charles "returned to Victoria, where, from 1872 to 1874, he was second in command of the Western Department under his brother-in-law James Allan Grahame..." whose wife was also one of James Birnie's daughters.
"He was promoted factor in 1872 and chief factor two years later.
"In July 1872 he had been sent to the upper Skeena River when the Kitseguecla blocked non-Native traffic; his job was to ensure that the HBC's new Skeena route to the interior remained open.
"After some time the blockade was lifted."

This is what Bruce Watson has to say of William Charles, in his Lives Lived West of the Divide:
"William Charles, who was born into the fur trade, was sent by his father to be educated at Hill Street School in Edinburgh, and subsequently, Edinburgh University.
"In 1852, at the age of twenty two he came to the Pacific coast via Panama and for a short time was employed by Breck and Ogden of Portland, Oregon, before joining the HBC on June 14, 1853.
"A man known for his integrity, he spent the rest of his career in the Oregon/Western Department and British Columbia from 1858.
"Beginning in 1869, while he was in the North Thompson/Campbell Creek area, about ten miles east of Kamloops, Charles pre-empted several hundred acres of land which was eventually to become Harper's Ranch, named after the purchaser, Thaddeus Harper, who eventually took out the Crown Grant.
"William Charles was allowed furlough in 1870-71, was appointed inspecting Chief Factor around 1874 and spent many years touring HBC forts in B.C."

Bruce Watson also tells what places William Charles served and gives us more accurate dates:
Apprentice clerk, Fort Hall and Fort Boise, 1853-1856; Clerk, Fort Vancouver, 1855-1858; Clerk, Fort Victoria and Fort Langley, 1858-1860; Clerk, Fort Hope, 1860-1863; Chief Trader, Fort Yale, 1863-1864; Chief Trader, Fort Victoria and Fort Yale, 1865-1866; Chief Trader, New Caledonia, 1866-1867; Chief Trader, Fort Victoria, 1867-1868; Chief Trader, Fort Kamloops, 1868-1869; Chief Trader, Fort Victoria, 1869-1874; Chief Factor, Fort Victoria, 1874-1879; Inspecting Chief Factor, Fort Victoria, 1879-1885.

Nesbitt's article tells more of the Charles' family life in Victoria:
"It was a happy home as the sons and daughters grew up and often friends from the Interior were guests.
"Mrs. John Goodfellow, who was Florence Agassiz (the Agassiz and Charles families were close friends in Yale and Hope days), and her interesting memoirs, recalls visits she paid to the Charles' home on Fort Street.
"In 1876, Mrs. Goodfellow wrote, she was a guest at the Charles' home when the then Governor General, the Earl of Dufferin, and his Countess, came to town.
"Mr. and Mrs. Charles, as leading citizens, were invited to all the festivities, and the housee was in a turmoil of preparation for many gay events.
"Mrs. Goodfellow says: "The Earl and Countess held a drawing room. For months before all the ladies had been in a state of excitement about their dresses and court trains. Mrs. Charles, who was a beautiful woman, wore a beautiful black velvet with white lace...."

William Charles was a man of fine education and an artist of considerable ability.
He was an amateur naturalist and he loved to sit for hours in his garden watching the birds and studying their habits; he often drew them.
In 1865 he had noted the arrival at Yale of the first meadow larks and bluebirds -- do these birds still arrive in Yale?
He also had an interest in history and like his brother-in-law, A.C. Anderson, he helped American historian Hubert Howe Bancroft prepare his History of British Columbia in 1876.

When William Charles died at age 72 in May, 1903, the Colonist obituary said this of him:
"Another tie binding the present with a past generation has been broken, and it is with feelings of sadness we view the decimated ranks of that old band of pioneers in the fur trade to which in a large measure we owe our present political existence and organization as a province.
"Although the deceased did not participate prominently in public affairs and was comparatively unknown to many persons of more recent arrival, to those who knew him well in early days and had social and business intercourse with him, he appealed most strongly, and the warm ties of friendship were never broken and personal respect never abated.
"His name was synonymous for honour and personal integrity. He preferred a quiet, retired life -- a man whose allegiance was to his old friends, endeared to them as he was by sterling qualities of mind and character."

You will recognize many of the names of the men who acted as his pallbearers -- Hon. J. S. Helmcken; Hon. Mr. Justice Drake; Hon. Peter O'Reilly; Robert Edwin Jackson, K.C.; Mr. James A[llen] Grahame; Mr. Alexander Munro; Mr. C.W.R. Thomson; Captain Herbert G. Lewis; Hon. Edgar Dewdney; John A. Mara; James Lawson Sr.; E. Crow Baker; Arthur W. Jones; and Frank S.. Barnard.

Mary Ann Charles stayed on in her Fort Street home but sold it in 1912, and moved to Richardson Street. She died in 1921.

Nesbitt's article ends with a lovely personal story about the Charles' Fort Street home:
"Though parts of it have been demolished, the Charles' home today is much the way it was when the family lived there.
"The long drawing room has two marble mantled fireplaces, with a wide bay window between, and there is another deep bay -- almost a conservatory -- on Fort Street.
"In the old days there was a conservatory at the back, and a big dining room which after dinner each night, was turned into a family living-room, for the drawing room was much too formal except when there were parties and distinguished visitors from out of town and for the ladies of Mrs. Charles' "at home" days.
"The master of the house in those days didn't often sit in his drawing-room; it was reserved for church teas and "morning room" calls and for the daughters to entertain their beaus.
"At the bend of the staircase is an oval shaped window, of multi-coloured glass -- and through it small boys and girls in the long-age watched for Grandmama Charles coming along Fort Street, and then there were shrieks of laughter -- for one minute Grandma was red and then she suddenly turned purple and then amber and then green. It was all very wonderful, the way Grandma changed colors, and that window to those bright, eager eyes was the most fascinating in all Victoria."

Today the old Charles' home is an antique store, and the woman who owns it told me there were eleven staircases in the house.
It is hard to know which part of the house is original and which not.
But the house still stands; few people who pass it realize its colorful past.

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