Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur
True to his name, John Work remained a stalwart employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company until the day he died in December of 1861. Remarkable for his endurance, Work survived a near-fatal attack by a bull, recurring eye troubles, inflamed tonsils (“quinsy”) and a near-fatal fall from a tree that tore open his stomach and spilled some of his intestines. Work put his guts back into place and eventually overcame the injury.
Work never quit—and kept 16 journals to prove it. The former trading post clerk remained on the Board of Management for the HBC’s Western Department at Fort Victoria, co-signing an important letter dated November 24, 1858, that first listed the HBC’s land claims in British Columbia. “It is pitiful to see him still clinging to service,” said his old friend and fellow Irishman John Tod, “as if he would drag it along with him to the next world.”
With the passage of An Act to Provide for the Government of British Columbia by the Imperial Parliament in London in August of 1858, the imperial government of Great Britain revoked the Hudson’s Bay Company’s exclusive right to trade with Indians, whereupon HBC officials—initially through Work and Chief Factor Dugald MacTavish—sought ownership of lands adjacent to their forts as compensation. Governor James Douglas was initially conciliatory, but he shifted his approach when a new British government was elected under Lord Palmerston in June of 1859.
Newly appointed Colonial Secretary W.A.G. Young was far less sympathetic to the HBC than his predecessor Sir. E.B. Lytton, so James Douglas obeyed the winds of political change. Having requested 98,225 acres, the Hudson’s Bay Company was granted only 2,247 acres. After the first formal conveyance had occurred in 1863, the HBC continued to lobby for small land grants for the remainder of the 19th century, but these were relatively minor.
John Work’s life and death mirrored the rise and fall of the Hudson’s Bay Company in British Columbia. Born as John Wark in Derry, Ireland in 1791, he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1814 and reached the Pacific Northwest in 1822. He explored the lower Fraser River in 1824 as a clerk for James McMillan, keeping the expedition’s journal, then oversaw construction of Fort Colville where he served as a clerk (1826–1830) and commanded some of the Snake River expeditions towards California.
Having managed the HBC’s most northerly post in New Caledonia, at Fort Simpson (1835–1846), Work became one of three men who took charge of the HBC’s Columbia River operations after John McLoughlin resigned. Work later moved to a farm in Hillside, now part of Victoria, and served on the Legislative Council of Vancouver Island.
After various liaisons with Aboriginal women, Work settled upon a relationship with Josette Lagace in 1826 and became as devoted to her as he was to the Hudson’s Bay Company. She was a Métis (French voyageur father, Spokane Indian mother) who provided him with ten of his children. When they were formally married by Reverend Robert Staines at Fort Victoria many years after they met, James Douglas served as a witness for the ceremony.
John Work bought 583 acres north of Fort Victoria in 1852 and eventually became the largest individual landowner on Vancouver Island. Josette Work outlived her husband by more than 15 years, impressing everyone who met her as the epitome of a Victorian matron, even resembling Queen Victoria in one of her portraits.
The daughters of John and Josette Work married well-to-do British-born colonials but their two sons, John Jr. and David, never married and died at ages thirty-two and forty-nine respectively.
Work, John. The Journal of John Work, A chief-trader of the Hudson's bay company, during his expedition from Vancouver to the Flatheads and Blackfeet of the Pacific Northwest (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1923).
Work, John. The Journal of John Work, January to October, 1835 (Victoria: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, Printed by C.F. Banfield, Printer to the King, 1923; Provincial Archives, 1945). With Introduction and Notes by Henry Drummond Dee.
Work, John. Fur Brigade to the Bonaventura: John Work's California Expedition 1832-1833 for the Hudson's Bay Company (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1945). Alice Bay Maloney, ed.
Work, John. The Snake Country Expedition of 1830-1831. John Work's Field Journal (American Exploration and Travel Series. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971).
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur"