WORK, JOHN (originally Wark, but it was anglicized on his contract with the HBC, and he and a brother adopted that version permanently), HBC officer, legislative councillor of British Columbia; b. c. 1792 in Taughboyne parish, St Johnstown (near Londonderry) in County Donegal (Republic of Ireland), eldest of six children of Henry Wark; d. 22 Dec. 1861 at his farm, Hillside (now in Victoria, B.C.).
Nothing is known for certain of John Work’s life before he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company, but it was said later that he was “bred an operative farmer” and his not writing a “good hand” was taken as a sign of a deficient early education. Work, who may have run away from home, joined the HBC as a “writer” on 15 June 1814 at Stromness in the Orkney Islands. He served in two posts on Hudson Bay, as a steward at York Factory during 1814–15, then as second trader at Severn House. He became district master in 1818–19. He survived the paring of staff after the union of the HBC and the North West Company in 1821 to become a first class clerk in the Severn District. For 1822–23, he had charge of the Island Lake District.
Work, a “Highly meritorious active man tolerable clerk & excellent Trader,” was assigned to the Columbia District in July 1823. He left York Factory on 18 July with two canoes and eight men in the charge of Peter Skene Ogden*. On this trip, Work began the series of 15 remarkably observant and informative journals of his field trips from July 1823 to October 1835. Crossing to the Columbia via the Athabasca River and Athabasca Pass, the party reached Boat Encampment at the big bend of the Columbia River on 13 October. Proceeding down the Columbia with the brigade that had been sent to meet them, they reached the mouth of the Spokane River on the 21st; Ogden and Work then rode overland with William Kittson to their winter quarters at Spokane House (Wash.).
Work entered the familiar pattern of trade on the lower Columbia, determined by the arrival of the supply ship in the spring and the departure and arrival of the York Factory expresses in the spring and fall. During his first season, 1823–24, Work helped Finan McDonald extend the trade into the Flathead country (Mont.); and when the express arrived in late October 1824 Work went with Governor George Simpson* and Chief Factor John McLoughlin* down the Columbia to the headquarters of the district at Fort George (Astoria, Oreg.). In November Work accompanied an expedition under Chief Trader James McMillan* which Governor Simpson sent to explore the lower reaches of the Fraser River for the purpose of locating a site for a major post, since Simpson was convinced that the British could not retain the south bank of the Columbia. On the return trip in December, McMillan and Work discovered the Cowlitz Portage, which became an important link between the Columbia River and the head of Puget Sound (Wash.). In the spring of 1825 Work helped move the headquarters from Fort George to the newly established Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) on the north bank of the river.
Finan McDonald retired from the HBC service that year, and Simpson assigned Work to the charge of Spokane House with instructions to establish a new and better located post on the Columbia at Kettle Falls. This Simpson named Fort Colvile. Work spent the 1825–26 season trading into the Flathead country (where he reestablished Flathead House), and supervising the construction of Fort Colvile, which was to make the 60-mile pack train route from the Columbia to Spokane House unnecessary. Work closed Spokane House in April 1826, and from then until the summer of 1829 he was in charge of Fort Colvile. He took pride in the success of the post farm which helped to make the district independent of expensive imported provisions. During these years he was often away on short trading expeditions or procuring horses along the Snake River for the New Caledonia (British Columbia) brigades and the Fort Vancouver herds, and he sometimes accompanied the fur returns from New Caledonia and his own district to the lower Columbia. In 1829 the eye trouble that was to distress Work for the rest of his career, sometimes to the point of near blindness, began. For the winter of 1829–30, Work took charge of the Colvile District from John Warren Dease who was fatally ill, and moved his headquarters to the Flathead post where he was “rid of the farm and pigs [at Fort Colvile] a circumstance I by no means regret. . . . ”
In August 1830 Work was appointed successor to Peter Skene Ogden in charge of the Snake country brigade. Between that month and 18 July 1831 he travelled some 2,000 miles into what is now eastern Idaho, northwestern Utah, and along the Humboldt River (Nev.), a region thoroughly explored by Ogden. The returns of the expedition were profitable but still disappointing, and Work recommended a cessation of the annual Snake country brigades. One more brigade was sent by McLoughlin: Work went into the Salmon River (Idaho) and Flathead country in 1831–32. The rugged terrain and marauding Blackfeet made the expedition difficult, and the returns were not great, partly because of active competition from the Americans. In his report for 1832, Simpson recommended that the company withdraw from the Snake country. But on his return to the Columbia in July 1831 Work had received his commission as chief trader, dated 3 Nov. 1830, and thus the promotion of which he had despaired.
In early September 1832 Work went to the Bonaventura (Sacramento) valley of Mexican California which had first been penetrated for the HBC by Alexander Roderick McLeod* in 1829–30 and by Ogden in 1830. Trapping in the valley was not favourable because of an American party and an HBC brigade led by Michel Laframboise. Indian hostility forced Work and Laframboise to join forces in an exploration of the coast from San Francisco to Cape Mendocino. Work returned to Fort Vancouver in October 1833, disappointed in the hunt though McLoughlin estimated the 1,023 beaver and otter skins realized a profit of £627.
In December 1834 Work succeeded Ogden in charge of the coasting trade at Fort Simpson (Port Simpson, B.C.) on McLoughlin Bay. He sailed north on the HBC brig Lama that month, and during the next ten months supervised the construction of Fort Simpson, which had been relocated from the Nass River in 1833. He also traded along the northern coast of New Caledonia, on northern Vancouver Island, and among the Queen Charlotte Islands, always with keen competition from American coastal traders. In January 1836 he was back in Fort Simpson, his permanent residence until 1846; he found it inhospitable and the natives were “numerous, treacherous . . . and ferocious in the extreme.” He was, however, frequently away supervising the trade and up to 1840 he usually accompanied the returns to the Columbia in the fall. To economize on imported foodstuffs, Work established a garden at Fort Simpson, and in 1839 he assisted in surveying Cowlitz Farm for the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company, a subsidiary of the HBC charged with supplying provisions to the Russians at Sitka (Alaska).
Work’s independence of action at Fort Simpson had begun to be curtailed in 1836 when the steamer Beaver arrived. With better communications assured, Chief Factor Duncan Finlayson assumed the management of coastal shipping from Fort Vancouver; and upon his departure a year later, James Douglas* assumed much the same duties as superintendent. McLoughlin himself had the responsibility for over-all supervision, and Work’s position was restricted to that of field manager during the ten years he spent at Fort Simpson, where he felt isolated and purposefully disregarded. From this post, Work directed the trading operations of the Beaver, whose presence and expense were a source of continuous grumbling from McLoughlin. In January 1838 mutiny broke out on the ship then lying at the fort; when order was restored, Work assumed command and took the vessel to Fort Nisqually (Wash.). Its captain, William Henry McNeill*, was promoted chief trader in 1839, to Work’s resentment, although it appears Work lacked decisiveness in quelling the disturbance.
Work strenuously sought to increase trade and effect economies, but he always felt his efforts were unrecognized. In his annual letters to Edward Ermatinger*, there is from 1829 on a repeated complaint about “the cursed country,” his lack of advancement, and his desire to return to Ireland or join Ermatinger in Upper Canada. At Fort Simpson Work grew increasingly restive. One of his most bitter complaints to Ermatinger came in 1841: “Here I fill, with the exception of the Depots, one of the most important situations in the country, before I came to it it had created a heavy loss since then it has realised a handsome gain. Notwithstanding the opposition and other difficulties we had to contend with yet this it seems did not give satisfaction. . . .” James Douglas had been promoted chief factor in 1839; and, continued Work, “I find no fault with Mr. D he is a clever man but those that made the appointment lost sight of my exertions and the signal success attending them.”
In the autumn of 1841 Governor Sir George Simpson paid two visits to Fort Simpson, where he conferred with James Douglas, Captain McNeill, and Work. He decided to close all the coastal posts except Fort Simpson and to rely on the Beaver for the coastal trade, since with the virtual disappearance of American competition and the accord with the Russian American Company a strong company presence was no longer needed on the coast. McLoughlin did not agree, and he deeply resented the fact that he had not been consulted; Simpson consented that Fort Stikine be maintained.
Work had injured himself seriously by falls in the summer of 1840 and in 1841 Simpson transferred John McLoughlin Jr’s clerk, Roderick Finlayson*, from Fort Stikine to Fort Simpson to help Work, leaving McLoughlin alone with 20 unruly men. Young McLoughlin was murdered in April 1842, and the grieving father ever after blamed the transfer of Finlayson for leaving his son defenceless. He argued too that Work had not really needed Finlayson for he already had competent help. In 1844 Work sent three men involved in the murder south on the Beaver with instructions to hasten their arrival at Fort Vancouver. But there was a long delay, for which McLoughlin blamed Work. McLoughlin also criticized him for his lack of initiative in taking a deposition from Finlayson and in forwarding young McLoughlin’s correspondence and other documents to Fort Vancouver. Work’s relations with McLoughlin were further strained when McLoughlin sent a “severe reproof” for the manner in which Work employed the Beaver to compete with American interlopers in the trade with the northern Indians during the winter of 1842–43. McLoughlin sent detailed instructions for the operations of the Beaver, and Work felt he was being treated with condescension and “undeserved reprehension.”
Work’s health had become even more worrisome, for in 1843 he developed a lip-sore, possibly as a result of his constant pipe smoking. In September 1844 the sloop Modeste arrived at Fort Simpson, and the two ship’s doctors removed about half of his upper lip. It required three more operations before the growth was totally excised.
Work’s years of isolation and deprivation were coming to an end, for McLoughlin resigned from the company in March 1846, and coincidentally that same month Work was commissioned a chief factor. The Council of the Northern Department resolved in 1845 to place the Columbia Department in the hands of three chief factors; and in 1846 it appointed Douglas, Ogden, and Work to the board of management of the department, Work being placed in charge of the coastal area (including forts Simpson, Stikine, and Langley) and the Beaver. London, however, did not concur in Work’s appointment until 1849.
Once again Work began extensive coastal travels. In 1849 he abandoned Fort Stikine and established Fort Rupert to exploit the coal beds of northern Vancouver Island. In 1850, when the miners and employees there went on strike for double pay, Work came by canoe from Fort Simpson, went to Fort Victoria (Victoria) to consult with Douglas, and then returned, also by canoe, to put down the “mutiny” by persuasion: some 1,500 miles of travel. Reports of the discovery of gold on the Queen Charlotte Islands reached him at Fort Simpson in 1850. His investigating party found no gold, but they did discover that the Queen Charlottes consisted of two large islands instead of one. Work himself crossed from Fort Simpson in 1851 and discovered gold. News of the discoveries inevitably reached California and set off a minor rush in 1852. When natives boarded the Susan Sturgis, Work was able-to ransom the crew but not before the ship had been looted and burned. He continued to make Fort Simpson his headquarters until November 1851, when he and Dr William Fraser Tolmie* went to Fort Nisqually at the head of Puget Sound, where the Beaver and the sailing vessel Mary Dare landed passengers before going to Olympia (Wash.) to clear customs. The vessels were seized because of customs irregularities and it was not until February that Work was able to return to Fort Victoria.
Work spent his last summer at Fort Simpson in 1852, but his life increasingly centred on Fort Victoria where he had settled his large family in 1849 in order to obtain an education for his younger children. In April 1825, Governor Simpson had advised McLoughlin that Work should marry the daughter of a chief of the Cayuse Indians, to secure protection for the company’s brigades on the Columbia River. Work did not marry a Cayuse, but during the winter of 1826 he made the first mention of his wife à la façon du Nord, Josette Legacé, a Spokane woman of mixed blood to whom he referred as his “Little Rib.” She often accompanied Work on his expeditions. In December 1836 she and two of their four daughters had joined Work at Fort Simpson; the two older girls attended the Fort Vancouver school, then the Methodist mission on the Willamette River (Oreg.), and in 1841 came to Fort Simpson. There Work taught his children, who numbered ten (there were three sons); after the family moved to Fort Victoria, the youngest was born there in 1854. At Fort Victoria the children were placed in the school run by the Reverend Robert John* and Mrs Staines, and on 6 Nov. 1849 Work and Josette were married by Staines. Work became the father-in-law of several well-known company men: Dr William Fraser Tolmie, Roderick Finlayson, Edward Huggins, and James Allan Grahame*.
Although Work had often expressed his desire to find a “corner of the Civilized World in quietness,” concern for the cultural duality of his family led him to settle permanently at Fort Victoria. In August 1852 he purchased 823 acres of farmland on its northern outskirts and built a mansion, Hillside. By 1859 he owned over 1,800 acres. In 1853 Governor James Douglas appointed Work, “a gentleman of probity and respectable character and the largest land holder on Vancouver’s Island,” to the Legislative Council of Vancouver Island. He was an active and faithful member, who supported Douglas in the controversy surrounding the appointment of David Cameron* as chief justice of Vancouver Island. His associations with the HBC inevitably linked him with the “Family-Company Compact.” He opposed the establishment of an assembly for the colony in 1856 because there were “so few people to govern” and “nobody to pay taxes to cover expenses.” During May and June 1861 Work acted for the governor in Douglas’ absence, and he was a member of the council until his death.
Work continued his duties as chief factor of the HBC, and he and Douglas acted as trustees for its Fur Trade Branch which, in 1856, purchased land for the purpose of attracting bona fide settlers who could not afford the required minimum 20-acre lots at £1 per acre. Following Douglas’ resignation from the company in 1858 to become governor of both Vancouver Island and British Columbia, a new board of management for the company’s affairs was constituted, with Alexander Grant Dallas*, Dugald Mactavish*, and John Work as members. The creation of the crown colony of British Columbia had made the company’s possessory rights there uncertain, and Work and Mactavish prepared a report on the company’s claims to 14 interior posts.
In 1861 the debilitating fever with which Work had returned from California in 1833 evidently returned. After two months of suffering and increasing weakness, he died at Hillside on 22 December. Work’s funeral was attended by all the leaders of the colony, chief factors of the HBC, and naval officers, and he was buried in what is now Pioneer Square next to Christ Church Cathedral, where his ivy-covered tomb is today a prominent landmark.
John Work, who came to be known in the HBC as the “Old Gentleman,” was a conscientious, if somewhat unimaginative, servant of the company. A good leader of men, yet he followed with care the precedents and instructions of others, although he could show his pique at what he considered to be unjust treatment. John Tod*, who was one of Work’s closest friends, described him in his late 40s as “a queer looking old chap” of his hair there remains but three small elf locks which protrude, far between over his Coat neck and the point of his nose is actually coming in contact with that of his chin. . . . Poor Work is always complaining and I doubt not he has some cause, but bating [barring?] his delicate state of health which give me much anxiety at times, I am inclined to believe that not a few of the evils of which he complains are merely imaginary.” Governor Simpson in his famous “Character Book” described Work as: “A very steady pains taking Man, regular, oeconomical and attentive in business, and bears a fair private character . . . A queer looking fellow, of Clownish Manners and address, indeed there is a good deal of simplicity approaching to idiocy in his appearance, he is nevertheless a Shrewd Sensible Man, and not deficient in firmness when necessary. . . .”
Something of Work’s elusive character emerges from his and John Tod’s correspondence with Edward Ermatinger. He was a devoted family man whose constant concern was the well-being and happiness of his wife and children. He was deeply religious, emphasizing “the genuine Religion of the heart which is practical” and objecting to “mere professional Religion” which he considered to be “too much show and parade.” Evidently not given to speculative thought, he could be harshly critical of those who were. He was often dogmatic and in his political views he was conservative and totally pro-British. His professional career can be better ascertained through the vividly descriptive journals which he so meticulously kept and through his matter-of-fact business correspondence. His career on the Pacific coast was long and honourable; of the four major company officials on the coast (McLoughlin, Douglas, Ogden, and Work), only Ogden had been there as early as had John Work. He lacked the forceful administrative and diplomatic skills of McLoughlin and Douglas, or the enterprise and spirit of adventure of Ogden, but his career spanned the history of the Pacific northwest from the land and coastal fur trade to the gold rush and settlement, and in that history Work had an important, if not commanding, role.
[John Work], Fur brigade to the Bonaventura; John Work’s California expedition, 1832–1833, for the Hudson’s Bay Company, ed. A. B. Maloney ([San Francisco], 1945); The journal of John Work, a chief-trader of the Hudson’s Bay Co., during his expedition from Vancouver to the Flatheads and Blackfeet of the Pacific northwest, ed. W. S. Lewis and P. C. Phillips (Cleveland, Ohio, 1923); The journal of John Work, January to October, 1835, ed. H. D. Dee (Victoria, 1945); The Snake country expedition of 1830–1831; John Work’s field journal, ed. F. D. Haines (Norman, Okla., ).
HBC Arch. A.34/2, ff.18d.–19. PABC, Isaac Burpee, “The story of John Work of the Hudson’s Bay Company, June 15th, 1814, to December 22nd, 1861” (typescript, 1943); Edward Ermatinger, Correspondence inward, 1828–56 (copies); Edward Ermatinger papers, 1826–43; John Work, Correspondence outward, 1828–49, 1850–58; “Journal of a journey, York Factory to Spokane House, 18 July –28 October 1823”; “Journal of trading in Columbia valley, 15 April–17 November 1824.” HBRS, III (Fleming); IV (Rich); VI (Rich); VII (Rich); XXX (Williams), R. H. Dillon, Siskiyou trail: the Hudson’s Bay Company route to California (New York, ), 180–213, 222.
© 1976–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
William R. Sampson, “WORK, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/work_john_9E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||William R. Sampson|
|Title of Article:||WORK, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1976|
|Year of revision:||1976|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|