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FRIENDS: John Work
portrait of John Work
B.C. Archives, d-09086
John Tod's friend John Work was originally from Donegal, Ireland. They remained close friends all their lives even though they sometimes went years without seeing each other and letters took about a year to arrive.

After the merger between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, Tod lost his job at Island Lake and John Work took over as clerk. He was also moved to New Caledonia with the expansion of the West and was quite successful in his career as a fur trader. He was clerk at Fort Colville between 1826-1830 and was required to travel a lot. Tod visited him in 1829 when he left Fort McLeod for medical treatment, and along with Frank Ermatinger they had a good time together at Fort Vancouver.

While Tod was complaining about his lack of promotion, Work was more successful. He received his Chief Tradership in 1830 and by 1834 was in charge of trade along the Pacific Coast. In 1844, he was appointed to the Board of Management of the Hudson's Bay Company's Columbia Department.

Work later moved to Victoria where James Douglas, Governor of Vancouver Island, appointed him to the Legislative Council, which Tod was already a member of. John Work never retired from the Hudson's Bay Company, but continued as a member of the Board of Management for the Company's Western Department until his death. This in spite of his health: weak heart, and almost blind. Tod wrote, "It is pitiful to see him still clinging to service, as if he would drag it along with him to the next world" (Tod's letter to E. Ermatinger, 21 July 1861, Ermatinger Papers, BC Archives).


John Work suffered from bad health for most of his life. He had recurring eye problems and could barely see sometimes. In 1828, he had "quinsy" (inflamed tonsils), then was attacked by a bull and severely injured. Tod wrote to their mutual friend Edward Ermatinger, “he is likely never to get...better” (Tod to Ermatinger, 16 Feb. 1829). Luckily, he did recover from that injury and many more. Then in 1840, the unfortunate Work fell across a tree stump, weakening his muscles. That caused the next accident to become more serious; he fell out of a tree and his intestines fell out. He stuffed them back in but was near death for several days. Because of the difficult life typically led in the West, Tod's body was thin, his hair was thinning and gray; but he reported to Edward that Work's looks weren't getting any better either! “...A queer looking chap—of his hair there remains but three elflocks which protrude, far between, over his coat and neck...” (Tod to Ermatinger, 1 March 1841). Work also caught malaria while stationed at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. A recurrence of it in his later years resulted in his death.
Mrs Work and two of her children
B.C. Archives, d-09086
Josette Lagace with children


Despite his infamous past romantic adventures, when Work met Josette Lagace in 1826 he became a devoted husband. Josette was a Métis (French voyageur father, Spokane Indian mother) girl who would give birth to 10 of his children. She was also helpful in the course of his work and travelled with him on his difficult trading expeditions. He felt himself very lucky to have such a wife and wrote to Edward “The little Wife and I get on very well. She is to me an affectionate partner simple and uninstructed as she is and takes good care of my children & myself” (Work to Ermatinger, 15 Feb. 1841). They were married "à la façon du pays" (according to the Custom of the Country), but over 20 years later had a church wedding at Fort Victoria, conducted by Reverend Robert Staines (who also ran a school which the Work children attended). John Tod attended this wedding and was a witness on the marriage certificate along with James Douglas.

In 1852, John Work bought 583 acres north of Fort Victoria and gradually acquired more property until by 1858, he was the largest individual landowner on Vancouver Island. He and his wife had a lovely, large house on their property. When he became sick with malaria again, Tod visited Work constantly to cheer him up, but his condition worsened. He asked Tod to write Edward Ermatinger, “Tell him I shall never see him again in this world” (Tod to Ermatinger, 20 Dec. 1861). Work died a few days later and was buried at the Quadra Street Cemetery on December 22, 1861. In the next few months, John Tod was a frequent visitor at the Work house to grieve with the family.

The Works seem to have been a close and well-liked family. Tod wrote to Ermatinger in 1868 after spending Christmas with them, “It was a joyful sight to behold. Thirty-two of our late friend's descendants all seated at the same table... My heart warmed with a glow it has seldom felt, to see them all in the full bloom of health, and so happy” (HBC Archives, copy 22). Josette lived another 30 years after her husband and was a respected woman in Victoria. When she died in 1896, she was remembered in a tribute at the Legislature for her “usefulness in pioneer work and many good deeds” (N de B. Lugrin, The Pioneer Women of Vancouver Island: 1843–1866, Victoria, 1928). 

John Work was fondly remembered by his colleagues, as one wrote in his memoirs, “The kindly disposition of the late Mr. Work and his open hearted character obtained for him the warmest respect and love of not only his immediate associates in the service but also of many others who had the opportunity of appreciating these good qualities” (A. C. Anderson, The History of the Northwest Coast 1821–1836, Bancroft Collection, University of California, Berkeley).


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