ISHAM, CHARLES THOMAS (known in youth as Charles Price or Charles Price Isham), fur trader; b. 1754 or 1755 probably at York Factory (Man.), son of HBC chief factor James Isham* and an Indian woman; d. 1814 in England.
As heir to the estate of his father, who had apparently given him the name of Price to honour a friend at York, Charles Isham was allowed to travel to England for his education, a privilege rarely granted in the 18th century to the Hudson Bay children of traders. In May 1763 the London committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company asked its officers at York to “send Home Charles Price alias Isham an Indian Lad said to be the Natural Son of Mr. Jas. Isham Deceased,” and in September Ferdinand Jacobs* noted, “We have sent home . . . Charles price Isham with his apparrell.” That November the committee, still hesitant over the boy’s surname, directed that “Charles Price . . . Servant to Mr James Isham deced, be delivered to the said Mr. Isham’s Brother and Administrator Mr. Thomas Isham.” On 7 May 1766 the company “Entertained Charles Price Isham, as an Apprentice . . . at York Fort, for 7 years.” He first served under Andrew Graham at Severn House (Fort Severn, Ont.), along with William Tomison*. In 1772 his superiors at York wrote to London, “Charles Price Isham submits himself to Your Determination a Strong Good working sober Lad.” By August 1773 he had “Contracted for five years at 10£ a Year” as a labourer.
Isham’s inland career began in 1774 when he “offered his service in settling Basqueawe [The Pas, Man.]” to Samuel Hearne*. That July he and Isaac Batt* left York with supplies for Hearne, who had found a site for an inland post on Pine Island Lake (Cumberland Lake, Sask.). When Matthew Cocking* and his men, also voyaging inland, came upon them, they discovered that Isham and Batt had been robbed and stranded by their Indian guides. All joined forces, but through lack of Indian aid they failed to reach Hearne, not seeing him until they reached York in mid 1775 after a “winter of futile wandering.”
In 1775–76 Isham served under Cocking at Cumberland House. Plagued by a shortage of boats for inland transport, Cocking sent Isham and Robert Longmoor off with some Indians to build canoes. Six were constructed for the HBC, “but as Natives were the builders, and had not been fully paid for them,” independent traders from Canada persuaded the Indians to sell them all but two. Isham’s account of these events to Humphrey Marten* at York the next summer led Marten to instruct Tomison, the new master at Cumberland House, to have canoes built at the post itself and avoid losses by taking “great care not to pay before hand.”
In 1776–77 Isham, at Cumberland and beyond with Tomison and others, was said to be the only inlander besides Longmoor with “any degree of Proficiency in Bowing or Steering canoes.” Isham’s efforts against Montreal-based traders earned him a murder threat from them that year: the pedlars blamed the disappearances of two of their number, who were said to have been killed by Indians, on Isham’s “instilling bad Notions into the minds of the Natives to their prejudice.” His responsibilities grew in this period; in September 1776 Tomison sent him “away to the Buffeloe Country to encourage the Indians to come down to Trade, Also to get what Canoes he possible can.” But his success was mixed; “having wastefully Expended all his Goods” by early winter, he was obliged to join Longmoor at his post in the Eagle Hills (Sask.). The following winter he tented with Indians from November to April but lost most of their spring trade to the “French House in the Beaver [Amisk] Lake where they was trading all that they had.” Subsequent journals of Cumberland House and Hudson House (near Brightholme, Sask.) note his continued active service in difficult circumstances. In November 1781 he fell ill with the smallpox then ravaging the Indian population. Unlike most Indians, but like those mixed-blood sufferers observed by Edward Umfreville*, he survived. Philip Turnor* gave him high praise in this period: “Well beloved by the Indians and taulks the Language exceeding well, the Canadians have an exceeding peak against Charles Isham but had better hurt any other Englishman as his death would be revenged both by the English and Indians.” The Canadians’ “peak” was exemplified in 1782 by William Holmes*’s complaints to William Walker* that Isham had threatened his men and abducted their women. Walker defended Isham, noting that the charges were unproved; as for the women being taken, they “must agree to it, before any such thing as that could be done.”
Isham continued as inland labourer, canoeman, and interpreter at £15 to £20 a year through the 1780s. A request in 1786 for personal items from England – “a Bed Tick, 4 Shirts white Good, 2 Muslin Neckcloths. A Good laced hat and 1 ps Nankeen” – suggests persisting British tastes, and in 1788–89 he apparently revisited England, perhaps the parish of St George, Bloomsbury (London), the home address he listed in 1787–88.
In May 1789 Isham contracted as “Inland Trader & Supervisor of Canoes in Swan River” at £30 annually plus “premium on all the made Beaver I can procure.” Known thereafter as “Mr. Isham,” between 1790 and 1795 he was master at Swan River (Man.), Marlborough House (near Pelly, Sask.), Somerset House (near Swan River), and Carlton House (near Kamsack, Sask.) in succession, and from 1797 to 1799 at Jack River House (near Norway House, Man.). Continuing a mobile inland life, he served until his retirement in 1814 at various posts as far west as Edmonton House (near Fort Saskatchewan, Alta), and in 1812 was an interpreter for Miles Macdonell* at the new Red River colony [see Thomas Douglas]. His salary varied: £80 in 1812; £40 in 1814. The 1790s in particular were not easy; like Malchom Ross* and others, Isham found himself competing with his own inland colleagues as well as Canadians. In 1791, according to Joseph Colen, Isham built at Swan River “3 Canoes . . . of a much larger size than we have seen before, but not having proper hands to man them . . . was obliged to set off with the usual cargo.” For this shortage of men Colen blamed inland officer Tomison who was constantly making “efforts to distress Swan River.” Isham wrote to London that summer, “without your honours interfere this Infant Settlement will be lost.”
Although London clearly valued his service, Isham became no more than a minor officer in obscure and often difficult posts. He was probably the first Hudson Bay native, however, to rise that high (the origins of Moses Norton* being uncertain) and his colleagues ranked him as English, without making a racial distinction. At his death Isham’s estate, which amounted to £1,800 in three per cent annuities, benefited four Hudson Bay children, Thomas, Mary, Jane, and James, designated as natural; like older colleagues such as Malchom Ross and George Atkinson*, and unlike some later traders, he did not seek to affirm their legitimacy. Thomas and one Price Isham were company labourers in the Winnipeg district at the time of his death, and Ishams appear in later Red River mission records.
PAM, HBCA, A.1/42: ff.92, 172; A.11/115: ff.74, 137, 153, 171–72; A.11/116: ff.6–7, 14, 23, 27, 184; A.11/117: ff.98, 120–21, 128, 139, 159, 172; A.30/1: f.9; A.30/3: f.89; A.30/4: f.20; A.30/11: f.37; A.30/12: ff.31, 35; A.30/13: f.35; A.32/3: f.234; A.36/1A: f.13; B.198/a/8: f.11; B.203/a/1–2; B.239/f/3: f.11; B.239/f/6: ff.23, 40, 64. PRO, PROB 11/1564/27. St John’s Anglican Cathedral (Winnipeg), Red River and St Peter’s (Indian settlement), Reg. of burials and marriages. Cumberland House journals and inland journal, 1775–82, ed. E. E. Rich and A. M. Johnson (2v., London, 1951–52). HBRS, vol.27 (Williams). James Isham’s observations on Hudson’s Bay, 1743 . . . , ed. E. E. Rich and A. M. Johnson (London, 1949; repr. Nendeln, Liechtenstein, 1968). Journals of Hearne and Turnor (Tyrrell). Saskatchewan journals and correspondence: Edmonton House, 1795–1800; Chesterfield House, 1800–1802, ed. A. M. Johnson (London, 1967). Edward Umfreville, The present state of Hudson’s Bay . . . (London, 1790; new ed., ed. W. S. Wallace, Toronto, 1954). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west.