Charles Major was born on July 25, 1856, in Indianapolis.
In 1869, he and his family moved to Shelbyville,
Indiana. He spent three years at the University of Michigan
studying law, and was admitted to the bar in 1877. He later
returned to Shelbyville where he maintained a small law practice
until he succumbed to liver cancer in 1913. It was in Shelbyville
that he cultivated his passion for historical romances. He
wrote many novels that were set in the time of Henry VIII,
and in his lifetime he was well known for these historical
romances. In addition, he also wrote early nineteenth-century
adventure stories set in Indiana on the banks of the Big
Blue River. Two of the three novels are still considered
classic Indiana juvenile literature.
The Bears of
Blue River is set in the early nineteenth century
in Shelby County on
the banks of the Big Blue River. In Major’s narration,
the landscape of early Indiana is clearly defined: Back "in
the 'twenties,' when Indiana was a baby state...great forests
of tall trees and tangled underbrush darkened what are now
her bright plains and sunny hills..." (3).
The story outlines the adventures of a young
boy named Balser Brent, who loves hunting and killing wild
animals. He is especially passionate about killing
bears, and does so many times throughout the course of
the novel. The mischievous Balser spends most of his time
in the forest, finding himself in many dangerous situations,
often of his own will. This novel is an excellent example
of many pioneers' desire to tame "savage" nature.
Jeanette Vanausdall says that “there is in Major’s
book an unmistakable reveling in destruction that speaks to
and satisfies a primal lust for the total conquest of nature”
(41). This can clearly be seen when the great one-eared bear
endangers Balser and his friends, and he vows to kill the
bear at any cost:
[H]e arose to his feet, and gave notice to all persons present
that there would soon be a bear funeral, and that a one-eared
bear would be at the head of the procession. He would have the
other ear of that bear if he had to roam the forest until he was
an old man to find it. (78)
Balser and his group of friends eventually do
find the one-eared bear, but after a long and grueling battle,
Balser is too battered and bruised to load the gun with the
fatal bullet. He bestows the honor of killing the bear upon
his friend Tom:
Balser then called off the dogs, and Tom, as proud as the
President of the United States, held the gun within a yard
of the bear’s head and pulled the trigger. The great
brute rolled over on his side, his mighty limbs quivered,
he uttered a last despairing growl which was piteous—for
it was almost a groan—and his fierce, turbulent spirit
left forever. Balser then drew his hunting knife from the
bear’s body, cut off the remaining ear, and put it
in the pocket of his buckskin coat. (100-01)
The dead bear's ear becomes a trophy, a token of courage
and honor for Balser.
Uncle Tom Andy
Bill: A Story of Bears and Indian Treasure is
the sequel to The Bears of Blue River, but is told
from a different point of view. In this novel, much of the
focus is on Tom Andy Bill Addison and his adventures with
Balser Brent. Again, the boys find themselves in dangerous
situations, including being attacked by bears and recovering
hard-earned gold from a band of treacherous robbers. Their
journeys take them as far south as the Wyandotte
Caves in search of even more gold, which was hidden there
by Indians. As in The Bears of Blue River, the destruction
of Indiana’s natural landscape is also showcased when
Tom and Balser acquire land in order to build a cabin and
start a farm. To do this, they must clear the land and tear
down the trees to make it suitable for farming:
After our cabin was built, Balser and I moved in and began clearing
the land. It was a big undertaking for two boys of seventeen
years old, but we went at it with determination and made
fair progress from the start. You have no idea of the magnitude
of the task. The ground was almost covered with great trees,
many of them four feet in diameter, and between the trees
flourished an undergrowth that would make the hair on a
dog’s back look thin by comparison. It was hard, slow
work, but Balser and I took our time to it; and for the
first three or four years we were contented with a small
The last of Major’s
novels set in Indiana, A Forest Hearth: A Romance
of Indiana in the Thirties, has less of an emphasis
on the natural landscape and more focus on a sentimental love
story that takes place on the banks of the Big Blue River.
There are, however, some very colorful descriptions of the
early Indiana landscape:
Vividly I remember the white-skinned sycamores, the gracefully
drooping elms, and the sweet-scented honey locusts that
grew about the cabin and embowered it in leafy glory. Even
at this long distance of time, when June is abroad, if I
catch the odor of locust blossoms, my mind and heart travel
back on the wings of a moment, and I hear the buzzing of
the wild bees, the song of the meadow-lark, the whistle
of bob-white, and the gurgling of mingling tones of a perfect
orchestra by the soft-voiced babble of my wee girl-baby
friend. I close my eyes, and see the house amid the hollyhocks
and trees, a thin line of blue smoke curling lazily from
the kitchen chimney and floating away over the deep, black
on the north and east. I see the maples languidly turning
the white side of their leaves to catch the south wind’s
balmy breath.... (17)
Another passage shows how some viewed the natural
landscape. When Rita, the heroine of the novel, makes a comment
that offends her friend Dic, he leaves by way of the forest
path. After realizing how upset he really is, Rita feels remorseful
and wants to apologize. However, the thought of the "black
terrible forest," as "darkness was rapidly falling,"
causes her too much fear to even try following him (25).
In his novels, Charles Major provides a colorful picture
of the early landscape in Indiana and insight into the mindset of
pioneers concerning their natural surroundings.
"Charles Major." Contemporary
Fisher, Mathew David. "Charles Major."
Dictionary of Literary Biography: Nineteenth-Century American
Fiction Writers. Detroit: Gale, 1999.
Major, Charles. The Bears of Blue River.
New York: Doubleday, 1901.
---. A Forest Hearth: A Romance of
Indiana in the Thirties. New York: Macmillan, 1905.
---. Uncle Tom Andy Bill: A Story of
Bears and Indian Treasure. New York: Macmillan, 1908.
Vanausdall, Jeanette. Pride and Protest:
The Novel in Indiana. Indiana Historical Society, 1999.
In Fallis, Kenneth. When Charles
Major Was in Flower: A Biography of the Shelbyville Author.
Shelbyville: Shelby County Historical Society, 1988. 1
Charles Major Collection
Major lesson plans (grades 6-8)
Animals of Indiana