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Charles MajorCharles Major

Hoosier Connection: Charles Major was born in Indianapolis in 1856. He and his family moved to Shelbyville, Indiana, in 1869, where he practiced law. He wrote three novels set near the Big Blue River in Indiana.

Works Discussed: The Bears of Blue River, Uncle Tom Andy Bill: A Story of Bears and Indian Treasure, A Forest Hearth: A Romance of Indiana in the Thirties

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 clearing. (249-50)

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 forest 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 Authors. 2000.

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


The Charles Major Collection

Charles Major lesson plans (grades 6-8)

Rare Animals of Indiana