Author Tags: 1800-1850, Alcohol, Forts and Fur
In the annals of the Hudson’s Bay Company, boldness in the wilderness counted for less than accurate bookkeeping and corporate profits. A case in point is the remarkable but little-admired Yukon and New Caledonia explorer Robert Campbell.
As the son of a Perthshire sheep farmer in Scotland, Campbell was filled with enthusiasm for life in the new world by a return visit to Scotland in 1830 by his cousin, James McMillan, who had become a Chief Factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company. “I heard for the first time of the Great North-West and the free and active life that awaited one there...,” Campbell wrote. “I became possessed with an irresistible longing to go to that land of romance and adventure.” More precisely, Campbell dreamed of making his mark as a famous explorer, to be mentioned in history books alongside Alexander Mackenzie.
With McMillan’s assistance, Campbell successfully applied for a HBC position as sub-manager for a new experimental farm proposed for the Red River settlement. At age twenty-two, he took his leave from the family farm in June of 1830 and sailed with McMillan, whose furlough had expired, Chief Trader Donald Ross, as well as several apprentice clerks and more than 30 labourers, from Stromness in Scotland for York Factory on Hudson Bay. Soon after his arrival, Campbell travelled to Kentucky where he purchased 1,475 sheep to stock the HBC’s experimental farm, but diseases and various infections decimated the flock by the time Campbell reached Red River. Only 250 survived.
At Fort Garry for the winter, Campbell met another HBC veteran, Donald Finlayson, as well as George Simpson, who was also wintering at the fort. With plans for the farm abandoned, Simpson encouraged the strapping young Scot to apply for a transfer to the Mackenzie River District. “His last words to me,” Campbell recorded, “were ‘Now, Campbell, don’t you get married, as we want you for active service.’” Rightly or wrongly, Simpson had identified the Mackenzie River District as a prime area for expansion. Campbell hoped his posting to Fort Liard in 1835 would be in keeping with his ambition to make his mark as an explorer.
Maintaining a correspondence with Simpson, Campbell volunteered to help establish a new post on Dease Lake, in what is now British Columbia, in 1837. He subsequently wintered at Fort Halkett and built a modest fort on the east shore of Dease Lake in July of 1838, five miles from its outlet. He then commenced to follow Simpson’s instructions to explore on the western side of the mountains, directing his attention “to pushing the trade across the Mountains and down the Pelly River.”
Acompanied by “Hoole [Houle] and 2 fine young Indians Lapie and Kitza,” Campbell abandoned their spruce canoes after 20 miles of paddling on Dease Lake and soon crossed the Stikine River on a so-called “Terror Bridge” built by Aboriginals. Campbell described it as “a rude ricketty [sic]structure of pine poles spliced together with withes and stretched high above a foaming torrent; the ends of the poles were loaded down with stones to prevent the bridge from collapsing. This primitive support looked so frail and unstable and the rushing waters below so formidable that it seemed well nigh impossible to cross it.”
Campbell boldly or recklessly ignored the advice of local Indians and proceeded alone to meet Chief Shakes who owed much of his fearsome stature to his position as a middle-man with Russian traders at the mouth of the Stikine. Instead of being butchered, Campbell was led to the chief’s tent where he was offered whiskey from the chief’s cup. As Chief Shakes and his men freely imbibed, Campbell, a Presbyterian, went through the motions, and later recorded, “I was well armed, having pistols and dirk in my belt, and a double barrelled percussion gun, which was a great source of wonder to them as the only guns they were familiar with were single-barrelled flint locks.”
Campbell’s report of these events was probably self-inflationary, but his poise under pressure seems genuine enough. “Shakes wanted me to fire so that he might see how the gun went off,” he wrote. “Fearing this was only a ruse to render my gun harmless, I took the precaution to have ball, powder & cap in my hand ready to slip in immediately after firing a shot. With every report, the whole camp yelled, clapping their hands on their mouths at the same time, & the noise was frightful.”
During this meeting Campbell gained more information about the Pelly and Stikine Rivers. He also learned that John McLoughlin and James Douglas were both known to the local Aboriginals who included a charismatic female leader described by Campbell as the “Chieftainess of the Nahanies.” In his romanticized narrative, he describes how this impressive thirty-five-year-old protectoress enabled his men to make their return across the Terror Bridge unmolested.
Rather than explore the Stikine to its mouth at the Pacific, Campbell returned to the new trading post at Dease Lake, having discovered that trading prospects were poor and game was not plentiful. Accordingly, he descended the Liard River in a birchbark canoe in order to gain additional trading supplies at Fort Simpson from Chief Trader Murdock McPherson, who soon proved himself to be the bane of Campbell’s career. McPherson would give Campbell only enough supplies for his return trip to Dease Lake.
Surrounded by hostile “Russian Indians” at his Dease Lake post, Campbell wrote, “Our prospects were very gloomy. ...Our efforts all winter to procure a bare living were never relaxed. We were scattered in twos and threes trying with nets & hooks for fish, & with traps, snares & guns for any living thing, bird or beast, that came in the way. Everything possible was used for food: ‘tripe de roche,’ skins, parchment, in fact anything. But much as we felt these privations, our greatest trouble was the passing & repassing of the Russian Indians, who kept us night and day in a state of alarm & uncertainty, particularly as it was impossible for us to be all together.... We were completely at their mercy. Most of us were so weak & emaciated that we could barely walk.”
The starving fur traders received a temporary reprieve in February from the Chieftainess of the Nahanies who instructed her slaves to cook a sumptuous meal for Campbell and his men. About a month later, when more of her people returned to Dease Lake, unaccompanied by her, Campbell was dismayed to discover their attitudes towards him were as hostile as the “Russian Indians” led by Chief Shakes. One of Campbell’s men died during the winter, and another two disappeared while trying to reach Fort Liard. Prior to leaving their wretched Dease Lake Post on May 8, 1839, Campbell and his men boiled the webbing of their snowshoes and the parchment from the windows for a final meal.
For surviving such terrible conditions, Campbell was promoted by Simpson to the rank of Clerk. After wintering at Fort Halkett in 1839–1840, Campbell was instructed by Simpson to explore extensively the Liard River, a major thoroughfare that gained its name from the voyageurs’ term Riviere au Liards (“River of Poplars”). The Liard proved so exceedingly dangerous for travel that Campbell dubbed it the “River of Malediction.”
Soon after, it was deemed no longer necessary for the HBC to push westward towards the Pacific because the HBC had signed a new agreement with the Russian American Company to facilitate development of coastal trade via the Pacific. Simpson therefore wrote: “I have turned my attention very particularly to the affairs of the McKenzies [sic] River generally, as there is a greater Field for the extension of trade there than in any other part of the Country.”
In accordance with Simpson’s fanciful expectations, Campbell once more doggedly set out to prove himself worthy of fame. Accompanied by his interpreter Francis Hoole and “my faithful Indians Lapie and Kitza,” Campbell dutifully left Fort Halkett at the end of May, proceeded to Dease Lake, along the hazardous Liard River and reached “a beautiful sheet of water which, in honour of Lady Simpson, I called Frances Lake.” He named a nearby landmark, Simpson’s Tower, after his benefactor, and proceeded westward with a smaller party, on foot. He named Finlayson’s Lake after Chief Factor Duncan Finlayson. Six days after leaving Simpson’s Tower, he sighted the Pelly River, named for Sir John Henry Pelly, the HBC home governor who remained in control of London business affairs from 1822 to 1852.
As much as Campbell tried to curry favour at every turn, carving the initials H.B.C. and the date in a tree trunk, and flying the HBC ensign, he ultimately fell afoul of his own reporting. Delighted to learn about the existence of the Pelly River, Simpson wrote, “you speak so favourably of the country in the neighborhood of Frances Lake, both as regards the means of living and the prospects of trade, that we have determined on extending our operations in that quarter.”
Although Campbell and his exploration crew had not crossed paths with a single Aboriginal during their venture, he was instructed to establish a new post at Frances Lake. At the site of Simpson’s Tower, first dubbed Glenlyon House, Campbell erected little-known Fort Frances in August of 1842. This was the first HBC post built within the present-day boundaries of the Yukon.
Once more accompanied by “Houle and my 2 inseparables, Lapie and Kitza,” Campbell further explored the Pelly River and spent several years in the Yukon, with limited success and much privation. Having undergone considerable hardship in northern British Columbia and the Yukon for ten years, Campbell wrote to George Simpson in the spring of 1847, saying: “here everything about my name is become stale and constant difficulty have all but overcome my ardour.”
Discouraged, Campbell offered his resignation. George Simpson declined it, notifying Campbell’s superior that his “exertions in the cause of Discovery” in the Yukon and northern New Caledonia were “beyond all praise.” But after Campbell’s 630-mile journey to Fort Simpson in the summer of 1847 to procure trade goods, he was once more stymied by the stinginess of Murdock McPherson, the Mackenzie District commander. “I have done all, but gone upon my knees to Mr. McPherson,” he wrote to George Simpson. But no letter after the fact could provide him with adequate provisions for Pelly Banks, Frances Lake and a new post he hoped to erect on the Yukon River.
Cough-ridden and possibly asthmatic, Campbell nonetheless subjected himself to a daily regimen of outdoor baths. “As the season advanced,” he wrote, “our cook would knock at my door to tell me the hole was made in the ice ready for me. I would then run down with a blanket round me, dip into the hole, out again, & back to the house, my hair frozen stiff before I got there.”
Campbell commenced building Fort Selkirk at the forks of the Pelly and Lewes Rivers on June 1, 1848, gaining a reputation as a healer among the Indians soon thereafter by applying some medications to an Aboriginal man’s leg. Much to Campbell’s surprise, his patient recovered. A visit from the Chilkats of the Tlingit First Nation also buoyed Campbell’s spirits as he imagined the potential for more trade along one of North America’s largest rivers, but McPherson’s reluctance once again to support adequately Campbell’s initiative proved his undoing. Although Alexander Hunter Murray had established Fort Yukon at the forks of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers in June of 1847, George Simpson did not realize the need to supply these new Yukon posts directly from York Factory, rather than from Murdoch McPherson’s regional headquarters on the West Coast.
Ultimately, Campbell failed to achieve fame as the foremost explorer of the Yukon because Simpson firmly believed that exploration strictly for the sake of gaining geographical knowledge was an insufficient motive for adventure and expense. When Campbell was mired at Frances Lake for several years, Simpson had advised him directly: “You seem to have been anxious to have proceeded down to the sea; that, however I think at present unnecessary, & would be impolitic, as it would bring us into competition with our Russian neighbours, with whom we are desirous of maintaining a good understanding.” Campbell didn’t receive his instructions from Simpson to “explore the Pelly downwards as far as I might deem advisable” until April of 1851. On this journey Campbell proved his conjectures were correct, that the Pelly and the Youcon Rivers were connected as one.
Campbell returned to Fort Selkirk in high spirits but his enthusiasm was not shared by Chief Trader James Anderson, newly appointed as director of the Mackenzie District in 1851. “I have a much higher opinion of Campbell’s Zeal and Enterprise,” wrote Anderson, “than of his judgement.” Anderson decided the Frances Lake Fort established by Campbell was unnecessary and he was dismayed by Campbell’s bookkeeping (“very chary of information”) and his lack of profits. Campbell’s reputation suffered an even more serious blow in 1852 when Chilkat Indians ransacked Fort Selkirk when Campbell was in charge. After 27 “demons” arrived on August 20, 1852, the fort’s few occupants were overwhelmed the following day and expelled into the wilderness. “We were without a blanket amongst the party,” Campbell commented, “and none of the men but myself had even a capot; nothing but their trousers, and in their shirt sleeves, with but two guns and a few shots of powder amongst us. The roaring and yelling of these painted fiends, smashing everything that came their way—and firing—beggars description.”
Campbell and his men reached the camp of a friendly Wood Indian chief the next day, but by the time they returned to Fort Selkirk on the evening of August 23rd, the Chilkats “to our inexpressible vexation” had vanished. “Not a grain of powder or rag of clothing was left,” Campbell wrote. “Cassettes, dressing cases, writing desks, kegs and musical instruments were smashed into a thousand atoms and the house and store strewed with the wreck, a sight to madden a saint.”
When reports of this serious incident were prepared for HBC administrators Colville and Simpson, James Anderson privately advised, “It strikes me there was a want of due caution on our part.” He criticized “poor Campbell” for his imprudent optimism in the face of poor results at both Frances Lake and Fort Selkirk. “It is my opinion that his sanguine disposition has caused him to estimate the prospects of Selkirk far too favorably—his views have been so long and intensely directed to one absorbing object that they have become distorted and he can no longer see things in their true colours.”
To defend himself adequately, Campbell decided in November to trudge, dog sled and paddle three thousand miles across Canada from the Mackenzie River to Lachine, near Montreal, to speak with Simpson at his winter headquarters. He achieved his purpose at the end of March, 1853, whereupon Simpson discounted Campbell’s request for reprisals against the Chilkat perpetrators. Instead Simpson slyly reassured Campbell that nobody would assume any cowardice on his part and that he should take a well-earned furlough in Scotland, given his relative proximity to Europe.
Campbell passed a year in Scotland, during which time he became engaged to Miss Ellenora Stirling. He returned to Norway House in June of 1854, at which time Simpson reaffirmed his decision not to re-establish Fort Selkirk. Although Campbell would remain in the employ of the HBC for another 18 years, he would never achieve the renown he had craved. The four outposts he helped to generate — Dease Lake, Frances Lake, Pelly Banks and Fort Selkirk — were all abandoned. Only Fort Yukon, with which he had not been involved, would endure.
Campbell took charge of Fort Liard in 1854 and became Chief Trader for the Athabasca District in 1856, stationed at Fort Chipewyan. He married Ellenora Stirling at Norway House in 1859, became a Chief Factor in 1867, but was eventually dismissed because he disregarded company directives about trading routes for the transport of furs. He acquired a ranch in the wooded area of Riding Mountain, near Strathclair, Manitoba, in 1872, where he worked and edited his journals that were still unpublished when he died in 1894.
George Dawson named a minor tributory of the Pelly River after Robert Campbell in 1887, and the Yukon Territorial Council named a highway in his honour, but for the most part Robert Campbell’s exploits are seldom cited. Although he named most of the principal rivers of the Yukon, leading pioneering efforts in northern British Columbia in the process, the opinions of faraway administrators obscured his considerable achievements. During Campbell’s era, other significant Yukon explorers were Samuel Black, John McLeod and Murdoch McPherson.
Campbell recorded his adventures in journals that were published more than a century later as Two Journals of Robert Campbell: 1808–1853 (1958). The first of these covers 1808–1851 and has been published from a copy of the original; the second covers the period 1850–1853 and was based on a rewritten account by Campbell after his original journal was destroyed by fire. Campbell’s journals for his stints at Pelly Banks (1845–1847) and Fort Selkirk in the Yukon are available at the Public Archives of Canada.
“Company correspondence,” according to historian Ken Coates, “suggests Campbell overestimated his importance, was at best a marginal trader and was not widely admired by his peers.” But Clifford Wilson, a long-time editor of the Hudson Bay Company’s magazine The Beaver, who also served as the assistant director of the National Museum of Canada, has written a biography, Campbell of the Yukon, to suggest that Campbell’s extensive explorations are worthy of respect and even admiration.
[Robert Campbell is not to be confused with Robert A. Campbell who has written books about society and alcohol.]
Campbell, Robert. Two Journals of Robert Campbell (Chief Factor: Hudson's Bay Company), 1808-1853 (Seattle: Shorey Books, 1958). Edited by John W. Todd.
Wilson, Clifford. Campbell of the Yukon (Toronto: Macmillan, 1970).
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006]