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May 9th 1894

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Robert Campbell of the Yukon

“My father was a sheep farmer in Perthshire, Scotland. I was born on the 21st February and received my education partly in my native Glen and partly in Perth. I assisted my father on the farm till my 22nd year when an event took place that was to change my life.” 

The writer is Robert Campbell who was born at Dalchiorlich in Glen Lyon. The event that changed his life was the arrival in Scotland of James McMillan who was on holiday from his work in Canada for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Robert was fascinated by the stories of life in the North West Territories and he accepted an invitation to join the Company.

He was posted to Fort Simpson in the Mackenzie River District and in due course ended up at Dease Lake, “a desperately barren country,”  he called it. Food was exceedingly scarce in the winter and they were constantly harassed by the Nahinni Indians. They left in May “both hungry and without an ounce of provisions.”  It was an introduction to the sort of difficulties and disappointments he would be facing in the next few years.

Next year he was at Fort Halkett with similar difficulties in winter. “How we are to get through winter in this wild region God only knows.”  It has to be said that this was a time when very little was known of the Yukon, the Indians who might live there and the possible fur trade which might be developed. The next year he was ordered to explore the Pelly River which he had discovered the previous year. Though no one quite knew where its source lay, Campbell was to paddle down to its exit to the sea, “there from the natives you will try to gather as much information as possible as to the part of the coast you are on and the resources of the country.”  There were various tributaries flowing into the Pelly, in particular a large river which Campbell called the Lewes River. Here they met a party of Indians, amazed at this their first sight of white men.

Five years later it was agreed that a new expedition should be made and a fort established at the confluence of the Pelly and Lewes Rivers. This was successfully done and on June 1st 1848 the building of the new fort, named Fort Selkirk, was started. “Parties of the local Indians were coming and going freely among us - all very friendly and strictly honest - gazing with wonder at the work of putting up a building, never having seen a house before.”  One evening they were disturbed by the noise of singing and shouting. The local Indians said that they were Chilcats, “and advised us to hide our working tools and everything moveable unless we wished to have them stolen by the strangers who were adept at pilfering. They also gave us a ready hand to put everything out of sight, which was hardly done, when the Chilcats arrived, about twenty in number and a hard looking set, on several rafts on which they had drifted down the Lewes from near its source. We soon found out their thieving propensities, which were in such marked contrast to the honesty of the native Indians. These poor people, though so destitute of everything that a knife was looked upon by them as an invaluable treasure, were so thoroughly straightforward that even if they found an article that was lost or mislaid, they would bring it back.” 

Fort Selkirk was erected but was found difficult to provision from the hinterland and Campbell was granted permission to explore further down the Pelly to the territory of the Yukon. He had long believed that that the Pelly and the Yukon river were the one and same and was delighted at the chance to test out his theories.

He describes the scenery through which they passed. “The river is skirted with two ranges of mountains, as it were, on both sides, the further range being of greater altitude, many of the peaks covered with perpetual snow.”  These were lands never before penetrated by white men. Understandably their presence created wonderment among local Indians too, who were friendly but very primitive. “Even the simplest articles were a mystery to them. The only arms they had were bow and arrow; their substitute for axe and knife was of bone or stone; their kettle was made of small fibres of the roots of trees, mostly split and then knitted up tight and close like a blanket; after using it for a time it becomes waterproof and is then fit for cooking purposes; the method being to heat stones in a fire and throw them into the kettle and keep on doing so until the water is boiling and the food cooked.” 

They passed through the range of mountains and entered a level stretch of country where the river widened. Finally, after three days of travelling down the river they came upon Fort Yukon. Campbell’s theories had been proved correct. Of more practical importance Fort Selkirk could now be directly provisioned from Fort Yukon. It seemed that a period of tranquillity and prosperity lay ahead for Fort Selkirk - but it was not to be.

In August 1852 the Chilcats returned in large numbers. “They would thieve before our eyes,”  writes Campbell “we could not turn our head before they had some article secured. It now became urgent for me to decamp immediately if I wanted to see another day.”  The situation became worse. “They were all yelling like fiends, smashing and crashing everything within the house.”  Because of the depredations of the Chilcats they were forced to abandon Fort Selkirk for the winter.

Campbell was anxious to return as soon as possible to punish these “murderous villains” , but more cautious and probably wiser counsels prevailed. It was pointed out from headquarters that the hostility of the Chilcats was probably because of their fear of being ousted “by us in their long established trade with the natives.”  But more important was their belief that neither Fort Selkirk or Fort Yukon could be made profitable in the long run. If this decision was a blow to Campbell it would no doubt be softened by his promotion to the rank of Chief Trader.

He had been in the employ of the Hudson Bay Company for twenty one years and at long last he decided to take some leave and return to Scotland. Here he met and became engaged to Elleonora Stirling of Comrie though it was to be five more years before they married. Elleonora came over to Canada with her sister, travelled 1,000 miles across country before meeting up at Lake Athabasca with her fiancee.

It was a happy marriage with three children and a more tranquil life for Campbell among the better established trading posts of the country. In 1867 he was further promoted to the rank of Chief Factor. He visited Scotland again in 1871 and while in Perthshire Elleonora contracted typhoid fever and died. Robert Campbell himself lived on till 1894. A stone to his memory stands in the old Kildonan Church at Winnipeg. A memorial cairn is erected in Glen Lyon.

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