HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY AND TLINGIT RIVALRY
First white people to come in was Hudson Bay people. Two men
built house before Robert Campbell there. Met white there. Show
him knife and fork. Indian had big bone knife. Made sign to white
man three nights sleep then come back here. (traded dry meat)
Hudson Bay heard of trade, wanted to be a part of the trade.
Showed how to load up gun. Shoot 10 moose skin together. Shot
arrows at it, some go there, most only halfway. White picked up
gun, shot through the skin, everyone fall down - deaf - can't
believe it, even shot right through tree.
-Johnson Edwards, 1994.
I am sorry to report that a large party (31) trading
Indians from the coast who visited the Pelly and remained here ‘til
they got their loads traded made a clean sweep of all of the furs
and leathers of the surrounding vicinity. Some of the same Indians
even went down the river near a hundred miles. This long
established traffic, the very low price at which they dispose
their goods, and their acquaintance with the language and habits
of these tribes afford them facilities for trade we are all
deprived of . . .
-Robert Campbell, 1851 (H.B.Co. correspondence
quoted in Reading Voices, p. 86.)
A good many of the native Indians passed the summer around the
fort for the express purpose of being on hand to defend us should
the Chilkats come up to kill us as they had said. As we seemed
incredulous of any attack going to be made on us, these ...
Indians who know little or nothing of us, took concerted
measures among themselves for our protection. A party of them
would remain for a certain length of time at the Fort and would
them be relieved by another party and so on for the whole summer,
of their own accord and at their own expense. This act of
spontaneous kindness and self sacrifice by ... Indians who had
never seen whites till we had gone among them, is perhaps without
-Robert Campbell (quoted in Wilson 1970, p. 120)
My grandfather, my mother's father, got his name from the
Hudson Bay man Robert Campbell. That time when the Alaska Indians
came to burn down his post, my grandpa saved him. He hid him and
tied him to a boat and pushed him out into the river. So he saved
his life. At that time, Indians had no white man name. So Robert
Campbell said to my grandpa, "Because you saved me, you have
my name." My grandpa tried to tell him to come back (to Fort
Selkirk). But Robert Campbell, the white man, never came
back. I guess maybe he went to build a post somewhere else.
-Rachel Dawson quoted in Reading Voices, p. 87.
Building Fort Selkirk
In 1843, the ancestors of the Selkirk First Nation apparently
had their first encounter with European people near the confluence
of the Yukon and Pelly Rivers. Robert Campbell was journeying down
the Pelly River in search of a new site for a Hudson's Bay Company
Post. He was impressed by the friendliness of the people, their
apparent prosperity and the well-established trade with the
Coastal Tlingit people. His decision to build the post of Fort
Selkirk was based in part on his intention to intercept this
trade. The Chilkats were enraged by the Hudson's Bay Company
intrusion on their trade monopoly and were determined not to be
displaced. Ironically, by this time, many of the trade goods
carried by Chilkat traders came from HBC operations on the coast.
In 1848, Campbell and his party built a trading post upriver
and across from the present site, on the point of land between the
Pelly and Yukon Rivers. His enterprise was unsuccessful, however.
It could take a year or two for trade good to reach Fort Selkirk
from eastern Canada by the "West Branch" route via Fort
Simpson, NWT; Frances Lake Post and Pelly Banks Post. Travelling
this 1100 mile supply route was an arduous 30 to 40 day trip and
frequently, the goods ordered never arrived at Fort Selkirk. In
turn, it could take as long as seven years for northern furs and
skins to reach the market. Campbell regularly sent letters to his
superiors with the Chilkats via the Pacific coast, often a more
reliable system of transport than the faltering overland route.
The post site was subject to spring flooding. Local people
found that his prices were too low compared to the Chilkat traders
and the Chilkats aggressively pursued their traditional trade
despite the presence of the post. The post was often short of
trade goods and in 1849/50 never received any supplies at all for over 18
months. At one point Campbell found himself in the position of
being completely without trade goods and watching helplessly while
the Chilkat traders bargained for a fortune in locally produced
furs and hides.
Over the winter of 1851/52, Campbell and his men began moving
the Fort to its present site on higher ground. In July 1852, he
brought in a large stock of new trade goods from Fort Yukon
(located downriver in Alaska). By August, the new buildings were
almost complete when a party of 27 Chilkat traders visited the
site. They saw a new larger post, that was well supplied and set
on a better site. The Hudson's Bay Company had become more
established and the Chilkats did not like this at all.
Selkirk people under the leadership of their chiefs, Thlingit
Thling and his nephew Hanan, were aware of the violent
intentions of the Chilkat people. The Northern Tutchone people
spent much of the summer protecting the post. Campbell did not
take their concerns seriously, however. There were no local people
at the post on August 19th, the day that the Chilkat pillaged Fort
Selkirk. There were no deaths, but Campbell was forced into a boat
and set afloat downstream. According to oral tradition, he was
rescued by Hanan, and in gratitude gave him his name. Hanan's
descendents still bear the name Campbell, including Hanan's son
Big Jonathan Campbell who was chief of the Selkirk First Nation
from 1916 until his death in 1958.
Campbell returned to the post to find all his new trade goods
had been either taken or destroyed. Hanan and his people refused
to join Campbell in following the Chilkats to seek revenge.
Probably, they realized that there was a strong chance Campbell
would abandon the post and did not want to endanger the existing
trade network. The Chilkats had cached most of their booty about
one day's travel from Fort Selkirk. Local people later discovered
the caches and claimed the goods.
Campbell snowshoed thousands of miles first to Fort Simpson
then to Minnesota, to convince his superiors to re-open the post,
but was unsuccessful in his efforts. It would be another forty
years before a Euro-American trader came to Selkirk and over
eighty years before the Hudson's Bay Company returned to the area.
The post was abandoned and eventually burnt to salvage the nails
and ironwork. By the time Frederick Schwatka visited the site in
1883, only the basalt rock chimneys remained.
In 1869, the Tlingit chief Kohklux told a visiting scientist
that he had been a member of the raiding party that ransacked Fort
Selkirk and was able to draw a map of the Chilkat route to the
post. In 1898, NWMP Officer A.M. Jarvis also visited the Chilkats
and saw a large disintegrating flag "of the British Columbia
Company" that the Tlingits had taken from Fort Selkirk and
kept as a symbol of their defiance to the intruding traders.
Julie Cruikshank, 1991. Dän dhá Ts’edenintth’é -
Reading Voices, pp. 82-87.
Ruth Gotthardt, 1987. Selkirk Indian Band: Land Use and
Culture Study, pp.125-130.
Lewellyn Johnson, in progress. Journals & Correspondence
of Robert Campbell.
C. McLellan, 1987. Part of the Land, Part of the Water, pp.
C. Wilson, 1970. Campbell of the Yukon. Toronto:
Macmillan of Canada Ltd.