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Rawhides: Robert Campbell and the Yukon’s first cattle drive

The first cattle drive into the Yukon was to have been a small one: two heifers and a young bull, brought from Fort Simpson on the MacKenzie River to Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River in 1852.

The first cattle drive into the Yukon was to have been a small one: two heifers and a young bull, brought from Fort Simpson on the MacKenzie River to Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River in 1852.

The story begins with Robert Campbell, the Hudson’s Bay Company explorer and fur trader who founded Fort Selkirk, and for whom a highway and a bridge in the Yukon are named. Campbell came from Perthshire, Scotland, not as a fur trader but as a farmer, hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to help establish an experimental farm at Red River Settlement in what is now southern Manitoba.

From 1831 to 1833 Campbell wrangled beasts (“a most erratic stock of Cattle, Horses, Pigs &c”) and men (“mercurial and promiscuous”), while building houses and barns, plowing the virgin land and harvesting crops. After a tedious and unsuccessful trip driving sheep up from Kentucky, Campbell “had a hankering after the more stirring life” of a fur trader. In May 1834 he asked for a transfer to the fur trade, and HBC Governor George Simpson granted his request.

Campbell spent the next 18 years trying to open up the western region of the MacKenzie River district for the fur trade, exploring some of the great rivers of the Pacific Northwest — the Stikine, the Dease, the Liard, the Pelly, and the Yukon. He established forts at Dease Lake, Frances Lake and Pelly Banks and finally, Fort Selkirk, which he built in 1848 at the junction of the Pelly and the Lewes (Yukon) rivers.

They were exciting but difficult and often dangerous years. Rival First Nations traders harassed Campbell and his people. Starvation was a constant threat. At each new outpost, Campbell planted crops and vegetables, experimenting with barley, potatoes and garden vegetables, but with little success. Hunting and fishing were only intermittently reliable. Supplies from headquarters were erratic.

During most of Campbell’s 18 years in northern B.C. and southern and central Yukon, the only known route into that territory from HBC headquarters at Fort Simpson was the Liard River and its tributaries. The Liard is a fast and dangerous river that roars through canyons, rapids and whirlpools. No HBC employee undertook the journey lightly. In 1840, eight Company men enroute to Fort Simpson died on the Liard when their voyageur canoe was sucked into a whirlpool.

But by 1848, Company traders had found a safer northern route from Fort Simpson to the Yukon River down the easily navigable MacKenzie River, up the Rat, over the Richardson Mountains, down the Bell to the Porcupine and down the Porcupine to the Yukon. Trader Arthur Murray built Fort Yukon that year at the junction of the Porcupine and the Yukon rivers. Campbell and his men had established Fort Selkirk, 600 kilometres upriver, but neither the traders nor the company were certain that the same river flowed between the two forts. In June of 1851, under orders from Governor Simpson, Campbell set off downriver to settle the question. He arrived at Fort Yukon three days later, confirming the two rivers were one and the same.

For Campbell, this discovery meant that his vision of a robust trading post and a thriving settlement at Fort Selkirk, complete with livestock and crops, was finally within reach, made possible by the easier, northern supply route into the country. Campbell continued on from Fort Yukon to Fort Simpson, following the northern route, and arrived filled with optimism.

There, on August 6, he wrote a letter to the incoming Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Trader.

“This I trust will be the finale of the countless miseries and hardships wantonly and to no earthly purpose endured for three years we have now been on the Pelly. The road is now open and I beg to leave it with you to turn it and the ample resources and production of the country to advantage.”

Arthur Murray had told Campbell there was enough pasture at Fort Yukon to support 1,000 head of cattle. In the same mood of optimism, Campbell left another note for the Chief Trader, requesting delivery of a young bull and two heifers to Lapierre’s House on the Porcupine River. His people would pick them up the following spring and bring them up the Yukon River to Fort Selkirk. He requested a bell for the bull, too. Those three animals, brought into the country via the new northern route, were almost certainly, in Campbell’s mind, the beginnings of a herd and part of the new foundation for a secure and permanent settlement.

Campbell returned to Fort Selkirk in October, and that winter he and his men moved the fort to a better site on the Yukon River. In May 1852 he travelled to Lapierre’s House to pick up his outfit, but there is no mention in the historical record of the cattle he had ordered. Nevertheless, he was pleased to be returning to Fort Selkirk “with the first real Outfit ever rendered there.”

In August 1852 Campbell and his men were out in the fields cutting hay when a party of Chilkat traders attacked Fort Selkirk. Campbell and his whole company were forced to flee. Campbell’s dream of Fort Selkirk as a thriving fur trade settlement was in ruins, like the fort.

The attacking Chilkat were intent on defending their long-established trading relationship with interior First Nations. They had travelled up the coast from Klukwan on the Chilkat Inlet, over the mountains to Kusawa Lake, down the Takhini River to the Yukon River, through Lake Laberge and on to Fort Selkirk. This route was just one of several trade routes from the coast to the interior traditionally owned by coastal Tlingit.

Forty years after Campbell’s departure, control of another of these routes would be wrested from the Chilkat Tlingit by adventurer and entrepreneur Jack Dalton. From 1896 to 1906 the Dalton Trail became a conduit for the delivery of hundreds of head of cattle destined for the interior, in a new era of trade. Cattle would come to the Yukon, in numbers Campbell wouldn’t have imagined possible.

This article is part of a series commissioned by the Yukon Agricultural Association and funded by Growing Forward 2, an initiative of the governments of Canada and Yukon.