The long history of Fort Selkirk, part 1

I first visited Fort Selkirk in 1976 while employed by the National Museums of Canada in Ottawa. I came on holiday to record construction details of buildings at the site for another government agency, the Canadian Inventory of Historic Building.

I first visited Fort Selkirk in 1976 while employed by the National Museums of Canada in Ottawa. I came on holiday to record construction details of buildings at the site for another government agency, the Canadian Inventory of Historic Building.

Fort Selkirk is not an easy place to visit. It is located on the Yukon River at the confluence with the Pelly, but on the west side of the river, making it inaccessible by road. I arranged with a local surveying firm to hitch a ride from Minto Landing to the historic site on June 3, remaining there for three days, until the survey party returned to Minto. That gave me plenty of time to take the photographs and fill in the building record forms required by the CIHB.

The shutter on my camera malfunctioned after the first day, making it possible to record only 11 buildings. But if I was to be stranded anywhere in the Yukon, Fort Selkirk is at the top of my list.

Sprawled along the high shore for more than two kilometres beside the mighty Yukon is an assemblage of 40 old buildings.

Add to this the house mounds and other features, including archaeological remains and two cemeteries; the site is an impressive testament to the history of the region. It also became one of my favourite places because of the rich variety of old log buildings found there.

I was not I alone during my visit. Danny Roberts, long known as the caretaker of Fort Selkirk, and his wife Abby, were the sole remaining occupants of this once thriving community. Danny was of Northern Tutchone extraction and had lived in the region all of his life. He greeted me upon my arrival, and then came for a lengthy chat later in the evening after I had set up my camp.

The weather was perfect during my three days of voluntary confinement at Selkirk. The sky was clear and sunny, the air was calm, and the temperature peaked at around 21 degrees Celsius mid-afternoon. The only traffic on the river was a party in a boat going upriver one afternoon, and three women in a canoe paddling downstream to Stewart Island.

The occupation of Fort Selkirk extends far into the past. Archaeological evidence for the region dates back more than 11,000 years, to the retreat of the last ice age. We know and define the earliest prehistoric occupants of the region by their stone tools, and the technologies that they represent. The soil conditions allow for the preservation of little else.

The earliest cultural tradition in this region, dating from 10,000 to 7,000 years ago, is represented by large chipped stone spear points, stone blades, and burins – stone tools with a sharp point or edge used for carving or engraving wood or bone. From 7,000 to 5,000 years ago, tiny flakes of rock, called microblades, became a predominant feature, left behind by the people who lived in the region.

The first evidence of occupation at the present site of Fort Selkirk appears less than 5,000 years ago, represented by artifacts of the Northern Archaic Tradition. This tool assemblage is characterized by side notched spear points, end scrapers, and for the first time, stone net sinkers.

Twelve hundred years ago, a massive volcanic explosion, 10 times larger than Mount St. Helens, enveloped the region, leaving a characteristic white horizon of volcanic debris that we now refer to as the White River Ash. The artifacts found after this event include copper items, bone and stone tools and small stone or copper stemmed and notched points that indicate the first use of the bow and arrow. Whether this represents the introduction of a new technology or the arrival of new people is not agreed upon. This part of the archaeological record is well represented at Fort Selkirk.

Fishing was an important seasonal activity, and there were several traditional fishing camps located in the vicinity of Fort Selkirk. In 1883, when Lieutenant Schwatka of the United States Army was conducting a reconnaissance of the Yukon River, the most important village in this region was located on the banks of the Yukon 19 kilometres below Fort Selkirk. At least 150 to 200 people were situated there at the time of Schwatka’s visit.

The presence of exotic varieties of stone and copper from locations hundreds of kilometres away suggest that an active exchange of goods occurred with neighbouring populations.

For at least the last 200 years, trade between the coastal Chilkat Tlingit and the Northern Tutchone became an important economic factor in the region. It is likely that through this trade the first European goods were introduced into the area. The first Europeans arrived in 1848, when Robert Campbell of the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post at the mouth of the Pelly River across from present-day Fort Selkirk.

Flooding of the site caused them to relocate their trading post across the Yukon River to the current site. In August of 1852, a large party of Chilkats arrived at Fort Selkirk and destroyed the post, driving Campbell and his party out of the region. The supply link to this remote outpost of the great British trading company was tenuous at best, and certainly not profitable. They did not return to the area until well into the 20th century.

The Chilkats maintained a tight control over trade to this region for the next 40 years until Arthur Harper established a trading post here. In the meantime, Schwatka (1883) a Canadian party of government explorers (1887), and an ever-increasing number of prospectors (starting in 1880) passed by, or even stopped at Fort Selkirk.

In 1892, Reverend T. H. Canham established an Anglican Church mission at Fort Selkirk that eventually consisted of a school, a church and a home for the resident missionary. Even during the gold rush, the settlement was an important gathering place for First Nations. Reports of large potlatch gatherings also appear in the Dawson newspapers after the turn of the century.

By 1916, well after the gold rush had subsided, Selkirk had a First Nation population of around 160 people. In 1932, that number had dwindled to 87. When the Klondike Highway brought an end to river transportation in the early 1950s the people slowly drifted away, eventually gathering at Pelly Crossing, leaving Danny and Abby Roberts as the only residents.

Danny Roberts passed away in 2000, but his sister Audrey, and her husband, Don Trudeau, remain heavily involved at Fort Selkirk today. The Selkirk First Nation and the Government of Yukon work closely together as partners in the management of this important historic site. From earliest occupation of the region to the present day, Fort Selkirk remains a community with strong historical ties to the First Nation.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley gives a COVID-19 update during a press conference in Whitehorse on May 26. The Yukon government announced two new cases of COVID-19 in the territory with a press release on Oct. 19. (Alistair Maitland Photography)
Two new cases of COVID-19 announced in Yukon

Contact tracing is complete and YG says there is no increased risk to the public

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on April 8. Yukon Energy faced a potential “critical” fuel shortage in January due to an avalanche blocking a shipping route from Skagway to the Yukon, according to an email obtained by the Yukon Party and questioned in the legislature on Oct. 14. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Energy faced ‘critical’ fuel shortage last January due to avalanche

An email obtained by the Yukon Party showed energy officials were concerned

Jeanie McLean (formerly Dendys), the minister responsible for the Women’s Directorate speaks during legislative assembly in Whitehorse on Nov. 27, 2017. “Our government is proud to be supporting Yukon’s grassroots organizations and First Nation governments in this critical work,” said McLean of the $175,000 from the Yukon government awarded to four community-based projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government gives $175k to projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women

Four projects were supported via the Prevention of Violence against Aboriginal Women Fund

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

When I was a kid, CP Air had a monopoly on flights… Continue reading

asdf
EDITORIAL: Don’t let the City of Whitehorse distract you

A little over two weeks after Whitehorse city council voted to give… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Northwestel has released the proposed prices for its unlimited plans. Unlimited internet in Whitehorse and Carcross could cost users between $160.95 and $249.95 per month depending on their choice of package. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet options outlined

Will require CRTC approval before Northwestel makes them available

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse. Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting instead of 30 days to make up for lost time caused by COVID-19 in the spring. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Legislative assembly sitting extended

Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting. The extension… Continue reading

asdf
Today’s mailbox: Mad about MAD

Letters to the editor published Oct. 16, 2020

Alkan Air hangar in Whitehorse. Alkan Air has filed its response to a lawsuit over a 2019 plane crash that killed a Vancouver geologist on board, denying that there was any negligence on its part or the pilot’s. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Alkan Air responds to lawsuit over 2019 crash denying negligence, liability

Airline filed statement of defence Oct. 7 to lawsuit by spouse of geologist killed in crash

Whitehorse city council members voted Oct. 13 to decline an increase to their base salaries that was set to be made on Jan. 1. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Council declines increased wages for 2021

Members will not have wages adjusted for CPI

A vehicle is seen along Mount Sima Road in Whitehorse on May 12. At its Oct. 13 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved the third reading for two separate bylaws that will allow the land sale and transfer agreements of city-owned land — a 127-square-metre piece next to 75 Ortona Ave. and 1.02 hectares of property behind three lots on Mount Sima Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Whitehorse properties could soon expand

Land sale agreements approved by council

Most Read