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

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