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Abandoned fort relinquishes secrets

Fort Selkirk’s original site, now just a pile of dirt and a few remnants left near the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers, holds many…

Fort Selkirk’s original site, now just a pile of dirt and a few remnants left near the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers, holds many secrets.

One University of Alberta PhD candidate, backed by a team of students and assistants, has spent the past few summers digging up its stories.

Vicky Castillo is piecing together the history of the ill-fated Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and its relationship with the area’s traditional peoples — the Northern Tutchone and the Coastal Chilkat.

She’s also working to determine the role women played at the small remote outpost.

And, so far, some of her discoveries appear to contradict written historical texts.

The tale of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s expansion into Fort Selkirk began when beaver hats fell out of fashion in England in the mid-1800s.

The company needed something to replace its best-selling product, and marten’s popularity was on the rise.

So the company started to push into the Canadian Northwest.

“They knew that there were fine furs to be had in the Yukon,” explained Castillo.

And the company didn’t want to lose possession of the land to other interests, like the Russian traders.

So Robert Campbell, like many others, was dispatched to the Canadian west to trade for furs and explore the territory, which had yet to be charted by Europeans.

He began as a company clerk in Scotland, and established posts in places like Frances Lake and Pelly Banks as he moved westward. Then, in 1948, he received word from headquarters to make the push to Selkirk.

According to Campbell’s journal, he founded the fort on the confluence of the two rivers because he was “unsure of the dispositions of the Indians.”

In 1851, Campbell tired of the constant flooding in the marshy area and moved the camp across the river to the site currently known as Fort Selkirk.

In August of 1852, the Coastal Chilkat attacked the settlement and forced the company men into their canoes and out of the area for good.

Interestingly, the Northern Tutchone stayed away from the fort for days preceding the attack.

A few years later, the fort’s original structures burnt to the ground in an unexplained fire, said Castillo.

Historians believed the original site was lost due to years of flooding and erosion, until it was rediscovered by a 1988 expedition, when three archeologists came across a small depression in the ground that turned out to be the meat cellar.

Although the area has been visited by the First Nations for thousands of years, Castillo’s work focuses on the few years in the mid-1800s when the area was a Hudson’s Bay Company post.

Her crew included recent archeology grad student Morgan Ritchie, Selkirk First Nation members Curtis Joe and Lauren McGinty, two students in the employment-training program and four youths from the First Nation.

They spent eight weeks camped out at the site last summer.

On their first day out, after a quick 30-minute survey, they found the meat cellar’s remnants and used them as a central point for the rest of their excavation.

They systematically tested the soil 70 metres from the cellar in each direction, and then one of the students spent four days walking around the site with a metal detector recording each hit.

The method wouldn’t work in most excavations, said Castillo.

Many historic sites have been trampled over generations and are littered with garbage and debris that would throw many archeologists off track.

“We were fortunate because Campbell put his fort in such a horrible spot,” she said.

The crew excavated 60 one-cubic-metre sites in the area.

They turned up remnants of berms and chimneys, pieces of the palisade that enclosed the fort, baubles, tools and weapons.

Unearthed artifacts — copper rivets, a silver button, coloured beads and what’s believed to be the tooth of a European fancy comb — point to a strong female presence in the camp.

There’s also some strange orders logged in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s order achives that show the men requesting large quantities of fancy ribbons in different colours.

The company agents were forbidden to trade on the sly, so why would they need so much ribbon? asks Castillo.

“And why were they ordering women’s scissors and shoes?”

She thinks the unexplained artifacts point to a stronger female presence at the fort than some historians may have previously thought.

However, it’s too early in the research to determine where the women were from and whether they were British, Northern Tutchone or Chilkat.

Many historical accounts of ‘white’ men coming into native territory put the natives at a disadvantage, but Castillo believes that wasn’t the case at Selkirk.

“I believe the Northern Tutchone had the upper hand here,” she said.

The fort traded goods with the Han and Kaska, but relied most heavily on exchanging goods and meat with the Northern Tutchone people, according to Campbell’s journals.

In fact, the camp depended on the Northern Tutchone hunters for some of its food.

The Northern Tutchone knew that and may have used it to their advantage, said Castillo.

So they traded meat with the Hudson’s Bay Company men and saved their good furs for trade with the Chilkat.

At one point, Campbell suspected that the Northern Tutchone were intentionally trying to starve them out by withholding meat for trade, according to his journal.

They may have withheld meat to show they weren’t reliant on the company, they may have done it to punish the men or they may not have had any meat to trade, said Castillo.

It’s a guessing game at this point. And each artifact unearthed seems to raise more questions than it answers.

Castillo will head back to the site this coming summer to continue the research.