Robert Campbell’s “London Ships” Story

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle
A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

My father was a sheep-farmer in Perthshire, Scotland. I was born on the 21st February 1808, and received my education partly in my native Glen, and partly at Perth. My dear Mother died when I was about 17.

The man who wrote this story was Robert Campbell, who came to North America to work at the Red River Settlement. He was employed for his experience as a sheep farmer, but he ended up in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company and was a major explorer and fort-builder in the Yukon. Here is what he wrote of his joining the Company, and his journey across the Atlantic Ocean in the London Ship to York Factory. This is another side of this fascinating man, Robert Campbell.

I assisted my Father on the farm till my 22nd year, when an event took place which was destined to change the whole current of my life.

This was the arrival in Scotland of Chief Factor J. McMillan, a cousin of ours who came “hame” on a year’s furlough. Through him I heard for the first time of the Great North-West and the free and active life that awaited one there; of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Fur Trade, the boundless prairies roamed by tribes of Indians and herds of Buffalo, the vast Lakes and the giant Streams, the sublime majesty of the Rocky Mountains, the impenetrable forests, the abundance of game of all kinds — all was a revelation to me and opened to me a new and attractive field of enterprise to my fascinated gaze. I became possessed with an irresistible longing to go to that land of romance and adventure. An opportunity soon presented itself of carrying out my desire. Learning that a sub-manager was wanted for an experimental farm to be started in the Red River Settlement by the Hudson’s Bay Company, I applied for, and to my intense delight, got the appointment. Gratified though I was at my success, it was with a heavy heart that I prepared to tear myself from home and all its happy associations. But the day of parting came at last and I faced the ordeal with what composure I could master.

Campbell’s cousin was Chief Factor James McMillan, who was on the Pacific slopes with David Thompson in 1808, and who helped build Fort Langley in 1827. He returned to the east from Fort Langley, and went on furlough to Scotland where he married. In 1830 he was given the charge of the experimental farm at Red River. So Donald Campbell would have become his cousin’s second-in-command at the farm.

On the 2nd of June, 1830, I bade farewell to my Father, best and kindest of men, and received his blessing; I shook hands for the last time with my relations and friends; took a final look at the familiar scenes of my youth, and wrenched myself away to begin my journey to the New World.

I proceeded to Stromness, where I was to join the Company’s ship “Prince Rupert,” which, with the “Prince of Wales” and the brig “Mountain,” did not arrive from London till the 21st.

On the 29th the passengers embarked on the “Prince Rupert.” We had on board, besides the ship’s officers & crew, 2 Commissioned officers (Mr. McMillan, whose leave of absence has expired, and Mr. Donald Ross, Chief Trader), 4 apprentice Clerks & 30 or 40 labourers; also a family of Munros & an old soldier named George Sutherland, for Red River Settlement.

Two Journals of Robert Campbell, 1808 to 1853. Early Journal, 1808-1851

You will remember that he is heading to the Red River Settlement via York Factory and Norway House.

Favoured with a fine breeze, the 2 ships hoisted sail for sea. In the course of the day we were out of sight of the green hills of Scotland, to which every eye was strained as long as visible.

[1830] 15th July. Passed Cape Farewell; heavy swell.

28 July. Entered Hudson’s Straits. During our passage through the Straits, we encountered much foggy weather, and ice which impeded our progress.

3 August. Entered Hudson’s Bay, & parted company with the “Prince of Wales,” which steered for Moose Factory, James Bay, the brig accompanying us.

4 to 10 [August]. Made but little headway, being held fast in a large field of ice most of the time. We amused ourselves by playing foot-ball and shooting at targets on the ice, & sometimes at seals. One day a party of us went after a monster, descried some miles off & supposed to be a sea-horse, which appeared to be asleep on the ice at the edge of a small sheet of open water. When we got within range, we all fired at him & he immediately rolled into the water and was seen no more.

On the 10th a fresh breeze set the ice in motion & enabled us to get clear, after which we moved along with a fair wind.

13 August. Sighted land in the evening; a gun & rockets were fired far.

14 August. With the first rays of the sun, we were all on deck to get a glimpse of the land of promise; which was clearly visible ahead. During the day a boat came out to us from York Factory, manned with a mixed crew of Indians, Half-breeds, & French Canadian Voyageurs, all different in appearance, address & language to anything we “greenhorns” had ever run across before.

15 August. On Sunday 15th we landed at York, all feeling thankful to be once more on “terra firma.”

York Factory was at this time the sea-port depot of the Northern Department & always presented a scene of animation & bustle when the Ship arrived. The cargo was unloaded with all despatch, the Fur Packs were conveyed on board, and everything done to expedite the ship’s departure for England.

25 August. We left York Factory for our Winter quarters in 2 inland boats [York Boats], each with a crew of 8 men. Mr. Donald Ross and Dr. Hamlin were passengers in one boat; Mr. McMillan, Mr. Hay & myself in the other. With the exception of the Doctor, we had all come together from Stromness.

And so Dr. Richard Julian Hamlyn appears again on my blog. He had traveled west to Fort Vancouver with Governor Simpson in 1828, and so you will find him mentioned, on occasion, in the “Two Canoes” thread. Hamlyn spent two years at Fort Vancouver and so must have come out with the outgoing 1830 York Factory Express to Hudson Bay. By this time he had received permission to return to the Red River Settlement and so this is where he was now heading. He spent a year there, but sailed to England in the autumn of 1831 on the chartered ship Camden. By 1832, he was in Sydney, Australia, and so disappears from fur trade history.

Donald Ross was at Norway House for many years, and knew everyone in the fur trade of the time. It’s always worth while to look at his personal correspondence to see if you can learn something about the person you are interested in from that. He must have written thousands of letters, and received thousands. The Donald Ross correspondence is in the B.C. Archives, and in many other archives as well, I am sure. In James McKillip’s thesis “Norway House: Economic Opportunity and the Rise of Community, 1825-1844,” (available online), I find that the winter of 1829-1830 was the last for John MacLeod at Norway House. He had built the post, but it was now time to hand it off to someone else. Leaving it temporarily in charge of John Ballenden, MacLeod departed Norway House on August 30th, 1830. His replacement, Donald Ross, arrived on September 13th.

This marked the beginning of an era as Ross was ultimately to remain in charge of the post and its associated district for more than two decades, not taking leave of the post until 1851.

James McKillip, “Norway House: Economic Opportunity and the Rise of Community, 1825-1844.”

So Robert Campbell arrived at Norway House on September 13th, and traveled on to the Red River Settlement with Dr. Hamlyn and John Ballenden. He arrived at the Settlement on October 16th, where he met John Stuart who was then in charge. Four years later, in 1834, the “farmer” became a fur trader and part of Hudson’s Bay Company history. He went down to York Factory, and was then assigned to the Mackenzie River district.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

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