Fort Selkirk Post Journals

Furs at HBC replica fort at Fort Langley, B. C.

This selections of furs is displayed at Fort Langley, but the same furs would be found at any HBC fort in the territory.

It amazes me what I can find when I am looking for something else! What also amazes me is the amount of information that is freely available on the internet. You can just “stumble” onto things that really add to the information you already have — by accident. Hence, I think the description, “accidental historian,” works very nicely for me.

Anyway, I stumbled upon the “Journal of Occurrences at the Forks of the Lewes and Pelly Rivers May 1848 to September 1852: The daily Journal Kept at the Hudson’s Bay Company Trading Post Known as Fort Selkirk at the Confluence of the Yukon and Pelly Rivers Yukon Territory by Robert Campbell (Clerk of the Company) and James G. Stewart (Asst. Clerk). Transcribed and edited with notes by Llewellyn R. Johnson and Dominque Legros.” [Yukon, Tourism, Heritage Branch, Sue Edelman, Minister, 2000] Note: It has been moved from where I found it originally, but you can find it if you search the Government of the Yukon, Heritage Branch, “Occasional papers in Yukon History.” I am not putting up the address in case it is a problem for them, but its nice to know it is still available.

The stories in this post are going to link to the cannibalism post I wrote here:  It is this same story, told from the opposite side of the portage between Frances Lake and Pelly Banks! The reason I found this post is because I was researching James Green Stewart who accompanied James Anderson (A) north to the Arctic Ocean in 1855.

By the time Robert Campbell was placed in charge of Fort Selkirk, he had served at Fort Simpson, Fort de Laird, Fort Halkett, Dease Lake, Frances Lake, and Pelly Banks. James Green Stewart joined him at the Frances Lake post in 1847, when he was a novice clerk with only three years experience. In the following spring Stewart travelled down the Pelly River with Campbell to establish Fort Selkirk. The Fort Selkirk journals show the good relationship between the two men: their mutual trust, and mutual affection. Campbell missed Stewart when he was away from the post, and his version of the shared journals show the loneliness experienced by all the gentlemen in charge of all these isolated posts in the interior!

I learned from this Journal that the Lewes/Lewis River is actually the Yukon River today. The Lewes River would probably have been named for John Lee Lewes, who I have written up in various posts on this site, but especially here: 

Some facts: The official name of the post that Campbell called “Forks of the Lewes and Pelly,” was Fort Selkirk. Today it exists as the Fort Selkirk Historic Site, and sits on the south bank of the Yukon River north of the city of Whitehorse (probably some distance north). The Pelly River flows into the Yukon River from the north at the present-day Fort Selkirk site: these HBC men had decided that the Yukon River ended where the Pelly entered the Yukon, and anything east of that junction was the Lewes/Lewis. So don’t look on any map for the Lewes/Lewis River: it doesn’t exist anymore.

Here’s how the journal begins:

1848. Tuesday 23rd May. This morning Messrs. Campbell & Stewart left Pelly Banks with two boats loaded with Outfit and provisions for the purpose of establishing a Fort at the Forks of the Lewes & Pelly. Nothing extraordinary was seen or happened today; after having run Hoole’s rapid and some other small ones, we arrived at Lapie’s Portage. Took the cargo up the hill and camped there.

They arrived at the future location of Fort Selkirk on the 31st May, having taken 9 days to come down the “Lewes” River from Pelly Banks! The men began to “square wood” on June 5th. In July they built the Gentlemen’s house, and in August their own. In September the men collected logs to build the palisades, and worked on building the store. They caught fish to store for their winter provisions — “rusty” chum salmon that were near their spawning grounds a few miles above Fort Selkirk. On October 6th it snowed; in late November it began to snow heavily and “the ice stopped in the Lewis and the river rising fast.” Winter was on its way! On November 29th Stewart returned to the fort with the fall delivery of provisions, which had come up the Liard River to Frances Lake and Pelly Banks:

We had the gratifying pleasure to see Mr. Stewart arrive this evening accomapnyed by Marcette, Flett & Savoyard with the sley also coming on behind.  He left Pelly Banks with his party 1st Novbr with 10 days provisions only. The miseries he had by the way are beyond description and such as northwesters can form an idea of. But his determined perseverance made everything bend before it and at length has, thank God, arrived safe with Tobacco and such articles as are absolutely required for winter. Snowed all night & part of the forenoon.

And so the long winter of 1848-1849 began. A little information: Pierre Pambrun was the Metis clerk and HBC manager of the posts at Frances Lake (on the Liard River system) and Pelly Banks (on the Lewes/Yukon). Pelly Banks was a small transportation post and was reached from the Frances Lake post by a combination land and lake portage. The provisions for all the posts on the Liard River, as well as those on Yukon, were delivered up the Liard River and transported overland to Pelly Banks, arriving at Fort Selkirk just as winter set in! If anything went wrong…

Well, as we know, something did. But let us continue the story — In May 1840 Fork Selkirk flooded in the freshets, and the provisions, stored in the basement, were destroyed. In mid-June the men at Pelly Banks were reported to be starving, and three men arrived from Francis Lake with part of the Fort Selkirk outfit. Campbell wrote: “They have a wretched winter having very nearly starved to death & kept their lives by eating Mooseskins.” In June 1849 the provisioning stores at Fort Selkirk were empty, and their hunters were nowhere to be found. In July a hunter brought in a moose; in the same month the post’s crop of potatoes was blackened by frost and in August they were killed by a severe frost. Their dogs began to go missing (they were some one else’s provisions). On the 28th August their provisions arrived from Frances Lake, and another delivery was expected later in the year:

In the middle of our sleep last night we were agreeably awoke by the arrival of the Men with the Boat from Pelly Banks. They brought here the most necessary part of our Outfit from Francis Lake (east side [of] the Mts.). A feat under such circumstances of privations etc. & overcame [sic] of nature’s roughest form is perhaps without a precedent in the annals of the north as the boldest & most arduous enterprise.

So, if the outfit normally arrived at Fort Selkirk in August (as it did in 1849), and there was a later delivery in the fall — let’s see what happened in 1850. First it appears that the Fall delivery of provisions did not arrive at Fort Selkirk — this is the important failure that caused the crisis! On Sunday 19th May, Campbell wrote in the journal:

Late last evening Thomas arrived from Pelly Banks accompanied by Lapie, Eustace, Le Clair & Charlie & I am glad to observe by a letter from Mr. Stewart dated Frances Lake P.B. Store 1st May that he & party reached there in safety. Meeting no news there from Fort Simpson [he] was so far on his way for that place accompanied by Mr. Pambrun & Reid where I trust to Providence they are now arrived in safety and are now acquainted with the cause of this extraordinary silence from Pelly Banks. We have the distressing news the Fort being burned to ashes St. Andrews day & the two men there having died of starvation. Mr. Pambrun himself & LaPie narrowly escaped the same fate. Many of the Indians in that quarter have also perished & other items of news too revolting to be recorded.(21)

The footnote (21) says this: ‘The news too revolting to be recorded is the knowledge that Stewart brought back from Pelly Banks that cannibalism had occurred there that winter. On March 5th Dubois one of the HBC men died and Forbister, the other HBC man remaining there shared the same fate on March 25th after eating all or part of his dead companion. (John Rae to George Simpson 29 July 1850). The story I told in the post above mentioned is reiterated in more detail, in footnote #20:

There was a period of some 18 months in which Fort Selkirk received nothing from Fort Simpson. Supplies had been sent out from Fort Simpson the fall of 1849 but their total amount never reached their destinations, indeed never got beyond the Liard River. They were lost, damaged or abandoned enroute. The man in charge of the provisioning effort that fall was John O’Brien. He was discharged from the HBC because of his dereliction of duty. Because of the failure the posts at Frances Lake and Pelly Banks suffered as well as Fort Selkirk. At Pelly Banks, the tragedy was greatest when the post burned the winter of 1849-50 and most everything at the post was destroyed. After the fire, two HBC men at the post starved to death. Stewart ended up going all the way back to Fort Simpson. Whereupon Stewart set up arranging for a new provisioning expedition for Fort Selkirk. The part of the route following the Liard River was so notoriously bad that the company had great difficulty reruiting voyers to make the trip. There had been a history of lost cargo, deaths and crew desertion for years before the establishment of Fort Selkirk. There was also a 120-mile portage from Frances Lake to the Pelly River that taxed to the limits those who undertook the portage with or without supplies to transport. Campbell, himself almost drowned on this latter portage section.

Well, I have lots of other information on this incident and on the exploration that Campbell made to find a new route for the delivery of goods into Fort Selkirk — but I think it will have to wait as this post is long enough! When I write about their new and extraordinary route into the Yukon River, I will post it here. It is very interesting, because it also was one of many routes that the gold-miners who were trying to make their way to the Klondike gold-fields used. Did you know that the massive Klondike goldrush was on the Yukon River near Fort Selkirk? Well it was! Apparently gold was always known to be in this river, but no one thought it was important enough to collect, and the HBC wasn’t interesting in gold at that time. [Interestingly enough, they were in interested in gold in the Columbia district, tho’ not here].  In 1897, when the gold rush was in full swing, an elderly Pierre C. Pambrun was besieged with requests for details on the route to the gold-fields, and suggested an overland route from Battleford, via Cold Lake and Fort McMurray.

So when I write about this fascinating route into the Yukon, explored in about 1851 by Robert Campbell, I will post the link here: Oh, and its not Pierre Pambrun’s route — just to clarify. Although if his route did reach Fort McMurray, the rest of the river trail would have been the same as written of in my Klondike post (when I write it).

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Fort Selkirk Post Journals

  1. Judith Kane

    We so enjoy all the info we get on your website. We are always hoping to find information on my great great grandparents, Joseph and Josette Rondeau. We have done some of our own research but are not real good at it. Always fun to try thou.

  2. Judith Harrington Kane

    Nancy, yes, my two brothers and I would be very interested in being invited to your family tree on Ancestry. Joseph and Josette had a daughter named Philomene (married A Michaud). They had a daughter named Arthamese (married J. Harrington. They had a son named Joseph Harrington( my dad). Thanks for your reply. Judy

  3. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    In my last blogpost I wrote about these two, and I have a bit more information to add, I guess. Anyway, I sent an invitation. Let me know if you don’t get it; it just means I have your email address incorrect (which happens).