Fort Yukon

A sturgeon-nosed boat on the Athabasca River.

This is one of the sturgeon nosed boats used on the Athabasca River after 1835. This image, na-1338-20 is used with the permission of Glenbow Archives.

In 1847, HBC trader Alexander Hunter Murray built Fort Yukon on the Yukon River, just inside the boundaries of what was then Russian Territory, on the instructions of Chief Factor Murdo McPherson. A friend who knew I was doing a little research in this area stumbled across a mention of the founding of Fort Yukon in the “Minutes of the Natural History Society of British Columbia,” MS-0284, Box 1, Volume 8, File 2. At the February 24, 1908, meeting, Mr. J. Forman read Murray’s journal. Here is how the notes read: 

Murray left McPherson on the Peel River in 1847 with a small party including his wife. Careful notes were kept of the compass directions of the course of the rivers which he followed. The chief difficulty that the party had to contend with seems to have been the mosquitoes on the Yukon River which nearly drove them distracted, and compelled them to move on to drier ground where the mosquitoes were not so plentiful.

Mr. Murray duly established the fort with the consent of the Indians on the spot. This consent was given after a long palaver at which the Chief made a speech so long that the writer could only compare it to a Cameronian sermon. However, the tenor of it was of welcome, as the Indians were pleased to do their trading on the spot instead of going to the mouth of the river to the Russian forts.

This is, of course, a harangue — a traditional welcoming speech that all First Nations gave to visitors, whether they be HBC traders or important First Nations men from other tribes. I wrote about that here:

The name of the tribe is given as the Koochins. They are described as being of rather light complexion, athletic, but tremendous talkers. Their chins were tattooed and the children were not bandaged but carried on a sort of a chair. The feet of all children, male and female, were confined to prevent growth.

Mr. Murray kept a meteorological record for nearly a year at Fort Yukon, from which it appears that though the thermometer went down to 58 below zero, during the coldest weather the air was calm. The lecturer stated that the Fort was held until 1869 but in the later years only by arrangement or lease from the Russians.

The papers of the Natural History Society of British Columbia is a very odd place to find mention of the diary of an HBC trader in the Yukon. I did a search for Murray’s journal, and found it almost immediately. Alexander Hunter Murray’s “Journal of the Yukon, 1847-48,” has been published in the Publications of the Canadian Archives No. 4, Ottawa, 1910, and edited by L. J. Burpee. You can download this publication for yourself.

The nice thing about this journal as it is written is that it has good background information on Chief Trader John Bell, who explored the Peel River in 1839. Here is what it says about Bell’s expedition over the mountains that separated the newly-built Peel’s River post [Fort McPherson], to the Porcupine River and beyond.

Murray’s object was to build a post on the Yukon, a practicable route to which had been discovered three years before by Chief Trader John Bell. Bell, after exploring Peel River in 1839, and building Fort McPherson in 1840, had crossed the mountains to what was then known as Rat river — later named Bell, in honour of its discoverer. Descending this stream to its junction with a larger river known as the Porcupine, he explored the latter to some where about the present international boundary — three days journey down stream. This was in 1842. Two years afterward he completed his exploration of the Porcupine to its mouth. The natives informed him that the great river into which the Porcupine emptied was called the Yukon — or Youcon, as the traders spelled it. As a result of this journey, it was decided to establish a post on the Yukon, near the mouth of the Porcupine, and, as already mentioned, Murray was entrusted with this important task.

It appears that Alexander Murray was instructed to build Fort Yukon in what was then Russian Territory, and he knew he had crossed the boundary line into Russian territory [later Alaska]. In spite of that, the Hudson’s Bay Company remained there without being challenged, though it appears the Russians built a new fort a little down the river. When the United States purchased Alaska, however, they immediately evicted the British traders. The HBC rebuilt at or near the Ramparts of the Yukon — you will remember these “Ramparts” from Robert Campbell’s journal in this blogpost: 

The other nice thing about this journal is that there are images in it, drawn by Alexander Murray himself. On page 28 there is a drawing of Lapierre’s House: page 36 has a drawing of the Ramparts of the Porcupine River, and a footnote says that: “The banks rise steeply from the water’s edge on both sides to heights of from three to five hundred feet, and their green slopes are everywhere broken by shattered pinnacles and bold crags and cliffs of brilliantly tinted dolomites and quartzites.” A drawing of Fort Yukon itself is on page 55. So this publication would be very interesting to any one who had an ancestor who worked at Fort Yukon.

So here are a few paragraphs from the journal:

Bearing to the south and sou’east another mile, we put ashore at the entrance to a small lake at 1/2 past 9 o’clock for the purpose of encamping, but the mosquitos seemed determined we should not, we were congratulating each other on starting at getting clear of Peels River before the mosquito season, but this is ‘out of the frying pan into the fire.’ …we could neither speak nor breathe without our mouths being filled with them, close your eyes, and you had fast half a dozen, fires were lit all around, but of no avail. Rather than be devoured, the men, fatigued as they were, preferred stemming the current a little longer, to reach a dry and open spot a little further on, of which the Indians informed us.

So that’s the battle with the mosquitos! Murray chose as the location of the new fort “a ridge of dry land extending about 300 yards parallel with the river, and 90 yards in width.” While his men were busy building the fort, many First nations people visited, “and any amount of talking had to be done.” For winter provisions his men immediately set up their fishing nets, catching within a few weeks 1,300 fish. They also traded for meat, and Murray was pleased to note that, “when ‘gloomy winter’ showed his heavy face, it was a source of great consolation and thankfulness when I looked into the well-filled store, to know that there need be no hungry bellies at the Youcon.” So this is quite an interesting read!

The dwelling house was built “46 x 26 feet containing five compartments with a hall in the centre, an office or sitting room and a bed room in one end, assistants room, and kitchen in the other.” The house was strongly built but building was slow, because the wood had to be carried from some distance away. “The other buildings and pickets will be the same and everything carried out in conformity with the plan drawn out, and when the Fort is finished, as I hope it will be next fall [that is, 1848], I calculate on it being the best and strongest (not excepting Fort Simpson) between Red River and the polar sea.”

I looked for a description of the finished fort and did not find it, though he had a good description of what the completed fort should look like.

The store is only 40 feet in length at present, but an addition of 16 feet is to (be) made next season for a fish store, etc. The men’s houses will be the same length 56 feet containing three rooms, one of which is intended for a carpenter’s shop, etc. A house or shed capable of containing two boats is to be erected at the end of the men’s houses and a meat scaffold, as at Fort Simpson, at the end of the store. The pickets will not be pointed poles or slabs, but good sized trees dispossessed of their bark and squared on two sides to fit closely and 14 1/2 feet in height above ground, 3 feet under ground, making a solid wall of 9 or 10 inches at the bottom and 6 or 7 inches at the top, secured together by being morticed into a solid frame along the top, and the same in the foundation. The bastions will be made as strong as possible, roomy and convenient. When all this is finished, the Russians may advance when they d—-d please.

So he wasn’t the least worried about the First Nations that surrounded him, but the Russians. For your information, this journal is actually more of a report to his superior officer at Fort Simpson than a journal. He advised his superiors that the First Nations men wanted beads and dentalium — both items he had very little of. He promised he would have “more beads next season, and advised all those who had furs in cache not to dispose of them elsewhere.” The First Nations had brought in lots of furs he could not trade for. “It was a vexatious thing,” he said, “to see them [the furs] taken back for want of goods. The box of beads were gone, the box of guns ditto, except for two guns kept for the defence of the place, the roll of tobacco was on its last legs, and our shop, except cloth and ammunition, nearly empty.”

Dentalium was important here, it seems. Dentalium were shells, as in sea-shells, and both dentalium shells and Arenicola shells were traded here by the Russians. The shells were ornaments highly prized by both men and women, and the Russians had them only because they imported them from the HBC’s own Fort Vancouver to the south!! Interestingly, I found in the Fort Vancouver files at HBC Archives, a letter written by Chief Factor James Anderson (who just happens to be Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s older brother) when he was in charge of Fort Simpson. This letter was dated about 1854, if I remember correctly, and it asked that a supply of dentalium shells be delivered to Fort Simpson from Fort Vancouver, apparently for his trade in the Yukon!! It is most interesting to see how all of these stories are intertwined.

Murray gathered information on the location of the Russian forts downriver. He described the First Nations men who visited the post, and those who came from further upriver and from Pelly’s River. He knew that Robert Campbell had been to the Pelly River, and that Fort Frances, on Frances Lake, existed. He says, “I was able to form some idea of the course of the Youcon and other rivers, of which hitherto very little was known, and to make it more plain, I have drawn out a sort of map, which you can lay before you while you peruse the following brief but imperfect account.” The map has disappeared, sadly, but it would be interesting to see, as his written report of the upper stretches of river [the Lewes and the Pelly] is totally incorrect. That changes when he reaches the Yukon itself:

The Youcon flows on through the extensive country of the Gens du fou to the north west, making several large turns and being joined by several streams from the mountains on each side, it may probably cross the boundary about Latitude 64, or just as likely, farther to the north. About sixty or seventy miles above this place, it passes a ridge of high mountains, where are steep rocky banks, these are called the ‘Little Ramparts’ [Upper Ramparts], from that to where we are, it runs through a low and flat country, continuing in the same direction and making fewer bends than before, three miles below this it is joined by the Porcupine River…  

So, according to Murray’s estimates, Fort Yukon was constructed about three miles east, or upriver, of the junction of the Porcupine with the Yukon. 

So this appears to have been a very good place for a fort, and Murray seems to have done well — better than expected as he ran out of trade goods. He went out to Fort Simpson with this report, and returned. We know this, because he was still at this post when Robert Campbell eventually made his way downriver in 1851. See this post:

Of course you might want to read the entire story of this circular journey from Fort Simpson, up the Liard, across the height of land to the Pelly, downriver via the Yukon, up the Porcupine and across the height of land to Peels’s River Post, then up the Mackenzie to Fort Simpson again. If so, go here:

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


2 thoughts on “Fort Yukon

  1. Gordon MacIvor

    Good Morning Nancy;
    Thank you.
    As always, another good story.
    If you remember we first met a few years ago when I reported to you that my Great Uncle Roderick McIver was stationed at Fort Yukon from 1864 through 1869. With the closing of the Fort he moved over to the Athabasca District.