Robert Campbell’s Yukon River

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. We don’t know what kind of boat Campbell’s men had built for their journey down the Yukon River, but it would probably have resembled this boat in some way.

Before we join Robert Campbell in his journey down the Yukon River, we will need to digress from Campbell’s explorations, and speak of the founding of Fort Yukon. This, from Theodore Karamanski’s excellent book, Fur Trade and Exploration:

Robert Campbell’s success on the upper Yukon River was mirrored by the progress of the northern division of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s westward pincer movement. On June 27, 1847, Fort Yukon was founded at the forks of the Porcupine and Yukon Rivers. Alexander Hunter Murray, a senior clerk in the Honorable Company, commanded the operation…

In 1845, Murray took over command of the Peel’s River post [now Fort McPherson] “to follow up on John Bell’s 1844 journey to the Yukon River by establishing a trading post on the Yukon.

John Bell had already laid the groundwork for this extension of the trade by constructing an outpost at the end of the portage across the Richardson Mountains. This post, known as Lapierre House, served a dual purpose. It was located in fine caribou hunting country and could provide meat and leather for the Pelly River Post. It also served as a halfway house for the goods shipped across the mountains from Peel River that were destined for the Yukon. [Karamanski, Fur Trade and Exploration.]

On June 18, 1845, Murray and his crew set off down the Porcupine River to the Yukon, to build the new post. On June 26 he found a suitable site for the new post, about three miles up the Yukon River from the mouth of the Porcupine. “Fort Yukon was an elaborate affair. Formal bastions were placed at each corner and united by a fourteen-foot wall of squared timber. Even the dwelling houses were bulletproof and fitted with loopholes for combat.”

So, Fort Yukon was built in 1845 on the Yukon River. No one knew if the Yukon River was the same as Campbell’s Pelly River, but Campbell suspected that it was. The only way he could confirm that his Pelly was Murray’s Yukon, was to follow the Pelly west toward the sea. If he was correct, then he would reach Fort Yukon.

So, in June 1851, Robert Campbell set off from Fort Selkirk, down what he called the Pelly River. Here’s his journal:

Wednesday 4th June 1851: …about 10 pm the Indians arrived [at Fort Selkirk] and considerably after 12 o’clock (midnight Thursday 5th) we embarked bidding adieu to Mr. [James Green] Stewart who I was sorry (to) leave with so little stock of provisions in store. On starting Mr. Stewart saluted us with several rounds of musketry at 5 a.m. We passed and (4 illegible words) camp.

This comes from Campbell’s Journal #2, part of the book Two Journals of Robert Campbell, which I found in the B.C. Archives. The transcriber was unable to read many words, and so sometimes we have to take a guess. At the beginning of his journey, Campbell passed what he called “Beloved’s Camp,” but he would have set up his camp much further downriver.

The general course of the river the forepart of the day (was) W.S.W., the river increasing in size, beauty, and grandeur. [There were many] beautiful green hills running along the right side — long and fine reaches sweeping along among innumerable islands — about 15 miles on our way passed the entrance of a small river — about 82 [miles] passed on each side, that on the right (I named the White) from the colour of its water, and 90 miles a a large one on the left of White River 5 miles further on Stewart river on the right — about 114 miles we passed another river on the left and a large (two words illegible) — a little below this we put ashore to cook supper having come about 120 miles by the course of the river since we started. We saw and traded with several parties of Indians…. We had a fine day but a strong head wind. Immediately after the kettles were boiled we push out and down stream. 5 men set up and rowed all night. At 4 o’clock when the rest were called next morning.

Yes, they are rowing all night. In his Journal #1, Campbell said that “We travelled night and day, only putting ashore to cook or speak to Indians whom we met in bands along the river. At his season there is no night in these latitudes.

“The river increased in size & beauty as we advanced,” he continued, “its waters swelled by by many tributaries from the mountains on either side, some of considerable size like the White & Stewart Rivers, to all of which we gave names, & had them afterward entered on the map.” They have the same names today, I believe. Once they passed White River, and the Stewart, they are in the area around Dawson City, where the Klondike gold strike took place! Once we are past here, I don’t have a map to guide me, and you will have to figure out for yourself where they are.

Friday 6th June 1851. We had come about 18 miles — the course of the river since we passed its largest tributary more westerly W.N.W. About 6 miles further on we come to (illegible) from which for the rest of the day we had but few (illegible) with river bounded on either side with hills and rocks, affording however a good tracking beach. The general course of the river is in long and beautiful reaches from W.S to NW. Passed several entrances of rivers on either side and several parties of Indians from whom we (traded). We put ashore for supper about 82 miles from our last night’s supper place and a little burnt rock from strong head wind and current (illegible), so we made less progress than yesterday. I was very unwell and weak all day, I suppose by the same malady we had at the Fort [Selkirk]. At one of the camps of Indians one of them went back for a letter or packet (illegible) from Mr [Alexander Hunter] Murray, wrote 5th June. We continued all night the same way as last night and by 4 a.m. next morning…

In his Journal #1, he said the river “is skirted by two ranges of mountains, as it were, on both sides, the further range being of greater altitude, many of the peaks covered with perpetual snow. The slope & bottom flats on our right are generally covered with poplar, spruce, &c., while the left facing the midday sun, presented beautiful slopes of verdure. Bears & Moose were often seen as we moved along.” On his return journey he called this range of hills the Ramparts, as you see here: “Wednesday 24th. Camped below the entrance of the ramparts.” He learned the word on his way up the Porcupine River, and used it as a descriptor on the Yukon, on his way back to Fort Selkirk. According to him, “Ramparts” were “rocks and steep banks along the river.”

Saturday 7th. We had by guess come 28 miles same course SW to NW. The head wind still continued all day. We got the company of three Indians bound for the Fort but the high waves by the wind obliged them to put ashore. We also met a party of others on their return to their camp from the [Fort]. The course of the river more westerly and its size and beauty increasing. In the afternoon passed more rivers and buttes and we got gradually out of the hills and mountains to an open and beautiful country and again among the islands. Before we put ashore for supper the river had expanded into several miles. It is the present state of the water the most splendid river I ever passed through. At supper (illegible) we had come about 70 miles since last night. We delayed upward of 2 hours ashore in the hopes as the wind moderated the Indians could come up, at sundown not making their appearance we started and put up instead in the usual way.

Sunday 8th June 1851. The river expanding over such breadth among a thousand islands obliged us to keep in sight of the right shore. We breakfasted ashore and about 8 miles further on come in sight and reached the Fort to our delight and meet a hearty welcome from Mr. Hardisty. Mr. Murray had started 9 days back for the portage (via the Porcupine River and Lapierre House).

Mr. Hardisty is William Lucas Hardisty, who had worked under Campbell at Fort Selkirk and at Frances Lake. The next section of the journey will be very interesting, as Campbell makes his way up the Porcupine River to Lapierre House. Depending on how much room I have left in the post, I might be able to make it all the way to Peel’s River — but I hope not. That section of the journal is extremely interesting and should stand on its own!

The Klondikers came up this river to the goldfields — or at least some of them did. The Gairdner & Harrison Prospector’s Guide map and pamphlet to the Omenica, Cassier, Liard, Klondyke & Yukon Gold fields described this section of the river:

From the mouth of the Porcupine to the Klondyke is 300 miles. The first 70 miles is the worst part of the river. But with a boat adapted for ascending streams no difficulty need to be dreaded. Mr. McConnell, of the geological survey, reports that he took 5 days to go this distance. But, he said: “My boat was meant for taking a load downstream, and with a better boat I could have made much quicker time.” The rest of the journey is not a hard one. Of course going up against current is to a certain extent heavy work. But the beach is good for tracking clear through to Klondyke.

When I write the post of his journey up the Porcupine it will appear here:

To return to the beginning of this series of posts, go here:

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