1971 Yukon Nuggets
An exceptionally beautiful part of the Yukon River system is found at the mouth of the Pelly River. Here, in 1848, Robert Campbell built the first Fort Selkirk. It didn’t take long for this Hudson Bay trading post to become embroiled in a trade war.
Robert Campbell, an explorer and trader for Hudson Bay, knew the Yukon interior pretty well by 1848. He’d explored the entire Pelly River system and decided the best place to control the fur trade in the central Yukon was on the east bank of the Yukon and Pelly rivers. In June of that year, he built the first post and called it Fort Selkirk, after Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk, who was a major shareholder in the Bay. But the land on the east bank was frequently flooded and the Fort was moved to its present location.
Campbell was right in thinking this spot would be the place to control trade with the Wood Indians of the interior. However, the Chilkat people from the Alaskan coast considered the whole region as their trading area. For the next few years, the Fort was visited by parties of Chilkats determined to oust Campbell, the Bay, and their growing trade monopoly.
In August of 1852, a Chilkat raiding party, of perhaps 27 men, arrived at Fort Selkirk determined to shut it down. Following a pitched battle, the Bay traders and Wood Indians were routed and the Fort was burned down. Campbell described the battle in his diary as fierce, and marvelled that no-one was killed. Campbell left Fort Selkirk in the fall, bound for Fort Simpson, a 1200-mile journey. Here, he demanded permission to hunt down the Chilkats and get revenge. Permission refused, he made an incredible snow-shoe trip to Fort Garry, Manitoba, headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company. Here, he again demanded the Chilkats be hunted down. Again he was refused.
Robert Campbell never returned to the Yukon, and the Hudson Bay Company didn’t return to Fort Selkirk until 1938. In the intervening years, there were many posts built here, including one by Arthur Harper in 1889. In 1898, Fort Selkirk was home to the Yukon Field Force sent by the federal government to guard the Klondike goldfields.
From the '20s to the late '40s, it was a thriving community with stores, churches, a post office, and a mounted police post. It was a major supply spot for riverboats operating between Whitehorse and Dawson. With the coming of the roads, however, riverboat traffic ceased, and Fort Selkirk was virtually abandoned by 1950.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.