For at least 200 years before any white presence in the region, the Chilkat Tlingit (Elro-) enjoyed an exclusive trading right-of-entry. The most valued items of trade from the Pacific coast included dentalium shells, mother of pearl buttons, ivory, obsidian (volcanic glass), muskets and even Chinese tea boxes.
The Chilkats vigorously defended their monopoly on trade. Miners entering the Yukon headwaters in 1880 were permitted to do so on condition that they not interfere with the Chilkat’s trade.
In 1848, Robert Campbell of the Hudson’s Bay Company travelled down the Pelly River and established Fort Selkirk at the confluence of the Yukon River. The site flooded every season and was poorly supplied. It had little effect on existing First Nations trade patterns. Over the winter of 1851/52, with a large stock of supplies from Fort Yukon, Campbell and his men moved the post to this side of the river. This location was beside the site of a Selkirk First Nation village. Campbell called the Selkirk people ‘Gens de Bois’ – Forest People.
When they next arrived to trade, the Chilkat found the beginnings of a permanent, well-stocked settlement. Campbell’s presence had finally breached the monopoly they enjoyed. Robert Campbell was likely the first European encountered by the ancestors of the Selkirk First Nation. He erected a trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company here in 1848, naming it Fort Selkirk.
The Chilkat resented the Hudson’s Bay Company’s and Robert Campbell’s presence and interference with their lucrative trade. The Selkirk people knew the Chilkat would respond to the encroachment and helped protect the post. However, there were no local people at the post August 18, 1852 when the Chilkat arrived and pillaged Fort Selkirk.
Selkirk people realized that the Hudson’s Bay Company could no longer be relied upon to provide valued trade items. They avoided further offending the Chilkat, who were now their only source of outside goods. Campbell returned to headquarters, snowshoeing thousands of miles to Minnesota by way of Fort Simpson. The Chilkat raid had its desired effect; it was another 80 years before the Hudson’s Bay Company returned to Fort Selkirk. This is the only incident of its kind to occur in the Yukon Territory.
The chimneys of Campbell’s trading post were all that remained when the Schwatka expedition passed by in 1883.
When they raided Fort Selkirk, the Chilkat forced Campbell into a boat and set it adrift. According to oral tradition, he was rescued by the Fort Selkirk chief, Hanan. In gratitude, Campbell gave Hanan his name. Hanan’s descendants retained the name. His son Big Jonathan Campbell, pictured here with his wife Susan and grandson Norman Silas, circa 1952, was a chief of the Selkirk First Nation from 1916-1958.
For almost 40 years after the Chilkat raid, no white traders came to this area. In 1889 Arthur Harper established a trading post at Fort Selkirk. He built a store, a warehouse and a number of small cabins where First Nations people could stay while they traded.
By this time, Fort Selkirk was a well-established trade and distribution centre for many First Nations people. Groups came to Fort Selkirk from all over– White River, Aishihik, Neskatahin, Hutshi and Laberge as well as from the Pelly/Macmillan River basins. In subsequent years, other stores, operated by well-known Yukon characters, prospered here. The Dominion Hotel & Store, Horsfall’s Store, the Taylor & Drury Store, the Schofield & Zimmerlee Store all opened, closed, or changed hands at Fort Selkirk.
In the 1930s the Hudson’s Bay Company returned and eventually erected two new stores. As with Robert Campbell before, the timing was poor. New roads were being built, displacing the Yukon River as the territory’s main transportation route. First Nations people, the Selkirk among them, moved with the times to work in the highway settlements. Soon, the Hudson’s Bay Company closed its Fort Selkirk store. Like the basalt stone chimneys which remained after Campbell’s post was burned, all that remains of the Hudson’s Bay Company stores are the concrete footings.
Fort Selkirk rests upon an ancient and dynamic landscape, one affected by glaciers, rivers, volcanoes and plate tectonics. Lava flows from a series of volcanic eruptions altered the river course and formed the striking basalt cliffs (Melé) that can be seen across the river.
Northern Tutchone elders still pass on to succeeding generations the story of the nearby Volcano Mountain (Nelruna) explosion, even though the last eruption occurred between three and seven thousand years ago. Despite the legend’s great age, geologists note that the story is consistent with the scientific evidence. Nelruna is still active.
Another volcano, Nech’e Ddhawa, lies 7 km upstream from Fort Selkirk. Also called the Selkirk Cinder Cone, this volcano’s unusual rock formations are known as basaltic pillows. These form only when lava emerges and cools under water, indicating that this eruption occurred beneath glacier ice.
The Selkirk First Nation people were never confined to definite boundaries. They travelled most of the year according to the season over very large tracts of land. A hunter often covered 1000 square kilometres in his yearly round. Fort Selkirk was just one of many meeting places. Traditionally, lands habitually used by family groups were understood to ‘belong’ to them. They were not opposed to sharing; people in need were welcome to live on the land with the permission of the Selkirk chiefs (dän cho).
Those who occupied an area were also responsible for anyone on the land, including strangers. They risked vengeance if misfortune befell any visitor. This helped to ensure a strong tradition of hospitality.
First Nations people do not view their land as an inanimate landscape. They, as did their ancestors before them, possess intimate knowledge of every creek, valley, mountain and lake. For the Selkirk people, the land is their livelihood, their history and their home.
In the early decades of this century, Fort Selkirk became a major centre for celebrations. Christmas, marriages, potlatches and coming of age ceremonies brought Selkirk people together here. In the course of such gatherings, people reinforced their social and economic ties through clan lines to their relatives and neighbours and forged new links to distant groups. Soon after the turn of the century, Dene from the Mackenzie region made their way west across the mountains to trade at Fort Selkirk. Legendary are the days-long stick gambling competitions with the Mackenzie people, accompanied by the incessant beating of drums.
The most important gatherings were the potlatches that marked the end of a person’s life. Through feasting and gift giving, the fundamental rules of social behaviour and obligations were underscored. A person’s membership in either Crow or Wolf Clan, inherited from their mother, defined for their lifetime all social relationships and their place in the wider society.
In the summer of 1898, the Yukon Field Force, nearly 200 strong, arrived in Fort Selkirk. This military body was established to monitor the Klondike stampede and to enforce Canadian sovereignty over its largely American population. The soldiers could not, without permission, travel through American territory, so they had taken the "all-Canadian route." This took them up the Stikine River, overland along the Telegraph Trail to Teslin Lake, then down the Teslin and Yukon Rivers. Their substantial supplies, however, did travel the more traditional American route through Skagway and the Chilkoot trail.
For almost a year, Fort Selkirk was used as headquarters; it was even considered briefly as a capital for the Yukon Territory because of its central location. The influx of soldiers, and the six women who came with them (4 Victoria Order of Nurses, 1 Toronto journalist and Inspector Starnes’ wife, Marie) had a great impact on the small settlement.
A sawmill was constructed and civilian contractors joined in erecting 11 large log buildings. Unfortunately, the facilities were in an area traditionally used by the Selkirk First Nation. Their parade square was built around a First Nations burial site.
You are at the confluence of the Pelly and Yukon Rivers. Together, these massive river systems drain over half of Yukon Territory. Such a major convergence has made this site a natural meeting place and crossroads in movements of humans, birds and mammals.
Long ago, glaciers deposited layers of gravel and boulders, creating an active riverbed. You can see ‘boils,’ on the river’s surface, an effect caused by large underwater boulders and the eddied hollows around them.
Large quantities of sediment combined with the fast current – about 7 km/hour – continually shift the river bottom; a channel passable one year could be blocked the next. In the days of sternwheelers, captains often directed their paddlewheels ahead to ‘dig’ their way through the blocked channels. River ice also carves out banks and bars. Watch for ‘skinned’ trees along the shoreline caused by ice jamming up and scraping away tree bark.
Caribou have always been a part of this landscape. Bones 1.6 million years old have been found below the basalt cliffs. Klondike gold mining activity at the turn of this century forced the Forty Mile Caribou Herd to range southward to here. The herd gradually returned to the Dawson area and by 1938 had ceased crossing the river in front of Fort Selkirk. Woodland caribou, heavier than their barren ground cousins, remain in the area.
Hundreds of thousands of birds follow the Yukon River Valley past Fort Selkirk during their spring and autumn migrations. The river confluence offers a variety of habitats for them – open water, sloughs, gravel bars, grasslands or forest. It forms an important staging ground for over 70 species of birds and waterfowl.
Sandhill cranes in large flocks roost on these river bars and islands during migration. Sloughs formed in slower moving water offer an ideal location for nesting and feeding waterfowl.
Peregrine falcons, once in danger of extinction, were successfully foster-released in this area and are now well-established. The basalt cliffs across the river are also home to nesting ravens and several species of swallow. The Belted Kingfisher, one of only three kingfisher species in North America, also nests here.
→ Next Selwyn
← Previous Yukon Crossing