Robert Campbell

1804–1879 — Legend of the American West and Fur Trade Era

Robert Campbell was an Irish-born Frontiersman, fur trader, and businessman. He is most famous for the years he spent trapping and exploring the American West and for various successful business ventures.

Robert Campbell, Fur Trader, Frontiersman, Photo

Robert Campbell. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Robert Campbell Facts

  • Born — Campbell was born on February 12, 1804 in Ireland.
  • Died — He died on October 16, 1879, in St. Louis, Missouri.
  • Buried — Campbell is buried in the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
  • Interesting Fact — Campbell emigrated to America in 1822 and was in St. Louis by 1823.
  • Interesting Fact — He was encouraged to go west to the Rocky Mountains for the benefit of clear air because he suffered from breathing problems.
  • Interesting Fact — His career in the Fur Trade started with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, where he was associated with prominent Mountain Men and Frontiersmen like William H. Ashley, Jedediah Smith, and Jim Bridger.
  • Interesting Fact — Campbell partnered with William Sublette for many years.
  • Interesting Fact — Campbell used his connections to the Fur Trade to build a successful business career.

Robert Campbell — Legendary Fur Trader, Frontiersman, and Businessman of the American West

Robert Campbell was born in Aughlane, County Tyrone, Ireland in 1804. He moved to St. Louis and arrived there around 1823. Suffering from a lung hemorrhage, he was advised to move west where the air was cleaner, and he joined the Fur Trade before the age of 20, working for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.

Campbell worked in the Fur Trade for more than 20 years and fought in the battle of Pierre’s Hole and other conflicts with Native American Indians. Campbell formed a partnership with William Sublette called “Sublette and Campbell,” and competed with John Jacob Astor and the American Fur Company on the Upper Missouri River.

By 1834, Campbell and Sublette had established Fort William at the confluence of the Laramie River and North Platte River in present-day Wyoming. They competed with the American Fur Company and eventually sold their operation to it.

Afterward, Campbell and Sublette established a significant fur trading center in St. Louis. Campbell took over Sublette’s share in 1842, becoming one of the richest merchants in St. Louis, supplying important western posts like Bent’s Fort, and working with William Bent and Charles Bent. Campbell remained close to the Bent family. In 1857, George Bent was sent to St. Louis to live with Campbell and attend Webster College.

During the Civil War, Campbell supported the Union. Although he opposed the policies of Radical Republicans, he signed an oath affirming his loyalty to the United States.

Campbell’s career connected him to some of the most prominent names associated with the Fur Trade, including William Henry Ashley, Jedediah Smith, and Jim Bridger. He had business and political connections that created friendships with prominent figures like President Ulysses S. Grant.

Campbell died in St. Louis in 1879 and was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

William Henry Ashley, Illustration
This illustration depicts William Henry Ashley.

Early Life and Career

Birth of Robert Campbell

  • Robert Campbell was born on February 12, 1804, at his family’s home, Aughalane, located near Plumbridge, County Tyrone, in modern-day Northern Ireland. 
  • His father was Hugh Campbell, and his mother was his father’s second wife. Various sources fail to provide her name.
  • Campbell was a Presbyterian of Scottish descent.
  • Campbell was the youngest child of his father’s second wife.
  • Because he was the youngest child, he stood to inherit very little, if anything at all.


  • Aughalane was built in 1786 by Hugh Campbell. 
  • The house featured stone plaques, one bearing the name of Hugh Campbell and the other featuring the coat of arms of the Duke of Argyll, the Chief of Clan Campbell in Scotland. 
  • Aughalane is preserved as part of the Ulster American Folk Park, near Omagh, County Tyrone.

Immigration to America

  • Campbell decided to follow his older brother, Hugh, to America.
  • He arrived in Philadelphia on June 27, 1822.
  • Very little is documented about his early days in America.
  • By 1823, he was in St. Louis.

St. Louis

  • In 1823, Campbell met John O’Fallon, an Irish immigrant living in St. Louis, who worked as a sutler at Council Bluffs. A sutler is a person who sells provisions to the military.
  • O’Fallon offered Campbell a job as an assistant clerk.
  • Campbell started working at the town of Bellevue on the Missouri River, near present-day Omaha, Nebraska.
  • Later, he went to work in O’Fallon’s store in St. Louis.

Lung Issues

  • Campbell suffered from health issues related to his lungs.
  • O’Fallon introduced Campbell to Doctor Bernard Farrar.
  • Dr. Farrar diagnosed him with consumption (tuberculosis).
  • Farrar advised Robert to go west to the Rocky Mountains, where the clean air would be good for his health.

Rocky Mountain Fur Company

1825 Fur Trade Expedition

  • On November 1, 1825, Campbell joined a Fur Trade expedition led by Jedediah Smith.
  • The expedition departed from St. Louis and headed toward the Rocky Mountains.
  • The expedition was funded by William H. Ashley and his company, which is generally referred to as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
  • The expedition consisted of 50 men, including famous mountain men and traders like Hiram Scott, Jim Beckwourth, Moses Harris, and Louis Vasquez.
  • Jedediah S. Smith appointed Campbell as the expedition’s clerk.
Jedediah Smith, Mountain Man, Illustration
This illustration depicts Jedediah Smith. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Winter of 1825–1826

  • Campbell spent the winter with the Pawnee Indians, south of the Republican River.
  • In the spring, the group journeyed north of the Platte River.

1826 Rendezvous

  • Their destination was the Rendezvous in Cache Valley, which is located in modern-day Utah and southern Idaho.
  • At the Rendezvous, Ashley sold his ownership stake in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette.

1826 Expedition

  • Following Ashley’s departure, the expedition split into two groups.
  • Jedediah Smith took a southwestern route, while Jackson and Sublette headed northwest toward the Teton Range and the Snake River.
  • Campbell accompanied the Jackson-Sublette Expedition.
  • According to Campbell, they hunted along the forks of the Missouri River, following the Gallatin River, and trapped in the headwaters of the Columbia River.

Winter of 1826–1827

  • The group spent the winter in the Cache Valley.

1827 Expedition

  • In late 1827, Robert Campbell led a party into Flathead Territory, where they were attacked.
  • Some of the survivors decided to spend the winter in Flathead Territory.
  • However, Campbell and two others decided to leave and rejoin the larger party that was wintering in Cache Valley.

Winter of 1827–1828

  • Campbell and his companions made slow progress due to harsh winter conditions.
  • They arrived at the camp of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the Snake River in February 1828. The camp was under the command of Peter Skene Ogden.
  • Campbell stayed in the camp for a short time, before deciding to return to Flathead Territory and the rest of his men.

Spring 1828

  • During the spring of 1828, Campbell’s group engaged trapped along Clark’s Fork and Bear Lake.
  • While they were on their way to the 1828 Rendezvous, they were attacked by the Blackfeet Tribe.
  • Fortunately, they suffered minor losses and were able to collect their beaver pelts.

Expedition with Jim Bridger

  • After the Rendezvous, Campbell joined with Jim Bridger for a trapping expedition into Crow country, located in northeastern Wyoming.
Jim Bridger, Mountain Man, Scout, Portrait
Jim Bridger. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Winter of 1828–1829

  • The expedition spent the winter in the Wind River area.

Spring 1829

  • In the spring of 1829, Campbell decided to return to Ireland to deal with family matters.
  • He was given 45 packs of beaver furs to take to St. Louis.

Return to St. Louis

  • Campbell arrived in St. Louis in late August.
  • He sold the furs for a total of $22,476.
  • In addition to the fur sales, he received payment for his services, totaling $3,016.

Sublette and Campbell

  • Campbell eventually returned west and was approached by William Sublette with an offer to form a partnership.
  • Per the provisions of their agreement, Sublette appointed Robert as a lieutenant within the partnership for the first year
  • Campbell was required to purchase his own goods to sell at the Rendezvous, and he would use the profit from the sales to officially buy his share of the partnership.

Connection with William Clark

  • William Clark granted a liquor license to Campbell and Sublette’s new company.
  • The license allowed them to transport and carry 450 gallons of whiskey to the 1832 Rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole.

Campbell at the Battle of Pierre’s Hole

  • The 1832 trapping season was successful but culminated in the Battle of Pierre’s Hole.
  • As the 1832 Rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole was coming to an end, a group of trappers encountered a party of Gros Ventres and mistook them for Blackfeet.
  • The misunderstanding quickly turned into a full-scale battle.
  • Campbell was writing a letter to his brother when the battle started.
  • Campbell and Sublette agreed to handle each other’s property if they died during the battle.
  • The Gros Ventres built fortifications from fallen logs as more trappers arrived, leading to a day-long siege.
  • Campbell and Sublette led charges on the Gros Ventres fortifications.
  • The battle resulted in casualties, with estimates ranging from three to twelve trappers killed and nine to 50 Gros Ventres.
  • Campbell may have been wounded, but Sublette was shot in the arm and moved to safety by Campbell.
  • The Gros Ventres withdrew overnight.
  • The Battle of Pierre’s Hole was dramatized by Washington Irving in The Adventures of Captain Bonneville.

Competition with the American Fur Company

  • Afterward, Sublette and Campbell shifted their focus from the Rendezvous gatherings to competing with John Jacob Astor and the American Fur Company.
  • To do this, they built Fort William at the confluence of the Laramie River and North Platte River in present-day Wyoming, to trade with the Assiniboine, Cree, and Gros Ventres.

Success at Fort William

  • From Fort William, Sublette and Campbell competed with nearby Fort Union for the loyalty of tribal chiefs and control of the local trade.
  • The competition included exchanging gifts, forming trade agreements, and providing alcohol.
  • Campbell’s diplomatic skills were important during this period, especially in securing an agreement with a Cree chief known as Sonnant.
  • Campbell did not enjoy his time at Fort William.
  • When the opportunity came, Sublette and Campbell sold their successful operation to the American Fur Company, which essentially paid them to close their operations and leave the area.
John Jacob Astor, Portrait, Jarvis
John Jacob Astor. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Introduction to Virginia Campbell

  • Campbell first met his wife, Virginia Kyle, in Philadelphia in 1835.
  • Campbell was 31, and Virginia was 16.
  • Virginia was connected to the Campbell family through her cousin, Mary Kyle, who was married to Robert’s older brother, Hugh.
  • Campbell was in poor health when they met, and Virginia helped nurse him back to health.
  • Despite the age difference, they developed feelings for each other and engaged in a lengthy courtship.
  • Both families discouraged the courtship, along with William Sublette.

Business in St. Louis

  • They returned to St. Louis and established their business operations.
  • In September 1836, they bought a brick building located at 7 Main Street.
  • They ran the business from the building, primarily dealing in dry goods.
  • Unlike many businessmen during the time, they were not “Robber Barons.” Sublette and Campbell had a reputation for honestly conducting their business.

Real Estate and Other Business

  • Campbell and Sublette accumulated substantial real estate holdings in the Upper Mississippi Valley.
  • They served as loan agents for multiple banks.
  • They invested in companies, including the St. Louis Insurance Company, the St. Louis Hotel Company, and the Marine Insurance Company.

The End of Sublette and Campbell

  • Despite their wealth and the diversification of their portfolio, they faced financial challenges.
  • The biggest challenge was the difficulty they had in collecting debts from people who owned them money.
  • This pushed them to the brink of bankruptcy.
  • In 1842, the partnership came to an end when they decided not to renew it.
  • The store was divided down the center by a wall, separating their interests.
  • Despite the dissolution of the partnership, Sublette and Campbell remained friends.

Campbell in Missouri

  • Despite the financial challenges faced by the company, Campbell started to make his mark in social circles, business, and politics.

Missouri State Bank Board of Directors

  • In December 1839, he was elected by the state legislature to serve on the board of directors of the Missouri State Bank.

Real Estate in Kansas City

  • Campbell purchased a large tract of land in what is now downtown Kansas City, demonstrating his ability to make strategic investments.

Financial Problems

  • Following the Panic of 1837, the economic downturn posed a threat to Campbell and put him at risk of significant financial losses.
  • Campbell received financial assistance from his close friend, Sir William Drummond Stewart, a Scottish Laird
  • The aid helped Campbell survive the economic downturn.

Marriage to Virginia Kyle

  • Campbell proposed to Virginia in 1838, and she accepted.
  • However, her mother denied the request.
  • In the summer of 1839, Virginia asked to be released from the engagement and Campbell granted the request.
  • In December 1840, Virginia’s mother decided Campbell was the best suitor for her daughter and the two were engaged for a second time.
  • They were married in North Carolina on February 25, 1841.
  • When they returned to St. Louis, they lived at the Planter’s House, a popular hotel.
  • Their first son, James Alexander, was born on May 14, 1842.
  • Together, they had 13 children, but only three of them survived to adulthood

Fremont’s 1843 Expedition

  • Campbell helped supply an expedition led by John C. Frémont in 1843 to the Pacific Ocean.
General John C. Fremont, Civil War, USA
John C. Frémont. Image Source: National Archives.

Death of William Sublette

  • Sublette became seriously ill and passed away in 1845.

Missouri State Bank President

  • In 1846, he was elected as the President of the Missouri State Bank.
  • Under his leadership, the bank saw an increase in deposits and a rise in the value of its notes.
  • Campbell’s management of the bank proved to be highly successful and the bank notes bearing his signature were accepted nationwide.

Mexican-American War

  • In 1846, during the Mexican–American War, Campbell was appointed as a Colonel in the Missouri Militia.
  • He was responsible for raising and equipping 400 cavalry volunteers.

R. & W. Campbell

  • In 1848, Campbell established a new business partnership with William Campbell called “R. & W. Campbell.” The two were not related.
  • The company invested in companies related to railroads and steamboats and sold supplies to military forces at some of the western forts.

Trouble in St. Louis

  • In 1849, St. Louis suffered from a cholera epidemic and a fire along the waterfront.
  • His son James died from cholera on June 18, 1849. Another son, Hugh, suffered from cholera but survived.
  • The fire destroyed property worth more than $6 million, including Campbell’s store.
  • Campbell managed to recover and used the insurance money he received to settle the last debts of Sublette and Campbell.
  • He had enough money left over to buy a new building for R. & W. Campbell.

1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie

  • Due to his experience in the West and dealing with Indians, the United States government asked Campbell to participate in the negotiations for the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

New Business Opportunities

  • St. Louis continued to prosper and presented Campbell with new business opportunities.
  • The trade of fur robes along the Upper Missouri River remained profitable, contributing to Campbell’s financial success.
  • Campbell had a reputation for being trustworthy, which made it easy for people to extend credit to him.

A.B. Chambers

  • In 1858, Campbell bought the steamboat A. B. Chambers.
  • Samuel Clemens — Mark Twain — had his first piloting job on this boat.
  • The A. B. Chambers sank in 1860 and was lost.
  • Campbell managed to turn a profit by claiming an insurance settlement of nearly 10 times what he paid for the boat.

Campbell During the Civil War

Conditional Unionists

  • As the Election of 1860 approached, Campbell opposed the Fire Eaters, a Southern faction that supported Secession.
  • As the Secession Crisis unfolded, Campbell declared himself as a “Conditional Unionist,” and supported the preservation of the Union while still allowing for the institution of slavery to continue.
  • Campbell was elected as the President of the Conditional Unionists at a convention held on January 12, 1861.
  • Conditional Unionists decided to support slavery as a constitutional right and urged the Federal government to refrain from using force.

Support for the Crittenden Compromise

  • Campbell supported the Crittenden Compromise of 1861, a proposal aimed at preventing the outbreak of full-scale war.
  • The compromise included provisions to protect slavery.

Personal Views on Slavery

  • Although Campbell supported the legal right of individuals to own slaves, he emancipated his last slave, Eliza, and her two sons in 1857.
  • The decision to free them was likely influenced by his wife Virginia, who disliked the institution of slavery.

Business During the Civil War

  • Following the outbreak of the war, Campbell did not engage in political activities, instead 
  • For most of the war, Campbell supplied troops with various provisions, and he secured a significant contract for disbursing payroll to troops stationed in New Mexico.
  • The disruption of traffic on the Mississippi River had adverse effects on his operations, including the loss of a ship, Robert Campbell, which was possibly sabotaged by Confederate supporters.
  • Even after the war, the government commandeered some of his ships for military purposes.

Campbell During Reconstruction

  • Campbell opposed the policies of the Radical Republicans.
  • He supported General William Harney, his neighbor and the commander of Union forces in Missouri, along with General John C. Frémont, who succeeded Harney and was also a close friend.
  • Campbell worked to secure the freedom of friends who had been arrested under the martial law imposed during the war.
  • Robert and his brother Hugh had their loyalty to the Union questioned by several St. Louis citizens, in part because they were both married to Southern women.
  • Campbell signed the loyalty oath as required by Special Order No. 80 in September 1862.

Post-War Business and Politics

In the later years of his life, Campbell’s business enterprises continued to expand.

El Paso Real Estate

  • In 1871, Campbell acquired land in El Paso, Texas. However, the land became entangled in legal issues and court proceedings.
  • He was unable to develop or utilize it.

Gold Dust

  • Miners sent gold dust to Campbell, which he transported east to Stuart & Brothers of Philadelphia.
  • Stuart & Brothers would convert the gold dust into coins.
  • Between 1867 and 1870, Campbell shipped nearly 500 pounds of gold dust, valued at around $102,000.00.

The Southern Hotel

  • In 1866, Campbell acquired the Southern Hotel, which became his flagship property.
  • The hotel had been in operation for 15 years but had underperformed
  • Campbell started a major renovation project that cost $60,000.
  • He made substantial improvements to nearly every room in the hotel and installed a steam heating system in the hotel to enhance comfort.
  • The St. Louis Republican declared it to be the finest in the city.

Ties to President Grant

  • In 1868, General Ulysses S. Grant was elected President of the United States.
  • The Campbell family enjoyed close relationships with the Grant family.
  • The Campbells hosted President Grant and other notable guests on at least three occasions.
  • Campbell also visited Grant at the White House.

Board of Indian Commissioners

  • Due to his connections with President Grant and his experience dealing with Indians in the West, Campbell was appointed to the Board of Indian Commissioners in 1869.
  • Campbell traveled through the western United States, engaging with various tribes, including the Ute, Cherokee, and the Oglala chief Red Cloud.
  • The Board of Indian Commissioners ultimately recommended the assimilation of Indians into American society.
  • The board also identified corruption within the Indian Bureau as a significant problem.
  • Frustrated by the failure to address corruption in the Indian Bureau, every member of the Board of Indian Commissioners, including Campbell, resigned in protest in May 1874.

Fire Destroys the Southern Hotel

  • On April 11, 1877, the steam heating system malfunctioned and started a fire that engulfed the hotel.
  • Every fire engine in the city was mobilized in an attempt to save the lives of the 150 staff and guests at the hotel, however, 14 guests lost their lives.
  • The damage from the fire was estimated at $1.5 million.
  • Campbell intended to redevelop the site, but he was unable to implement the plans before his death.

Declining Health

  • Campbell’s health declined throughout the 1870s, due to the ongoing issues with his lungs.
  • He was supposed to attend a dinner party in honor of General William T. Sherman but was forced to miss it and then he was confined to his bed for a month.
  • Campbell and his family traveled to Saratoga Springs to see if it would help him, but his health continued to deteriorate.

Death of Robert Campbell

  • On October 16, 1879, Campbell had difficulty breathing, suffered from severe pain, and passed away that evening.
  • Campbell was laid to rest in Bellefontaine Cemetery on October 19, 1879.