The Scientific Contributions of Early Alaska/Yukon Explorers
By Kenneth S. Coates
Yukon Historical & Museums Association Sixth Annual Fall Conference
30 September to 2 October 1983
Marking the 100th Anniversary of Frederick Schwatka's Trip Down the Yukon River
The purpose of the conference was to highlight the individuals who played such a significant role in the exploration and development of the North through their various contributions.
The Hudson's Bay contribution to the opening of the far northwest is well-known. The names of Robert Campbell, John Bell and Alexander H. Murray come easily to anyone superficially versed in the early history of the Yukon Territory. The purpose of this paper is not to cover well-trodden ground concerning the Hudson's Bay Company explorations, but rather to consider a different aspect of the opening of the region. In a recent book on northern exploration, T. Karmanski summarized HBC contributions by commenting, "The explorations of the HBC produced a blueprint of the Far Northwest which was the basis for the later development of the area."1 His comment is at best misleading and suggest the dangers of reading history backward from the present. Instead of focusing on the rather tired question of "Who was there first?"--a Eurocentric issue of rather questionable significance--this paper will consider the Company's contribution to contemporary geographic knowledge. The purpose is to assess the extent to which the HBC added to general and scientific information in the far northwest. The contention here is that the firm actively and rather creatively suppressed knowledge of the northern districts, keeping to itself important information about the resources of the Yukon River valley and the means of access to them.2
To suggest that the Hudson's Bay Company was anything but a good corporate citizen borders on heresy (unless you are Native, in which case it is gospel). Indeed, any list of HBC contributions to scientific exploration is long and unquestionably impressive. For example, the firm ably supported the exploration in 1826 by John Franklin of the Arctic coast west of the Mackenzie River. Even more directly, the company financed and staffed the 1837 expedition led by Thomas Simpson and Peter Warren Dease along the same coast, a voyage which filled the last remaining gap on the map of the coastline of North America. Other HBC efforts in the realm of northern scientific exploration included the assistance offered James Richardson, John Rae and particularly the fourteen-year long search for the remnants of the ill-fated 1845 Franklin Expedition.3
With such a stellar record, the Hudson's Bay Company's claim to a position at the front rank of northern scientific exploration seems well-established. One must, however, consider the possibility of self-interest influencing the Company's generosity. The repeated assistance to northern explorers in the early 19th century reflected a particularly urgent need to enhance the firm's negative public image in Britain. This was particularly crucial in the 1820s and 1830s when the HBC's fur trade monopoly in Rupertsland faced the rigours of Parliamentary review and public scrutiny. The Company did have an obligation to continue searching for the North-West Passage and, particularly with the Simpson-Dease expedition, chose their actions with an eye directly on public opinion in England. Put simply, it was good business to be seen travelling among the Arctic Islands in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, especially if the areas being examined were of little or no consequence to the fur trade.
Turning from the High Arctic to the Yukon River valley provides a rather different view of the HBC as a member of the scientific community. In this instance, the Company was remarkably parsimonious with much sought-after geographic and scientific knowledge, preferring to leave the maps blank, to restrict exploratory activities and to suppress knowledge of mineral discoveries in order to protect its trade. The Yukon was unlike the Arctic coast. As a valued fur preserve, it had to be sheltered from external observation and protected as an exclusive Hudson's Bay Company trading district.
After the 1821 merger of the HBC and the North-West Company, the restructured HBC initially expressed little interest in the far northwest. Exploration was left to others, most noticeably Franklin. The company viewed the district as a geographic oddity, a challenge to cartographers but of limited interest to fur traders. Corporate efforts were instead directed to the West, in response to the threat posed by the expansion of Russian trade inland from the coast via the Stikine River. The Company's attention focused initially on the Liard and Dease Rivers, as Governor George Simpson sought to rebuff Russian advances into British trading territory. When John McLeod followed the Liard River north in 1831, reaching as far as Lake Simpson--some 100 miles north of the present Yukon-British Columbia boundary--his discoveries were substantially ignored. Instead, McLeod was directed to investigate the westward-reaching Dease River system. McLeod's voyage received no publicity, despite important discoveries of the upper Liard, Frances and Dease Rivers.4 Available maps were not revised for quite some time and no effort was made to publicized HBC expansion plans.
Ironically, it was the deliberate public relations ploy of sending Simpson and Dease to explore the Arctic coast that turned HBC attentions to the Yukon River valley. The unexpected discovery of a major river--the Colville--convinced the pessimistic Governor Simpson that the area west of the Mackenzie contained a potentially valuable fur preserve. The company had perceived the expedition as being for the "acquisition of scientific knowledge and information, and unconnected with a view towards advantage from Trade," and were understandably elated that their expenditures would not go unrewarded.5 Governor Simpson moved quickly to capitalize on the discoveries. John Bell was dispatched to the Peel River and directed to seek a route across the mountains. When the Russian challenge along the Pacific Northwest coast ended with the signing of a HBC-Russian American Fur Company (RAFC) Accord in 1839, Robert Campbell was similarly instructed to turn his attentions from the Dease River to the southern reaches of the new fur district.
There is no need to recount the well-documented efforts of Bell and Campbell to investigate the Yukon River system. Though encountering significant difficulties and, in Campbell's case, displaying a notable lack of resolve, between 1839 and 1851 the two men completed much of the map of the Yukon interior. Under their direction, and that of Alexander H. Murray, posts were opened at Peel's River, Lapierre's House, Fort Youcon, Frances Lake, Pelly Banks, and Fort Selkirk, and a reasonably active fur trade developed. Within the ranks of the HBC, the combined explorations of McLeod, Campbell and Bell had defined most of the river systems and, though vague on specifics, had delineated the main geographicstructure of the region.6
Such information would have been of great interest to other explorers, adventurers, traders and scientists had it become generally available. Similarly, had the HBC acted as they had in the Arctic and continued their explorations until the last river was charted and the last mountain pass mapped, the firm would have made a notable contribution to contemporary scientific knowledge. Because such details posed a threat to the fur trade, however, the HBC kept the information to themselves and deliberately suppressed or refused to seek any knowledge which threatened the integrity of their interior trade.
The reticence was well founded. From the establishment of Fort Youcon in 1847, the HBC knew their post to be encroaching on Russian soil in direct contravention to their agreement with the RAFC. To have pushed further west or to publicize the location of the establishment threatened their precarious hold on a valuable trade site. It was suggested in 1851, for example, that the HBC send surveyors to ascertain the precise location of the post, an action taken for all the other posts in the Mackenzie River District. As James Anderson, then in charge of "R" District, carefully phrased it, the firm "may not be particularly anxious about clearing up the doubt that exists regarding the position of this Fort."7 Though Robert Kennicott in 1860 and scientists with the Collins Overland Telegraph four years later recognized Fort Youcon to be outside of British territory, the lack of a detailed survey prevented necessary confirmation. The Hudson's Bay Company continued on in a state of feigned ignorance. The effort was successful in suppressing the location. Colton's Atlas of America (1869) shows the junction of the Porcupine and Yukon Rivers well within United States territory; it does not, however, indicate the location of Fort Youcon, almost the only HBC post in the North so missed.
The corporate desire for secrecy extended to more than simply hiding the location of Fort Youcon. As late as 1852, general maps of the northwest included only the explorations concluded by John McLeod along the Liard River some twenty years earlier. Explorations by John Bell and Robert Campbell along the Porcupine, Pelly and Yukon Rivers were not recorded until 1853 after Campbell returned to England on furlough. The Hudson's Bay Company clearly sought to preserve certain information for their own use. Had details of these surveys been included on maps available to the general public, the possibility existed that the Russians would use such information to expand their trade upstream. Similarly, more precise information on the interior opened the prospect of competitive traders moving in from the coast. Though the HBC's maps were substantially complete through exploration and informed speculation, little of this privately collected information was passed to the general public.
Despite corporate reluctance, detailed cartographic information was released by Robert Campbell in 1852. After the destruction of Fort Selkirk by Chilkat Indians, Robert Campbell made his way to Montreal to plead with Governor Simpson for increased support for the Yukon trade. After Simpson rejected his self-serving representation, Campbell received permission to travel to England for a year's furlough. While there, Campbell provided information on the area to the Arrowsmiths, the famous British cartographers, allowing them to complete much of what was to that point a conspicuous blank in the map of North America. Fort Youcon remained noticeably absent, reflecting a continued HBC fear of discovery. Campbell had, however, done an admirable job of completing the map of the northwest.8
It is doubtful that Campbell's superiors greeted his generosity with alacrity, although in the interest of the company's image they were unlikely to criticize him publicly. There is no evidence that George Simpson or other HBC officers were angry with Campbell, but they clearly did not share the explorer's need to disclose the northern discoveries. Detailed public knowledge of the fur trade districts, especially those vulnerable to external and foreign competition, went counter to business interests. The firm kept the information within corporate circles for more than a decade, the details remaining private until Campbell's voyage to Britain.
If HBC motivations are somewhat complex, Campbell's reasoning is much more obvious. From the beginning, he had aspired to be one of the renowned corps of fur trade explorers, another Thompson, Fraser or Mackenzie. Given the opportunity, he all but fumbled it away; his repeated lack of resolve preventing him from making the grand exploratory thrusts and reducing his ventures to short-lived and ineffectual sorties. Campbell never stopped wishing for fame, a condition evident in his quick visit to the cartographers upon returning to London, and the preparation of a self-serving volume of memoirs on his northern travels. Campbell attained his desired renown, and his name is etched in books and on maps and historic site plaques, though he was regarded with less respect within the Hudson's Bay Company. Completing the map, and thus informing the world of his hitherto unheralded adventures, was consistent with his other attempts to guarantee his place in the history books. Indeed, his mapping activities did more than his memoirs and schoolbook accounts of his exploits, to solidify his claim to the first rank of northern explorers. It would not, however, be Campbell's last attempt to embellish his rather pedestrian reputation.9
By keeping the map to themselves, the HBC carefully controlled external infromation on the far northwest. The secrecy served to keep HBC activities out of public scrutiny and in particular deflected crticism from the fact that Fort Youcon was firmly located in Russian/American territory. The Hudson's Bay Company also knew, as did Church of England missionaries, that sizeable quantities of gold had been found in the Yukon River watershed. Again, however, the company attempted to protect its fur trade interest by keeping that infromation within a very small circle.10 Though ultimately unsuccessful, the corporate secretiveness slowed early mineral exploration.
Retaining knowledge was, however, but one means of controlling geographic and scientific knowledge on the far northwest. By not seeking readily available answers to pressing scientific questions, the Hudson's Bay Company again sought to protect its corporate interests. When Fort Youcon was founded in 1847, for example, A.H. Murray's inital instructions directed him to continue explorations to the west and north. Fearing--indeed knowing--his post to be on Russian soil, Murray petitioned for permission to cease exploration. Governor Simpson agreed that the question of whether the Yukon and Colville Rivers were the same could be ignored. To the Governor, it was "simply a matter of curiosity which we need not be at much pains to clear up."11 Given the choice between a vexing geographic problem and preserving a profitable trade, the latter took precedence. It was not until the 1860s that official explorations confirmed the rivers to be different, though the HBC had settled the matter to their satisfaction years earlier through Indian reports.
Robert Campbell encountered similar restrictions on his exploratory zeal while in the southern Yukon. Though hesitant to explore aggressively, Campbellrepeatedly sought permission to continue his discoveries. Finally ensconced at Fort Selkirk in 1848, Campbell immediately requested permission to continue exploring to the Pacific coast. Through the Chilkat Indians, the HBC trader learned that the passage was comparatively short and offered excellent prospects for supplying the interior posts. Though he initially granted permission, Governor Simpson quickly withdrew the offer. As he wrote to Campbell:
That you suggest (bringing in trade goods) from Lynn's Canal, even if practicable, I could not recommend to the Council, as if we obtained our supplies from thence, we should be opening a communication to the most valuable part of the Northern Department by which strangers might find their way thither, and with our supplies we should be obliged to introduce the extravagant tariff of the NW coast.12
The HBC firmly closed the door on further exploration. Campbell was instructed to concern himself with the fur trade and with examining the country between the YUkon River and the Mackenzie Valley.
The rationale remained the same. As far as the HBC was concerned, too much general knowledge threatened their trade. The firm's most valued possession was its internal monopoly, the unchallenged control of the Yukon and Mackenzie River trades. All challenges to that profitable monopoly had to be carefully and firmly rebuffed. Campbell's proposed exploration, like that of Murray at Fort Youcon, post just such a threat. As Simpson indicated to the Fort Selkirk trader, mapping the Natives' route to the interior or even hinting at its existence, threatened the stability of the interior trade. Campbell was forbidden to seek a route to the coast, and indeed the Company successfully discouraged others for some time from believing such a route could be found.13
The Hudson's Bay Company maintained its policy of limiting information and restricting exploration for more than a decade after Campbell added the far northwest to the world's maps. Many in the firm acknowledged, however, that their feigned ignorance would soon be discovereed. The zoological explorations of Robert Kennicott in the early 1860s and particularly the work of the largely American Collins Overland Telegraph Company, increased the difficulty of hiding the location of Fort Youcon. Still, in the absence of verifiable scientific observation, corporate officers insisted--tongue firmly in cheek--that the post was on British soil. Even the arrival of a servant of the Russian American Fur Company in 1862 signalled not a retreat from the location, but rather touched off a major expansion of trade even further into Russian territory. The HBC continued at Fort Youcon until 1869, two years after the United States' purchase of Alaska. Learning from Yankee traders of HBC incursions on their soil, the American government sent Captain Raymond of the US Navy to ascertain the location of the British establishment. After twenty successful years, the HBC pulled out of Fort Youcon and retreated quietly up the Porcupine River.14
With the withdrawl from Fort Youcon, the Company's defense of the geographic integrity of the Yukon River collapsed. Still, no attempt was made to publicize the firm's scant knowledge of a route to the Pacific coast nor to share information on Yukon River gold deposits. Fiercely protective of its inland monopoly--now pushed back to the Mackenzie River--the firm viewed the Yukon and particularly its posts along the Porcupine River as a first line of defense against encroachments by competitive traders. In short order, however, the secrets of the Yukon River vally were exposed as miners continued theirinexorable push north. Sometime between 1874 and 1878, George Hold crossed from the Pacific Northwest coast to the headwaters of the Yukon River, a path followed by miners and scientists and the major route to the Klondike Gold Fields at the end of the century.
For almost thirty years, from the early explorations of Robert Campbell to the 1869 expulsion of the HBC from Fort Youcon, the company sought to control and limit information on the Yukon River valley. Accomplished by restricting exploration that went counter to the interests of the trade and by delaying the release of detailed charts and post locations, the firm's goal was to prevent access to the area by competitive traders. The firm did not interfere with the travels of others, and even offered generous assistance to zoologist Robert Kennicott and clergymen of the Church Missionary Society. Such voyages, however, were not undertaken in pursuit of precise cartographic knowledge and as such did not threated the HBC's trade.
On one level, the Hudson's Bay Company's contribution to scientific knowledge on the North was that of a favoured corporate citizen. Unstinting efforts on behalf of Arctic exploration, especially the search for the ill-fated Franklin expedition, earned the company accolades thoughout England, and, as planned, deflected some of the mounting criticism of the Company's outdated monopoly. The Yukon, however, was a different matter. Where the interests of geographical knowledge countered those of the fur trade, the former lost out. After all, the HBC was a profit-making trading enterprise and to take actions contrary to its financial interests worked against the basic precepts of business. In the absence of external critics regarding the firm's control of the Yukon, the HBC continued to suppress information on the lay of the land and the area's natural resources. By so doing, the firm deflected the probably diplomatic ramifications of maintaining Fort Youcon on Russian soil and, more importantly, protected its inland monopoly of the Yukon and Mackenzie fur trade.
© Kenneth S. Coates and YHMA, 1983. This article may be printed out for private study only. Any other use of this article must have the written consent of the YHMA and the author. You may contact the YHMA for details.