Belfast Telegraph

Robert Campbell, the man from Tyrone who helped to win the American West

Ahead of the screening of his new BBC NI documentary, filmmaker Michael Beattie outlines the astonishing story of the penniless Ulster teenager who spent years fighting Indians and fur trapping before becoming a millionaire and friend of a United States President

Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader and explorer Robert Campbell
Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader and explorer Robert Campbell
Former MLA Alan McFarland and filmmaker Michael Beattie (far right) with sound recordist Christine Barker and cameraman Matt Gould at the St Louis Gateway Arch, the site of Robert Campbell’s first premises
The Campbell family memorial in St Louis
Present day Mountain Man Doc Ivory
Filmmaker Michael Beattie with fur trade author and historian Jim Hardee in the Teton Mountains in Idaho

I've been making television programmes and documentary films for 40 years, but I don't think I've ever come across a tale with so many twists and turns as the story of Robert Campbell from the Glenelly Valley in Tyrone.

In 1822 Campbell, a penniless teenager, sailed from Londonderry to Philadelphia. He would die aged 75 in St Louis, Missouri, a millionaire businessman and one of the city's most respected citizens.

The few photographs of him in later life show an unsmiling and besuited gent, the image of a man who perhaps led a quiet life of pen-pushing and eventually made it to the top. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Because Campbell had packed his years with excitement and adventure as a trapper and trader in the heyday of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, facing unimaginable privations in weather down to minus 40 degrees, forced to eat his dogs and horses to save himself from starvation, fighting off attacks from wild animals as well as native Indians.

He would count among his friends and fellow travellers Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith, William Sublette and Hugh Glass, the character depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. History would remember them as the Mountain Men, and Campbell would earn the respect of every one of his colleagues.

Exploring a land few white men had ever seen, he truly was one of the real Ulster-Scots pioneers who opened up the American West for the wagon trains of settlers and the Gold Rush fortune-seekers who would follow.

I have a long-standing love of the West going back to the cowboy movies of my childhood. I've had the good fortune to make several lengthy journeys through the handful of states I'm particularly drawn to - Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico.

I'd learned something of the fur trade, and was aware that a few Irishmen had been involved. So I was delighted to be introduced by a mutual friend Alan Burnside to Alan McFarland, the great, great, great, great nephew of Campbell.

Alan is a former North Down MLA and before that a major in the Royal Tank Regiment.

For several years he has been researching the life of his relative and he agreed to join me on a 3,000-mile road trip to visit the key locations of Campbell's American existence, and to tell his story on film.

Alan said: "I think Campbell's upbringing in the Glenelly Valley had a profound impact on his life. He came from a devout Presbyterian family, a family who read the Bible together and were in every way decent, honourable, self-effacing people. Campbell would become involved in key moments in American history, yet he was always in the background, never seeking the limelight for himself. I'm keen to bring him out of the shadows and give him his rightful place as a true Ulster-Scots pioneer and one of the very small band of men who first opened up the West."

Our journey would begin at the Ulster American Folk Park, because the home in which Campbell was born in 1804, Aughalane House, is the centrepiece of the park outside Omagh. Aughalane was built by Campbell's father in 1786 and moved from Plumbridge to Omagh in 1985. Above the door is the crest of the Duke of Argyle, evidence of the family legend that the first Campbell ancestor to arrive in Ulster from Scotland may have been an illegitimate son of the Duke.

I learned from Alan that Campbell was the youngest of a large family. His brother Andrew would take over running the family farm, so Robert had little option but to follow another brother, Hugh, to seek his fortune in America.

From the house in which Campbell was born, Alan and I travelled to St Louis, Missouri, to the house in which he died, now the Campbell House Museum. In its day this was a palatial home - one of the first in St Louis to have piped gas, running water and a flushing loo.

From here Campbell would expand his business empire to include property in Missouri and several other states. He would become president of the bank. He owned the largest hotel in St Louis, and his riverboat company gave Mark Twain his first job as a Missouri River pilot.

But when he first arrived in St Louis aged 20, settling down was the last thing on his mind. He was destined for the mountains, and in fact when he joined a band of young men heading west under General William Ashley, he would spend four full years in the wilderness before he returned to civilisation. My "bold and dashing years", he would later say.

That very first trip was an eye-opener for the Ulster farm lad. The party left St Louis later in the year than planned and had travelled only 500 miles to Kansas before they became snowed in and most of their mules died in the extreme weather. They weren't even halfway to the Rockies! But a friendly tribe of Pawnee Indians invited them to stay in their village and that saved them. Little of the habitation remains today but the Pawnee museum in the village of Republic gave us an insight into how the Mountain Men traded and lived. Historian James C Auld reminded us that we had to imagine a time with only vague handwritten maps, Campbell and his colleagues following rivers through featureless plains, dense bush and forests in all weathers.

"We're talking snow as high as the horses' chests, freezing water that claimed many lives, in fact as many as 20% of Mountain Men died crossing rivers."

And fur trade expert Jim Hardee told us: "The summers were scorching, the winters freezing. At times food was hard to come by. There's a description of one of Campbell's brigade, Joe Meek, sticking his hand into an anthill so he could lick off the ants. Today they'd cut a vein in the neck of one man's horse to drain some blood to drink - but not enough to kill it - and tomorrow it would be someone else's horse."

Trapping in the Rockies was no easy task and we found one expert to show us how it was done. 'Doc Ivory' belongs to the American Mountain Men. More than simply re-enactors, this is an invitation-only group of dedicated backwoods experts who dress and live as closely as possibly to the original Mountain Men.

They make their own clothes, use only period weapons and know how to survive in the bush in all weathers. They study the history of the period and make long journeys together or alone on foot and on horseback for weeks or even months at a time. Doc showed Alan how to set an authentic beaver trap from Campbell's time.

Doc also told us about Rendezvous, an event at a pre-arranged point every June or July, when the trappers would emerge from the mountains to gather together for several weeks to sell their furs, resupply for the coming winter and let their hair down.

McFarland has made a study of the various Rendezvous that Campbell attended and for him the Green River Rendezvous of 1833 was the greatest. Together we visited the site in present-day Wyoming, on a flat plain near the town of Pinedale, where a festival is held each year to commemorate the Mountain Men and the fur trade.

He said: "It must have been a fantastic sight. There were thousands here, trappers, traders and Indians. They were racing horses, having shooting contests. It was the first time for a year they'd enjoyed luxuries like coffee, chocolate and whiskey. There were drunken brawls, dancing, singing. There's one report that even the normally strait-laced Campbell had more drink than he could handle!"

After 10 years in the mountains, Campbell was ready for a change. He'd had a close call in one battle with Indians when he saved the life of his friend Sublette. He'd almost drowned when his boat capsized as he ferried a season's furs down the Yellowstone River.

So he settled in St Louis and began the trading career which would expand into a whole range of businesses, although he never lost his love of the mountains and would regularly return to resupply his former colleagues at Rendezvous. He had also built up friendships with elders in a number of friendly native tribes, and had even become blood brother to a chief of the Flatheads.

In 1835 when he was 31 Campbell fell in love with a 14-year-old girl, the cousin of his brother's wife. Virginia Kyle was attractive, vivacious and outgoing and over the next few years would have a number of suitors. But Campbell persisted with his courtship, and when Virginia was 19 they married. It was an ideal partnership and they developed a deep affection for each other that lasted throughout their lives. Virginia proved herself the most able of hostesses and together they would entertain business leaders, military men, politicians and even President Ulysses S Grant.

But all their growing wealth and importance couldn't shield them from tragedy. Of their 13 children, 10 would die before reaching the age of eight. In one period of just a few weeks in 1847 when Virginia was 25, she buried two children and gave birth to another. Such were the widespread illnesses in the growing city of St Louis like measles, cholera and scarlet fever that the couple were left with only three sons.

When Campbell died his fortune passed to the boys, who by that stage were in their 20s and 30s. None of them married, and in due course the last surviving son became a recluse who reputedly didn't leave Campbell House in his final 30 years.

He died intestate, which led to a long legal wrangle dubbed the 'Campbell Millions' by the American media. Eventually after World War Two the money was dispersed amongst cousins and other relatives, much of it coming back to Tyrone.

Through researching his ancestor's life, McFarland has befriended many of the fur trade experts, writers and historians who appear in the film. One of them is Clay Landry, historical adviser to The Revenant. He has great admiration for Campbell. "He was always in the background, but he was always there. He just kept doing what needed done to make things happen. There's not one key event he didn't have a hand in."

The journey took us through some wonderful scenery in the Rockies, where my cameraman Matt Gould was in his element as an accomplished drone operator. So be prepared for some spectacular scenery and much more of the story of Robert Campbell.

Robert Campbell: Mountain Man, BBC Two Northern Ireland, Sunday, February 18, 10pm It is a Third Street Studios production for BBC Northern Ireland in conjunction with Northern Ireland Screen's Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund

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