Yet another true adventure that began here and became history afar

Apologies for the delay in following up News Letter reader Beulah Dillon’s e-mail from the end of April which began, “I was interested to read your article about the fur trapper Thomas Fitzpatrick.”

Wednesday, 16th June 2021, 6:00 am
Robert Campbell 1880 from Plumbridge, County Tyrone
Robert Campbell 1880 from Plumbridge, County Tyrone

Beulah was referring to the wonderful story recounted here by Mitchell Smyth about Thomas Fitzpatrick from Killeshandra, Co Cavan.

Born at the end of the 18th century, Thomas emigrated to America where he was known in his day as ‘Broken Hand’ due to an injury he received when his gun misfired and he lost two fingers on his left hand.

He led the very first wagon train into Oregon Territory in 1841, over a pass that he had discovered in 1824.

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Portrait of Virginia Campbell from Campbell House Museum

He was just 25 when he found the pass, and had been in America since he was 17.

Because of his courage and skills as an explorer it has been said that he is probably the single most important Irish-born figure in ‘Wild West’ history.

But, Beulah Dillon’s e-mail continued, “another famous trapper, from Plumbridge, Tyrone, was Robert Campbell born in 1804. He emigrated and made a fortune from beaver trapping. He helped to build Fort Laramie. There is a wonderful book about him called ‘The Campbell Quest’ tracing his journey from Plumbridge to The Wild West. His home at Aughalane Plumbridge has been moved, brick by brick, to the Ulster American Folk Park at Omagh.”

The Folk Park has reopened (all visitors must pre-book tickets in advance. Full details are at https://www.nmni.com) so you can go along and see Aughalane first hand but Beulah’s short introduction tempted Roamer to seek out a little more information.

Robert Campbell’s St. Louis home is now preserved as the Campbell House Museum

It is a truly amazing story, and what follows is merely an outline.

Sometimes spelt without the ‘u’, Aughalane House is described on the Folk Park’s website as ‘home to the adventurous Campbells.’

Built by Hugh Campbell in 1786 on a farm near Plumbridge, it’s a fine example of an 18th century house.

There are two stone plaques above the front door, one bearing Hugh’s name and the date of construction and the other showing the coat of arms of the Dukes of Argyle.

The Tyrone Campbells claimed to be kin with the Campbells of Argyle.

The family’s two sons Hugh and Robert both left for America in the 1822.

Despite having no formal education, Robert was something of a natural businessman and soon landed a good job in St. Louis, trading in beaver furs.

When he contracted tuberculosis, known then as consumption, doctors suggested that he should relocate, become a fur trapper, and breath the clean, fresh air of the Rocky Mountains.

From 1824 to 1835 he roamed the mountains and was friendly with historic frontiersmen, trappers, fur traders and explorers like Jedediah Smith, William Sublette and William Ashley, co-owner of the highly successful Rocky Mountain Fur Incorporated.

He was also friendly with the Cree Indian Chief Sonnant, leader of ‘the Rabbit Skin people’, medicine man, warrior and one of the signatories of the 1817 Selkirk Treaty, concerning indigenous peoples’ lands.

In the mountains Robert often faced danger, deprivation and enormously difficult conditions.

The temperature could fall to minus 40 degrees.

He was forced to eat his dogs and horses to save himself from starvation, and he often fought off attacks from wild animals as well as the native Indians.

Robert steadily climbed the ranks of various fur trade businesses, becoming co-owner of a trade company with Sublette.

Both men realised the fur trade was dying, and from 1835 onwards, the two focused on dry goods, banking, real estate, and river trading.

In the same year he met Virginia Kyle (b. 1822) in Philadelphia.

The daughter of Hazlett Kyle of North Carolina and Lucy Ann Winston, Virginia was still at school when they met.

Despite the big difference in age (Virginia was 13 and Robert was 31), the two fell in love and began a six-year, long-distance courtship before they married in 1841.

The Campbells settled in St Louis and started a family.

Sadly, of their 13 children only three survived their parents as diseases like cholera, diphtheria, and measles struck again and again.

In 1854 the Campbells moved out of the crowded city to the exclusive, elite neighbourhood of Lucas Place, taking up residence in what is today the Campbell House Museum.

While in St Louis Robert became one of the wealthiest men in Missouri, extending his real estate holdings as far as El Paso and Kansas City, serving as President of two banks, and managing the Southern Hotel, the finest, most expensive and most luxurious hotel in the city.

He was trading in an economy based on slavery, and until 1857 the Campbells kept slaves. His wife Virginia became widely known as a graceful hostess, making Campbell dinner parties the most sought-after social engagements.

VIP visitors included President Ulysses Grant, Captain James Eads, Henry Shaw and General William Sherman, who all attended the Campbells’ soirees.

Robert died in 1879, followed by Virginia in 1882, leaving the house to their sons Hugh, Hazlett and James who all enjoyed their parents’ very significant wealth.

Their home became the Campbell House Museum, opened to the public in 1943.

The Ulster American Folk Park acquired the Campbell ancestral house in Tyrone in 1985 when it was due for demolition.

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