Robert Campbell’s lengthy life bridged the transition from fur trade to modern capitalistic agriculture in the trans-Mississippi expanses stretching westward from Missouri to the Rocky Mountains. Campbell’s career was also illustrative of those intrepid frontier merchant-capitalists who made their homes in the thriving city of St. Louis in the mid-nineteenth century. It was easy for business leaders such as Campbell to pass from one type of venture to another as St. Louis evolved from frontier village to urban metropolis. His early business experiences in the West steeped him in knowledge of risk and fluctuating fortune.
Born in northern Ireland on February 12, 1804, Campbell came to the United States as a teenager. By the age of twenty, he was in St. Louis and had become involved in William Henry Ashley’s fur trade activities. As a young man Campbell associated with many legendary frontier figures, including Ashley, Pierre Jean De Smet, Jedediah Strong Smith, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Jim Bridger. Washington Irving and other writers immortalized Campbell as a courageous Indian fighter of great repute, of striking and prepossessing appearance, and as a great leader in the rough-and-tumble frontier wilderness.
Wishing to strike out on his own as a trader, trapper, and outfitter, Campbell sought to eliminate the middlemen in the fur trade. Within a short period he attempted to exploit the fur trade of the upper Missouri and Yellowstone regions. Early in life he suffered from numerous respiratory ailments, and he never wholeheartedly embraced the mountains, but in the 1820s and 1830s he resolutely went about earning his great wealth in that lonely and dangerous setting. That fortune became the base for his future ventures.
Campbell’s shrewd partnerships and trading alliances made him a leading trader by the early 1830s, when he joined forces with his fellow trapper and trader William Sublette. That historic partnership challenged the well-established American Fur Company headed by John Jacob Astor and his western agent, Pierre Chouteau Jr. Competition was played out both in the Rockies through the construction of forts and rival trading posts and in the business houses of St. Louis.
Throughout the late 1830s and 1840s, the firm of Sublette and Campbell maintained its position as a fair-minded competitive outfitter for western fur-trading ventures. Campbell’s success benefited from his earlier firsthand associations in the wilderness. Throughout the 1840s and even into the 1850s, Campbell financed fur-trading ventures and entrepreneurs. His word and handshake were said to have been as good as currency throughout the West.
In St. Louis, Campbell’s banking and financial operations fueled his numerous western financial endeavors. They also helped develop the city’s economy. His diversified interests included both dry goods and the familiar staples of western trade. He was president of the Merchants National Bank as well as the owner of the famed Southern Hotel, a St. Louis landmark for many years. In such ventures Campbell was symbolic of those early St. Louisans who looked to urban progress for financial gain, along with the traditional commercial opportunities in markets across the Southwest, California, and the Pacific.
Campbell was respected as much by his rivals as by friends, and presidents, governors, and generals sought his advice. He was universally renowned for his knowledge and understanding of western affairs. For example, he was entrusted with the organization and outfitting of troops in St. Louis during the Mexican War, and his efforts proved especially beneficial to Missouri and its citizens.
Campbell’s extensive knowledge of Native American affairs, and the deep respect numerous Native leaders held for him, led to his appointment as one of the commissioners in the Fort Laramie Council of 1851, leading to the treaty by the same name, which outlined for the first time the concept of reserved lands for many of the Plains Indian tribes. At the height of the Indian wars, during the Grant administration, Campbell served once more as an Indian commissioner. He was one of the fairest-minded white diplomats available to Native nations and contributed enormously as a stabilizing presence who carried profound weight with the chiefs.
Owing to the substantial wealth he had amassed by midcentury, Campbell became a philanthropist and a great civic booster of St. Louis. With his wife, Virginia Kyle Campbell, of Raleigh, North Carolina, he made his home in fashionable Lucas Place, just west of downtown, the city’s first neighborhood of fine houses. They hosted a swirling array of parties, events, dinners, and important affairs. At the time of his death on October 16, 1879, Campbell could look back on a life well lived and symbolic of the greatest activities that helped settle the American West. Respected by virtually all in St. Louis and Missouri for his considerable achievements, he lived a life unblemished by scandal of any sort, becoming, truly, a favorite son of Missouri, symbolic of the earliest citizens’ energies and enthusiasm toward making St. Louis a gateway to empire.
Campbell’s sons continued in their father’s tradition of banking and philanthropy. In the 1940s the Campbell House became a museum, a monument to the great mountain man’s life and career, tangible evidence of St. Louis’s earliest economy and its visionary westering inhabitants.
Brooks, George R., ed. “The Private Journal of Robert Campbell, 1833.” Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society 20, no. 1 (1963): 3–24; 2 (1964): 107–18.
Buckley, Jay H. “Rocky Mountain Entrepreneur: Robert Campbell as a Fur Trade Capitalist.” Journal of the Wyoming Historical Society (Summer 2003): 8–23.
Campbell, Robert. Papers. Mercantile Library Association, St. Louis.
Hafen, LeRoy R., ed. The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark, 1971.
Kolk, Heidi Aronson. Taking Possession: The Politics of Memory in a St. Louis Town House. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019.
MacCulloch, Patrick C. The Campbell Quest: A Saga of Family and Fortune. St. Louis: Missouri History Museum, 2009.
Morgan, Dale L. The West of William Ashley. Denver: Rosenstock, 1964.
Nester, William. From Mountain Man to Millionaire: The “Bold and Dashing Life” of Robert Campbell. Rev. ed. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.
Sunder, John E. The Fur Trade on the Upper Missouri, 1840–1865. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
Published July 14, 2022
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