Tag Archives: William Sublette

“The Revenant” and Robert Campbell

If you like the movies no doubt you have heard of the new Hollywood film The Revenant, starring Leonardo diCaprio and Tom Hardy. The film just won the 2016 Golden Globe Award for best drama and DiCaprio received the best actor award.  It has also just yesterday received 12 Oscar nominations.

The film is an account of the travails of Hugh Glass, a mountain man who in 1823 was badly mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. Glass survived and made a grueling 250-mile trek to safety. Glass’ exploits became cemented in legend, inspiring three movies, two books (including Michael Punke’s 2002 novel The Revenant, which inspired the film), and numerous songs. While The Revenant is fictionalized, many of the events and characters are real, and showcase the life of mountain men. The Museum of the Mountain Man has an excellent account on the real Hugh Glass; we here present to you how Robert Campbell fits in with The Revenant.

Hugh Glass did not have a dog with him, and came out much the worse-for-wear after his fight.

Hugh Glass did not have a dog with him, and came out much the worse-for-wear after his fight.

Campbell was only then arriving in the West when Glass was busy being mauled by a bear. Campbell was in the employ of John O’Fallon, a St. Louis-based businessman charged with supplying an army fort at Council Bluffs, Iowa. His first posting was across the Missouri from Council Bluffs, at Bellevue, Nebraska. During the cold winter that followed, Campbell’s struggles paled in comparison to Glass’, yet neither had an easy time. Glass was attempting to survive while badly wounded and alone in the wilderness; Campbell began having lung issues which would plague him for most of his life. Things were so bad for Campbell that, upon his return to St. Louis in spring 1824, he was advised by a doctor to go into the Rockies. The doctor added, “I have before sent two or three young men there in your condition, and they came back restored to health and healthy as bucks.” It is likely that Hugh Glass would disagree with the sentiment that the Rockies could make you healthy and long-lived.

Although there is no evidence that Glass and Campbell ever met, Glass’ epic story would have been told and retold around many a fireside among the fur traders. Campbell also personally knew many of those involved. William Sublette, who became Campbell’s best friend and business partner, was among those hired alongside Glass in 1823. Another famous mountain man, Jedediah Smith, commanded Glass and 39 other men during the battle with the Arikara Indians that opens the film. It was Smith who hired Robert for the fur trade in 1825.

Jim Bridger was perhaps the most accomplished of all the Mountain Men, and is believed to have attended every Rendezvous.

Jim Bridger was perhaps the most accomplished of all the Mountain Men, and is believed to have attended every Rendezvous.

Like Glass, Jedediah Smith was once mauled by a bear. Unlike Glass, Smith was carried out of the wilderness by his party.

Like Glass, Jedediah Smith was once mauled by a bear. Unlike Glass, Smith was carried out of the wilderness by his party.












Jim Bridger is the figure who is most central to both Glass and Campbell’s experiences. At 18 years of age, Bridger was in the party when Glass was attacked by the bear. According to some later accounts, Bridger may have been one of the two volunteers who stayed with Glass, but thinking him dead, hastened to catch up with the party. It was a good thing for Campbell that Glass forgave Bridger rather than taking his revenge, as Bridger and Campbell would work closely together for the next decade and maintain a relationships for the rest of their lives.

Campbell and Sublette built Fort William in 1834. The army took it over later and renamed it Fort Laramie, using the site to sign an historic--and controversial--treaty with several native tribes.

Campbell and Sublette built Fort William in 1834. The army took it over later and renamed it Fort Laramie, using the site to sign an historic–and controversial–treaty with several native tribes.

Both men were lieutenants in the Smith, Jackson, & Sublette Company beginning in 1826, leading bands of trappers into the mountains for the winter before heading to the rendezvous. While Campbell had a good head for numbers and management, Bridger was unsurpassed in his knowledge of mountain life, making their partnership a useful one. Their relationship continued even in later life, with both men attending the 1850 meeting that resulted in the Treaty of Fort Laramie.

Glass and Campbell followed very different trajectories in their time in the West. Although Glass clearly had the stamina and skill to survive in the mountains, he never rose very high within the fur company’s hierarchy. Glass seems to have broken from the companies and worked as a free trader. He played a minor role in bringing the American Fur Company, a rival company to Campbell and Sublette, to the 1830 Rendezvous. Glass later began working out of Fort Union and later Fort Cass, both outposts of the American Fur Company.

Robert Campbell's buckskin jacket.

Robert Campbell’s buckskin jacket on display at the Campbell House through April 1.

In contrast, Campbell was made a lieutenant in just his second year in the west. In 1830, Sublette first asked Campbell to join as a partner, but he did not accept until 1831. Campbell achieved his own fame for his role in the 1832 Battle of Pierre’s Hole, which led to a role in Washington Irving’s book The Adventures of Captain Bonneville. Two years later, Campbell and Sublette embarked on a risky strategy by challenging the American Fur Company directly by building Fort William just a few miles from Fort Union, Glass’ old trading point.

The future was bright for Campbell, but not for Hugh Glass. Glass was killed in an encounter with some Arikara Indians in 1833, a somewhat ignominious end (if predictable) for a man who so often defied death. Still, his legend lives on, and if you find yourself in a movie theater, be sure to check out the epic of Hugh Glass, then head online to the Museum of the Mountain Man or downtown St. Louis to the Campbell House for the real deal!

In honor of this movie event come to Campbell House before April 1 to see Robert Cambpell’s magnificent buckskin jacket on display in his bedroom.  Contact us for an appointment.

Interested in learning more?  Hear fur trade historian Dr. Jay Buckley discuss the fur trade, Hugh Glass and the role of Campbell House in this fascinating story on NPR’s St. Louis on the Air with Don Marsh. 

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Slavery: A Complicated Story

A story central to the history of the Campbell House and the City of St. Louis, especially as we recognize the historical contributions of African Americans during Black History Month, is that of slavery. Enslaved people served a variety of purposes in St. Louis homes, ranging from caring for babies to cooking and cleaning to working in fields on the city’s outskirts. Research over the past several years has revealed that Robert Campbell owned at least five slaves over a period of 16 years in the 1840s and 50s. The story of slavery at the Campbell House is a tricky one—there are a lot of unanswered questions, unclear records, and gaps in documentation. Here’s what we know:

  • Lucy Kyle

    Virginia’s mother Lucy Kyle, an ardent abolitionist and, for a short time, slave owner.

    1833: Virginia Campbell’s father, Hazlett Kyle, who had been a merchant and slaveholder in Raleigh, North Carolina, died when Virginia was 11 years old. He left an estate (which included his enslaved property) to be held for her until her 21st birthday.

  • 1841: There is no evidence that Robert Campbell owned slaves before his marriage to 19 year old Virginia in 1841, at which point the entirety of her inherited property became vested to her new husband. Three enslaved people were transferred to Robert, three to Virginia’s mother Lucy and two to Walter Otey, the husband of Virginia’s sister Eleanor. Lucy Kyle, who had been raised a Quaker, emancipated her slaves. Walter Otey, a slave trader and plantation owner himself, worked one of the slaves his wife had inherited and sold the other. Robert and Virginia brought their three slaves, each a child under the age of 12, to St. Louis with them the following year.
  • African American woman with her charge

    Enslaved African American woman with her charge, identities unknown. Enslaved women like Caroline and Eliza were often assigned the task of caring for a family’s young children. Unfortunately, there are no known images of any of the five individuals owned by the Campbell family.

    1842-45: The names of these enslaved children pop up periodically in family correspondence:  Caroline, described once as being “just at an age now to be contaminated by hiring her out”, Simeon, who appears to have been the oldest of the three and was hired out to work elsewhere by the Campbells, and a young boy named Hazlett, no doubt after the Kyle family patriarch. “Hazy” as he is referred to, was hired out by Robert to help another family with a newborn baby, “just that he may be learning something”. By 1842 Caroline and Simeon (the two oldest) had been hired out to work on a farm in Sulphur Springs owned by Robert’s longtime business partner William Sublette. Young Hazy was kept with the Campbell family to lend a hand with newborn James Campbell, his primary job being “to keep off the flies” from the infant.

  • 1845-49: At this point, the trail becomes tough to follow. We lose track of Caroline around 1845, when there are no female slaves listed in city records for the Campbell family. Four years later in 1849, the same thing happens when Simeon and Hazlett disappear from the record.
  • 1854-57: When the Campbells move into their Lucas Place home (today the Campbell House Museum) in 1854, there was just one enslaved person in the household—a young woman named Eliza. It is believed that Eliza helped to care for the Campbell children and may have come into Robert’s possession as early as 1845 (though this is not entirely clear). In January 1857, Robert Campbell emancipated Eliza and her two young children. The document reads:

“Robert Campbell, who is personally known to the court, comes into open court and acknowledges the execution by him of Deed of Emancipation to his negro woman Eliza, aged about twenty five years, of copper or mulatto complexion, together with her two children, to wit: Aleck, a boy aged about two years and a half, and an infant son born in October last, name not known, both of which children of the same complexion with the said Eliza.” See image below.

Document emancipating Eliza and her two children, 1857. Click to view larger.

Document emancipating Eliza and her two children, 1857. (Click to view larger.)

Why, you might ask, did Robert emancipate Eliza a full seven years before Missouri would abolish slavery in 1864? That’s an excellent question and, to be honest, we don’t have an answer. We do have some ideas though.

  • Hazlett Campbell I

    Hazlett Campbell (died 1856 at age 3). Eliza was his primary caregiver and likely very close to the child.

    Eliza had two children by this point, for which Robert Campbell was financially responsible by default. This also would have been a significant draw on Eliza’s time, since she was now caring for the Campbell family’s brood as well as her own.

  • The first Hazlett Campbell had died in November 1856 and Eliza was emancipated just two months later. Our impression from family letters is that Eliza was the primary caregiver to the child. His death may have eliminated a pressing need to have her around the house. It also is likely that Eliza would have taken the death of a baby to whom she was so close particularly hard.
  • At some point around the time of Eliza’s emancipation, Virginia’s mother Lucy arrived in St. Louis and took up residence with her daughter and son-in-law. Like we mentioned above, Lucy was anti-slavery and may have pressured Robert toward emancipation. It’s also a possibility that Robert didn’t want to offend his mother-in-law by having an enslaved person in the house.
  • Perhaps the most interesting tidbit we’ve found comes from a diary written by a family friend after a visit to the Campbell House in 1858. Sarah Lindsey, visiting Lucy Kyle, writes that:

“At one time they held a few slaves but Virginia Campbell not liking the system, nor the care of the young Negroes, they were set free. Their servants at the present time are Swiss, German and Irish.”


Freedom Bond signed by Robert Campbell in the amount of $500 to vouch for Eliza’s character after her emancipation. Should Eliza have been arrested or in a legal pinch as a freed African American in slave-holding Missouri, Robert would have been called upon to pay up. (Click to view larger.)

While we would like to say that the Campbells freed their slaves due to their strong abolitionist beliefs, this probably isn’t the case. Though we do have on reference that Mrs. Campbell didn’t like “the system” of slavery, we can’t discount the difficulties that must have been faced in caring for a young unmarried mother with two very young children, especially in a house that had already lost seven children of their own. However, we also can’t ignore the fact that the Campbells kept up a close personal relationship with Eliza after she was freed. After Virginia’s death in 1882, Eliza was left a gift of $100 (no small change in those days) and son Hugh Campbell lent her an additional $100 a year later when she and her family moved to Kansas City. We also have a letter dated 1918 from an elderly Eliza (she would’ve easily been 80+ years old at that point) to Hugh in which she says hello and thanks him for a Christmas gift he’d sent.

Needless to say, the story of slavery at the Campbell House is complex, with new information emerging every day as our team of volunteers and researchers continues to dig through the tens of thousands of pages of historic documents left behind by the Campbell family. It’s a complicated story, but it’s one that has to be told. To ignore the unseemly portions of our city’s history and and the lives of its most oppressed and unrecognized citizens would certainly make talking about history a whole lot easier, but it definitely wouldn’t be right.

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Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Tour

By Andy Hahn

A few weeks ago Campbell House docent Tom Gronski and I returned from a 2,500 mile trip West, visiting the important sites of Robert Campbell and Rocky Mountain fur trade.

Red Rocks Canyon on the road up to the South Pass through the Wind River Range of the Rockies.

We followed the route of the Oregon Trail, which had been blazed by Campbell and other mountain men and fur traders during the 1820s and 30s. Our first stop was at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The Joslyn holds one of the most important collections of art of the American West, including works by Karl BodmerAlfred Jacob Miller and George Catlin.

Following a 500-mile drive along the Platte River through Nebraska we arrived at Fort Laramie, where we met Alan McFarland, Robert Campbell’s g-g-g-grand nephew, fresh off the plane from his home in Northern Ireland. Alan has a special interest in his uncle’s career in the fur trade and has made numerous research trips to America. Fort Laramie was the perfect place for our meeting because Campbell and his partner Bill Sublette founded Fort Laramie (originally called Fort William) in 1834. At this National Historic Site we were able to view an authentic fur trade encampment recreated by members of the American Mountain Men. The group later created tableau vivant from one of Alfred Jacob Miller’s artworks depicting a fur trade camp.

A little further west we followed the Sweetwater River across Wyoming towards the Wind River Mountain Range and the South Pass. Bill Sublette was the first person to take a wagon this far into the Rocky Mountains in 1830, setting a course for thousands that would follow the Oregon and Mormon Trails. The next few days were spent in the vicinity of Jackson, Wyoming where we visited most all of the sites of the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous. The highlights included visits to the Museum of the Mountain Man where we were able to see some original Campbell letters and Pierre’s Hole, site of the 1832 Rendezvous and subsequent battle.  Campbell heroically saved his friend Bill Sublette’s life during the battle as recounted by Washington Irving in the Adventures of Captain Bonneville. Our trip ended with visits to other Rendezvous sites at Bear Lake, Cache Valley and finally Fort Bridger.

Enjoy the pictures and follow us West!

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