Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur
One of the widely travelled fur traders on the North American continent, Scotsman Alexander Hunter Murray ventured as far south as the Red River in Texas, and southeast to Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, Louisiana, prior to becoming an employee of the American Fur Company in St. Louis, Missouri, in the mid-1840s.
Before Murray built and illicitly managed Fort Youcon, within Russian territory, just inside the Arctic Circle, for the Hudson’s Bay Company, he had been appointed senior clerk under Chief Factor Murdoch McPherson in the Mackenzie River District. He arrived with his seventeen-year-old bride, Anne Campbell, daughter of Chief Trader Colin Campbell of Fort Chipewyan in the Athabasca District. The couple had married without a clergyman at Fort Simpson. This union was registered at St. John’s Cathedral in Red River on August 24, 1846.
The couple first wintered together at Fort McPherson, then Murray left his bride for a time at Lapierre House on Bell River in order to establish Fort Youcon. To do so, Murray descended the Bell River to the Porcupine, then proceeded to its junction with the Yukon. Anne joined her husband at Fort Youcon where they stayed for three years, during which she gave birth to three daughters, and her husband attempted to compile a vocabulary of Indian dialects. He also kept busy trying to understand the geography of the area.“I have been able to form some idea of the courses of the Youcon and other rivers,” he wrote, “of which hitherto very little was known.”
Murray estimated there were approximately one thousand Aboriginal men and boys able to hunt in the area from the Pelly River to the Arctic. He also divided the Yukon Indians, or ‘Kutchin,’ into eight tribes. He remained at Fort Youcon until 1851 when he was relieved of his duties due to ill health.
Murray served at several other posts prior to his promotion as Chief Trader at Pembina in 1856. After one year’s furlough in Scotland in 1857, he took charge of Lower Fort Garry where he worked until he retired in 1867. He died at Bellevue on the Red River in 1874. Little is known about his early life. He was born at Kilmun, county of Argyll, Scotland, circa 1818 or 1819.
The location of Fort Youcon (or Yukon) on the Porcupine River was kept secret for two decades. Although it was one of the most isolated HBC outposts, it was also one of the most consistently profitable. Other posts created by the HBC in the Yukon region included Peel’s River, Lapierre’s House (1846), Frances Lake, Pelly Banks and Fort Selkirk (1848). The HBC limited information about the Yukon River valley to discourage competition, delaying its distribution of charts and trading post locations. Although the Liard River explorations of John McLeod in 1831 were included on maps, the HBC suppressed information about the Porcupine, Pelly and Yukon River explorations of John Bell and Robert Campbell until 1853.
For the most part the Russians never intervened. Knowingly contravening their treaty with the Russians, the HBC did not withdraw from Fort Youcon until 1869, two years after the Americans purchased Alaska. This retreat up the Porcupine River only occurred when the Americans sent Captain Raymond of the U.S. Navy to ascertain Fort Youcon’s location. The company moved its operations upriver to Rampart House until 1890 when another border survey revealed they were still trespassing on American territory.
A lively journal kept by A.H. Murray, with his sketches, was later edited by L.J. Burpee as Journal of the Yukon, 1847–48.
Murray, Alexander Hunter. Journal of the Yukon, 1847-48 (Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1910). L.J. Burpee, ed.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006]