The western fur trade era—a time when trappers and traders endured constant danger from man, beast, and weather—was one of the most colorful periods in American history. Over a decade ago, William R. Nester wrote the first biography of Robert Campbell (1804–1879); the subsequent discovery of nearly five hundred new documents, most from two major caches of letters, led to this even-more-detailed and vivid account of Campbell’s self-described “bold and dashing life.”
Campbell came to America from Ireland in 1822 and entered the fur trade soon after. He quickly rose from trapper to brigade leader to partner, all within a half dozen years, and this new edition includes an expanded narrative of his adventures in the Rocky Mountain fur trade. In the mid-1830s, having amassed considerable wealth, Campbell retired from the mountains and embarked on a new career. He returned to St. Louis and built up a business empire that embraced mercantile, steamboat, railroad, and banking interests, thus becoming a leading force behind the region’s economic development. A more extensive account of the cutthroat business world in which Campbell operated now enriches this portion of the book.
Nester masterfully depicts the “sterling character” for which Campbell was renowned. Campbell enjoyed deep and enduring friendships and strong familial ties, both in America and abroad. Although he was an outstanding businessman and philanthropist, his personal life was marred by tragedy. Ten of his thirteen children died prematurely. Despite those tragic losses, his faith in God never faltered. He believed that all worldly successes should honor God and once wrote that , “all worldly gain is but dross.” This edition elucidates the complex relations among his family and chronicles both tragic events and humorous incidents in more depth.
Exploring the letters, journals, and account books that Campbell left behind, Nester places him in the context of the times in which he lived, showing the economic, political, social, and cultural forces that provided the opportunities and challenges that shaped his life. Nester provides new insights into Campbell’s ownership of slaves, his attitudes toward slavery, and his behind-the-scenes political and economic activities during the Civil War. This comprehensive exploration of Robert Campbell’s life depicts a fascinating era in American history.