Fort Selkirk was a trading nexus long before European traders entered the Yukon. The Northern Tutchone of the Fort Selkirk area were part of a trade network that extended far to the south and north, from the Arctic Ocean to the Bering Sea. The Chilkat people of present day Haines and Skagway, Alaska controlled the Pacific Coastal passes into the Yukon and thus the trade with the Russians who visited the Alaska coast. The Chilkat ventured far inland every year on a trade route that took them as far north as Fort Selkirk. They enjoyed a monopoly on European trade goods moving into the Yukon and the furs and hides that moved out.
Enter the Hudson’s Bay Company, which made its first trading foray into the Yukon establishing a post at Frances Lake north of present day Watson Lake in 1842. Four years later, Campbell built Fort Pelly Banks on the Pelly River. Proceeding along the Pelly, Campbell came to the Yukon River and established the first post at the confluence across the river from the current Fort Selkirk in 1848. To remain relatively inconspicuous, the post was built on a low flood plain back in the woods. Unfortunately, the site was prone to flooding and ice damage, forcing Campbell to relocate the post to its present site in 1851.The Chilkats, upon discovering the post and the threat to their trade monopoly, rousted the Hudson’s Bay traders and plundered the post in August of 1852.
The remains of the first post were located by Yukon Archaeologist Ruth Gotthardt in 1989 and a full archaeological dig was undertaken in 2006 by Victoria Castillo.
Non-native traders remained absent from Fort Selkirk until Arthur Harper and Joseph Ladue built a post here in 1889. By that time, prospectors and traders along the Yukon River had become much more common and the Chilkats were allowing outsiders to cross through the coastal passes.
Once the Harper post was built, the Anglican Church soon followed, building a church and rectory at Fort Selkirk in 1892-93. Soon, Fort Selkirk became a distribution centre for Pelly and South Macmillan rivers. Several stores were set up at Fort Selkirk over the years including the Dominion Hotel and Store, Horsfall’s, Taylor & Drury, Schofield and Zimmerlee’s, then the Hudson’s Bay Company again in 1938.
With tens of thousands of people heading to the Klondike gold fields, the Canadian government had a legitimate concern about maintaining law and order. Of particular concern was the number of Americans crossing over the border from Alaska. In addition to strengthening the North-West Mounted Police presence, the Canadian government sent 200 troops of the Yukon Field Force to ensure order and Canadian sovereignty. The force arrived at Fort Selkirk in 1898 and erected 11 large log buildings, complete with a central parade square, on the east side of town. The force was commanded by Lt. Colonel Thomas Dixon Byron Evans, Royal Canadian Dragoons. A detachment of two officers and 50 men were sent to Dawson City in October 1898. Duties included guarding gold shipments, ceremonial duties, and some patrolling.
The North-West Mounted Police set up a detachment at Fort Selkirk in 1898. It was one of a series of posts set up along the Yukon River and in the mining settlements during the heyday years of the gold rush. With mining activity decreasing and people leaving the territory, the post shut down in 1911. The RCMP reopened the post in 1932 under Corporal G.I Cameron until 1949. Cameron went on to become the Sergeant at Arms for the Yukon Legislature. His daughter Ione, who spent her youth at Fort Selkirk, later became mayor of Whitehorse, commissioner of Yukon, and the Yukon’s senator.
Nearby, three km to the west, was Swinehart’s farm. William Swinehart and his family began the farm in 1898 and farmed it for 16 years. The farm was renowned for potatoes which they sold in Dawson City in the spring as soon as the river opened. They got theirs to market three weeks before the boats from Whitehorse were able to make it downriver. In 1903, the farm produced 11 tons of potatoes, 9 tons of which went to Dawson and were sold out within 6 hours. The farm also made a good profit selling hay to the roadhouses for the horses traveling the Dawson-Whitehorse winter road.
Two of the men working with Swinehart, Frank Chapman and Billy Thompson, later established Pelly Farm 7km up the Pelly from Fort Selkirk. Under brothers Dick and Hugh Bradley, this would become one of Yukon’s earliest and most successful experimental farms and longest running weather stations. It is connected to the Klondike Highway via a 40km single lane gravel road and therefore acts as a launching point for visitors and work crews going to Fort Selkirk.
Stabilization work began at Fort Selkirk in the late 1970s. It was the Yukon government’s earliest and largest preservation project, which continues to this day. It is also a model for cooperative heritage management between the Yukon and First Nations governments.
31: Fort Selkirk: Early Contact Period Interaction Between the Northern Tutchone and the Hudson’s Bay Company in Yukon, Occasional Papers in Archaeolgy No. 17, Victoria Elena Castillo.
32: Yukon History Trails, The Swinehart Farm, by Gord Allison https://yukonhistorytrails.com/2018/07/02/the-swinehart-farm-part-1-introduction-from-wisconsin-to-the-yu kon-1896-98/