Robert Campbell – Frontiersman to Business Man

Robert Campbell

Robert Campbell

Fur trader, frontiersman, merchant, and Indian Commissioner Robert Campbell was born in Ireland on February 4, 1804. As the youngest son of Hugh Campbell, Sr., and his sec­ond wife, Robert stood to inherit lit­tle, and at the age of 18 in 1822, he fol­lowed his older brother Hugh, Jr. to the United States.

Despite hav­ing no for­mal edu­ca­tion, Robert demon­strated a keen sense of busi­ness and soon landed a posi­tion in the west­ern trade hub of St. Louis, Missouri. He was advised to lead an outdoor life there because he had tuberculosis. In November 1825, and joined Jedediah Smith on an expedition to the Rocky Mountains backed by William H. Ashley and his Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Also in the group were experienced explorers and traders Hiram Scott, James Beckwourth, Moses Harris, Louis Vasquez, David Jackson, and William Sublette.

Robert Campbell and William Sublette

Robert Campbell and William Sublette

In 1832, he joined famed trapper William L. Sublette in a partnership, directly competing with the American Fur Company. That same year, he participated in the Battle of Pierre’s Hole in present-day Idaho. In 1833, they built Fort William near the mouth of the Yellowstone River in present-day North Dakota. Competing with nearby Fort Union, the post dealt in buffalo robes from local Native American tribes, primarily the Assiniboine, Cree, and Gros Ventre.

Both men real­ized that the fur trade was dying, and from 1835 onwards, the two focused on dry goods and river trading. In September 1836, they purchased a brick building at 7 Main Street in St. Louis, Missouri, and diversified their investments into banking, real estate, and other companies. Robert married Vir­ginia Kyle in February 1841, and the two would eventually have 13 children. Of their many children, only three would survive their parents as dis­eases like cholera, diph­the­ria, and measles struck repeatedly.

In 1842, Sublette and Campbell dissolved their partnership but remained good friends. However, Sublette became seriously ill and died in 1845.

He attended the Fort Laramie Treaty gathering in 1851 and, during the Mexican-American War, helped form a regiment that he commanded.

In 1854, the Camp­bells moved out of the crowded city to the exclu­sive, elite neigh­bor­hood of Lucas Place. While there, Robert and Vir­ginia con­tin­ued to climb the social lad­der. Robert became one of the wealth­i­est men in Mis­souri, extend­ing his real estate empire as far as El Paso, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri while serv­ing as pres­i­dent of two banks and man­ag­ing the finest hotel in the city, the South­ern Hotel.

Campbell House, St. Louis, Missouri

Campbell House, St. Louis, Missouri.

He continued diversifying his business interests over the years and prospered until he died in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 16, 1879. His wife, Virginia, died in 1882. Both are buried with their children at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. They left their house to their sons Hugh, Hazlett, and James. The three lived off their parents’ for­tune for their entire lives, and none mar­ried. The home is now preserved as the Campbell House Museum, complete with the original furnishings and decorations, located at 1508 Locust Street in St. Louis.

© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated June 2023.

Also See:

Explorers & Frontiersmen

Fur Trading on the Frontier

Trading Posts of the Mountain Men

Trappers, Traders & Pathfinders


Campbell House