Irish Beginnings (1804–1822)
Robert Campbell was born on February 12, 1804 at Aghalane, his family home in Plumbridge, County Tyrone in present day Northern Ireland. It’s fitting that Robert was born just a few months before Lewis and Clark began their journey to explore Louisiana Purchase, as his life would become intimately connected with the territory.
Robert’s father Hugh Campbell (not to be confused with Robert’s brother or son, both also named Hugh Campbell) built Aghalane in 1786. Above the front door Hugh placed two stone plaques, one inscribed with his name and the year “1786″, the other marked with the coats of arms of the Dukes of Argyle, indicating that the Campbells of Aghalane, who had arrived from Scotland a few generations earlier, claimed kinship with their distinguished namesakes, the Campbells of Argyle. The house still stands, and is preserved as a museum in the Ulster American Folk Park in Castletown, Northern Ireland.
After his first wife died, the father Hugh Campbell married Elizabeth Buchanan (cousin to President James Buchanan) in about 1792. Robert was the youngest child of his father’s second marriage–which meant he stood to inherit very little or no property from his family. This fact was probably the biggest factor in Robert’s decision to follow his older brother Hugh to America to seek his own fortune.
Ireland to America (1822–1823)
Robert sailed from Ireland in August 1822 at the age of 18, aboard the Climax. He stayed briefly with his older brother, Hugh, in Milton, North Carolina.
Hugh had studied for a medical career in Edinburgh before coming to America in 1818 at the age of 21. Hugh’s first few years were spent in Milton, North Carolina and Richmond, Virginia with David Kyle (also of County Tyrone) who introduced Hugh to the mercantile trade. Hugh later moved north to Philadelphia to pursue a mercantile business of his own. Hugh married David Kyle’s daughter, Mary, in 1828. This relationship would later prove very important for Robert.
While the first months that Robert spent in Milton and Richmond were beneficial for his career, they were bad for his health, resulting in a severe lung infection. Determined to preserve his health, Robert headed out west where the air was better.
St. Louis and the Fur Trade (1824–1835)
Robert left Virginia in January 1824 arriving in St. Louis by river. During the 1820s the rise of the steamboat and St. Louis’ location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers made the city a rapidly growing commercial center. Robert quickly found work as a clerk for fellow Irishman and businessman John O’Fallon. Although Robert had no formal schooling, he could read and write and was very articulate, important qualities in a good clerk.
Although his career was going well, his health had not improved. Robert was pale and subject to hemorrhages of the lungs, regularly coughing up blood. He saw Dr. Benjamin Farrar, who advised him, saying: “Young man, your symptoms are consumptive, and I advise you to go to the Rocky Mountains. I have before sent two or three young men there in your condition, and they came back restored to health and as hearty as bucks.”
Robert followed Dr. Farrar’s advice and in October 1825 Robert was hired by Jedediah Smith to work as a clerk for his recently formed partnership with William Ashley. The Smith– Ashley partnership was financially backed by John O’Fallon. On November 1, 1825 Robert left St. Louis with Smith and 68 other men for the journey west to trade in the Rocky Mountains. Smith was leading the group overland to supply trappers and traders in what would become the first of the legendary Rocky Mountain rendezvous.
Robert spent the bulk of the next 10 years living and working in the west for a number of different partnerships and fur companies, culminating in the creation of his own company. In 1832 Robert partnered with William Sublette to form Sublette and Campbell. Initially Sublette and Campbell concentrated on trading with Indians along the Missouri River, building numerous forts as trading centers. Fort William near the Junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers was their most important. Built under Robert’s direction in 1833 the fort was named after Sublette.
Between 1832 and 1836, Robert wrote a series of fascinating letters to his brother Hugh detailing his experiences in the west — from building a fort at the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers to Indian mythology. A selection of these letters was published in 1836 in the Philadelphia newspaper “The National Atlas and Tuesday Morning”.
Robert’s successful career in the fur trade can be attributed to not only his strong character and reliable nature but also his friendships with influential businessmen, government officials and Indian chiefs. It was his career in the fur trade that established his reputation and paved the way to becoming a successful businessman.
Even though Robert went on to be successful in a wide variety of businesses, amassing a large fortune, he is most famous for his early career in the fur trade. Washington Irving recounted Robert’s exploits in the book “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville” as one of the heroes of the 1832 Battle of Pierre’s Hole. In that battle, Robert was instrumental in repelling a group of attacking Blackfeet Indians and brought his friend and partner Sublette to safety after he was wounded. Later in his life, Robert recounted his experiences in the Rocky Mountains as a young man in a narrative. As a result of his time in the mountains, Robert could count among his friends Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and numerous Indians, including the Crow chief Rotten Belly.
Robert’s direct involvement with fur trade was winding down by the spring of 1835. Upon returning to St. Louis he came down with a fever, recuperating at Sublette’s St. Louis farm Sulphur Springs. Later that year, Robert met Virginia Jane Kyle, his sister-in-law Mary’s first cousin.
Business and Family Life in St. Louis (1835–1879)
In September of 1836, Robert and Sublette established a wholesale and retail dry goods business in St. Louis. The business, also called Sublette and Campbell, was located at 7 North Main (First) Street. Today, the area is part of the Arch grounds.
In the spring of 1842 Robert and Sublette found it necessary to dissolve their partnership due to hard economic times. Robert purchased the goods and furnishings from the partnership and their store on Main Street was divided into two units, one of which Robert occupied. Eventually, when the economy recovered, Robert’s business became ‘R. Campbell and Company.’ It sold dry goods and Indian goods.
Robert’s mercantile business improved in 1848. At this time, a relative William Campbell became a junior partner and the company became R. & W. Campbell. They supplied western bound travelers with supplies and goods needed for the long trek. They were also known as commission merchants, shipping goods to new stores that were opening on the growing frontier. Robert was president of the Merchants National Bank and the First Bank of Missouri in 1843.
In 1859 Robert’s brother Hugh and his wife Mary moved to St. Louis, resulting in the strengthening of their business relationship. Hugh and Mary had no children of their own and spent a great deal of time with Robert’s family. Hugh and Mary had a residence on Washington Avenue and in 1875 moved to a house at 2728 Pine Street.
Besides the store and banking interests, Robert invested in and made a good part of his fortune through real estate. Robert began to invest in rental property in the 1840s. He is one of the individuals responsible for the creation of Kansas City, Missouri, a result of a large development of rental properties in the early 1840s. Robert later sold his property and business in Kansas City to his nephew John Campbell, including a New Mexico freighting business and “the first large brick warehouse ever built in Kansas City.”
In St. Louis he owned commercial property on the riverfront and was one time landlord to Henry Shaw and gun maker Samuel Hawken. In St. Louis County Robert owned a farm near Creve Coeur Lake that the Campbell family used as a “country place.”
Military and Indian Affairs
During the United States war with Mexico, Robert was a key figure in raising funds and troops and for his efforts was made a Colonel in the Missouri Militia. During the Civil War, Robert was a key supplier of goods and transportation to the army in the Mississippi valley.
Even though Robert had retired from the west in the mid 1830s, he remained involved with Indian negotiations. He accompanied Jesuit priest and missionary Fr. Pierre DeSmet west in 1851 for the Fort Laramie Council. Robert was contracted to provide the Indian goods. His friend, United States President Ulysses S. Grant, appointed him and nine other men to an Indian Commission in 1869 to help negotiate an end to the inadequate treaty system and help allocate land among the various tribes–the beginning of the Indian Reservation system. But because of bureaucratic government corruption, the original commissioners, including Robert, resigned protesting Indian mistreatment in 1873.
Steamboats, Goldmines, Cattle and the Southern Hotel
As part of his growing network of businesses, Robert quickly recognized the importance of steamboats. In the 1840s he began to buy steamboats to transport his merchant goods upriver to sell and transport western goods, such as buffalo hides, downriver to St. Louis. Steamboats running the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans also did a profitable passenger and freight business. Some of Robert’s notable steamboats include the Robert Campbell Jr. and the A.B. Chambers. Mark Twain’s first job as a river pilot was aboard Robert’s A.B. Chambers in 1859.
As Robert grew older, his diversification in business became greater. By the 1860s and 70s he owned goldmines in New Mexico and was paying to drive cattle herds from the southern plains to the railheads. Robert also owned the largest hotel in St. Louis, the Southern Hotel, until it burned down in 1877.
Robert’s health began to fail in early 1879. He went east to the seashore in the summer and returned to St. Louis in the fall. He died at home on October 16, 1879. His brother and lifelong business partner Hugh died just a few months later in December 1879. At the time of his death, Robert Campbell was considered one of the wealthiest men in the state, leaving an estate of $2 million (valued at more than $35 million today) in cash alone.
Robert was highly respected and active in both the political and social circles of American society during the mid-Victorian era. From the Grand Tetons to the parlors of Philadelphia, Robert experienced America during one of its most dynamic periods of history. Robert’s story is that of an immigrant who comes to the United States to seek his fortune, and succeeds in helping to build the economic foundation of a great American city.
The full story cannot be told without including Virginia Jane Kyle Campbell. Virginia Kyle was born on January 25, 1822 to Hazlett Kyle and Lucy Ann Winston Kyle. Like Robert, Virginia’s father was an immigrant from County Tyrone, Ireland and his family had a farm near the Campbells.
Youth and Courtship
Lucy was widowed when Virginia was 11 and David Kyle, her uncle, became Virginia’s legal guardian. Shortly after her father’s death, Virginia and her older sister Eleanor attended the Freeman’s Finishing School for young women in Philadelphia where they frequently visited their cousin, Mary Kyle Campbell (married to Robert’s older brother Hugh).
Robert went east to Philadelphia on business in the fall of 1835. During his visit he suffered a relapse of fever and was confined to his brother Hugh’s home under a doctor’s care. It was on this visit that he met Virginia Jane Kyle for the first time–Robert was 31 and Virginia was 13.
Robert and Virginia’s friendship continued after he returned to St. Louis and they began a long courtship that was comprised mostly of correspondence. Neither Hugh nor Sublette were very happy with Robert’s interest in the young Virginia. Hugh wrote Sublette that Virginia was “too gay and frivolous” and she already been “four times courted and twice engaged.” But Robert persisted in wooing her and asked Virginia’s mother for permission to marry her daughter when she was 16. Lucy informed Robert that she would give her consent when Virginia reached the age of 18.
Lucy wrote to Robert in early 1841 and reminded him that she had consented to his marriage proposal when Virginia turned 18 (which was in 1840) but she was opposed to them being married in Norfolk, Virginia at David Kyle’s home. She preferred that they come to Raleigh, North Carolina to hold the wedding in her home. In one of Robert’s letters to Virginia written in anticipation of their marriage, he said: “Recollect you will soon be my counselor and advisor and it may be – manager – that of course I will not acknowledge and I feel confident you will make, ‘my yoke easy’ and my life happy.”
Marriage and Family Life
On February 25, 1841 Robert and Virginia were married at her mother’s home in Raleigh. They honeymooned at brother Hugh’s home in Philadelphia before settling in St. Louis. Initially the Campbells took a suite of rooms in the fashionable new Planters House Hotel, just south of the old Court House.
Between 1842 and 1854 the Campbells lived in two different attached row houses on South 5th Street (now South Broadway) where Busch Stadium stands today. In November 1854 Robert and Virginia purchased the house at 20 Lucas Place (the Campbell House Museum). Virginia had her first child in May 1842. There were 12 more live births over the next 22 years and perhaps as many as 6 miscarriages and stillbirths in the same period.
Virginia was very close to her mother Lucy and sister Eleanor. Shortly after the Campbells moved to their new large house on Lucas Place her mother moved in. Lucy did not care for Virginia’s sister’s husband William Otey and and from her letters was distressed about their marriage. Otey was a slave trader and an alcoholic. Lucy wanted to free her few slaves but feared for them because of Otey. This may account for Lucy’s decision to move in with her daughter Virginia and her family. Lucy lived with the Campbells until she died in 1883, outliving both Robert and Virginia. Virginia’s sister, Eleanor Kyle Otey, also lived with the Campbells on and off between the 1850s and 90s. It has been recently discovered that Virginia did own three slaves. It appears that when she married Robert she received the slaves from her father’s estate, maybe as a dowry. However, shortly after their marriage, she freed the slaves at around the same time her mother freed her slaves.
Virginia the Socialite
Like other families on Lucas Place, Robert and Virginia entertained on a lavish scale. One party in particular was remembered by Lucas Place resident Lucy Semple Ames in a letter from October 10, 1874. “Last night I attended a magnificent dinner given by Mr. Robert Campbell for President and Mrs. Grant and General Sherman–the handsomest private officer I ever saw– ladies in full ball costume and I presume the dinner must have cost over a thousand dollars.”
The year before Virginia held a formal dinner and reception for the President, his entourage, and their close friends while Robert was delayed in Philadelphia on business.
“After the President’s [Ulysses S. Grant] return from Carondelet, he and his family and suite accepted an invitation to a private dinner party at Mrs. Robert Campbell’s residence, No. 1508 Lucas Place. About fifteen guests, all intimate acquaintances of the President or his family, were seated at the board. Among them were Gen. Harney, Hon. Henry T. Blow, Col. Thos. T. Gantt, Capt. James B. Eads and others. The President expressed his regrets at the unavoidable absence of Hon. Robert Campbell, at New York…
[There] was a young folks’ reception, given by Mr. Hugh Campbell to Miss Nellie Grant…Maher’s Band did the musical part of the entertainment. Fifty-five ladies and sixty gentlemen participated in the activities. Among those noticed in the parlors were: Miss Brown, daughter of the mayor; Miss Benton, the Misses Eads, Filley, Harney: Messrs. Charles Knapp, Bryan Clemens, Crickard, Jewett, Col. Vincent Marmaduke and others…
About midnight the full Arsenal Band…drew up in line in front of No. 1508, and serenaded the President for an hour…the President came out upon the balcony and bowed, with Mrs. Campbell leaning on his right arm…The President on appearing remarked to the lady [Mrs. Campbell] with him, ‘This is very tiresome to me – having to go through it so often.’ The lady replied, ‘Yes, General, it must be; but it is to please the people, who honor you.’ ”
(from the “St. Louis Daily Globe”, Tuesday Morning, April 22, 1873)
Virginia was a leader in historic preservation. Between 1879 and 1882 she was a Vice Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. This organization of wealthy ladies had saved and preserved George Washington’s house and estate Mount Vernon. Virginia served as their representative from Missouri. Virginia’s sons honored their mother’s interest in Mount Vernon after she died by donating a pair of Chippendale-style mahogany stands once owned by Washington and by recreating Washington’s deer park on the Mount Vernon estate.
From all of the available evidence, Virginia Campbell was an important partner in Robert Campbell’s business and social life and she was able to challenge the traditional role of women of her class throughout her life. In other ways she fulfilled the traditional role assigned her by society, including managing a large household and staff.
In many ways Virginia was unusual for a 19th century upper middle class woman. She had a strong interest in national and civic affairs. She often traveled alone with her children, which challenged the social conventions of her class. She independently supported many philanthropic causes, including Fr. DeSmet’s Indian missions in the West.
Virginia died on January 30, 1882. She died just a few years after her husband and also like him died at home after a short illness. She was 60 years old. The estate was divided among their three surviving sons, Hugh, Hazlett, and James. By all accounts Robert and Virginia had a very happy marriage. Their surviving letters indicate that they supported each other in their respective roles with a great love for each other and their children.
Between 1842 to 1864 Robert and Virginia had 13 children and, sadly, much of their time was spent mourning the loss of 10. Despite the love and care Robert and Virginia provided their family there was little that could be done to shield the children from disease and the health conditions prevalent in the 19th Century.
The Campbells lost four children in the 1840s, three in the 1850s, and three in the 1860s, all of them between infancy and age seven. Virginia had her last two children at age 40 and 42-both died in infancy. The last child, John, was born with a birth defect and only lived two weeks. Out of 13 children only two were girls and neither reached their second birthday. Generally there were never more than three or four children living at any one time during this 22-year period. From January 1862 to June 1862 five children lived at 20 Lucas Place: Hugh, Hazlett, James, Robert Jr., and George. All the children except one are buried with their parents in Bellefontaine Cemetery in north St. Louis. Son Robert (1844–1847) is most likely buried in Philadelphia, as the family was away for the summer at the time of his death. There is little documentation or information pertaining to the 10 children that died young. There are portraits of four young children in the Campbell collection and a few references in family correspondence.
In an era when the mortality rate among children was much higher than today, there was little that could be done to protect the Campbell children from diseases such as diphtheria, measles, cholera, encephalitis, and scarlet fever (one cause of death is recorded as “summer complaint”). However, it was unusual that more than 75 percent of the Campbell’s children died in childhood.
This may be explained by looking at the family’s growing fortune. The Campbells’ money exposed their children to conditions that most people of the mid-19th Century avoided. The worst of these conditions was the drinking water.
The majority of St. Louisians got their water from cisterns or even wells, however the wealthy could afford indoor plumbing. The water for the plumbing system came straight from the Mississippi, unfiltered or treated and was much dirtier than the cistern water. The Campbell children that died of water-borne diseases like diphtheria and cholera probably contracted the disease from the dirty tap water.
Dirty water was only part of the explanation for so many deaths. The plumbing the water flowed through was made of lead, resulting in children born with birth defects like spina bifida. The parents’ money also exposed the children to the best medical care, which was often lethal. Sick children treated by doctors were bled and dosed with mercury salts.
Note on Names
In examining the family genealogy, it is interesting to note several things. First, the Campbells’ children were named after family members. Hazlett Kyle was Virginia’s father, Hugh was the name of Robert’s father and brother, Lucy Ann was Virginia’s mother, and Mary was Virginia’s cousin and the children’s aunt, James Alexander was Robert’s brother. Names were also used again after a child died-there were two Hughs, two Hazletts, two James Alexanders, and three Roberts.
As young children, the three surviving Campbell boys did not attend a public school but were tutored at home by their mother. When they were teenagers they attended Smith Academy, a preparatory school that was part of Washington University. Both institutions were just up the street from the Campbell house. A number of the boy’s schoolbooks are preserved in the museum collection. After Smith Academy, all the boys attended university, however, none of them ever utilized their education in a career. Neither Hugh, Hazlett nor James ever worked for any length of time, living their entire lives off of their parent’s estate.
After their mother died in 1882, each one of the boys took a suite of rooms in the house to use as their own. Hugh took the back three rooms on the third floor. Hazlett used his parent’s old bedrooms on the second floor and James took the front three rooms on the third floor. James, Hugh, and Hazlett all used their parent’s house as their primary residence until they died. None of the three married or had children.
Hugh was the oldest of Robert and Virginia’s surviving children. The year he was born must have been a difficult one for his parents. They lost a son in July and a daughter in September. Hugh’s birth on November 15, 1847 must have been a sad joy for them. Just a few years later during cholera epidemic of 1849 Hugh almost died-Robert described his condition as being “on the very verge of the grave.”
After sufficient tutoring from his mother, Hugh enrolled at Smith Academy where he was a student from 1859 to 1863. Hugh must have been determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, because he convinced his parents to let him spend the summer of 1863 at Ft. Laramie (Robert had built the fort 30 years earlier as a young man). Hugh spent the summer under the care of some of his father’s business associates and saw the mountains, shot antelope and met scores of Indians, including his father’s good friend, an Arapaho named Friday.
He attended Washington University from 1864 to 1867, graduating in 1867 with a law degree, although he never practiced. The Campbells’ grand tour of Europe began shortly after his graduation. Robert, Virginia, Hugh, Hazlett, James and a servant saw Europe from Ireland to Italy during an 11 month trip.
As a younger man Hugh was known as the life of the party. He had a good singing voice, could play the piano and entertained on a lavish scale equal to that of his mother. After the death of his parents and his younger brother James, Hugh spent his life managing the estate and caring for his younger brother, Hazlett.
Hugh was very fond of children and shared his home and garden with neighborhood children. He also supplied Christmas dinner for a local boys’ home.
As he got older Hugh exchanged his friends in high society for new friends in the neighborhood-the children. He gave them popcorn and candy (In 1905, Hugh spent $1,500 at the Busy Bee Candy Company-that year candy cost 25¢ per pound). Each year he sponsored a lavish Thanksgiving dinner including waiters and a string band for the Father Dunne’s Newsboys’ Home. Hugh persistently refused to have his name associated with any of his gifts, but if pressed insisted on being known as “Mr. Murphy.” He even permitted one neighborhood girl to use the parlor piano to practice her lessons.
Hugh became known for his philanthropy, contributing to all the churches in the neighborhood-Presbyterian, Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist and Jewish. He was ecumenical with his money. In 1925 Hugh suffered a hip injury when he tripped on the stairs at the back door. He became more reclusive in the last years of his life. He died on August 9, 1931 at the age of 83. His cause of death was listed as heart disease.
In his obituaries, Hugh was remembered as the son of his famous father, as a millionaire, for his generosity to charities and children, but most of all for his reclusiveness– practically no one but household servants had been seen entering or leaving the house for 20 years.
Hazlett Kyle Campbell
Hazlett Kyle Campbell was born February 2, 1858. Only two years older than brother James, the two boys were very close and probably shared the upper third floor bedroom and were in the same class at Smith Academy. Hazlett and James were 4th classmen (freshmen) in 1872 and graduated as first classmen in 1875–76. Hazlett and James were in an advanced class in 1876–77 at Smith Academy. Between 1878 and 1879 Hazlett was a clerk at Brookmire and Rankin, wholesale grocers.
Wilson Aull, a friend of Hazlett’s, lived next door to the Campbell’s until 1877. He attended school with Hazlett. They played together and often attended dances together. According to Aull, as a youth Hazlett was interested in horses and baseball. His father gave him a horse and buggy and they often went out to watch the Browns play. For a short time Hazlett worked as a salesman for a local grocery company. Aull believed Hazlett became increasingly peculiar between 1878–86. He felt it grew worse following the death of his mother in 1882 and even more severe following the death of James in 1890.
Today Hazlett would probably be diagnosed as suffering from manic depression and schizophrenia, both of which were practically unknown to the medical community during his lifetime and so untreatable. After James’s death, Hugh took Hazlett to medical specialists throughout Europe but his efforts proved futile. Today medical science has suggested that schizophrenia may be caused by lead poisoning in the womb and early childhood-which is very plausible in Hazlett’s case considering the amount of lead he and his mother were exposed to (primarily lead plumbing and paint).
During the present restoration of the museum some large medicine bottles were discovered. One of the bottles still has its label, which very clearly reads “cocaine.” It is thought that Hazlett was being dosed with cocaine in an attempt to control his mood swings.
Hugh later referred to Hazlett as “very nervous and not well” and a physician described his condition as “mental retreat from life” that lasted a half a century. He suffered from a paralytic stroke in 1924 that left him speechless and servants recalled that he required “care like a small child.” His lack of physical activity probably led to the development of a weak heart, one of the causes of his death.
When Hugh died in 1931 Hazlett was declared of unsound mind. The house and all of its contents were maintained, including the servants, and a doctor visited daily. Hazlett, the last Campbell, died on March 27, 1938, at age 80. With his death the scramble for the Campbell estate began, eventually leading to the creation of the Campbell House Museum.
James Alexander Campbell
James Alexander, born March 16, 1860, attended Yale University from 1879 to 1882, but left before commencement because of Virginia’s death.
He roomed with a man named Asa Palmer French their sophomore through senior year. James stayed at Yale in the Graduate Department in non-professional studies for one year. He was a member of Delta Kappa, Eta Phi, Psi Upsilon and the influential Skull and Bones Society. Tall (6 feet 1 inch), handsome and intelligent, James seemed to be his parents’ and brothers’ favorite.
He traveled, presumably with his brothers, in July of 1883 to Norway, Sweden, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Palestine and Egypt and returned the summer of 1885 to St. Louis. In the fall of 1885 he entered law school at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he rented a house. James graduated with honors in the spring of 1888 and returned home to St. Louis for the summer.
In the fall, the three sons went to Europe maintaining a residence in Paris on the exclusive Place Vendome. They traveled the continent, with a short visit to London, visiting art galleries and other places of interest. It was in Paris that James, with his two dogs, began posing for the portrait by Jules LeFebvre.
In January 1890 James caught a flu virus. He died at his Paris apartment on July 13 of a severe attack of pneumonia and lung congestion. His brothers returned to St. Louis with his body. He was buried in the family plot on August 28, 1890. Of the 15 members of the immediate Campbell family only Hugh and Hazlett were left.