The Campbell Quest: A Saga of Family and Fortune

July 20, 2018 Posted by: Tom Dewey, Librarian

The Campbell Quest: A Saga of Family and Fortune, by Patrick C. MacCulloch. St. Louis: Missouri History Museum, 2009.

The name Robert Campbell has long been associated with the city of St. Louis. His name is mostly known to current residents because of the Campbell House Museum in downtown St. Louis. But many people do not know his story and how he got to St. Louis in the first place. Patrick MacCulloch’s The Campbell Quest illuminates a long and rich history of the man and his family.

Campbell left his family farm in Ireland in 1822 to come to St. Louis to become a fur trapper. A few years later, he and his partner, William Sublette, formed their own fur trading company, which started a bitter rivalry with John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. Campbell and Sublette later went into the dry goods business. By 1842, the two ended their partnership and Campbell went on to positions in banking and later, the military and politics.
Campbell’s increasing importance in the financial and political worlds kept pace with his increasing wealth and overall prosperity. He was even a friend and confidant of President Ulysses S Grant.

Campbell’s private life was not as fortunate.  Campbell married a young woman against the wishes of his brother and his partner. Of their thirteen children, ten died in childhood from a variety of diseases. Two of the surviving sons died before Campbell’s estate could be settled, and the third was judged mentally incompetent. Campbell’s will was ambiguous and led to a very lengthy litigation. It took Campbell almost sixty years to accumulate a personal fortune that today would be worth about 70 million dollars. It then took several decades of litigation before the money was distributed to his ultimate heirs-many of whom lived in Europe.

The author’s father was one of those heirs. MacCulloch has drawn on his family’s papers and unearthed several dozen nineteenth-century family letters and diaries in archives in the United States, Ireland, Scotland, and England. Extracts from these primary sources provide authentic firsthand accounts of both nineteenth century life on an Irish farm and life on the American western frontier.  This is a true family saga, rich with history and people that readers will find fascinating.

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Last updated: July 20, 2018

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