Campbell, Robert (1804–79), trader, businessman, and philanthropist, was born 12 February 1804 on a 180-acre farm at Aghalane, near Plumbridge in the Glenelly valley, Co. Tyrone, the youngest of four sons and two daughters of Hugh Campbell (c.1748–1810) and his second wife, Sarah Elizabeth Buchanan; there were also five children from Hugh Campbell's first marriage, to Catherine Denny. Sarah Campbell's family was involved in the emigration trade; one of her relatives, Alexander Carlisle, was his majesty's agent for emigrants at Quebec and author of Emigration practically considered, with detailed directions to emigrants proceeding to British North America (1826), and another, James Buchanan, was president of the USA (1857–61).
Unlike his eldest brother, Hugh, who briefly attended medical school in Edinburgh in 1812, Robert's only formal education was from the minister of the nearby Eden Mill meeting-house. He emigrated to the USA at the age of eighteen, following the example of Hugh, who had settled at Milton, North Carolina, in 1818, moving later to Philadelphia. Robert sailed from Derry to Philadelphia via St John's, New Brunswick. Within a year he was at St Louis as assistant clerk to one of St Louis's first millionaires, the merchant, John O'Fallon.
Suffering from ‘consumptive symptoms’, Robert resisted strong family pressure to return to Ireland in 1825 on the deaths of a brother and sister, and followed medical advice to go west to the Rocky Mountains. There he learned the fur trade from two of its leading exponents, General William Henry Ashley, owner of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and Jedediah Smith. As an associate of Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and Thomas Fitzpatrick (qv), he rose within six years from fur trapper to brigade leader and business partner of William Sublette. In the battle of Pierre's Hole (1832) between fur trappers and the Blackfeet tribe in eastern Idaho, Campbell risked his own life by dragging the wounded Sublette to safety before rejoining the fight – an incident made famous by Washington Irving's Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). In 1834 Campbell and Sublette established Fort William (later Fort Laramie) in Wyoming.
Campbell and Sublette got out of fur trapping in 1835 and opened a dry goods company in St Louis. After prices for beaver fur collapsed in the 1830s they switched to trading in buffalo hides. By the 1840s Campbell was selling tens of thousands of hides a year; he sold at $3.50 per pound hides that he purchased at $1.50 from an extensive network of Native Americans who hunted the buffalo and then processed and delivered the hides to stores along the Missouri river for transport by Campbell's steamboat captains to St Louis. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was given his first job by Campbell as a riverboat pilot on the A. B. Chambers.
After Sublette's death in 1845, Campbell went into partnership with his brother Hugh, who moved from Philadelphia in 1859 to join him at St Louis. Robert became president of the Bank of Missouri in 1846. He was also president of the Merchants’ National Bank at St Louis, owned the Southern Hotel there, and was one of the city's leading property owners. In the 1840s he controlled a gold mine in New Mexico that yielded about 400 pounds weight of gold dust a year, and in the 1850s was buying 5,000 head of cattle a year in Texas for driving to the railhead and shipping to Chicago and east St Louis. During the Mexican war (1846–8) he helped to recruit and equip troops for General Kearney's march to Santa Fé, serving as inspector general for Missouri and being made a colonel in the militia. He served twice, by presidential appointment, as 'Indian commissioner', but eventually resigned in 1874 over a disagreement with government policy and practice in honouring treaties. He was a signatory of the treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851 concluded between agents of the government and the Native American nations residing south of the Missouri river, east of the Rocky Mountains, and north of Texas and New Mexico. He also attended the gathering held at Fort Laramie in 1870 to placate the Sioux chief, Red Cloud.
During the American civil war Campbell was pro-union, a moderate Democrat who was tolerant of slavery and discrimination against free blacks. He stayed out of active politics, declining public office and maintaining good relations with those of the opposite party. He was a trustee of Walnut Street presbyterian church, St Louis, having left the Second presbyterian church in 1864 when the congregation split over its liberal minister. He had a strong reputation for financial integrity: in 1857 his credit was thought better than that of the US government. He was chairman of the St Louis Hibernian Benevolent Society's finance committee, made contributions to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and his letters reveal that Presbyterian values ‘guided his daily life to a degree few achieve’ (Nester, 1991).
Campbell's rise from fur trader to leading capitalist paralleled the growth of St Louis from frontier town to sophisticated metropolis. In 1854 he moved into a town house (built 1851) in the fashionable Lucas Place neighbourhood, where his guests included Ulysses S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, James B. Eads, and Father Pierre De Smet. Both Robert and Hugh maintained correspondence with the family in Ireland, sent home remittances, and made a return visit between March 1830 and June 1831. During the famine the brothers sent a special shipment of flaxseed to help relieve the distress of the family's tenants.
In 1841 Campbell married Virginia Jane Kyle of Raleigh, North Carolina (1822–82), a first cousin of his brother Hugh's wife, who became a leading society hostess. Of their thirteen children, only three sons survived to adulthood and none married. Between June 1867 and May 1868 Robert, with his wife and five children, made a grand tour of Europe, which included a visit to the family home in Tyrone. Suffering still from his recurrent lung problem, he died 16 October 1879 at his home in St Louis and was buried in Bellefontaine cemetery, St Louis, where the family plot is marked by a large obelisk. He left an estate of $2 million in cash, $8 million in stock, controlling interest in two railroads, three steamboats, and 5,000 acres of property. On the death of his last surviving son in 1938 the estate of $2 million was eventually distributed among 161 heirs in the USA, Canada, England, and Ireland, after special hearings by a commission of the court of St Louis at Dublin, Belfast, Derry, and Omagh.
Aghalane House, birthplace of Robert Campbell, was physically dismantled and rebuilt at the outdoor museum of the Ulster-American Folk Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, where it is open to the public. His St Louis town house at 1508 Locust Street (formerly Lucas Place), St Louis, is now the Campbell House Museum. Extensive holdings of Campbell's papers, including letters, journals, account books, and photographs, are at the Missouri Historical Society, the St Louis Mercantile Library (microfilm), the Campbell House Museum, and the Library of the Centre for Migration Studies at the Ulster-American Folk Park.