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5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West- 3: John Healy

5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West

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3. John J. Healy

Every good western story needs its heroes and villains. If the history of the Canadian Wild West was dramatized in print or film, the officers of the North West Mounted Police would almost certainly be the good guys, while Montanan whisky traders would probably be the bad guys. Undoubtedly, the most powerful and prolific of the Montanan whisky traders to ply his trade north of the border- indeed the man who first brought American firewater to the Canadian plains in 1869, the man who might quite justifiably be considered the arch-nemesis of the early North West Mounted Police- was a fearless, wiry Irishman named John J. Healy. As is the case with all characters of the Canadian Wild West, however, John Healy was neither all bad, nor all good, but rather a bit of both.

John Jerome (or perhaps Joseph) Healy was born on January 24, 1840 in Bandon, County Cork, Ireland, into a family of millers. Like his Canadian-American Wild West counterpart Kootenai Brown, his childhood was dominated by the horrors of the Great Famine which ravaged Ireland in the latter half of the 1840’s and early 1850’s. Although John Healy, in latter-life reminiscences, would talk openly about his exploits on the Canadian-American frontier, he remained understandably tight-lipped about his early life in Ireland.

In the winter of 1853, John’s father Thomas decided that it was in his family’s best interests to leave the Old World for the New. Together with both his parents, his five siblings, and a flood of fellow Irish immigrants, 13-year-old John travelled across the Atlantic to New York City. His mother died shortly upon arriving in America and his father quickly remarried, prompting John to leave his father and siblings and take to the streets. According to some historians, Healy, not finding New York street life to his liking, left the city shortly thereafter and enlisted in the irregular freebooting army of American filibuster William Walker. If true, Healy would almost certainly have accompanied Walker and his soldiers to Nicaragua, where the mercenary army ultimately succeeded in capturing the city of Granada, effectively taking control of the Latin American country at the height of a political revolt.

Although historians are divided on whether or not John Healy really joined the mercenary army of William Walker in 1854, they generally agree that he eventually wound up in Buffalo, New York, where, in the spring of 1858, he enlisted in the Second Dragoons of the U.S. Army. The eighteen-year-old Irishman lied about his age in order to join the Force, declaring that he was “21 years and two months of age” (at that time, the U.S. Army accepted soldiers no younger than 21). He also declared that he had spent the past few years apprenticing in the saddlery trade. After completing basic training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Healy was dispatched to Camp Floyd, a U.S. Army post about 60 kilometres southwest of Salt Lake City, Utah. There, he and his company relieved the post’s garrison in the aftermath of the so-called ‘Utah War,’ a conflict between Mormon settlers of Utah Territory and the Washington government.

After doing garrison duty at Camp Floyd, Healy was posted in the Rocky Mountains to the west. There, he was tasked with patrolling a stretch of the wagon-rutted Oregon Trail, a settler trail which connected the American West Coast with the Missouri River. It was in the American Rockies that the eighteen-year-old soldier got his first taste of the western frontier, participating in Cheyenne buffalo hunts and meeting paragons of the American West like adventurer John Wesley Powell and legendary mountain man Jim Bridger. By 1860- when he was discharged from the Army on account of the War Department’s discovery of his true age- John Healy had fallen in love with the American Wild West.

Immediately upon his discharge, John Healy decided to prospect for gold. Instead of following in the wake of the Fifty-Niners- the hoard of prospectors who flocked to Kansas and Nebraska Territory in 1859- and pan the creeks of Pike’s Peak Country for gold, however, he decided to travel to what is now Clearwater County, Idaho, where gold had oregon-trailbeen discovered that year. In order to earn his passage to the goldfields, he traded in his blue coat for buckskins and hired himself out as a guide to a wagon train traversing the Oregon Trail. En route to its destination, the wagon train was constantly harried by Shoshone warriors. Healy, being the only member of the train with anything approaching frontier experience, found himself thrust into a position of unofficial authority. Through the use of wit, nerve, and sheer dumb luck, Healy managed to guide the wagon train safely through hostile Indian territory, earning himself an ample paycheck and an arrow wound in the leg.

John Healy used his the money he earned to outfit himself in Portland, Oregon, and purchase steamboat tickets up the Columbia River to the Idaho goldfields. While on the trail, he partnered up with John Kennedy, a railroader and fellow ex-soldier from Ohio, along with a handful of prospectors from Portland. The company reached their destination with little incident, did some panning, staked a claim, and set about clearing their land of trees and brush so that they could excavate it. Before the prospectors had even started a shaft, Healy crushed his leg in a tree-felling accident. During his recovery, he heard tell of new prospects not far from the Clearwater area and left with Kennedy and  another party for the new diggings.

panning-for-goldHealy and company had difficulty reaching their new destination due to a series of aggressive yet largely non-violent encounters with Nez Perce Indians strongly opposed to white men trespassing on their hunting grounds. After joining with other similarly-plagued prospecting parties, however, John Healy and his fellow prospectors managed to muscle their way through to their destination. At the new diggings, panning proved fruitless, and the company soon dissolved. Soon, only Healy, Kennedy, and a handful of members of the original company remained. Although these men succeeded in finding better prospects that warranted an excavation, they decided not to exploit their unstaked claim due to lack of game in the area. They travelled to Orofino, a mining boomtown in Clearwater Country, before travelling to a location about 160 kilometers south. There, they staked a claim and purchased provisions before heading back to the site and sinking a shaft. Word of their find got out, and in no time the area was crawling with prospectors. These prospectors founded the boomtown Florence, Idaho, in the vicinity of Healy and company’s find.

In the spring of 1862, Healy took a break from digging in order to follow up on a lead indicating a bonanza a good distance away on the Salmon River. Along with a party of twenty lightly-equipped prospectors, John Healy travelled down the Salmon River. What was initially expected to be a brief, exploratory jaunt quickly devolved into a truly grueling ordeal as Healy and company found themselves battling impassable rapids, severe privation, and hostile Bannock Indians. The party’s most formidable foe, however, was starvation, an obstacle the prospectors would all almost surely have succumbed had they not been rescued by a wagon train of fresh prospectors bound for Florence, Idaho.

missouri-riverUpon being nursed back to health, Healy, along with Kennedy and a handful of companions, joined another wagon train bound for Montana Territory. The prospectors took part in another gold rush and saw the beginnings of the burgeoning boomtown of Bannack. When their prospecting efforts were unsuccessful, Healy and company travelled northeast to the fur trading frontier town of Fort Benton, Montana, on the banks of the Missouri River. There, Healy, Kennedy, and a number of fellow prospectors, eager to visit their families back east, boarded a steamer and headed down the Missouri.

Near the confluence of the Missouri and Milk Rivers, the steamboat happened upon a band of friendly Gros Ventre Indians. No sooner had the steamboat arrived at that location, however, when both it and the Gros Ventre band were surrounded by a large raiding party of Sioux. Although the Sioux and Gros Ventures engaged in a number of skirmishes over the next few days, the mounted Sioux made no move to attack the steamboat passengers.

During this siege, Healy and Kennedy, along with a seasoned Metis trapper named Louis Dauphin, sneaked into the Sioux camp under the cover of darkness and stole a horse without incident. The three men gifted the animal to the Gros Ventures. Shortly thereafter, the Sioux retreated onto the prairies, and the steamboat continued on its way.

22-year-old John Healy returned to New York in the fall of 1862, whereupon he married 18-year-old Mary Frances Sarsfield, the daughter of a well-to-do Irish weaver. In order to avoid the Civil War and conscription in the Union Army, John Healy and his brothers Joseph and Thomas headed for Fort Benton, Montana, in the spring of 1863, leaving the newlywed Mary Frances behind in New York.

The Healy brothers travelled to Montana Territory by way of the Missouri River. In the middle of the prairies, the steamboat they rode became grounded in shallow water and had to be winched along from the shore. During this slow and painful process, the steamboat was set upon by a war party of Sioux braves. A number of passengers- including hopeful prospector and future Montana Indian agent George Steell, American Fur Company baron Charles Chouteau, an Indian scout named “Little Dick”, and Scots-Blackfoot frontiersman Jerry Potts– mounted a successful counterattack that drove the Sioux back, and the steamboat was up and running again in no time.

Upon reaching Fort Benton, Healy set out for the North Saskatchewan River, where a minor gold rush was underway. He scouted the area out before returning to Fort Benton with a Blackfoot half-breed scout named Piscan (or “Buffalo Jump”) Monroe. On the way, the two men were captured and released by a Kootenay raiding party, and later joined a friendlier band of Kootenay Indians who accompanied them all the way to Fort Benton. John Healy, who was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, was greatly impressed when the missionary-influenced Kootenay, despite an obvious food shortage, refused to hunt on the Sabbath.

Upon arriving in Fort Benton, Healy gathered together a prospecting party and sent them north to the North Saskatchewan River while he returned east- where his wife and newborn daughter Maria were waiting- for particular supplies. After some fruitless panning and conflict with the Hudson’s Bay Company employees of the nearby Fort Edmonton, the American prospecting party headed back to Montana. William Gladstone, a young carpenter from Montreal from nearby St. Albert, accompanied the Montanans on their return journey.

When Healy returned west with supplies in the summer of 1864 and learned of his men’s conflict with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he made it his life’s mission to “make [the HBC] abandon [Fort Edmonton].” Instead of taking up that mission right away, however, Healy and his prospecting companions made another foray into British possessions, joining a prospecting party fresh from the Wild Horse Creek goldfields (near present-day Fort Steele)- consisting of Sam Livingston (a prominent prospector sometimes dubbed “Calgary’s First Citizen”), James Gibbons, Cass ‘Big Tex’ Huff, Charlie Thomas, and Joe Kipp- who crossed the Rockies by way of the Kicking Horse Pass and were bound for the supposed goldfields of the North Saskatchewan river. After some unsuccessful prospecting, all but Livingston and Gibbons returned south to Montana.

Upon returning to Montana, Healy made the journey east to Virginia City, Nevada, where another gold rush was underway. At the same time, John Healy’s brother Joseph travelled east to New York, where he picked up his brother’s pregnant wife Mary Frances and 1-year-old daughter Maria and brought them with him to Fort Benton. Mary Frances was hailed as “the first white woman in Fort Benton.” When she finally gave birth, her newborn daughter Sarah was the first white baby born in Fort Benton. Unfortunately, Sarah died only nineteen days after being born. When Mary Frances recovered from the tragedy, she and Maria travelled southwest by stagecoach to join John Healy in Virginia City.

After some unsuccessful prospecting in Nevada, the Healy family travelled to Sun River, Montana, where John Healy made a living for some time as a farmer, trader, ferry operator, and Indian Affairs Department agent. During the ensuing years, Healy and his family lived in relative peace in spite of the American Civil War which raged in the east and the bloody Blackfoot Wars, a series of skirmishes and revenge killings between local South Peigan Blackfoot and white Montanan settlers. During this time, John Healy was appointed the commanding officer of the Sun River Rangers, a Montanan vigilante force formed for the purpose of defense against hostile South Peigan.

One night in the spring of 1869, a large band of friendly Blood Blackfoot camped near John Healy’s Sun River trading post was attacked by a large raiding party of Pend d’Oreille Indians. Healy’s post was caught in the crossfire, and the Irishman and his employees engaged with the raiders in a deadly shootout. After the incident, Healy tracked down the fleeing raiding party and, through tact and bravado, managed to both retrieve the herd of horses the Indians had stolen from his coral and make peace with the Pend d’Oreille.

During the Blackfoot Wars of the 1860’s, white settlers and the U.S. Army gradually drove the Blood and South Peigan Blackfoot- Healy’s primary customers- north into the Dominion of Canada’s North-West Territories. In time, John Healy decided to follow his patrons. In the winter of 1869, John Healy partnered up with fellow trader and former prospector Alfred Baker Hamilton, formed the Saskatchewan Mining, Prospecting, & Trading Outfit, secured $25,000-worth of trading stock on credit from Fort Benton wholesaler Tom Powers, and started north for what is now Alberta with a crew comprised of he and Hamilton, frontiersman Jerry Potts, and a handful of others. The crew, after successfully smuggling their goods into British possessions and receiving permission from local Blood chief Buffalo Back Fat, built a trading post on the banks of the Belly (now Oldman) River near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta (a popular winter camp area for the Bloods). This post, formally dubbed ‘Fort Hamilton’ after co-founder Alfred Hamilton, would come to be known colloquially as Fort Whoop-Up.

That winter of 1896/97, Healy, Hamilton, and their employees made more than $50,000 (a small fortune in those days) at Fort Whoop-Up selling goods to the local Blood Indians in exchange for valuable buffalo robes. Although the Montanans sold a number of conventional trading items- including repeating rifles and ammunition, woolen blankets, various metal tools and utensils, flour, sugar, and tea- to the Blackfoot, they also purveyed another commodity which would, in time, cause the Indians considerable grief: whisky.

The whisky sold at Fort Whoop-up was a boiled-down rotgut concoction termed ‘firewater’, or ‘bug juice,’ which consisted of American whisky, river water, tobacco plugs, blackstrap molasses, red pepper, red ink, lye soap, Jamaica Ginger, and a dash of strychnine. This beverage was irresistible to the local Blackfoot, who would “undergo every hardship and fatigue to procure a [cupful of it].” Its widespread usage among the Indians had disastrous consequences. Many Blackfoot, under its influence, would murder friends and family in drunken arguments or wander alone out into the prairie and freeze to death, while others would succumb to the toxic beverage itself. Said Siksika Blackfoot chief Crowfoot on the effect of this beverage on his compatriots:

“The whiskey brought among us by the Traders is fast killing us off and we are powerless before the evil. [We are] totally unable to resist the temptation to drink when brought in contact with the white man’s water. We are also unable to pitch anywhere that the Trader cannot follow us. Our horses, Buffalo robes and other articles of trade go for whisky; a large number of our people have killed one another and perished in various ways under the influence.”

After a profitable season on British territory, John Healy, Alfred Hamilton, and a number of Montanan companions returned across the 49th parallel, traded in their season’s take of buffalo robes at Fort Benton, and returned to Fort Whoop-Up the following year. This time, they brought with them carpenter William Gladstone, who built a formidable palisaded fort a short distance from the original post designed to withstand potential Indian raids. Other enterprising Montanan traders, including Joe Kipp and Charlie Thomas, followed their advice and similarly established trading posts on the Belly River.

John Healy would continue to trade whisky and other goods to the Blackfoot in exchange for buffalo robes at Fort Whoop-Up until 1874. During this time, he helped broker a peace between the South Peigan and Pend d’Oreille, witnessed the Battle of Belly River (the world’s last great inter-tribal Indian battle; fought between the Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies), and single-handedly stood off an angry militia of wolfers who styled themselves the Spitzee Cavalry at Fort Kipp (another whisky fort on the Belly River). He also made good on his earlier vow to get back at the Hudson’s Bay Company by buying huge quantities of pemmican from the Blackfoot and Crow Indians, effectively starving Fort Edmonton into dissolution. When the North West Mounted Police formed up and marched west in 1874 with the aim of suppressing the whisky trade that Healy and his Montanan counterparts had brought to Canada, Healy returned south to Montana and spent the summer at Fort Benton. John Healy rode north to Canada the following year, his whisky-peddling past behind him, and acquainted himself with the newly-arrived Mounties.

In the following years, John Healy divided his time between Fort Benton, where he established a grain mill, and Whoop-Up Country, where he continued to trade various goods (aside from whisky) with the Blackfoot and North West Mounted Police. In 1877, he left Canada for good and took up permanent residence at Fort Benton with his family (which, in time, included six children), whereupon the town residents elected him as sheriff of Montana’s Chouteau County. That spring, he was tasked with guarding frontiersman Kootenai Brown, a fellow Irishman who had murdered wolfer Louis Ell in the heat of a dispute over wolf pelts. Several months later, he worked as a scout and interpreter for a volunteer United States militia during the Nez Perce War. In October of that year, John Healy served as an interpreter and consultant for U.S. Army General Alfred Terry during his meeting with Hunkpapa Sioux chief Sitting Bull, who had fled north with his people into Canada following the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Throughout his tenure as sheriff of Chouteau County, John Healy- Irish to the core- exhibited contempt for his British-esque, red-coated counterparts north of the border who had displaced him and his whisky-trading lot in 1874. In 1879, when the North West Mounted Police implored him to extradite a young Blood warrior suspected of murdering the 19-year-old Mountie Constable Graburn who, following the murder, had apparently fled south to Montana, John Healy haughtily offered to do so for $5,000. The Mounties declined the outrageous offer and later captured the Blood fugitive when he returned to Canada to visit relatives.

In the early 1880’s, John Healy traded his sheriff’s badge for pick and shovel and once again took up prospecting, this time in the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary. After his brother Joseph discovered copper and silver in promising quantities in the Bow River Valley, John and Joseph Healy, and a number of Canadian and Montanan investors founded Silver City, a boomtown on the Bow River across from Castle Mountain in what is now Banff National Park. Prospectors who flocked to the area soon learned that the area’s precious minerals were in short supply, and Silver City soon devolved into a ghost town.

By that time, the days of the Canadian Wild West were numbered. The bison that had dominated the plains since time immemorial had been hunted to near extinction, the last of the indigenous Plains peoples had been corralled into reserves, and the Canadian Pacific Railway was built across the country, opening up the North-West Territories to settlers. Ever the frontiersman, John Healy, following his and his brother’s financial setback at Silver City, returned briefly to Montana before setting out for the last frontier- the Canadian-American north.

In Juneau, Alaska, Healy acquired a loan which he used to establish a fur-trading and outfitting post on the Dyea Inlet at the  end of Lynn Canal, at the base of the Chilkoot Pass. There, he traded various goods to the local Tlingit in exchange for furs, and outfitted the handful of prospectors who trickled over the Chilkoot Pass into the interior in search of Yukon gold. That trickle of prospectors grew to a steady stream during the Fortymile Gold Rush of the late 1880’s. During this time, in which Healy made a respectable profit outfitting hopeful gold miners, Healy’s trading post was the site of a deadly duel between rival Tlingit and Tagish packers. Shortly thereafter, after marrying his second wife Isabella “Belle” Boyd (Mary Frances had succumbed to an illness in Montana back in 1883), John Healy and his new bride were made honourary members of the Crow and Eagle Clans, respectively, of the Tlingit First Nation.

In the 1890’s, John Healy moved inland to the boomtown of Fortymile, where he established an outfitting post. The hard-nosed, no-nonsense entrepreneur did not get along well with many of the boomtown residents. In 1893, he took offense to the verdict of a miner’s meeting- the northern frontier equivalent of a courtroom trial- which stipulated that he compensate one of his female employees for a slight, and sought the assistance of his old enemies, the North West Mounted Police. Due in part to Healy’s entreaty, the North West Mounted Police came to the Yukon to establish law and order.

After the arrival of the North West Mounted Police, John Healy expanded his northern empire. In addition to his trading posts at Dyea and Fortymile, he opened another store at the boomtown Circle City, Alaska (located at the edge of the Arctic Circle), and another at the old coastal port town St. Michael, Alaska (located on the Bering Sea at the mouth of the Yukon River). He also purchased a steamboat, which he used to ferry passengers and freight the length of the massive Yukon River. These expansions served him well; in the late 1890’s, the steady stream of northern prospectors which characterized the Fortymile and Circle City gold rushes of the previous decade swelled into a veritable flood during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890’s. John Healy and his family, several members of which had accompanied him north, made a small fortune during these years, using the considerable profit from their various enterprises to purchase interests in mining claims.

In 1900, 60-year-old John Healy travelled to Nome, Alaska, where another gold rush was underway. Instead of panning for gold, as he was wont to do in the past, the seasoned frontiersman contented himself with observing the operations of a younger generation of adventurers and entrepreneurs before co-founding the Yakutat Fishing Company, which quickly evolved into the Central Alaskan Exploration Company.

In the early 1900’s, after going through a nasty divorce with Isabella, Healy took on his biggest project yet. Along with a number of international partners, he contrived to construct a railway bridging North America with Siberia by way of the Bering Strait- a hypothetical railway dubbed the Trans-Alaskan Siberian Railroad. John Healy and his North American partners founded the Alaska Northern Railway Company, which would be in charge of the construction of the Alaskan stretch of the trans-continental railroad. After six years of seemingly-successful negotiation with Russian authorities, the venture fell through.


Broke and now in poor health, John Healy retired to San Francisco, where he lived with his daughter Maria and her husband. He became bedridden quite suddenly, and passed away on September 15, 1908, due to liver failure.


  • Healy’s West- The Life and Times of John J. Healy, 2014, Gordon E. Tolton


By Hammerson Peters


5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West:

1) Jerry Potts

2) Kootenai Brown

4) Joe Kipp

5) Harry “Kamoose” Taylor


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5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West- 2: Kootenai Brown

5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West

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2. Kootenai Brown

If you’ve ever driven through Waterton Lakes National Park on the Alberta #5 Highway, you might have noticed a sign labelled “Kootenai Brown” directing you off the main drag. If you take the sign’s advice, you’ll find yourself walking on a small paved path which leads to an even smaller trail through the brush. At the end of this smaller trail is a tiny cemetery in the middle of the woods. One of the cemetery’s three graves is that of John George Brown, known in later life as Kootenai Brown, Waterton Lakes’ first park ranger.

Although perhaps best known for being Waterton Lakes’ first park ranger, Alberta’s first petroleum pioneer, and the Chief Scout of the Rocky Mountain Rangers, John George “Kootenai” Brown has a rich and colourful Canadian Wild West history. Indeed, he is one of the greatest frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West.

Kootenai Brown’s story began in Ireland in 1839, when he was born into a long line of Scottish-English military men. Having lost both his parents in the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s, he was raised by his paternal grandmother, who fought tooth and nail for him to attain an officer’s rank in the British Army. In those days, officers of the British Army attained their rank by purchasing it. Brown’s grandmother, being of modest means, wrote incessantly to the Commander-in-Chief of he British Army, asking that her grandson be granted a commission pro bono on account of his father and grandfather’s dutiful service to the Crown. Her persistence paid off. In 1858, Brown was granted a gratuitous commission in British Army at the height of the Sepoy Mutiny, a bloody revolt in India which left the British Army in desperate need of officers. Brown left for Calcutta  on January 14, 1858 with a command of 21 private soldiers.

In India, Kootenai Brown acquired an appetite for adventure which, as he soon learned, would not be satiated by British military life. After returning to Ireland in 1860, he left the Old World for the New, never to return. With his friend Arthur Wellesley Vowell- a man who would one day serve as Gold Commissioner for British Columbia’s Kootenay district- Brown traveled to Panama in the hopes of eventually reaching the Cariboo goldfields of British Columbia. He and Vowell crossed the Panama Isthmus by train and traveled up the West Coast by steamer to San Francisco. There, they worked odd labour jobs, earning enough money to buy steamer tickets to Victoria, the present-day capital of British Columbia which, according to Brown, “in 1862 had no idea of ever becoming a capital of anything.” There, Brown and Vowell worked as lumberjacks for some time in order to raise money for a prospecting venture. When they each had enough to purchase an outfit, they traveled up the Fraser River to Port Douglas, up the Lillooet Trail to Coyoosh Flat (present-day Lillooet), and up the rugged Old Cariboo Road to the Cariboo goldfields of Williams Creek.

Like most of the prospectors who flocked to British Columbia’s Cariboo region to hunt for gold, Brown and Vowell were unsuccessful. After a season of fruitlessly panning the Cariboo River, the two partners split up. Vowell returned downriver to civilization. Brown decided to spend the fall and winter at the lawless Williams Lake, where he witnessed a deadly shootout between two rival prospectors.

Later that winter, Brown decided to temporarily abandon the search for gold and try his hand at trapping. Together with a partner, Brown succeeded in bringing in a season profit of $3,000 (current equivalent to about $70,000 Canadian). He used the money to outfit himself for another year-long prospecting venture which was, like the first one, completely unsuccessful. When the season was over, Brown, totally broke and down on his luck, found work as a swamper hauling canoes over a particularly rough stretch of the Fraser River.

After earning himself enough money to buy himself a hat, coat, and pair of suspenders, Brown traveled down the Fraser to New Westminster, where he found work as a Constable for the Colony of British Columbia’s Civil Service. His employers immediately dispatched him to Wild Horse Creek (near present-day Fort Steele), where a new gold rush was underway. Brown made the journey from New Westminster to his new post via the route that would one day become the Dewdney Trail.

As it turned out, Wild Horse Creek was just as wild and lawless as the Cariboo. Brown’s first act as Constable was to arrest three counterfeiters, who were making purchases with their imitation gold dust. When the Colony of British Columbia, on account of budget cuts, reduced his pay, he quit the service and took up prospecting once again. Brown and his new prospecting partners, after a fruitless season panning Wild Horse Creek, sold their claim to a party of Chinese prospectors and traveled east, hoping to try their luck on the North Saskatchewan River near Fort Edmonton, where it was rumoured that another gold rush was underway.

Brown and his partners had no idea where Fort Edmonton was aside from that it was somewhere to the east. Without a map or compass, the party traveled through the mountains, eventually stumbling upon the Kootenai Pass, located near the Waterton Lakes region. There, they crossed the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains over into the western Canadian prairies.


Brown and his three companions traveled further east along the prairies, running into all manner of prairie animals including huge herds of buffalo and prairie wolves, prairie grizzlies, coyotes, and “hundreds of rattlesnakes.” At Seven Persons Creek, near present-day Medicine Hat, Alberta, they were set upon by a war party of 32 young Blackfoot braves, all of them armed with either bows and flint-tipped arrows or hand-to-hand weapons. The prospectors, who were armed with muzzle-loading percussion rifles, drove back the warriors, killing two of them in the process. During this skirmish, Brown received an arrow in his lower back which narrowly missed one of his kidneys. He pulled the arrow out himself, and allowed his companions to dress his open wound by emptying half a pint of turpentine into it.

kootenai-brown-4Following the skirmish, the party traveled down the creek to the South Saskatchewan River. There, they had a falling out. Two of the prospectors rode north to Fort Edmonton. Brown decided to follow the river, hoping that it might lead to civilization. The third companion, a man with a gold tooth who had lost his horse during the skirmish, would have to travel on foot through extremely dangerous territory. Feeling sorry for his companion, Brown killed a nearby buffalo, constructed a bull boat from its hide, and pushed him off in it so that he, too, might travel downriver.

Brown quickly outstripped his waterborne companion as he rode downriver. In time, he came to the French Metis winter village of Duck Lake, just downriver of present-day Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The village’s Metis inhabitants invited Brown to stay with them for the winter. The frontiersman gratefully accepted. Shortly thereafter, one the Metis approached Brown, telling him that a newcomer named Mr. Goldtooth was looking for him. Mr. Goldtooth, as it turned out, was the man Brown had made a bull boat for. He, too, stayed the winter at Duck Lake.

portage-la-prairieIn the spring, Brown and his companion rode southeast to Fort Garry, present-day Winnipeg, Manitoba. From there, they they split up. ‘Mr. Goldtooth’ traveled east towards civilization, while Brown entered into the whisky trade. At various Indian camps, he sold clothes, blankets, and whisky to the local Cree and Ojibwa in exchange for muskrat, mink, fox, coyote, and wolf pelts. On one occasion, while he was trading in his furs at a post at Portage la Prairie, Brown found himself caught in a ferocious shootout between the post’s white owners and thirty angry Ojibwa from Red Lake, Michigan. During this firefight, one Indian and one white man were killed.

Following the shootout at Portage la Prairie, Brown continued to trade with the First Nations for over a year. During this time, while on a business trip to Fort Garry, he chanced upon a U.S. recruiter for the Pony Express. After hearing what the recruiter had to say, Brown decided to leave Manitoba for the American frontier. There, in North Dakota, he ran mail for the U.S. Army.

In the fall of 1867, Brown was captured by a band of Sioux, who warned him that he and other white men were not welcome in the territory, before releasing him. Despite the warning, he continued to ride for the Pony Express through hostile Sioux territory.

In the spring of 1868, Brown and fellow courier, a Sioux half-breed named Joe Martin, were captured by a Sioux war party led by Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa chief whose warriors would, in eight years, massacre U.S. General George Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Sioux braves stripped the two couriers completely naked and debated amongst themselves on how best to torture them. While the warriors argued, Brown and Martin inconspicuously rolled down a hill into nearby Strawberry Lake, where they hid underwater. By this time, it was getting dark, and the Sioux were unable to find the two men. After hiding out in the water for several hours, the naked, barefoot couriers made their way on foot back to the safety of Fort Stevenson, from which they had come.

While under the employ of the U.S. Army, Kootenai Brown’s work took him to the Red River Valley. There, he married a French-Cree girl named Olivia D’Lonais and decided to quit his position and live among the French Metis. The Irishman enjoyed many happy years living with the semi-nomadic, devoutly-religious French-Cree Metis, immersed as he was in a tight-knit community which revolved around the annual buffalo hunt and the music and dance-filled winter camp.

By the mid 1870’s, the buffalo that had dominated the prairies since time immemorial were quickly disappearing. The First Nations and the Metis who depended on buffalo for sustenance began to break up into smaller bands in search of food. In 1877, Brown, his wife, and their two daughters left the Metis camp and headed west in search of better opportunity. There, in Montana, Brown made his living as a wolfer, or wolf hunter.

Wolfers were a hard breed of men largely despised by white traders and Indians alike. Instead of shooting wolves with bullets or snaring them with traps and damaging their pelts in the process, wolfers typically acquired their pelts by killing a buffalo, dressing its carcass, and rubbing the raw meat with toxic strychnine. Prairie wolves would flock to the carcass and gorge themselves on the poisoned meat before collapsing. Then the wolvers would return to the carcass to harvest the pelts.

In the spring of 1877, after hauling the season’s take of pelts to Fort Benton, Brown and his family camped with a Metis band a short distance from the fort on the Teton River. There, Brown was approached by a wolfer named Louis Ell, who asked him to accompany him to the fort. Brown obliged. En route, Ell insited that Brown owed him a debt. Brown denied the allegation. In the heat of the argument that ensued, Brown drew a knife and stabbed the wolfer in the gut. Ell died shortly thereafter. A Metis who had witnessed the stabbing rode to Fort Benton to report it, while Kootenai Brown rode north for the Canadian border.

The Fort Benton sheriff apprehended Brown about 110 kilometres north of the fort and interred him in the jailhouse. There, the sheriff’s successor, Sheriff John Healy, a fellow Irishman and other great frontiersman of the Canadian Wild West, watched over him until his trial. During his trial, Brown pleaded that he killed Ell in self defense. The Territorial Grand Jury agreed and rendered a verdict of not guilty.

Upon being set free, Brown reunited with his wife and daughters and traveled north into Canada. He and his family made their new home in the Waterton Lakes area, which was, at the time, called the Kootenay Lakes region. There, he earned the nickname by which he is known today: “Kootenai” Brown. Kootenai Brown spent the rest of his life in the area, working as a trader, fisherman, hunter, guide, and packer. In 1885, during Riel’s North-West Rebellion, Kootenai Brown served as the Chief Scout of the Rocky Mountain Rangers, a ragtag militia of ranchers, cowboys, ex-Mounties, remittance men, and old-timer frontiersmen who guarded the narrow-gauge Galt Railway bridging Medicine Hat with Lethbridge. Later, in 1889, he became Alberta’s first petroleum pioneer, using the crude oil he produced in the Waterton Lakes area as lubricant for his wagons. In his later years, Kootenai Brown was instrumental in turning his beloved Kootenay Lakes area into the Kootenay Forest Reserve, which would later become Waterton Lakes National Park. Kootenai Brown became Waterton Lakes’ first park ranger, and served that function until his death in the summer of 1916.


By Hammerson Peters


5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West:

1) Jerry Potts

3) John Healy

4) Joe Kipp

5) Harry “Kamoose” Taylor


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5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West- 1: Jerry Potts

5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West

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1. Jerry Potts


When the sun-burnt, mosquito-bitten officers of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) rode into Writing-on-Stone in the fall of 1874, they were disheartened, saddle-weary, and lost. The previous winter, they had first come together as a unit in Fort Dufferin, Manitoba. That summer, after months of training, they rode out west bound for the notorious Fort Whoop-Up, determined to bring law and order to the Canadian Wild West. Unfortunately, some of the Metis guides they hired had a less than complete knowledge of the western territory’s geography. By early fall, the Mounties found themselves straddling the Boundary Commission Trail on the Canadian-American border with no idea where they were in relation to their destination, Whoop-Up Country.

The Force’s Assistant Commissioner James Macleod and a handful of officers rode south to Fort Benton, Montana, in the hopes that they might find some directions. They found better. Two of the town’s most prominent businessman hosted the Mounties. During dinner, the Montanan merchants suggested that Macleod and company hire a short, bowlegged Scots-Blackfoot frontiersman named Jerry Potts as their guide. Despite learning that the unimposing mustachioed plainsman was a man of few words who had an enormous appetite for whisky, the commodity which they hoped eliminate from the Canadian plains, the Mounties took their suggestion and hired Jerry Potts as their chief scout. They couldn’t have been happier with their decision.


Jerry Potts returned with Macleod to Writing-on-Stone, took up a position at the head of the column, and led the bedraggled Mounties northwest over prairies and coulees. Said Mountie Sam Steele of the quiet, mysterious guide, “he never talked with others when he was at work. He would ride on ahead by himself, keeping his mind fixed on the mysterious business of finding the way. He was never able to give any clear explanation of his method. Some mysterious power, perhaps a heritage from his Indian ancestors, was at work.” In no time, Potts led the Mounted Policemen to Fort Whoop-Up, on the banks of the Oldman River. Shortly thereafter, he led them upriver to the location at which they would build Fort Macleod, their first permanent headquarters.

In the ensuing months, Potts, who was fluent in a number of Indian languages, also served the Mounties as an interpreter and Indian ambassador. While the Policemen were building Fort Macleod, he traveled throughout the territory to speak with the local Blackfoot chiefs, on whose lands the Mounties encroached. Potts informed the chiefs that the red coats were there to suppress the whisky trade which had brought the Blackfoot people so much grief, and that they had their interests at heart. The officers who accompanied Potts on these excursions noticed how the powerful Blackfoot chiefs treated the wiry half-breed with deference and respect and took him at his word. The scout, they soon realized, was well-known and highly respected among the people of the plains.

Over the years, various Mounties got the taciturn frontiersman to open up and reveal his mysterious past, which, if the manner in which the Blackfoot treated him was any judge, had evidently earned him a ferocious reputation throughout the Canadian-American plains. As it turned out, Jerry Potts was a man of two worlds. He spent half his time among his father’s people, the predominantly-white traders and ranchers of Fort Benton, Montana, working for various fur trading companies. While at the Fort, one of his favorite past-times was to fortify himself with whisky before playing a gutsy game with his co-worker and fellow half-breed George Star, in which the two of them, armed with revolvers, would stand 20 paces apart and literally trim each other’s mustaches with bullets.

In the white man’s world, Jerry Potts’ primary function was that of a scout. As a result, he often found himself far from the Fort in hostile Sioux territory. One time, while on a scouting expedition with two white men, Potts and his charges were set upon by a war party of about 200 well-equipped Sioux braves. At first, the half-breed ordered his charges to flee on horseback. When he realized that some of the warriors mounted on faster horses would inevitably catch up to them, however, Potts suddenly ordered his two clients to wheel around and ride through the Sioux ranks. After passing through the horde unscathed, Potts had his clients take shelter in a nearby abandoned cabin, where he, armed with nothing more than a revolver, managed to fend off the enterprising braves who rushed their location. That night, after sneaking into the Sioux camp and stealing three of their best horses, Potts and his two charges rode back to the Fort, escaping certain death.

When he was not working for the fur traders of Fort Benton, Jerry Potts lived among his mother’s people, the Blackfoot. He participated wholeheartedly in various raiding parties and war parties against the Sioux, Crow, Shoshone, Cree, and Assiniboine, and quickly established himself as a formidable warrior and horse thief. On October 25, 1870, Potts participated in the Battle of Belly River, the last great battle between the Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies and the last great inter-tribal Indian battle in the world. It was due to Potts’ leadership that the Blackfoot were able to take advantage of a Cree-Assiniboine retreat, turn the tide of the battle in their favour, and completely route their enemies. Due to his martial prowess, and the fact that he, despite his extensive combat experience, was never wounded in battle, the Blackfoot began to regard him with superstitious awe. Potts himself was imbued with the superstitious nature of a Blackfoot and, due to instructions he received in a dream, wore a catskin amulet around his neck day and night for good luck.


In 1869, Jerry Potts guided John Healy, Alfred Hamilton, and a handful of American whisky traders from Fort Benton to a place on the Oldman River. There, the whisky traders built Fort Whoop-Up, the notorious whisky fort which’s calamitous traffic, in essence, became the main reason for the formation of the North West Mounted Police. Throughout he early 1870’s, Potts watched in horror as the Canadian whisky trade, which he helped establish, succeeded in all but destroying his mother’s people, the Blackfoot.

In the spring of 1872, Potts’ mother and brother were killed in a whisky fueled argument. When Potts received word of the incident, he avowed to avenge their murders. About two months later, while watering horses near a Canadian whisky post called Fort Kipp, Potts spotted his mother and brother’s murderer riding out from the fort. The half-breed, furious, pursued the Indian and killed him just a short distance from his own camp.


Following the death of his mother and brother, Potts sought an end to the whisky trade, and was more than happy to assist the Mounties when they rode into Fort Benton in search of a guide.

After joining the Mounties, Jerry Potts performed the functions of scout and interpreter. By all accounts, he was a magnificent scout, and an abysmal interpreter. In the winter of early 1875, he led his respective Mountie charges through blizzards on two different occasions, during one of which he was rendered snow-blind. Said Sam Steele of his scouting ability,“he possessed an uncanny sense of locality and direction. Others could guide travelers through country they had visited before, but this man could take a party from place to place by the quickest route, through country altogether unknown to him, without compass and without sight of the stars.” On the other hand, during the signing of Treaty 7, during which the Blackfoot Nations made an agreement with the British Crown, Potts served as interpreter between the Blackfoot chiefs and Government of Canada representatives… that is, until called upon to translate Governor of the North-West Territory David Laird’s eloquent speech into Blackfoot. Potts, a man of limited frontier vocabulary, had no idea what the well-educated governor was saying, and said as much when called upon to interpret.

As a scout and Indian ambassador, Jerry Potts proved to be an invaluable asset to the Mounties. However, his love of whisky often strained his relationship with his superiors. For example, during the early days of the suppression of the whisky trade, Potts and a few officers of the NWMP accosted a pair of bootleggers smuggling whisky across the 49th parallel. The half-breed, who was tasked with keeping an eye on the prisoners in the back of their wagon, broke into the contraband and shared it with the men he was supposed to be guarding. In the words of Constable Robert Wilson, one of the Mounties who accompanied Potts on this mission, “the two prisoners and Jerry were soon howling drunk…” The three men promptly quaffed all the evidence of their wrongdoing, much to the displeasure of Potts’ superiors once they got wind of the incident.

During the North-West Rebellion of 1885- fomented by Metis revolutionary Louis Riel; in which the Metis people of the Red River and Qu’Appelle Valleys, and their Cree and Assiniboine allies fought against the Canadian government- Jerry Potts served as a peacemaker. While Metis and Cree ambassadors rode into Blackfoot reserves imploring their old enemies to take up arms with them against the Canadian government, Potts reminded his Blackfoot friends of their century-long feud against the Cree and Metis, and the good decade-long relationship they had enjoyed with the North-West Mounted Police. Due in part to Potts’ efforts, the Blackfoot refrained from joining the rebellion, thereby preventing what would likely have a huge amount of bloodshed. In the words of North-West Mounted Police physician Dr. George Allan Kennedy, “had the Blackfeet forgotten their own enmity and joined hands with the Crees, it is hardly possible to calculate the enormous loss of life and property that would have followed…”

On July 14, 1896, 56-year-old Jerry Potts succumbed to throat cancer, which was likely attributable, at least in part, to his life of hard drinking. This paragon of the Canadian Wild West was buried in the North-West Mounted Police cemetery in Fort Macleod with full military honours. His obituary in the Fort Macleod Gazette reads:

“Jerry Potts is dead. Through the whole North West, in many parts of eastern Canada, and in England itself, this announcement will excite sorrow, in many cases sympathy, and in all, interest. His memory will long be green in the hearts of those who knew him best, and ‘faithful and true’ is the character he leaves behind him- the best monument of a valuable life.”


By Hammerson Peters


5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West:

2) Kootenai Brown

3) John Healy

4) Joe Kipp

5) Harry “Kamoose” Taylor


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5 Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West

Five Frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West

Thanks to Hollywood Westerns, the world will not forget icons of the American frontier any time soon. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) immortalized Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Cochise County Cowboys. John Wayne’s starring role in The Alamo (1960) made Davy Crockett a household name. And after Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant (2015), the name Hugh Glass will long survive in posterity.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the heroes and villains of Canada’s slightly-less-Old, slightly-less-Wild West. Today, few Canucks, if pressed, would be able to list off any of the prospectors, whisky traders, wolfers, or adventurers who made their marks on Western Canada prior to the arrival of the North West Mounted Police in 1874. This is completely understandable, and not at all surprising. The golden age of Western cinema predates Vancouver’s ‘Hollywood North’, and the Ottawa-centric education systems adopted by the western provinces have historically done little in the way of educating their students on local history. Aside from a handful of obscure streets bearing their names, the frontiersmen of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have all but disappeared from our cultural memory. 

Luckily, historians like Hugh Dempsey of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum and Rodger Touchie of the Heritage House Publishing Company work hard to keep the stories of the Western Canadian frontier, and the memories of the colourful characters who lived them, alive. Through books and articles born from archival research, archaeological study, and interviews, these scholars have painted a picture of Canada’s Wild West which is every bit as unique and arguably every bit as interesting as its American counterpart. With our country’s 150th birthday only a year away, it’s important that we Canadians take advantage of their work and remember our country’s western lineage.

Without further ado, here are five of the Jesse James’s and Billy the Kids of the Canadian Wild West:


1. Jerry Potts

2. Kootenai Brown

3. John Healy

4. Joe Kipp

5. Harry “Kamoose” Taylor


By Hammerson Peters


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The History of Albertan Oil and Gas

The Texas of Canada?

Alberta has often been called ‘The Texas of Canada’, and with good reason; like its American counterpart, so-called ‘Wild Rose Country’ has traditionally been a bastion of cowboy culture, conservative values, and perhaps most importantly, the oil and gas industry.

For as long as it’s been a province, ‘The Texas of Canada’ has been a favorite place for ranchers to set up shop, and for as long as it’s had ranchers, Alberta has had a strong cowboy culture. The province boasts the Raymond and Medicine Hat Stampedes, two of the oldest rodeos in the world, as well as the world-famous Calgary Stampede. Calgary itself, with its sprawling herd of cow sculptures and popular country bars, bears the nickname ‘Cow Town’.

In fact, one of the most popular bars in Calgary is actually called Cowboys. Calgary boasts a professional hockey team, the Calgary Flames, which plays in a saddle-shaped arena called the ‘Saddledome’ (the Flame’s former barn is called the ‘Corral’). All throughout the province, you’ll find “I Love Alberta Beef” stickers pasted on truck bumpers, relics of the wave of province-wide solidarity which emerged in wake of the mad cow crisis of 2003. One need only drive a kilometre or two down any stretch of the Albertan Trans-Canada to see why cowboy culture is so locally prominent. No matter where you go on the Alberta #1, it seems, you’ll find huge herds of horses and cattle grazing behind barbed wire. Alberta is Canada’s largest beef producing province, and it contains about 41% of the nation’s cattle.

In addition to its cowboy culture, Alberta, like Texas, is famous for its social conservatism. Since the 1930’s , Alberta has repeatedly elected right-wing political parties to govern itself. The conservative Alberta Social Credit Party reigned in Alberta from 1935-1971, and the centre-right Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta governed the province from 1971-2015.

Last, but certainly not least, Alberta resembles Texas in that it is the undisputed centre of the Canadian oil and gas industry. ‘Wild Rose Country’ lies at the heart of the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, a massive geological region which contains the world’s third largest reserves of oil and natural gas (eclipsed only by the oil sands of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela). As such, Alberta accounts for about 80% of Canada’s oil and gas production. Up until quite recently, you could find pump jacks all over the province working day and night, pumping oil from completed wells. Here and there, you’d come across massive derricks on which crews worked around the clock to drill new wells. Due to the incredible revenue generated by the oil and gas industry, Alberta has traditionally had the strongest provincial economy in the country.

Similar to the ranching industry, the oil and gas industry has made a profound mark upon Albertan culture. Edmonton, the capital of the province, is the home of the Edmonton Oilers, a professional ice hockey team with an impressive list of alumni, including Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. The Oilers got their name from the nickname of the local junior hockey team, the Edmonton Oil Kings, which’s similarly-named successor plays in the Western Hockey League today. Calgary, the epicenter of the Albertan petroleum industry, is the home of the Calgary Roughnecks, a professional lacrosse team. “Roughneck” is another word for the floorhand of either a drilling rig or a service rig.

Throughout the 20th century, Alberta has been shaped, more than almost anything else, by these three elements. However, events of the past two years have indicated that, although ranching remains as strong in the province as it’s ever been, Alberta’s staunch sense of social conservatism and internationally-prominent petroleum industry may be going the way of the Albertosaurus. On May 5, 2016, Alberta departed from its traditional right-wing path by electing the centre-left New Democratic Party (NDP) to form a majority government. This was the first time in eighty years that Albertans have elected a left-leaning political party to govern their province. And in June 2014, the price of crude oil plummeted, and along with it the oil and gas industry which has dominated Alberta for over a century. Companies in all areas of the oil and gas industry, from seismic exploration companies to those offering well fraccing services, have gone bankrupt. Others have hacked at their budgets to stay afloat, and as a result, thousands of Albertans have lost their jobs. Pump jacks all over the province have slowed to a halt. No longer are drilling derricks a common sight on the horizon.

Some alarmists, looking to the future, fear that the Albertan oil and gas industry might be history. Perhaps one of the ways to address this fear is to look to the past, and examine the history of Albertan oil and gas.


Early Canadian Petroleum Industry

In order to put the history of Alberta’s oil and gas industry into context, it helps to take a look at the early history of the Canadian petroleum industry.

The first Canadian oil company, the International Mining and Manufacturing Company, was founded by Charles Tripp in 1851 near present-day Sarnia, Ontario. Tripp’s company searched for surface crude in the oily swamps of what is now southwestern Ontario. Not only did Tripp’s company extract oil from asphalt beds; it also dug for salt springs -underground reservoirs of saltwater from which salt can be extracted- and manufactured its own fuels and oil-based paints. Because Tripp’s company did its own petroleum exploration, extraction, and refining, it is considered the world’s first integrated oil company.

In 1857, a carriage maker named James Miller Williams took over Tripp’s company and named it the J.M. Williams & Company. Under Williams’ direction, the company used the crude oil it extracted to produce asphalt along with a relatively new substance: petroleum-based kerosene.

Ever since the 1700’s, Europeans, Americans, and residents of European colonies around the world used whale oil (rendered whale blubber) and sperm oil (a liquid wax obtained from the heads of sperm whales) as indoor lamp oil. The whaling industry peaked in the mid 1800’s, and then began to decline rapidly as whales around the world were hunted to near-extinction. Fortunately for both whales and lamp-users, a Canadian geologist named Abraham Gesner invented a coal-based lamp oil in 1846. He called the substance “kerosene”. Several years later, in 1851, an American inventor named Samuel Kier developed a method of producing kerosene from crude oil. In no time, this petroleum-based kerosene eclipsed whale oil in popularity as a lamp oil. Demand for this product, more than anything else, was the catalyst that first set the North American oil and gas industry into motion.

Buoyed by the growing demand for crude oil, Williams & Company began to dig around the gum beds of what was once called Black Creek, on the western end of the piece of land which separates Lake Huron from Lake Eirie. In the summer of 1858, one of the company’s wells struck oil. It was to be one of North America’s first commercial oil wells (along with Pennsylvania’s 1859 Drake Well). Williams’ discovery triggered North America’s first oil rush, and in no time the area around Black Creek swelled to a town of 4,000. The town was named Oil Springs.

In 1860, Williams’ company, which was renamed the Canadian Oil Company that year, dug the world’s first “blowout”. A blowout, or gusher, is a geyser-like explosion of crude oil which occurs when an oil well penetrates a high-pressure underground reservoir. Dangerous, wasteful and destructive, blowouts would become a hallmark of the early oil and gas industry of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Ever since that first gusher of 1860, blowouts would occur with some regularity until blowout preventers were developed in the 1920’s. Said the Hamilton Times of the 1860 incident:

“I have just time to mention that to-day at half past eleven o’clock, a.m., Mr. John Shaw, from Kingston, C. W., tapped a vein of oil in his well, at a depth of one hundred and fifty-eight feet in the rock, which filled the surface well, (forty-five feet to the rock) and the conductors [sic] in the course of fifteen minutes, and immediately commenced flowing. It will hardly be credited, but nevertheless such is the case, that the present enormous flow of oil cannot be estimated at less than two thousand barrels per day, (twenty-four hours), of pure oil, and the quantity increasing every hour. I saw three men in the course of one hour, fill fifty barrels from the flow of oil, which is running away in every direction; the flat presenting the appearance of a sea of oil. The excitement is intense, and hundreds are rushing from every quarter to see this extraordinary well.”

In 1866, oil was discovered at a location about 13 kilometres to the north, near Buttermilk Creek, ON. Almost overnight, many of those who worked at Oil Springs abandoned the place for the new diggings. A boomtown was established, which its inhabitants named Petrolia.

The oil men at Petrolia, instead of digging, developed a unique method of tapping into oil and gas reservoirs via drilling. This method was called the pole-tool method. Canadian oil men from the Petrolia oil fields became so adept at drilling that, once the oil and gas industry spread overseas, they became highly sought after for their expertise. Many Petrolia drillers, who became known as “hard oilers”, found themselves travelling to the far corners of the globe to teach their foreign counterparts how to locate and extract oil.

Southwestern Ontario’s short-lived oil boom quickly came to an end as the area’s underground reservoirs were gradually exhausted. In addition, Canadian oil companies struggled to compete with American oil magnate John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Although Canadian companies amalgamated in 1880 to form the Imperial Oil Company in an effort to contend with their American competitors, Canada slowly began to rely on imported American oil. And as quickly as it had began, Canada’s oil and gas industry appeared to be coming to an end.


Early Albertan Natural Gas

Although the Canadian petroleum industry certainly had its infancy in Ontario, it matured into a colossus in Western Canada, particularly in Alberta. The first hint of the massive Albertan oil and gas industry which would blossom in the mid-20th century occurred in 1883, when the Canadian Pacific Railway first came to Alberta from the east.

In 1883, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) built a bridge over the South Saskatchewan River at present-day Medicine Hat, in what is now southeast Alberta. Upon completion of the bridge, the CPR continued laying tracks westward. In December 1883, at a site approximately 35 west of the bridge, railway workers drilled for water. Instead of finding groundwater, however, the workers stumbled upon a rich reservoir of natural gas. The CPR used this gas for cooking and heating at the nearby railway section house which, similar to the old work site on the river (Medicine Hat), quickly grew into a rough community called Langevin Siding (today, Langevin Siding, which was renamed Carlstadt in 1910 by German immigrants, and re-renamed Alderson in 1915 in the midst of the anti-German sentiment of World War I, is a ghost town).

This discovery of natural gas encouraged further exploration. Locals quickly learned that the area was chock-full of the substance, and by the 1890’s, residents of nearby Medicine Hat were using the fuel for cooking and heating. At the turn of the century, Medicine Hat’s town council erected gas lamps all along what is now the historic downtown district and kept them fed with local natural gas. The council quickly discovered that it was cheaper to let the lamps burn perpetually than to hire someone to douse them each morning and relight them each evening, and so many of them have burned, day and night, for more than a century.

In June, 1904, a massive gas well was struck near Medicine Hat. The June 16 issue of the Medicine Hat News read, “Eureka We Have Found It! … There is no doubt now but that Medicine Hat will become the manufacturing centre of the west.” The discovery of industrial quantities of natural gas, along with quality clay found in the cutbanks along the river near Medicine Hat and the nearby town of Redcliff, resulted in a thriving brick and pottery industry which dominated the area in the early 20th century. In time, Medicine Hat earned the nickname “The Pittsburgh of the West” and “The Gas City” (the latter of which was the city’s official slogan until 2015). In 1907, English writer Rudyard Kipling visited the booming Medicine Hat and witnessed a flare from a freshly-drilled well. The writer famously remarked, “This part of the country seems to have all Hell for a basement and the only trapdoor appears to be in Medicine Hat.”


Early Albertan Oil

Arguably even more so than its natural gas, Alberta is known for its oil. Although present-day Alberta is famous- or perhaps infamous, depending on who you talk to- for the Athabascan bitumen pits in its north, Albertan oil was first discovered in the southwest corner of the province.

Perhaps the very first pioneer of the Albertan oil industry was a frontiersman known as Kootenay Brown. John George “Kootenay” Brown was one of the most interesting characters of the Canadian Wild West. Scots-English by ethnicity and Irish by birth, Brown secured a position as a junior officer of the British Army at the age of eighteen and served in India during the Sepoy Mutiny. His service in India left him with an appetite for adventure that would not be satiated by British military life. Upon returning to Ireland, Brown left the Old World for the New, never to return. His subsequent adventures on the Canadian and American frontier were many and varied. He toiled as a prospector in British Columbia during the Cariboo Gold Rush. He survived a Blackfoot ambush near present-day Medicine Hat, receiving an arrow in the back. He worked as a whisky trader in Manitoba, surviving a bloody shootout at Portage la Prairie. He rode in North Dakota for the Pony Express, narrowly escaping torture and death at the hands of chief Sitting Bull’s Sioux. He lived among the Metis of the Red River Valley. The list goes on and on.

Eventually, Brown settled in the Waterton (at that time known as Kootenay) Lakes region of southwestern Alberta. He knew from the local Kootenay and Stoney Indians that oil oozed along what is now Cameron Creek, Alberta. According to legend, the Indians informed him of the oil on Cameron Creek after he had given them a cocktail consisting of oil and molasses and asked them to inform him if they came across anything that tasted or smelled similar. Brown used the oil as lubricant for his wagons and as medicine for his horses.

Every once in a while, Brown would leave his home in the Waterton Lakes area and travel to the town of Fort Macleod, west of present-day Lethbridge, to sell fish and shoot the breeze with the locals. There, during the late 1880’s, he publicized the presence of oil in the Waterton Lakes region. Due in part to his yarns, a number of surveyors traveled to the area to investigate and returned with glowing reports. In no time, southwestern Alberta experienced its first oil boom. What is now Cameron Creek became known as Oil Creek, and Cameron Lake from which the creek flows became known as Oil Lake. Soon, wooden drilling derricks were being erected, and a small boom town came into being. The town was optimistically named Oil City.

However, the boom was short lived. According to the December 3, 1889 issue of the Fort Macleod Gazette, “Boring operations are at a standstill in the Kootenai oil regions. There seems to be great uncertainty as to when work will commence. Two holes have been sunk a short distance.” Apparently, the quality or quantity of oil in the Waterton Lakes area was not as great as the surveyors had anticipated. Before the year was out, Oil City was little more than a memory.

In 1902, John Lineham of the Rocky Mountain Development Company returned to the region south of Waterton Lakes and drilled the first successful oil well in Western Canada. Lineham’s well produced oil at 300 barrels a day. The well produced about 8,000 barrels of crude oil in its lifetime, and was abandoned in 1904. Today, a small monument depicting a drilling rig marks the site of Lineham’s well, the first of many productive Western Canadian oil wells.


Turner Valley

The world changed forever in the late 19th century with the invention of the internal combustion engine. Henry Ford’s Model T, first produced in 1908, sounded the death knell of the steam locomotive and ushered in the era of the automobile. Along with the massive popularity of the world’s first affordable car came a huge demand for gasoline, and along with that came a huge demand for crude oil. By 1914, the world was as hungry for black gold as America was for the real stuff seventeen years prior, at the dawn of the Klondike Gold Rush. Enterprising Canadians were itching to stretch their entrepreneurial muscles, and would jump at the first hint of oil.

On May 14, 1914, a sort of oil was discovered in Turner Valley, located southwest of Calgary. Literally overnight, within a 24-hour period, 500 different oil companies were formed. Well drilling commenced immediately. The oil produced in Turner Valley was really wet natural gas. When stripped of the natural gas, the liquid that remained could be used as a gasoline substitute which earned the name “skunk gas” from its skunky smell. This process of stripping the liquid of its natural gas was first pioneered in Turner Valley. At that time, “skunk gasoline” was far more valuable than the natural gas which was separated from it. Many refineries in the Turner Valley area eliminated the unwanted natural gas by flaring it off. The flames from these flares could be seen from miles around. One coulee in which these flares were concentrated was referred to by locals as “Hell’s Half Acre.”

Several months after the discovery in Turner Valley, on August 4, 1914, Britain entered the First World War. As Canada was officially a British dominion at that time, it followed suit. The tanks, military vehicles and aircraft of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the Allied Powers all relied on either gasoline or diesel, and so demand for crude oil skyrocketed. As a result, drilling at Turner Valley continued throughout the Great War.

In 1924, Turner Valley experienced one of the most massive blowouts in Albertan history. Eventually, the well caught fire and burned non-stop for 21 days. Wild well control experts finally managed to get the well under control using steam and dynamite.

In 1929, a new oil and gas exploration technology was first put to the test in Turner Valley. Before then, geologists and surveyors employed very crude methods of predicting where oil and gas reservoirs might be found. With the advent of this new technology, however, surveyors could predict whether or not subterranean deposits of significance were to be found with a great degree of accuracy. This technology, seismic reflection technology, was first developed  during World War I in an effort to locate enemy heavy artillery and submarines, respectively. The process of collecting seismic data involved blowing up strategically-placed dynamite in order to send seismic waves into the earth. The waves would reflect off bedrock and travel up to the surface, where strategically-placed geophones would convert the ground movement into voltage. Engineers would analyze the geophone data to determine what lay underground. Canada’s first seismic survey was conducted in Turner Valley in 1929.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the oil and gas industry of Turner Valley ground to a halt. Many oil and gas workers who had thrived during the so-called “Roaring Twenties” found themselves unemployed. The situation was grim.


World War II

The Depression that had gripped Canada throughout the Dirty Thirties came to abruptly to an end on September 10, 1939, when Canada entered World War II. As was the case during the First World War, crude oil was once again in high demand. Not only was crude oil necessary for the gasoline and diesel engines that powered the Allied war machine overseas; it was necessary for the production of popular, newly-invented petroleum-based materials like nylon and synthetic rubber. Unfortunately, supply was very low, and Canada still relied quite heavily on imported oil. Canadian oilfields already in existence, like the one at Turner Valley, reached peak production during the War.


The Leduc Discovery

The most decisive event in Canadian oil and gas history, which transformed Alberta into an oil and gas province, occurred on February 13, 1947. That day, Imperial Oil discovered light oil during an exploratory drilling operation near the town of Leduc, Alberta, just south of Edmonton. That first well drilled in the Leduc area, called the Leduc No. 1, would change Alberta forever.

Throughout the ’20’s, ’30’s, and ’40’s, Imperial Oil had searched for alternatives to the oilfields of Turner Valley. The company drilled 133 wells in Alberta and Saskatchewan, all of which failed to yield commercially significant quantities of oil. Before the Leduc find, Imperial Oil was seriously considering abandoning the pursuit of oil and focusing on manufacturing synthetic gasoline from natural gas. The discovery at Leduc was a pleasant shock to the company. It was a stunning find which led to many subsequent discoveries of huge importance across the prairies, including the discovery of the Pembina oil field, the largest of its kind in the province. As a result of these major discoveries, billions of investment dollars poured into Alberta. Immigrants flocked to the province, looking for work. Soon, Edmonton and Calgary grew into major cities. Edmonton became the centre of production for many oil and gas operations, while Calgary housed many of those companys’ head offices. In no time, Alberta made the shift from a modest agricultural region to the wealthiest province in Canada.


Early Pipelines

In 1949, a division of Imperial Oil called Interprovincial Pipeline Limited (IPL; now Enbridge) began to survey potential pipeline routes from Alberta to central Canada. The first IPL pipeline, constructed in 1950, connected Edmonton, Alberta, to Regina, Saskatchewan. The pipeline was extended the following year to Superior, Wisconson, in the United States. Throughout the mid-late 1950’s, the company extended the pipeline deeper into Ontario. At the time of its construction, the Interprovincial Pipeline was the longest pipeline in the world.

Also in the early 1950’s, during the Korean War, the Trans Mountain Oil Pipeline Company constructed a pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver so that Canadian petroleum might be more effectively shipped to the frontlines overseas. Like the Canadian Pacific Railway of the 1880’s, the pipeline’s construction through the Rocky Mountains was an extraordinary feat of engineering.


The Athabasca Oil Sands

When it comes to oil and gas, Alberta is arguably most famous- or infamous, depending on who you talk to- for its sprawling northern oil sands. Sometimes referred to as the Athabasca tar sands, this deposit is the largest known bitumen deposit in the world.

Canadians have known about the Athabascan bitumen deposit for centuries. Local Cree Indians used the tar-like substance to waterproof their canoes. Explorer Alexander Mackenzie wrote about the heavy oil that surfaced along the Athabasca River in the 1790’s. The Hudson’s Bay Company, which established the trading post Fort McMurray in the region in 1870, knew well that oil was to be found in the area. Despite the fact that the presence of oil in the area was common knowledge, the Athabasca oil sands were not exploited for their subterranean riches until the 1960’s.

For oil men of the mid-late 19th century, there were two problems with Athabascan oil. The first problem was that it could not be extracted through the conventional drilling methods of the time. Athabascan bitumen is a heavy, viscous mixture of clay, sand, and thick petroleum which cannot flow or be pumped in its raw form. The second problem with Athabascan bitumen is that it must be first separated into crude petroleum and sediment before it can be refined for use. During the early days of the Albertan oil and gas industry, the technology necessary to carry out this process had not yet been developed.

Although pioneering oil men dabbled in the Athabasca tar sands in the 1920’s and 1930’s, it was not until the 1960’s that the northern oil sands were seriously exploited. Instead of drilling wells in the area, oil companies extracted the bitumen by blasting and excavating huge open-pit surface mines. The heavy bitumen was chemically separated, or “cracked”, into sediment and less-viscous synthetic crude oil on site.

In 1967, Suncor’s antecessor, the Great Canadian Oil Sands, opened up a refining plant in the Athabasca region for this very purpose. Immediately, the area exploded in growth. The town of Fort McMurray, which revolved around the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post of the same name, quickly grew into a large boomtown.

In 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, an organization consisting of oil-rich Arabic OPEC nations, proclaimed an oil embargo. This was done in response to pro-Semitic American military involvement in the Yom Kippur War, which was being fought between Israel and a number of Arabic nations. Because of this embargo, oil prices around the world soared. This, in turn, sparked investor interest in the Athabasca oil sands, and the region continued to flourish.


The Recession of the 1980’s

Throughout the rest of 1970’s following this oil crisis of 1973, Alberta experienced an economic oil boom which some have likened to a modern-day gold rush. With oil prices sky high, entrepreneurs and adventurers flocked to Alberta to strike it rich. There were more jobs in Canada, particularly in Western Canada, than ever before. In the space of a few years, the province’s population increased by a third. Calgary and Edmonton grew rapidly, and as a result the housing market boomed. In 1978, in Fort McMurray, the Syncrude Mine opened. Today, the Syncrude bitumen mine is the largest mine by area in the world.

Suddenly, in the early 1980’s, the oil bubble burst. The Albertan oil and gas industry had overstretched itself, producing too much crude oil to quickly. Oil supply exceeded oil demand, and crude prices sunk to record lows. The Albertan petroleum industry was hit hard by the aftereffects of this oil glut which plunged the world into the biggest economic recession since the 1930’s. And as soon as it had begun, the Alberta oil boom was over.



There was a light at the end of the tunnel. The Alberta oil and gas industry began to recover in the late 1980’s, and by the mid nineties, it had retained its former glory, thanks in part to the economically sound policies of Alberta premier Ralph Klein.

The Alberta petroleum industry continued to grow well into the 21st century. The growth was not only confined to Alberta, but also spread to southwest Saskatchewan and northeast British Columbia. By 2012, the Athabascan oil sands alone were producing an average of 1.8 million barrels of synthetic crude per day. In the early 2010’s, two massive pipeline projects were proposed. One, the international Keystone XL pipeline, was, after a long struggle, eventually given the green light. Construction commenced, and the Keystone XL pipeline now connects Hardisty, Alberta, with Houston, Texas. Another, the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, was also proposed. This Enbridge pipeline would connect Brunderheim, Alberta, with Kitamat, BC. Due, in part, to strong resistance from BC First Nations communities and Canadian environmentalists like David Suzuki, however, the project has never come to fruition.


The Recession of 2014- …

In 2014, the price of crude oil began to drop, and has been steadily dropping ever since. As was the case in the 1980’s, this drop in oil prices was due to an overabundance of oil. Canadian and American oil companies had steadily been amping up production since the comeback of the ’90’s. Middle Eastern and African oil nations have worked furiously to supply the growing markets of China and India. Eventually, production outstripped demand, causing the oil prices to plummet, and with them the Alberta oil and gas industry.

All throughout 2014, 2015 and 2016, companies in the Albertan oil patch have cut their spending and laid off workers to stay afloat. Today, thousands of Albertans are unemployed. As was the case in the 1980’s, and in the 1930’s before that, the situation is grim.



According to popular belief, American writer Mark Twain once said, “History does’t repeat itself, but if often rhymes.” With this piece of wisdom in mind, it follows that Alberta, particularly its oil and gas industry, as it has in the past, will climb out of the economic slump it presently finds itself in sooner or later. Perhaps, as was the case following the recession of the ’80’s, Alberta’s newly-elected NDP government will adopt fiscally responsible policies which will assist in bringing Alberta’s dominant industry back to life. Let’s hope the comeback of the Alberta oil and gas industry, as was the case following the Great Depression, doesn’t take a World War III (knock on wood).


By Hammerson Peters


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Klondike Gold Rush – Part 6: Dawson City

Back to The Klondike Gold Rush.

By autumn 1897, the Klondike Gold Rush was in full swing. Throughout the fall of 1897 and the winter and spring of 1898, thousands of Stampeders (as Klondike gold seekers were known) converged on Dawson City and the Klondike from many different directions. Some took the so-called “Rich Man’s Route”, travelling by steamer to St. Michael, Alaska, on the Bering Sea, then up the Yukon River to Dawson City. Others took the perilous all-American routes over crevasse-ridden glaciers, or the grueling all-Canadian route over thousands of miles of sub-arctic swamp. Many more traveled by steamer up the Lynn Canal to Skagway or Dyea, scaled the Coast Mountains by way of either the White or the Chilkoot Pass, and took the watery Bennett-Dawson Trail down the Yukon River to Dawson City. All set out with the hopes of striking it rich. Few reached Dawson, and fewer still found the gold they had initially set out to find.



As soon as the spring ice melted, dozens of rough, hand-hewn boats drifted into Dawson City. The men and women aboard them were Stampeders who had outdistanced their counterparts- most of whom had wintered at Lake Bennett- and had been forced, due to freeze-up, to spend the winter along the shores of the Yukon River. They told the Sourdoughs at Dawson of the massive armada behind them which  would arrive at Dawson any day.

Sure enough, in June, 1898, thousands of boats rounded the river bend and disgorged their cargo on the shores of Dawson City and the surrounding riverbank. At the same time, steamboats filled with Stampeders who had taken the Rich Man’s Route from St. Michael, Alaska, poured into Dawson City from upriver. In the space of a month, Dawson grew from a rough northern boomtown peopled by so-called ‘Sourdoughs’ long-accustomed to the rigors of the subarctic to a veritable hive of humanity composed of Stampeders of all ethnicities, nationalities, and backgrounds. In no time, the river valley resounded with the sounds of saws and hammers as Dawson grew into the largest Canadian town west of Winnipeg.

Many Stampeders immediately set about erecting shops in which they would sell merchandise they had hauled all the way over the Dawson trails. Several men had brought broods of hens to Dawson City and began to sell their eggs at exorbitant prices. One man who managed to haul a dairy cow all the way to the Klondike sold fresh milk at thirty dollars a gallon. One Italian New Yorker named Signor R.J. Gandolfo set up a fruit stand at which he sold, among other things, tomatoes at five dollars a pound (to put this in perspective, back in New York Gandolfo sold two baskets of tomatoes for a nickel). A newspaper boy who had lugged Seattle newspapers to the Klondike sold his wares to news-hungry Sourdoughs for incredible prices (for example, one Klondiker purchased an old newspaper for $59 in gold dust). Others who had hauled printing presses piece by piece over the mountain passes started up their own Klondike newspapers. By summer, Dawson City boasted two newspapers (The Klondike Nugget and the Midnight Sun), two banks, five churches, and a telephone service.

Other Stampeders, upon arriving in Dawson City, searched for friends with whom they had been separated somewhere along the Dawson trails. According to Arthur Christian Newton Treadgold, an Oxford tutor who had abandoned academia for the Klondike: “The main street is nearly always crowded with men trying to find one another for… it is a hard matter to find a man in Dawson and much time is wasted thereby. When you find your man the two of you sit on the edge of the sidewalk (raised a foot above the road for cleanliness) and talk. This is a picturesque sight, for men are of all nations in all kinds of quaint garments, standing or sitting in business on the main street.”

Interestingly, most of the Stampeders who arrived at Dawson in the summer of 1898 never went out into the Klondike watershed to search for gold. In the words of historian and writer Pierre Berton, “it was as if the vitality that had carried these men across the passes and down the rivers, shouting, singing, bickering, and slaving, had been sapped after ten months of struggle.” For these men and women fresh from the trail, the prospect of spending another two seasons doing the hard manual labour necessary to locate and extract gold was exhausting. Many of these Stampeders either sold their outfits or landed a job and worked just long enough to earn themselves a steamship ticket back to the Outside. By the end of the summer, nearly two thirds of the Stampeders who had arrived at Dawson City that June had left for home empty-handed.


A Year in the North

Those who chose to remain in Dawson and the Yukon that year bore witness to the end of a brief but fiery era. From the summer of 1898 until the summer of 1899, a number of prominent northerners who had made indelible marks upon Yukon and Alaskan history met their ends in one way or another.

One such man was fifty-four-year-old Yukon Commissioner James Morrow Walsh. Before he had even set foot in the Yukon, Walsh was already a man of considerable repute. He, along with only a handful of others, was one of the original officers of the North West Mounted Police. He had ridden west with the Force during the famous trek of 1874. He had served as the first Commissioner of Fort Walsh, in the Cypress Hills, which was named after him. He had been the first white man to ride into the camp of Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and leave with both his scalp and his life (excepting, perhaps, Pony Express riders Kootenai Brown and Joe Martin). In fact, he had even made friends with the fearsome war chief and convinced him and his Sioux to abide by Canadian law while north of the border (the Sioux had fled to Canada following the Battle of the Little Bighorn, fearing retribution from the U.S. Army). Unfortunately, Walsh’s experience in the Klondike marred his otherwise spotless reputation.

In the summer of 1898, Walsh, who had served as the first Commissioner of the newly-established Yukon Territory since August 1897, was indicted for political graft. Walsh’s cook, a man named Louis Carbeno, testified under oath that he was employed only upon agreeing to give three quarters of any gold he found working a claim to either Walsh or Walsh’s brother Philip. Although Walsh’s trial was inconclusive, he resigned nevertheless. He was succeeded by William Ogilvie, a Canadian surveyor who had lived in the Yukon since the days of the Fortymile Gold Rush. Walsh retired to Brockville, Ontario, where he resided until his death in 1905.

Another legendary figure of the Klondike Gold Rush to meet his end in the summer of 1898 was Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. Soapy Smith was a smooth-talking con-man who had built himself a criminal empire in Denver, Colorado. Once the Klondike Stampede was underway, Smith took his scheming to the town of Skagway, Alaska, at the head of the White Pass, where he built up another little empire. In no time, Smith was the dictator of Skagway in all but name, and his gang members extolled an illicit tax on any Stampeder unfortunate enough to let his guard down while in town.

In July, 1898, one of Smith’s men stole a $2,800 poke from a prospector named John Douglas Stewart, who was returning from the Klondike by way of the Bennett-Dawson Trail and the White Pass. There was nothing particularly unusual about this incident; prospectors returning from the goldfields were routinely robbed by Smith’s men in Skagway. However, Stewart would have none of it; the prospector was very vocal about the crime, and soon a gang of vigilantes emerged from the Skagway woodwork and demanded that Smith return the poke.

When Smith refused to cooperate, the vigilantes held a meeting on Juneau Wharf, one of the Skagway docks. When Smith received word of the meeting, he headed to the dock armed with a Winchester rifle and a Colt revolver. Smith ordered the vigilantes to scatter. Although some obeyed, a man named Frank H. Reid stood his ground. Smith and Reid engaged in a brief brawl which culminated in both of them being shot. Smith died instantly with a bullet in his heart. His last words were, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot!” Reid received a bullet in his lower abdomen and groin, and survived for twelve days before expiring. Following Smith’s death, most of his gang members fled town.

When fall came, a small number of Stampeders who remained in Dawson City, Yukon, took to the Klondike to search for gold. Some Cheechakos, newcomers to the north, decided to eschew the claims that girded the creeks and dig shafts in the hills. Sourdoughs who had prospected for their entire lives scoffed at the greenhorns, who obviously had no idea what they were doing. In their minds, any prospector with even a lick of experience would know to avoid the hills, as gold was heavy and had a tendency to find its way to the lowest parts of the land, which were the stream beds. However, neither Cheechako nor Sourdough knew that the hills overlooking the Klondike were lined with ancient stream beds that had long since ran dry. The Cheechakos who sunk shafts in the hills stumbled upon a particularly rich vein of gold and returned home fantastically wealthy. Because of their successes, one of the hills on which they dug was named Cheechako Hill.

Fall turned to winter, and the soil froze solid. Every night, prospectors lit fires inside their mines, and every morning they cleared out the ashes and dug through the thawed earth. Picks fell, windlasses turned, and the dump piles which punctuated the claims along the Klondike rose higher and higher.

The winter of 1898/99 was arguably the golden era of the Dawson City, an era characterized by extravagance. The city’s population was at its height, and its saloons, dance halls and game rooms were perpetually packed with prospectors, adventurers, bartenders, gamblers, businessmen, and entertainers who hailed from all walks of life. Sourdoughs who had struck it rich- like ‘Swiftwater’ Bill Gates (no relation to the present-day billionaire of the same name whose grandfather, William Henry Gates I, happened to be one of the Stampeders in Dawson City that year), ‘Big Alex’ McDonald, and Charley Anderson, ‘The Lucky Swede’- strutted about town, lavishing outrageous gifts- like hundreds of fried eggs (a luxury in the Klondike) and bathtubs filled with hugely-overpriced champagne- on dance hall girls they fancied. Gold and whisky flowed like water. That winter, Dawson saw another miniature gold rush as well as a massive fire which all but wiped out Main Street.

That winter, another legendary Klondike figure met his end. His name was Father William Judge, and he was a Jesuit priest. Judge, who had served the Catholic Church in Alaska since 1890, made his way to the Klondike following George Carmack’s discovery in August 1896. Unlike almost everyone else who flocked to the Klondike during the Stampede, however, Judge was never looking to strike it rich; he was truly pious, and hoped to serve God by ministering to the northern gold seekers, whom he described as “men running away from civilization as it advanced westward- until now they have no farther to go and so have to stop.” Upon arriving in the rapidly-growing town of Dawson, Judge set about constructing a church, a rectory, and the town’s first hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital. At the hospital, he cared for Stampeders afflicted with maladies typical of the Klondike Gold Rush, like frostbite, scurvy, typhoid, dysentery, and malaria. One such Stampeder whom Judge nursed back to health was future fiction writer Jack London, who had come down with a bad case of scurvy in the winter of 1897/98. As a Jesuit, Judge had taken a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. If any prospectors tried to compensate him for his invaluable work, he invested the money in blankets and medicine for his hospital. On Christmas Day, 1897, Judge politely refused to accept a Christmas gift consisting of a custom-tailored suit, sealskin coat, cap, and gloves, which a handful of grateful Klondikers had procured in the hopes of garbing the frail priest in something more substantial than the tattered black cassock he affected. Due to his immaculate character, the selfless Jesuit soon earned the epithet”the Saint of Dawson.”

Judge had no formal assistants, and performed almost every task himself. He built the church, rectory, and hospital with minimal help, and for the few volunteers who assisted him he cooked meals. He nursed and doctored all his patients himself, and when one of his patients died, he personally chipped his way through the permafrost with pick and shovel and buried him. He never turned a patient away, and even converted his own rectory into a hospice when the hospital became overcrowded. He was chronically overworked, and got very little sleep. In time, his exertions took their tole; in the winter of 1899, Judge came down with pneumonia, and on January 16, he died. In a grotesque twist of irony, the Klondike Sourdoughs interred Judge in a magnificent, thousand-dollar coffin- something which probably had the Saint of Dawson rolling in his grave.

Winter turned to spring, and the prospectors who had laboured all winter washed the pay dirt from their mines in sluice boxes, afterwards collecting the gold that settled in the ribs at the bottom. Most found themselves largely empty handed. Some, however, had made more than enough to pay for the steamboat tickets back home. A select few had struck it rich.

Summer came, and along with it, the White Pass Railway. Since May, 1898, labourers and engineers had worked on a narrow gauge railway line which was to connect Skagway, Alaska, with the Klondike goldfields. In July 1899, the railway reached Lake Bennett, Yukon, at the head of the Bennett-Dawson trail. Since the beginning of the Stampede, the Bennett-Dawson trail had been the most popular route to the Klondike, and the only routes to the Bennett-Dawson trailhead from the Pacific Ocean were the White and Chilkoot Passes. Until the White Pass Railway was built, the Chilkoot and White Passes were used with relatively equal frequency, and the feet of the passes both boasted sizable towns (Dyea and Skagway, respectively). However, when the White Pass Railway reached Lake Bennett, traffic on the Chilkoot slowed to a halt almost overnight, and the town of Dyea all but evaporated. Soon, almost all prospectors on their way to the Klondike traveled by way of the White Pass Railway. And thus two prominent icons of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dyea and the Chilkoot Trail, met their ends.

In midsummer, the citizens of Dawson City received rumors of a fresh strike in Nome, Alaska, on the coast of the Bering Sea. As had been the case in California, Fraser Canyon, the Cariboo, Cassiar, Fortymile, and Circle City, thousand of prospectors immediately abandoned Dawson and flooded towards the new diggings. The Klondikers were off an another Stampede. And as soon as it had began, the Klondike Gold Rush came to an end.




In the end, about 100,000 people set off down the Dawson Trails during the Klondike Gold Rush. About 30-40,000 actually reached their destination. Only about 20,000 Stampeders, upon arriving in Dawson City, bothered to look for gold, and of those who did, only 4,000 found anything of significance. Of those 4,000, only a few hundred struck it rich, and of that number, only a scattering managed to hold onto it.

For many Stampeders who toiled on the mountain passes, braved the rapids of the Yukon River, and battled the bone-chilling temperatures of the sub-arctic winter, the reward at the end of the Dawson Trail was not gold but rather an indomitable character tempered in the fires of an experience they would never forget. In the words of Stampeder Walter Russell Curtin, “I had thirty-five cents in my pocket when I set foot in Alaska, but I gave that to a mission church at Dutch Harbor. I did not have so much when I left the country more than two years later… I made exactly nothing, but if I could turn time back I would do it over again for less than that.”


By Hammerson Peters

Back to The Klondike Gold Rush- Part 5: Dawson Trails


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Klondike Gold Rush- Part 5: Dawson Trails

Back to The Klondike Gold Rush.

In the summer of 1897, the steamboats Excelsior and Portland arrived in San Francisco and Seattle, respectively, bringing news of the Klondike Gold Rush to the Outside world. The news spread like wildfire throughout the west coast. Almost immediately, thousands of would-be prospectors from all walks of life quit their jobs, outfitted themselves with provisions and equipment, and purchased steamship tickets north, bound for Dawson City. This mass exodus was known as the Klondike Stampede.

The Dawson Trails

Participants in the Stampede of 1897/98 were known as Stampeders. Throughout the autumn of 1897 and the winter of ’97/’98, Stampeders converged on Dawson City, a boomtown situated at the mouth of the Klondike River, from many different directions. The routes these men and women took on their ways to the Klondike are sometimes referred to as the Dawson Trails.

The Bennett-Dawson Trail

Perhaps the most famous of all the Dawson Trails is the route known as the Bennett-Dawson Trail. Stampeders reached this trail by taking steamboats north up the coast of British Columbia, up the Alaskan Panhandle, and up the Lynn Canal, an inlet which penetrates the Alaskan mainland about 540 km southeast of the Klondike goldfields. At the end of Lynn Canal, Stampeders would either disembark at Skagway or Dyea, two boomtown port towns separated by a distance of about 5 km.

Prospectors who landed at Skagway took the White Pass over the Coast Mountains, the range which separates the west coast from the interior. The White Pass was so rough on pack horses that it came to be known as the Dead Horse Trail. Stampeders who disembarked at Dyea, however, took the Chilkoot Pass over the mountains. The Chilkoot Pass was an ancient route that had long since been used by Tlingit traders, who annually crossed over to the interior to trade with the Tagish of the western interior. Both the White and Chilkoot Passes ultimately led to the same location: Lake Bennett. The route from Bennett to the Klondike is known as the Bennett-Dawson Trail.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1897, thousands of prospectors set up camp on the shores of Lake Bennett. The temporary settlement that emerged was the greatest tent city in the world. In order to proceed down the Bennett-Dawson Trail, the Stampeders would have to build boats. And so, in the fall and winter of 1897, thousands of men set about constructing watercraft from the surrounding spruce trees.

First, the Stampeders would fell the trees with axes. After that, they would cut the branches and strip the bark from the main trunk. Then, in order to rip the green wood into usable planks, two men would have to saw down the grain using a massive two-man whipsaw. This process was both physically exhausting and extremely frustrating, as it required an immaculate degree of cooperation in order to run smoothly. Many partners who had weathered the nightmarish steamboat ride north and had conquered the grueling mountain passes together became bitter enemies in the sawpits of Lake Bennett. Fortunately, even the most heated of disputes were resolved by Mountie Sam Steele, who ruled over the tent town with an iron fist.

The North West Mounted Police, under the leadership of Sam Steele, inspected each and every boat that winter. If they concluded that the boat was safe and sound, they painted a serial number on its bow, indicating that the watercraft was ready for the rapids of the Yukon River. If they decided that the boat was unfit for river conditions, however, the Mounties gave the unfortunate Stampeders advice on how to improve their craft’s construction.

When spring came and the river ice melted, a ragtag fleet of more than 7,000 boats set off across Lake Bennett. The Stampeders rowed or poled their way to Caribou Crossing, a traditional Tagish/Tlingit fishing and hunting village situated at the northeast corner of Lake Bennett, at the site of present-day Carcross, YT.  From there, they disembarked and portaged the short distance east to the adjacent Tagish Lake.

The Stampeders paddled up Tagish Lake and into Marsh Lake, which was connected to the former by a natural canal. At the end of Marsh Lake, the Stampeders entered the Yukon River.

The first obstacles that Stampeders had to overcome on the Yukon River were the Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids. The first set of rapids, the Miles Canyon Rapids, was a labyrinth of whirlpools and jutting rocks, lined by sheer hundred-foot walls of volcanic rock. Many considered it a warm-up for the treacherous White Horse Rapids beyond. The White Horse Rapids, located at the site of the present day capital of the Yukon (Whitehorse, YT) were so named because their frothy current resembled the mane of a galloping white horse. The North West Mounted Police considered the rapids so dangerous that they only allowed boats to travel down them if they were captained by competent pilots. They also prohibited women and children from hazarding the rapids, and required them to make the journey along the shores of that dangerous stretch of the river on foot. Due in part to the Mounties’ stipulations, only ten men, out of the thousands who traversed it, died in the rapids.

After conquering the Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids, Stampeders continued down the Yukon River into Lake Laberge. Years later, Lake Laberge would feature in Jack London’s novel, “The Call of the Wild,” and Robert Service’s poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” The prospectors took their boats over Lake Lebarge and into the Yukon River on the other side. They continued down the river for some time. Eventually, they came to the site of an abandoned cabin, trading post, and coal mine once occupied by George Carmack, one of the men to first discover gold in the Klondike. These log buildings were roughly located on the site of what is now Carmacks, YT. Carmack’s abandoned settlement served as a herald for the Five Finger Rapids beyond, the last major obstacle of the Bennett-Dawson Trail.

The Five Finger Rapids earned their name from the four rocky islands in their middle, which divide the river into five watery fingers stretching towards the Klondike. Of the five fingers, only the one on the far right, the easternmost finger, was navigable. Although the Five Finger Rapids looked formidable, they proved to be the easiest of the three rapids on the Yukon River. Like Lake Lebarge, these rapids also feature prominently in Klondike literature.

Some distance beyond the Five Finger Rapids, the Stampeders came to Fort Selkirk, an old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post which had, in 1852, been razed by Tlingit warriors. Beyond Fort Selkirk was the ghost town of Ogilvie, a relic of the short-lived Sixtymile Gold Rush named after William Ogilvie, the Dominion of Canada’s Yukon representative. And downriver from Ogilivie, at the mouth of the Klondike River, was the Stampeders’ final destination: Dawson City and the Klondike goldfields beyond.

The St. Michael Trail

Another of the routes to Dawson and the Klondike was the St. Michael Trail. Also known as the ‘Rich Man’s Route’, this path was one used by some of the more affluent Stampeders. Like the Bennett-Dawson Trail, the St. Michael Trail began as a steamship voyage north up the Pacific northwest. However, instead of travelling up Lynn Canal, Stampeders who took this route traveled by steamboat all the way north to Unalaska, at the head of the Aleutian Islands. Then they traveled further north to St. Michael, Alaska, at the mouth of the Klondike River. Upon reaching St. Michael, Stampeders continued by steamer up the Yukon River. After stopping for fuel at the dying boomtown of Circle City, Alaska, the prospectors crossed into Canada and reached Dawson City.

In theory, a Stampeder could travel this route entirely by steamboat without hiking an inch of trail. However, in reality, many a steamship en route to the Klondike on the St. Michael Trail became trapped mid river in the fall, when the river froze. Many Stampeders who were trapped in this way continued up the frozen Yukon River to the Klondike on dogsled. Others traveled by foot to Circle City, where they stayed the winter.

All-American Routes

A number of American Stampeders who wished to avoid paying duty on their outfits upon crossing into Canada elected to take one of three so-called ‘All American Routes’ to the Klondike. Most of these All-American Routes began at one of three points on the Bay of-Alaska: 1) the head of Cook Inlet (at present-day Anchorage, Alaska); 2) Prince William Sound, at the base of the Valdez Glacier; 3) Yakutat Bay, at the base of the Malaspina Glacier.

Cook Inlet

The Cook Inlet Route, the westernmost of the All-American Routes, began at the head of Cook Inlet, at the mouth of the Matanuska Valley and the site of present-day Anchorage, Alaska. The trail led up the Matanuska Valley and over the Coast Mountains to the Tanana River. From there, Stampeders traveled down the Tanana to the Yukon River, then up the Yukon River to Dawson and the Klondike goldfields.

One of the men to take this route was an American soldier, Liutenant J.C. Castner of the 4th Infantry, who led a military detachment from the Pacific coast to the Tanana River. Castner wrote, “my men often said it would be impossible to make others understand what we suffered those days. No tongue or pen could do the case justice.”

Prince William Sound

In the fall and winter of 1878/79, about 3,500 Stampeders disembarked at the Prince William Sound at the site of present-day Port Valdez, Alaska, bound for the Klondike. Before them was the massive Valdez Glacier. Prospective prospectors who chose this route had to haul their supplies over 300 yards of sand and six miles of snow to reach the base of the glacier. Then, they ascended the icy monolith, hoisting their sleds up with pulleys.

Upon reaching the windy, frozen summit of the Valdez Glacier, Stampeders made their slow and painful way over the ice field, picking their way through a minefield of deadly crevasses. They did most of their travelling at night, when the ice was solid enough to bear their weight. In the day, when they weren’t trying to sleep, the sun reflected off the snow and ice, causing many prospectors to go snow blind. Due to the glacier conditions, Stampeders were unable to thoroughly cook their food, and many survived their journey over the Valdez Glacier by subsisting on half-frozen, half-cooked meals. Others suffered from malnutrition and developed scurvy. Some died. In these harsh conditions, many prospecting parties split up.

The Valdez Glacier, despite bitterly cold temperatures, was much easier to travel over during the winter months. In the spring, the glacier began to melt, resulting in countless avalanches which buried many a Stampeder. In the summer, the glacier was all but impassable, and prospectors unlucky enough to be caught on it at that time found themselves trapped, unable to travel ahead or turn back. To make matters worse, the warm coastal wind mixed with the ice of the glacier to produce an unearthly fog which enshrouded the trapped Stampeders.

Those prospectors who managed to make it over the ice field and over the other side into the interior were faced with another obstacle: the Klutina River. A significant stretch of the Klutina was comprised of dangerous rapids, and nearly one man in four who attempted to navigate it lost his boat and his outfit.

Those who managed to survive the Klutina River drifted downriver into the Copper River, the realm of the warlike Ahtna Indians who had fiercely resisted Russian occupation throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Some Stampeders chose to stay and prospect on the Copper. Others traveled inland upriver, and then made the portage journey overland to the Tanana River. From there, they traveled down to the Yukon River, then upriver to Dawson City.

One of the stranger stories to come out of the Prince William Sound All-American Route is the tale of the Sasquatch-like Valdez Glacier demon. In the winter of 1898/99, a Second US Infantry captain named W.R. Abercrombie was stationed at Prince William Sound with the order to explore the Copper River area and report to the War Department with his findings. That winter, Abercrombie came across a Stampeders suffering from snow-blindness, scurvy, and frostbite. Abercrombie wrote in his journal:

I noticed in talking to these people that over seventy per cent of them were more or less mentally deranged. My attention was first directed to this fact by their reference to a “glacial demon”. One big, rawboned Swede, in particular, described to me how this demon had strangled his son on the glacier, his story being that he had just started from Twelve-Mile Plant (a small collection of huts just across the Coast Range of Mountains from Valdez) with his son to go to the coast in company with some other prospectors. When halfway up the summit of the glacier, his son, who was ahead of him hauling a sled, while he was behind pushing, called to him, saying that the demon had attacked him and had his arms around his neck. The father ran to the son’s assistance, but as he described it, his son being very strong, soon drove the demon away and they passed on their way up toward the summit of Valdez Glacier. The weather was very cold and the wind blowing very hard, so that it made traveling very difficult in passing over the ice between the huge crevasses through which it was necessary to pick their way to gain the summit. While in the thickest of these crevasses, the demon again appeared. He was said to be a small, heavy-built man and very active. He again sprang on the son’s shoulders, this time with such a grasp that, although the father did all he could to release him, the demon finally strangled the son to death. The old man then put the son on a sled and brought him down to Twelve-Mile camp, where the other prospectors helped bury him.

During the recital of this tale the old man’s eyes would blaze and he would go through all the actions to illustrate just how he fought off this imaginary demon. When I heard this story there were ten or twelve other men in the cabin and at that time it would not have been safe to dispute the theory of the existence of this demon on the Valdez Glacier, as every man there firmly believed it to be a reality.

Yakutat Bay

The Yakutat Bay All-American Route began on the Yakutat Bay, at the base of the Malaspina Glacier near the southern border of the Yukon. Of all the All-American Routes, this one was the most perilous and the least traveled. In theory, this route led across the Malaspina Glacier, overland to the Tanana River, down the Tanana and up the Yukon to the Klondike. Few men were able to survive this route. Fewer still were able to use it to reach the Klondike goldfields.

One of the best records of this route was set down by Arthur Arnold Dietz, a New Yorker. Dietz, the leader among a nineteen-man prospecting party, arrived at Yakutat Bay in April, 1898.

Slowly, Dietz’ team made their way over the ocean of ice that was the Malaspina Glacier. They were constantly beset by howling, icy winds which were so loud that they effectively prevented the party from engaging in any kind of conversation. According to Dietz, for three months the team “resembled a party of deaf mutes.” They battled snow-blindness and malnutrition, which drove several members of the party to insanity. Like the Valdez Glacier, the vast Malaspina was pocked with deep, deadly crevasses, and several team members- dogs, sleds, and all- disappeared into these seemingly bottomless chasms.

When the party finally reached the end of the Malaspina and entered the taiga forest on the other side, they were a fraction of their initial number. The haggard Stampeders pushed on overland through the forest towards the Tanana. In September, the prospectors stopped to build log cabins in which they hoped to weather the sub-arctic winter. During that winter, one of their members died of fever. Three more decided to brave the winter conditions and push on towards the Tanana by themselves. They were never seen again.

When spring came, the remaining Stampeders sunk a shaft to bedrock right there, on the shores of the Tanana River. When they found nothing but dirt, three of them decided to turn around and go prospecting at the base of the mountains. There, they were buried in an avalanche.

The remaining prospectors decided to travel down the Tanana River on foot. One the way, one of them died of scurvy. Delirious, the Stampeders ended up turned around and traveled back the way they had come. When they arrived at the Malaspina Glacier, they decided to traverse it again.

On the glacier, one of the prospectors died from a horrific case of frostbite. The rest of the party ran out of food. In order to survive, they slaughtered their sled dogs and ate the meat raw.

Finally, seven survivors reached the end of the Malaspina Glacier and came to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. There on the beach they rolled up into their sleeping bags. When they were discovered by American sailors, only four of them were still alive. Of the four survivors, two had become near-sighted, while the other two were completely blind due to the effects of the glare on the Malspina.

All-Canadian Routes

Like their American counterparts who took the All-American Routes to the Klondike in the hopes of avoiding Canadian customs officers, a number of Canadian Stampeders decided to take all-Canadian trails to Dawson in order to avoid American customs officers at Skagway and Dyea. These All-Canadian Routes included: 1) the Ashcroft Trail, which ran through the interior of British Columbia; 2) the Stikine Trail;

Ashcroft Trail

The Ashcroft Trail began at the town of Ashcroft, a small BC town that could be reached from Vancouver by way of the Thompson River. The trail passed through the Fraser Valley and Cariboo Country, the sites of two bygone Canadian gold rushes. From there, it followed slash line of the Collins Overland Telegraph. The Collins Overland Telegraph was a 3 million dollar project which involved linking linking San Francisco, USA, with Moscow, Russia, by way of an enormous telegraph line stretching over the Bering Sea. Although the project had been abandoned in 1867, a slash line through the forest extended from Ashcroft to Teslin Lake, located on what is now the BC/Yukon border. Teslin Lake was also the headwaters of the Yukon River, and Stampeders who made it there could travel down the river by boat to Dawson.

At least 1,500 Stampeders attempted to reach Dawson by way of the Ashcroft Trail. Only a handful of them arrived at their destination. The southern stretch of the trail passed through the dark, misty jungle of what is now the Great Bear Rainforest. The northern stretch of the trail was a swampy nightmare. It was almost completely bereft of horse fodder, and many horses died from starvation, or from eating poisonous weeds. The trail was home to massive swarms of mosquitoes and huge black flies which hounded the Stampeders and their mounts at every turn. All along the route, Stampeders carved messages of despair into tree trunks. One message read:

There is a land of pure delight

Where grass grows belly-high;

Where horses don’t sink out of sight;

We’ll reach it by and by.

Another said:

This is the grave the poor man fills,

After he died from fever and chills,

Caught while tramping the Stikine Hills,

Leaving his wife to pay the bills….

For some, the trail proved to be too much. One man hanged himself from the cross-tree of his tent, leaving behind the message: “Bury me here, where I failed.”

Stikine Trail

Another of the All-Canadian Routes was the Stikine Trail. The first leg of this journey was a steamboat ride up the west coast to the mouth of the Stikine River, in northern British Columbia. It followed the Stikine River to the town of Glenora, the site of an old Hudson’s Bay Company fort which developed into a town during the Cassiar Gold Rush. From there, it joined the Ashcroft Trail.

Edmonton Trail

Another All-Canadian Route to Dawson and the Klondike was the Edmonton Trail. As its name suggests, this trail began at Edmonton, Alberta. Its name also suggests one well-travelled route from Edmonton to Dawson. In fact, there were many routes, and all of them were terrible.

Most of these routes led northwest to the Peace River Country. Some of them went by way of the Athabasca River, down the Lesser Slave rivers, and over Lesser Slave Lake. Other trails took Stampeders overland, through Fort Assiniboine. Others still took Stampeders further west, from Lac St. Anne to Whitecourt to Grande Prairie to Fort St. John, BC.

By the time they arrived at the Peace River, most Stampeders were disheartened and decided to turn back. The few that pushed forward blazed their own trails.

The prospectors who had traveled to traveled to Fort St. John traveled up the Peace River into Stikine Country. From there, they portaged west to the Dease River, traveled downriver to Fort Liard, an ancient North West Company – turned HBC post. From there, Stampeders traveled down the perilous Liard River, with its Rapids of the Drowned, to the Pelly, down the Pelly River to the Yukon, and down the Yukon to Dawson.

Other Stampeders traveled down the Peace River to Lake Athabasca, down the Slave River to Great Slave Lake, and across the massive lake to the Mackenzie River. From there, they journey down the Mackenzie to the Liard River, where their trail joined that of those who had traveled by way of Fort St. John.

Many more Stampeders who reached the Peace River portaged overland to the Fort Nelson River to the northwest. They traveled down the river, past Fort Nelson, to the Liard River, where their trail joined up with that of the other Edmonton Trail Stampeders. From there, they journeyed downriver to the Pelly, down the Pelly to the Yukon, and down the Yukon to Dawson City and the Klondike goldfields.

By Hammerson Peters

Back to The Klondike Gold Rush- Part 4: The Stampede

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Klondike Gold Rush- Part 4: The Stampede

Back to The Klondike Gold Rush.

In the summer of 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike region of what is now Canada’s Yukon territory. When word of the find spread up and down the Yukon River, prospectors from all over the Canadian and American north abandoned their shacks for the new diggings. As was typical of northern Canadian gold rushes, a boom town sprouted almost overnight a short distance from the goldfields. This ramshackle community, situated at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, would become the famous Dawson City.

Throughout the following fall and winter, prospectors staked claims along the Klondike creeks and sunk shafts to bedrock. When spring came, they washed the rubble from their mines in sluice boxes and collected the gold that accumulated at the bottom. Many had struck it rich.

In the summer of 1897, two steamboats arrived at Dawson City. The steamboats took on passengers and massive quantities of gold before heading to port towns on the Pacific Coast. From there, ex-prospectors who had made their fortunes on the Klondike boarded steamers bound for civilization. They would be the first heralds to bring news and tangible proof of the Klondike Gold Rush to the Outside world.

Excelsior and Portland

On July 14, 1897, a steamship called the Excelsior pulled into the San Francisco harbour. To the San Franciscans on the docks that day, the Excelsior- a rusty little ship with two blackened smokestacks- appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary. A few heads might have turned, however, when its passengers walked down the gangplank. The people who poured off the Excelsior were a gaunt, ragtag bunch clad in ragged work clothes and broad-brimmed hats. The men bore rough, unkempt beards, the women wore wild, tangled hair, and all had sun-burnt, wind-whipped faces resultant of at least one year in the Canadian north.

What really captured the attention of the San Franciscans that day, however, was the cargo the passengers hauled from the ship. Many- like former YMCA physical instructor Tom Lippy and his wife Salome- wrestled with extraordinarily heavy suitcases. Some lugged canvas sacks on the verge of tearing. Others dragged buckskin bags on the ground behind them, or hauled heavy tin cans using both hands. The strange site piqued the curiosity and imaginations of nearby locals. Soon, a growing throng of city residents began gather around the newcomers.

Some of the Excelsior passengers immediately made their way to the Selby Smelting Works on Montgomery Street. There, on the counters, they revealed their identities and the contents of their cargo to the curious onlookers; they were prospectors from the north, and they had brought with them countless pounds of raw northern gold.

The news spread like wildfire throughout the streets of San Francisco: a big strike had been made in Canada’s Yukon Valley. In no time, the news spread all throughout the West Coast. Soon, word was out that a second Yukon steamer called the Portland would arrive in Seattle any day. This one would be carrying even more gold than the Excelsior. Hoping to have the story before their competition, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sent a handful of reporters to intercept the Portland via tugboat before it reached the Port of Seattle. The journalists boarded the south-bound Portland on the Puget Sound, interviewed the miners on board, then returned to Seattle. What happened next was summarized in a front-page article written by these same reporters; the citizens of Seattle were greeted by these words on the front page of the July 17 paper: “At 3 o’clock this morning the steamer Portland from St. Michael for Seattle, passed up the Sound with more than a ton of solid gold aboard…”


Klondike Fever

In the summer of 1897, North America was ripe for a gold rush. The world was at peace and the United States had settled into a serious economic depression following the Panic of 1893. When the Excelsior and Portland slid into the ports of San Francisco and Seattle bearing dozens of prospectors and several metric tons of Klondike gold, the American West Coast, according to a New York Herald journalist, went “stark staring mad on gold.”

The gold fever that rippled through the West Coast in the summer of 1897 was nothing short of an epidemic. Newspaper men referred to this affliction which held the populace of the Pacific Northwest in such thrall as “Klondicitis”. Men and women from all walks of life immediately quit their jobs and bought steamer tickets for Alaska. Entire industries ground to a halt as employees ditched their work sites en masse for the Klondike. Soon, the Seattle Times was operating on a skeleton crew, San Francisco’s new cable cars were largely devoid of conductors, and the Seattle Police Department was severely undermanned. Even the Mayor of Seattle, William D. Wood, left his office for the Yukon. By July 24, 1,500 people had left Seattle for the Canadian north.

Newspapers aptly referred to this mass exodus as a “Stampede”. The name stuck, and prospectors bound for the Klondike were thereafter known as ‘Stampeders’. In the words of J.E. Fraser, one such Stampeder from San Francisco:

“The man who had a family to support who could not go was looked on with a sort of pity … the man who didn’t care to leave his business or for other trivial reasons, was looked on with contempt as a man without ambition who did not know enough to take advantage of a good thing when placed in his reach; but the man who could go, and would go, and was going to the Klondike, the man who could not be stopped from going, by any means short of a wire cable anchored to a mountain, was a hero. He was looked up to; he was envied by everybody; he was pointed out in the streets.”

Just as entire industries virtually evaporated in the summer of 1897 as their employees abandoned their work for the Klondike, so too did a number of businesses thrive. The transportation industry exploded as countless passengers purchased steamboat tickets north. Grocery and supply store owners who cleverly marketed their wares as ‘Klondike grade’ made fortunes selling outfits to prospectors-to-be. In fact, just about any product bearing the magic word ‘Klondike’ was likely to sell in those summer months. And as quickly as it had began in 1893, the economic depression that had prevailed for the last four years was no more.

Entrepreneurs and con-men alike took advantage of the situation. The former sold interesting (if impractical) inventions like ‘automatic’ gold pans, which rotated like the cylinders of phonographs, and sleds equipped with gasoline-powered motors to Stampeders. The latter peddled useless items like trail bikes and ‘tunnel-digging’ gophers to naive adventurers. According to Arthur Dietz, a New Yorker who was visiting Seattle at the time of the Klondike craze, “[Seattle was] more wicked than Sodom… the devil reigned supreme. It was a gigantic chaos of crime and the city government, as an institution, protected evil.”

Klondike fever quickly swept throughout the northern hemisphere, and further still to the rest of the world. By August, prospectors from as far away as New Zealand were making their way towards the Yukon.


The Voyage North

Throughout the summer of 1897, thousands of would-be prospectors traveled north up the Pacific Coast via steamboat. Many of the steamboats that carried them were bound for the Lynn Canal, an Alaskan inlet which penetrated the mainland about 540 km southeast of the Klondike. From Lynn Canal, Stampeders would hike either the Chilkoot Trail or the White Pass over the Coast Mountains to Lakes Lindemann and Bennett, respectively, from which they would travel up a series of lakes and rivers to the Klondike.

Other steamboats were bound for St. Michael, an old Russian port town situated on the west coast of Alaska where the Yukon River empties into the Bering Sea. From St. Michael, prospectors would travel 1,700 miles up the Yukon River to Dawson City and the Klondike beyond.

Some of the steamboats that went north that summer were reliable, seaworthy vessels that reached Lynn Canal and St. Michael unscathed. Tickets for these steamers were outrageously expensive, due to the high demand. These steamboats were packed well past their carrying capacity and as a result the voyage north was a veritable hell on earth.

Other steamboats that went north that summer were long-derelict ships that had been hastily patched up and commandeered by opportunists eager to take advantage of the situation. More often than not, these ships ran into trouble of one kind or another on their northern journey.

One of the sketchier ships to make the voyage to St. Michael in the summer of 1897 was the Eliza Anderson. This steamboat the oldest seagoing vessel on the coast. This ancient steamer had no propeller, old boilers, no electricity, no refrigeration, no compass, and shoddy coal-bunkers. After leaving port, the Eliza Anderson traveled without event to the port of Comox, on Vancouver Island. There, the ship took on coal. In an effort to save money, the crew decided to skimp on the fuel.

The crew was so inexperienced that they loaded the new fuel into the bunkers unequally. Because of this, the ship immediately veered to the side upon leaving the docks and rammed into another vessel, Glory of the Seas. Instead of returning to Comox, the captain of the Eliza Anderson decided to keep on going.

Next stop: the port of Unalaska, at the head of the Aleutian islands. The Eliza Anderson nearly reached her destination when she was beset by a violent storm. In the ensuing struggle, the ship ran out of coal. The crew desperately tore apart the ship’s interior, using the wooden boards and furniture for fuel. Soon, the ship was out of control. Passengers were writing farewell letters to their families. The situation was grim.

Suddenly, a grizzled, white-bearded stranger strode into the pilothouse from out of the storm. He took command of the ship and steered her to the safety of a bay of the proximate Kodiak Island. And as quickly as he had appeared, the stranger vanished into the spray.

As it turned out, the Eliza Anderson’s mysterious savior was a local Norwegian-born stowaway who had somehow managed to slip onto the ship without being seen. The Scandinavian, who had prior seafaring experience, was looking for a free ride to Unalaska.

Miraculously, the old Viking stowaway had steered the steamboat to a location a short distance from an abandoned cannery. There, the crew of the Eliza Anderson found a cache of much-needed coal. They loaded the fuel onto the ship and continued on their journey. The passengers were much relieved when the ruined steamboat slid into the old Russian port of St. Michael, Alaska.



The Lynn Canal, one of the two major destinations of 1897 Stampeders (along with St. Michael, Alaska), branches into two small sections at its furthest point inland. One section is the Taiya (or Dyea) Inlet. The other is the Skagway Bay.

Skagway is an anglicized derivation of a Tlingit word which figuratively refers to the Lynn Canal’s rough seas, which are stirred up by strong northern winds. Literally, the Tlingit word translates as ‘beautiful woman’. According to Tlingit legend, Kanagu, or ‘Skagway’, was a beautiful woman who transformed herself into stone on the shores of the Skagway Bay, and was responsible for the area’s rough weather.

Before the Klondike Gold Rush, the only permanent resident of Skagway Bay was an old white man named Captain William Moore. Moore had lived a colourful life. The German-born adventurer spent his childhood aboard schooners in the North Sea. In his teens, he headed to New Orleans, where he ran a towboat service in the Mississippi. Moore enlisted in the American Army fought in the Mexican-American War of 1846/47. When the war was over, he took part in the famous California Gold Rush. For the next fifty years, he traveled from place to place, following various gold rushes. He prospected in Peru and Haida Gwaii. Then he followed gold to Fraser Canyon, where he set the example for Frank Laumeister, his Cariboo counterpart, by shipping camels up the Fraser River. After the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, he prospected in Cariboo Country and the Cassiar District.

Eventually, Moore’s prospecting ventures brought him to the Yukon. Long before the Klondike Gold Rush, the old prospector predicted that gold would be found somewhere in the Yukon Valley, and that a great gold rush would ensue. He also correctly predicted that many of the prospectors who flocked to the Yukon following such a strike would come by steamer to Skagway Bay on their way to the goldfields.

Skagway Bay lay at the foot of a mountain pass a short distance from the Chilkoot Pass long favoured by the local Tlingit. Moore, along with the Tagish giant Skookum Jim (one of the co-discoverers of Klondike gold), surveyed the pass at the behest of William Ogilvie, a Canadian government official who represented the Crown in the Yukon at the time. The pass was named White Pass after Sir Thomas White, the Canadian Minister of the Interior.

Moore was convinced that many prospectors would cross the Coast Mountains on their way to the Yukon goldfields by way of the White Pass. He envisioned a town rising up along the shores of Skagway Bay. According to his son, Bernard:

“My father would tell me and numerous other people in Juneau and elsewhere how he pictured to himself the future of this place. He never tired of predicting how roads would be built through here; of a little city built here; of steamers on the upper Yukon; and of large steamers, loaded with freight and passengers docking at the waterfront.

Accordingly, White built a cabin at the foot of the White Pass in 1888. He hoped to establish himself as the founder of the boomtown he was certain would come into being, and to reap the rewards.

On July 26, 1897, Moore’s prophecy was realized. A steamer arrived at Skagway Bay and disgorged its passengers and cargo. Instead of showing the old prospector deference, which Moore believed he was entitled to as founder of the new town that would surely develop, the first wave of Stampeders largely ignored the old man and set about carving a campsite from the surrounding forest. Moore was enraged. However, he kept a cool head, cut his losses, and began to build a wharf out into the bay.

Throughout the summer, more and more Stampeders arrived at Skagway Bay. Trees were slashed and burned, crude log shacks were built, and soon a rough town began to take form. In early August, some of the town residents formed a local government. They dubbed the new town Skagway, after the Bay.

The Stampeder government laid out a plan for the new town. Streets were drawn up and surveyed. It just so happened that Moore’s old cabin lay right in the path of one of the streets. The Skagway government officials ordered Moore to vacate his cabin so they could demolish it.

The old prospector would have none of it, and refused to comply with the order. When a number of men came to Moore’s cabin, intent on evacuating him by force, Moore met them at the door with a crowbar in hand. After soundly trashing one of its members, the posse slunk off. Moore knew the Stampeders would have their way in the end, however, and reluctantly left his home.

In the following years, Moore made a fortune off the new arrivals who used his wharf to dock their ships. All the while, he hounded the Skagway government, seeking redress for the slights he had suffered at their hands. Eventually, his persistence paid off; Moore was given 25% of the assessed value of all the original Skagway lots.

During the summer of 1897, Skagway evolved (or devolved, depending on how you look at it) into a wild frontier town where the Law of Natural Selection reigned supreme. John Muir, the famous Scottish-American naturalist, described the town as “a nest of ants taken into a strange country and stirred up by a stick.” Pirates prowled the Bay, extorting huge fees from steamboat captains to haul cargo from the hold to the shore. Thieves and con-men skulked about the streets, relieving luckless Stampeders of everything they owned. Shootings were a nightly occurrence. In spite of the municipal government that had emerged in its early days, Skagway effectually became an anarchy.

In no time, saloons sprang up all over town. As a result, Skagway quickly developed a very colourful nightlife. Faro and blackjack games were constantly being played on rickety, rough-planed saloon tables. Next door to the saloons were the dance halls, where the pianos were played perpetually and girls in silk dresses danced with miners at a dollar per waltz.

According to Alexander Macdonald, a well-traveled Englishman who visited Skagway in the fall of 1897:

“I have stumbled upon a few tough corners of the globe during my wanderings beyond the outposts of civilization, but I think the most outrageously lawless quarter I ever struck was Skagway.… It seemed as if the scum of the earth had hastened here to fleece and rob, or … to murder.… There was no law whatsoever; might was right, the dead shot only was immune to danger.”

In January, 1898, a famous con-man named Jefferson Randolf “Soapy” Smith arrived in Skagway. Smith had acquired notoriety and fortune in Denver, Colorado, where he built a criminal empire. He earned his moniker “Soapy” from a lottery scheme in which he sold paper-wrapped soap bars to a crowd in Denver for $1 each, falsely claiming that in one of the soap bar packages was a $100 bill. He swindled his way to the top, hiring soldiers for his underground army until he was effectually the “Boss of Denver”. In the winter of 1897/98, Smith left Denver for Skagway, hoping to milk the boomtown of everything it was worth.

Soapy Smith quickly, artfully built up a gang in anarchic Skagway, rapidly expanding his range of influence until, in mid-winter, he practically owned the town. A crew of confidence men worked for Soapy Smith, preying upon hapless Cheechakos (newcomers to the north) newly arrived from the Outside. By hook or by crook, they extolled a heavy tax on nearly all newcomers to pass through Skagway on their way to the goldfields.


The White Pass


Stampeders who landed in Skagway continued on to the Klondike goldfields by way of the White Pass, the mountain pass over the Coast Mountains which connected Skagway with Lake Bennett.

In the summer and fall of 1897, the White Pass was almost perpetually choked with Stampeders on their way to the Klondike. According to Frank Thomas, an Indianan Stampeder who took the White Pass in the fall of 1897:

“I am a few days older than when I left … and a great deal wiser. I have been working like a slave since I came here trying to get over the trail and am not over yet, and furthermore do not think I will be in time to get down the Yukon this winter. Since I came in we have lost our mule and one horse on this accursed trail.… This is the most discouraging work I ever did.… There are thousands of people here … all mad and crazy just like us.… I am undoubtedly a crazy fool for being here in this God-forsaken country but I have the consolation of seeing thousands of other men in all stages of life, rich and poor, wise and foolish, here in the same plight as I.”

The first major obstacle on the White Pass was a sheer-sloped geological formation named Devil’s Hill. The early Stampeders carved narrow switchbacks through the hill’s scree. The path was so precarious, and the hillside so steep, that a poorly-loaded, off-balance horse could easily fall to its death.

The next obstacle Stampeders had to overcome was Porcupine Hill. This was a metaphorical minefield littered with ten-foot boulders which loaded pack horses had to pick their way over. One misstep would result in a broken foot and a dying horse.

The last of the major hurdles on the White Pass was Summit Hill, a thousand-foot hill composed of mud, boulders, and sharp scree. Summit Hill was pocked with muddy sinkholes which claimed the lives of many a horse. After that was the thousand-foot Turtle Mountain and the Tutshi Valley below. At the end of the White Pass lay Lake Bennett.

During the Stampede of 1897, the White Pass earned the nickname ‘Dead Horse Trail.’ Hundreds upon hundreds of animals were claimed by the trail. Some were pushed to their limits by their handlers. Many others succumbed to the trail’s hazards. By the fall of 1897, the White Pass was littered with half-frozen, half-rotten equine carcasses.

One of the men to witness the horrors of the White Pass was former NWMP officer James Morrow Walsh. Walsh was a man with an interesting past. He was one of the few original officers of the North West Mounted Police, and had been a member of the Force since its inception in 1873. In the mid-late 1870’s, he acted as the Commanding Officer at Fort Walsh, an early NWMP fort built near the site of the Cypress Hills Massacre. He earned his reputation in the late 1870’s, when he was tasked with treating with thousands of Sioux under the leadership of chief Sitting Bull, who had fled north into Canada following the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Walsh became fast friends with the outlaw chief and convinced him and his Sioux to abide by Canadian law while north of the border. However, he ultimately failed in his objective to convince Sitting Bull to return to America. Walsh’s superiors suspected his friendship with the Sioux chief was preventing him from fulfilling his duty, and so Walsh was stripped of his command and transferred to Fort Qu’Appelle in present-day Saskatchewan. In August 1897, he was appointed Commissioner of the Yukon, and was en-route to Dawson City, where he would take up his new position, when he first met with the carnage of the White Pass. Walsh described the macabre scene in a to Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior:

“Such a scene of havoc and destruction … can scarcely be imagined. Thousands of pack-horses lie dead along the way, sometimes in bunches under the cliffs, with pack-saddles and packs where they have fallen from the rock above, sometimes in tangled masses filling the mudholes and furnishing the only footing for our poor pack animals on the march – often, I regret to say, exhausted but still alive, a fact we are unaware of until after the miserable wretches turn beneath the hoofs of our cavalcade. The eyeless sockets of the pack animals everywhere account for the myriads of ravens along the road. The inhumanity which this trail has been witness to, the heartbreak and suffering which so many have undergone, cannot be imagined. They certainly cannot be described.”

Another interesting man to traverse the White Pass during the Stampede of 1897 was 21-year-old writer Jack London. London- who would go own to write his famous novels White Fang and The Call of the Wild, for which his Klondike experience would serve as a source- wrote:

“The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps. They died at the rocks, they were poisoned at the summit, and they starved at the lakes; they fell off the trail, what there was of it, and they went through it; in the river they drowned under their loads or were smashed to pieces against the boulders; they snapped their legs in the crevices and broke their backs falling backwards with their packs; in the sloughs they sank from fright or smothered in the slime; and they were disembowelled in the bogs where the corduroy logs turned end up in the mud; men shot them, worked them to death and when they were gone, went back to the beach and bought more. Some did not bother to shoot them, stripping the saddles off and the shoes and leaving them where they fell. Their hearts turned to stone – those which did not break – and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.”

A number of Stampeders who lost their mounts on the White Pass returned to Skagway, where they spent the winter. When winter came, the Dead Horse Trail became impassable, and the heavy stream of prospectors came to a trickle and then to a halt. Skagway soon swelled to a town of 5,000.

In the spring, when the Pass opened up, Stampeders found that the North West Mounted Police had established a customs house at its summit, on the Yukon-Alaska border. The Mounties were there to enforce a new regulation: all Stampeders to pass into Canada were required to be in possession of at least one year’s supply of food (about 1,150 pounds). In order to transport this much food, Stampeders would have to travel back and forth along the White Pass, hauling their supplies in manageable loads.

Duty at the customs house was a pitiable job. The mountain conditions were deplorable, and many of the 20-man crew stationed there fell ill. The Mountie in charge of the post- an Inspector named Strickland- suffered from a long bout of bronchitis. Eventually, Strickland’s superior, a Mountie named Sam Steele, in spite of the fact that he, too, was suffering from bronchitis, decided to personally relieve Strickland of the detestable duty.

Sam Steele was another man with an interesting Canadian past. Like James Walsh, he had been a Mountie since the NWMP’s inception in 1873. In fact, he and Walsh together had drilled the first Mountie recruits on horseback in the fall and winter of 1873/74. Along with rest of the original NWMP officers, Steele made the long 1874 trek to the western Canadian plains, where he helped to quell the illicit whisky trade and establish law and order in what would one day become southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Years later, in 1885, Sam Steele commanded a squadron of North West Mounted Policemen and fought to suppress Louis Riel’s North-West Rebellion. On June 3, 1885, he led a 75-man mixed detachment consisting of both Mounties and Canadian militia to victory against 150 Cree warriors under the command of chief Big Bear. That battle, known as the Battle of Loon Lake, was the last major skirmish of the North-West Rebellion. In fact, the Battle of Loon Lake remains to this day the last battle fought on Canadian soil (knock on wood). In 1887, Steele led a detachment to a town called Galbraith’s Ferry in the British Columbian Rockies, situated a short distance from the Wild Horse Creek goldfields. There, he and his men resolved a dispute between the town’s white residents and local Kootenay Indians which might well have turned violent if not for their interference. Out of gratitude, the townspeople renamed their town Fort Steele. Today, Fort Steele remains a popular Canadian tourist attraction.

Sam Steele and Strickland before him made sure that no Stampeders without at least a years’ supply of food would cross into Canada. The Mounties were cognizant of the very real possibility of widespread starvation should there prove be more mouths than food in the Klondike. Earlier, in the fall of 1897, a handful of light-provisioned Stampeders managed to scale the Coast Mountains before freeze-up, build boats on the shore of Lake Bennett, and navigate the series of waterways to Dawson City. As winter approached, the threat of imminent starvation dawned on many of these first-on-the-scene Stampeders. During the late fall and early winter of 1897, hundreds of Stampeders newly arrived in Dawson returned the way they had come, or made a mad dash up the Yukon River for St. Michael, hoping to reach their destinations before the river froze or the trails were buried in snow. As a result of this panicked diaspora, there was no widespread starvation in the Klondike that winter. The Mounties were determined to keep it that way.



Stampeders who came to the north by way of the Lynn Canal had two options: 1) they could unload their cargo on Skagway Bay and make their way over the White Pass; 2) they could disembark at the Dyea (or Taiya) Inlet, about 5 km to the northwest of Skagway, and scale the Chilkoot Pass.

Before the Stampede of 1897, the only white resident of the Dyea Inlet was a tough trader named John J. Healy. Like Walsh and Steele, Healy had an interesting Canadian past. Unlike the Mounties, however, he was not Canadian citizen. Healy was an Irishman who, as a young boy, emigrated with his family to New York in the midst of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s. When he came of age, he enlisted in the United States Army. His service in the Force brought him to Utah, Idaho, and finally Montana. There, he settled down to the life of a trader at Fort Benton. In 1869, he, along with a small band of pioneering entrepreneurs, traveled north into Canadian territory and established the infamous Fort Hamilton (more commonly known as Fort Whoop Up) on the Belly River near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta. There, he sold trade goods, including whisky and repeating rifles, to the local Blackfoot. The whisky had a particularly devastating effect on the Indians, and in 1873, the Canadian government formed the North West Mounted Police and sent them west to suppress the trade. Instead of resisting the Mounties, Healy returned to Fort Benton, Montana, where he became the Sheriff of Chouteau County. During his term as sheriff, he jailed many interesting outlaws, including his famous Irish counterpart Kootenai Brown. In time, he left Montana for Alaska, correctly predicting that there would be a northern gold rush before the turn of the century. At the time of the Stampede, he was operating a trading post on the Dyea Inlet. Ever the entrepreneur, Healy made an honest fortune off the thousands of Stampeders who arrived on his doorstep beginning in the fall of 1897.

The Stampeders who unloaded at Dyea Inlet struggled to haul their supplies above the waterline before tide. Many unfortunates lost their outfits to the tide. Similar to Skagway, a town began to emerge on the shores. It was named Dyea after the Inlet.

Residents of Dyea took pride in the fact that their town saw considerably less crime than its neighbour Skagway. This was due, in part, to the fact that the Chilkoot Trail was open year round, as opposed to the adjacent White Pass, which was impassable in the winter. Because of this, Skagway swelled and stagnated, while Dyea remained a transient town through which Stampeders flowed perpetually. In the words of Dyea’s only newspaper, the Trail:

“We desire to call the attention of the reading public to the fact that no more orderly or peaceable city of 3,000 in population can be found in the United States.… The population of Dyea is composed of the better class and no one need feel alarmed. Property is exposed on all sides – hardly a case of theft occurring – and what few crimes that are committed are confined to a class few in number. There is less public exhibition of vice here than in the cities of the States.”


The Chilkoot Trail

After unloading their supplies at Dyea, Stampeders began the trek up the Chilkoot Trail, an ancient grease trail, or trading trail, long used by the local Tlingit Indians. The Chilkoot Trail was shorter than the White Trail, but more difficult. The route was arduous, and Stampeders had to contend with thieves, con-men from Skagway, the brutal sub-arctic elements, and the occasional avalanche. Many historians agree that it was, all things considered, the best path to the Klondike.

Five miles up the trail was Finnagan’s Point. The Point was a resting place before the grueling Dyea Canyon ahead, a narrow pathway littered with various natural obstacles. At the end of the Dyea Canyon was Camp Pleasant, a stopping point which offered Stampeders much-needed reprieve. The hike from Camp Pleasant to Sheep Camp- a tent town that emerged at the foot of the Coast Mountains- was uphill all the way. (Sheep Camp was so named because it was located at the site of an ancient Tlingit mountain sheep-hunting camp.)

Past Sheep Camp, the trail became even steeper. Ultimately, it led to a flat ledge that came to be known as the Scales. Beyond the Scales were the famous Golden Stairs.

The Scales earned its name from the hundreds of Tlingit packers who camped at its base, offering their services to Stampeders. Here, the Tlingit men would use scales to meticulously measure the mass of the Stampeders’ gear. From thereon out, gear had to be hauled manually; the Golden Stairs were too steep for horses. The Tlingit were shrewd businessmen, and often charged prospector hopefuls $1 for every pound of gear they had to haul. They did not work on contract, and would almost always work for the highest bidder. Often, Tlingit packers would abandon their loads mid-trail if another Stampeder offered them a higher wage.

Just beyond he Scales were the Golden Stairs, the famous 15,000-step staircase hand-hewn from snow and ice which has since become an icon for the Klondike Gold Rush. Here, all throughout the winter of 1897/98, an endless line of Stampeders and Tlingit packers slowly snaked up the slope. The hike from base to summit usually took about six hours. At the top, men dumped their loads, marked their stash with a flag, and headed back down to the Scales. The trip down was much quicker, and infinitely more enjoyable; Stampeders simply slid down the slope on their rear ends, and reached the bottom in a matter of minutes. As a man could only conceivably haul a maximum of several pounds on his back in one trip, multiple trips were necessary. Without the help of a packer, a single Stampeder could expect to make the climb about 40 times in total.

Throughout 1897 and 1898, various entrepreneurs constructed tramways up that steepest section of the Pass, on which Stampeders could shuttle their supplies for a fee.

When a Stampeder had hauled everything he needed to the summit of the Chilkoot Pass, he proceeded to the North West Mounted Police customs house a short distance away. Similar to those stationed at the White Pass customs house, the Mounties on the Chilkoot stipulated that each Stampeder be in possession of at least one years’ supply of food. They also imposed a duty on the prospectors’ outfit.

After the Stampeders were permitted to pass into Canada, they made the journey down the other side of the Chilkoot Pass to Lake Lindemann. Lake Lindemann was connected to the adjacent Lake Bennett, which lay at the foot of the White Pass, by a narrow rapids. One Stampeder named John A. Matthews built a boat on Lake Lindemann and tried to paddle it through the canyon to Lake Bennett. He smashed the boat to kindling, lost his entire outfit, repeated the process, and destroyed his boat again. Stampeders learned from Matthews’ misfortune and, after building their boats on the shores of Lake Lindemann, portaged overland to Lake Bennett.

Most of the Stampeders of 1897 reached the shores of Lake Lindemann and Lake Bennett just in time for freeze-up. They had to spend the winter on the lake’s shores, waiting for the spring thaw, before making the dangerous journey down lakes and rapids to the goldfields of the Klondike.


By Hammerson Peters

Back to The Klondike Gold Rush- Part 3: The Advent

Forward to The Klondike Gold Rush- Part 5: Dawson Trails


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Klondike Gold Rush- Part 3: The Advent

Back to The Klondike Gold Rush.

On August 16, 1896, George Carmack, Keish “Skookum” Jim Mason, and “Tagish” Charlie Dawson discovered a golden bonanza on Rabbit Creek, a tiny tributary of the Klondike River. Ever since that day, Rabbit Creek has borne the name Bonanza Creek. Without telling fellow prospector Robert Henderson of their find, as they had promised to do, the three men traveled down the creek to the Klondike River, down the Klondike to the Yukon River, and down the Yukon to the ramshackle frontier town of Fortymile to stake a claim, spreading the word of their find as they went. In no time, prospectors from all over the Yukon flocked to Bonanza Creek, scrambling to stake claims of their own. It was the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Early Days on Bonanza Creek

Some of the first prospectors to strike it rich on Bonanza were brothers Clarence and Fred Berry, former fruit farmers from Fresno, California. Clarence was a Sourdough (‘Sourdough’ is a Yukon-Alaska term which refers to someone who has spent at least one winter in the north) who spent the winter of 1894/95 prospecting on Fortymile Creek. When spring came, he traveled to California, married his childhood sweetheart Ethel Bush, and returned to the Yukon with his bride in 1896. Ethel was the first white woman to scale the Chilkoot Pass and travel down the Chilkoot Trail to the Yukon goldfields. After some more unsuccessful prospecting, Clarence took a job at a saloon in Fortymile. He was tending bar one day in August when George Carmack sauntered into the saloon, fresh from Bonanza Creek with a shotgun shell filled with gold nuggets. Clarence received an outfit on credit from his employer, Bill McPhee, and immediately set out with his brother to stake a claim on Bonanza Creek. That fall, the Berry brothers partnered up with a young Austrian immigrant named Antone Stander and sunk a shaft to bedrock. When spring came and they washed their dump pile in a sluice, the three men were rich.

Most prospectors were not as quick to reach bedrock as the Berry brothers. Many laboured throughout the winter, lighting fires by night and digging through melted permafrost by day. When shafts became deep enough, ladders where erected and windlasses were built. One prospector would dig in the shaft bottom with pick and shovel, filling a bucket with dirt. His partner would man the windlass, hauling up the bucket when it was filled and transferring the dirt to the dump pile before lowering the bucket back down again. The further the prospectors dug, the more they realized that Bonanza was no ordinary creek. Prospectors would haul up buckets of gravel glistening with gold nuggets. Pans of particular paydirt could yield up to eight hundred dollars worth of gold.

As word spread of the wealth to be had, prospectors vied fiercely for claims on Bonanza Creek. Men bickered and fought with one another over mining territory. Most major disputes were, in the end, settled by William Ogilvie, a Canadian government surveyor who had surveyed the Alaska-Yukon Boundary back in 1887/88.


The Bounty of Eldorado Creek

By late August, all of Bonanza Creek had been staked. In time, the creek’s south fork- a small stream known at the time as ‘Bonanza’s pup’- turned out to be particularly bountiful.

In late August, a party of five prospectors staked a claim on Bonanza’s pup. The party included: Antone Stander, the man who had earlier partnered with Clarence Berry; Jay Whipple, an old prospector from the nearby diggings on Sixtymile River; Frank Keller, a former railway man from California; J.J. Clements, a New Yorker; and Frank Phiscator, a farmer from Michigan. When the five men came to the creek, one of them dipped his pan at random into the stream bed and washed it out. At the bottom of the pan, mixed with heavy black sand, lay six dollars worth of coarse gold dust. The find was incredible. To put this in perspective, earlier that year Robert Henderson- a veteran prospector who made a habit of only settling down to dig after finding glowing prospects- decided to excavate a location on nearby Gold Bottom Creek after finding eight cents in his pan. Stander, Whipple, Keller, Clements, and Phiscator had unwittingly stumbled upon the richest gold-bearing creek in the world.

The five men pounded in their stakes immediately and got to work. Soon, they were joined by a party of four led by an Illinoisan named Louis Emkins. In defiance of the unwritten prospectors’ code which had characterized Yukon’s earlier gold rushes, Stander and his companions initially tried to discourage the newcomers from more closely inspecting the creek bed, saying they had found nothing but dirt. Emkins was unconvinced. He and his partner George Demars staked their own claims on the creek. The other two prospectors took Stander and his companions’ advice at face value returned the way they had come.

The third party to come to Bonanza’s pup included three Norwegians and an ex-reporter from Chicago named William Johns. There, the newcomers met with Emkins, Demars, and Frank Keller, all of whom were mysteriously vague about the creek’s prospects. Warily, the prospectors crept upstream, where they found Stander, Whipple, Clements, and Phiscator crowded around a pan. According to Johns, they looked “like a cat caught in a cream pitcher.” The four newcomers knew immediately that the creek was rich, and set about staking their own claims. One of the Norwegians jokingly dubbed the creek Eldorado. For reasons the newcomers would soon learn, the name stuck.

Soon, more prospectors ventured over to Eldorado from Bonanza Creek. Encouraged by the eleven pioneers who had settled down on the creek to dig, they decided to stake their own claims. In no time, every inch of Eldorado Creek was owned by one prospector or another.

Although the prospects on Eldorado Creek were better than good, nobody could tell how rich the area really was until a shaft was sunk to bedrock and the gravel washed in a sluice- a process which would take until spring. Some of the early prospectors on Eldorado sold their claims for a tiny fraction of their true value, leaving fortunes untouched in the permafrost. Jay Whipple sold his claim to a man named Skiff Mitchell for next to nothing. George Demars sold his stretch of land for eight hundred dollars. And William Johns sold half his claim for five hundred dollars, and the other half three months later for $2,500. In three years’ time, each of these claims would be worth over a million.

One of the most successful prospectors to stake a claim on Eldorado Creek was a massive, illiterate Nova Scotian labourer known as “Big Alex” McDonald. McDonald, who arrived in the Klondike nearly penniless, purchased an especially profitable stretch of land on the creek on credit. Instead of working the claim himself, he leased it to other men who mined for him. When the men had worked claim and reaped the rewards, Big Alex kept half the profit, and let the miners keep the rest. He used the profit to purchase more Klondike claims on which he repeated the process. Within a year, the Maritime giant rose from obscurity to fame and fortune, and earned himself the moniker “The King of the Klondike.”


The Dawn of Dawson City

The first trader to take advantage of the Klondike Gold Rush was Joseph Ladue, the man who had originally outfitted Henderson and urged him to prospect the watershed of the Indian River (a tributary of the Yukon River near the Klondike). In the fall of 1896, Ladue built a saloon and sawmill at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, the site of an ancient seasonal Han fishing camp. Newcomers to the Klondike gravitated to the log buildings, and in no time a sizable tent town revolved around it. This tent town was the seed that would grow into the thriving boom town of Dawson City, the largest city the Canadian north has ever known.

In those first few seasons of the Klondike Gold Rush, goods were scarce in the tent town that would become Dawson City. Prospectors would pay hundreds of dollars for bent and burnt nails with which they would construct their sluice boxes. Butchers sold halves of beef for thousands of dollars. Food became so scarce that dog meat became a staple. Gold seemed to be the only commodity in good supply.

Throughout the fall of 1896 and the winter if ’96/’97, the Outside- a term northerners used to refer to the rest of the world- was largely unaware of the Klondike gold. Throughout the winter, a thin trickle of prospectors arrived by steamboat on the Yukon’s west coast, bound for Circle City, Alaska. These newcomers scaled the Chilkoot Pass, hiked up the Chilkoot Trail to Lake Bennett (a lake which led to the Yukon River), built boats on the lake’s shore, and waited for the spring thaw. When spring came, and the waters became navigable, the prospectors traveled down the Yukon River to their destination and stumbled upon the burgeoning town of Dawson. Upon stopping in the town’s saloons, hearing the stories, and catching glimpses of the gold nuggets with which Sourdoughs paid for their drinks, many abandoned their Circle City plans and set up camp in Dawson.

When spring came, the Klondike prospectors who had worked throughout the winter washed the dirt from their dump piles in sluice boxes and collected the gold which sank to the bottom. Many of them ended up extraordinarily wealthy. While many had earned their wealth working claims on the creeks of the Klondike, however, others made fortunes by catering to the prospectors who returned to Dawson from the diggings. Ten cent cigars sold for $1.50. Log cabins sold for $200/square foot. The price of bacon and tea was inflated to eight times its original value. Fresh eggs were priceless.

By summer, Dawson had swelled to a town of 3,500. According to Charles Constantine, the head of the NWMP detachment in the Yukon at the time, many of the newcomers “appeared to be the sweepings of the slums and the result of a general jail delivery.” Soon, rough-hewn log buildings were being built all over town, replacing the tents that had dominated the area all winter. This new Dawson was a new breed of northern mining town, one which’s character differed starkly from that of the other Yukon-Alaska boom towns which preceded it. In Dawson, the Golden Rule and the old, unwritten Prospectors’ Code to which the Sourdoughs of Fortymile and Circle City had adhered was eclipsed by greed. No longer could prospectors leave their cabin doors open to passing travelers and expect their goods and gold to remain untouched.

In early June, two steamboats arrived in Dawson loaded with food, alcohol, and other supplies. One was the Alaska Commercial Company’s steamboat, Alice. The other was a vessel privately owned by John J. Healy, an American merchant with an interesting Canadian past who had a trading post on the Dyea Inlet. After Healy and the ACC employees aboard sold their wares to the boom town merchants, the two steamboats took on passengers who wished to return to the Outside. Some of these passengers were prospectors who had struck it rich on the Klondike, and were eager to blow their wealth in the bars of Seattle and San Francisco. These ragged prospectors would become the first heralds to bring word of the tremendous wealth to be made on the Klondike to the Outside world. And thus began the heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush.


Henderson’s Misfortune

“Hey, wait a minute,” some of you might ask, “whatever happened to Robert Henderson, the first guy to find gold in the Klondike?” If you haven’t read our article on the Klondike gold discoveries and have no idea what I’m talking about, have no fear; I’ll give you a brief summary of that story in the paragraph below:

Just days before their famous August 16 discovery which catalyzed the Klondike Gold Rush, George Carmack, Skookum Jim, and Tagish Charlie visited a prospector named Robert Henderson at his mining camp. Henderson- who, at the time, was mining on a tributary of the Klondike River he had dubbed Gold Bottom Creek- had came upon the three men earlier that summer at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers. There, he told Carmack, a white, of the good prospects he had found on Gold Bottom Creek. At the same time, he insulted Carmack’s companions, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie (both of them Tagish Indians), by informing them that they were not welcome to stake claims on the creek. With that, the two parties went their separate ways; Carmack’s group up Rabbit (Bonanza) Creek, and Henderson’s up the Klondike (from which he would travel up what would become Hunker Creek to Gold Bottom). Some time later, Carmack and his companions found themselves in the vicinity of Gold Bottom Creek. They visited Henderson at his work camp, exchanged some words, then returned in the direction they had come with a promise to send word to Henderson if they found gold. On August 16, they made their discovery and, without sending word to Henderson as they had promised, traveled to Fortymile with the news. 

While prospectors from all over the Yukon funneled onto Bonanza Creek, Henderson toiled away on Gold Bottom, oblivious. One day in early September, two prospectors stumbled into his work camp. They had traveled the length of Bonanza Creek, and were in search of fresh prospects. Henderson spoke with them and quickly learned of the three-week-old gold rush on Bonanza Creek, and of Carmack’s betrayal. Swallowing his dismay, Henderson realized he would need to stake a claim on Gold Bottom quickly before overflow from Bonanza Creek reached the area. He set off immediately down the creek, bound for Fortymile.

Gold Bottom was a tributary of a longer creek which flowed into the Klondike. After travelling down that nameless creek for some time, Henderson came upon two prospectors: Charles Johnson and the more senior Andrew Hunker. The two men informed Henderson that they had found quality colour on the creek. Because of their find, and Hunker’s seniority, the creek would be known thereafter as Hunker Creek. The find was richer than Henderson’s find on Gold Bottom, and Henderson determined it would be worth his while to forfeit his discovery claim in order to stake a claim on this new creek. With that in mind, he continued on to Fortymile, where he staked a claim on Hunker Creek.

Henderson never had the opportunity to work his claim. Earlier that year, while prospecting in the bush, he had badly injured his leg. The injury prevented him from working his claim that winter. When spring came, he opted to do some more prospecting on the Klondike tributaries before returning home to his family in Colorado. At Fortymile, he boarded a steamboat bound for St. Michael, Alaska, from where he hoped to board another steamer which would take him down the Alaskan Panhandle and the British Columbian coast to Seattle. Unfortunately, the ice which formed on the Yukon River mid-journey proved to be too much for the steamer, and Henderson was forced to spend the winter in Circle City, Alaska. There, he fell ill, and was forced to sell his claim on Hunker Creek in order to pay for his medical bills. In years to come, that claim would prove to be one of the richest claims on the creek.

In the spring, Henderson finally made it to St. Michael. Next, he traveled by steamer to Seattle. At last, he arrived back home in Colorado with nothing to show for his discovery of the gold that would help launch the Klondike Gold Rush. In the end, the co-discoverer of the Klondike Gold Rush returned home penniless.

By Hammerson Peters

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Klondike Gold Rush- Part 2: The Discoveries

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By 1896, nearly a decade had passed since the gold rush of Fortymile River (one of the many tributaries of the Yukon River). In the space of that decade, prospectors from all walks of life had flocked to the Yukon to try their luck on the Fortymile and the creeks surrounding it. In 1891, gold was discovered on the Sixtymile River (which flowed into the Yukon River sixty miles upriver of Fort Reliance), and many prospectors left the Fortymile for the new diggings. The following year, gold was discovered on Birch Creek, Alaska, and the process was repeated. The miners who congregated on Birch Creek founded a boom town which they named Circle City, after its proximity to the Arctic Circle. A handful of miners struck it rich and returned to civilization with small fortunes, or blew their wealth in the saloons of Fortymile and Circle City. Many more toiled to no avail and left the Yukon broke and embittered. A ragged scattering of Sourdoughs, a term used to describe seasoned prospectors who had weathered at least one northern winter, remained behind. And every once in a while, small parties of tenderfoot Cheechakos– newcomers to the north trickled over the Chilkoot Pass, hungry for fortune, adventure, and respite from Victorian society. By 1896, there were 1,600 men scouring the Yukon and Alaska for gold. Few might have guessed that, in two years’ time, the area would be home to 30,000 prospectors. Few might have guessed that the Klondike River, an obscure tributary of the Yukon, would be the site of the Klondike Gold Rush, the biggest gold rush in Canadian history.

Henderson’s Discovery

One of the Sourdoughs who lived in the Yukon in 1896 was a Nova Scotian named Robert Henderson. He was one of the co-discoverers of the gold that launched the Klondike Gold Rush.

Henderson was a prospector to the core, and had spent his entire adult life searching for gold. He left Nova Scotia at a young age to pan the goldfields of Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. After years of labouring fruitlessly under the southern sun, he left for Pike’s Peak Country of what is now Colorado, USA. Over the years, he panned and picked his way north up the Rocky Mountains until he found himself in the Yukon. Instead of trying his luck near Fortymile, Sixymile, or Circle City, he panned himself penniless on the Pelly River, a headstream of the Yukon River. When he reached rock bottom, he poled down the Pelly to the Yukon River, then floated down the Yukon to Ogilvie, a hamlet at the mouth of the Sixtymile River. There, he met with Joseph Ladue, co-owner of the community’s trading post.

Back in the 1880’s, Joseph Ladue had partnered with Arthur Harper, Jack McQuesten, and Alfred Mayo, the three patriarchs of the Yukon. Together, the four men traded tools and provisions to Yukon prospectors. Over the years, they had outfitted nearly every miner in the area. In accordance with the strange prospector’s etiquette to which nearly all northerners adhered, the four traders frequently supplied men on credit alone. Henderson hoped to take advantage of this Sourdough’s code of honour and secure himself an outfit.

Ladue was better than his reputation. He lent Henderson everything he would need for another prospecting venture, and even advised him where to pan. The Klondike River- or Tr-ondek, as the local Han Indians called it- would never yield quality gold, Ladue maintained. However, the trader believed wholeheartedly that the silt at the bottom of the Indian River concealed a wealth of gold just waiting to be discovered.

Henderson set off immediately, taking Ladue’s advice. He panned the Indian River and its tributaries doggedly. He found placer gold here and there, but never enough to warrant a more thorough investigation. While he moved from stream to stream, Henderson noticed something interesting. All the Indian River’s northern tributaries seemed to flow from a single source: a round peak which towered over the surrounding hills. Perhaps spurred by a prospector’s curiosity, Henderson decided to explore the peak. After a grueling 4000-foot climb, Henderson crested the mountain and met with a spectacular sight.

The round mountain- which would one day become known as King Solomon’s Dome- was a focal point from which creeks flowed in all directions, like tentacles from the body of an octopus. The creeks on the mountain’s southern slopes flowed into the Indian River. The creeks on the east side flowed into the Yukon. And the creeks on the northern slopes flowed into the Klondike River.

Upon his ascent, Henderson happened to be closest to the head of a small tributary of what would become known as Hunker Creek. Out of curiosity, he shambled down the hillside and followed the creek until he found a suitable place to pan. The prospector dipped his pan into the creek bed and washed away the gravel. At the bottom of the pan he found heavy black sand and eight cents of coarse gold. The find was promising, and Henderson made the trek back to the Indian River to share the news with fellow prospectors, as was Sourdough custom. Little did he know that his discovery would set in motion a chain of events which would culminate in the Klondike Gold Rush.

Henderson returned to the creek on the northern slope of the Dome- which he named Gold Bottom Creek- with three other men. The miners began to dig a shaft and extracted $750 before running low on supplies. On their way back to Ladue’s trading post, Henderson and his new partners shared the news of their find with every prospector they came across. They outfitted themselves at Ogilvie and promptly poled back up the Klondike to return to their diggings. Instead of travelling up the Indian River, which was dangerously shallow when, the prospectors decided to pole up the Klondike, and then up Hunker Creek to Gold Bottom.

Carmack’s Gold Discovery

At the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, at the site of present-day Dawson City (the future epicentre of the Klondike Gold Rush), Robert Henderson and his companions came upon a party of five. The party included ‘Skookum’ Jim Mason, ‘Tagish’ Charlie, Kate Carmack, Kate’s daughter Graphie Gracey, and Kate’s husband George Carmack. These five, like Henderson, would go down in posterity as the co-founders of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Keish ‘Skookum’ Jim Mason was the largest of the five. On the surface, he appeared to be a massive Tagish Indian. Years later, George Carmack described him as, “straight as a gun barrel, powerfully built with strong sloping shoulders, tapering… downwards to the waist, like a keystone. He was known as the best hunter and trapper on the river, in fact he was a super-specimen of the northern Indian.” On the inside, however, Skookum Jim was as ambitious as any white man. In general, the Tagish Indians of Lake Tagish and Lake Bennett contented themselves with hunting and fishing and cared little for wealth and power, unlike their competitive Tlingit neighbours on the other side of the Coast Mountains. Skookum Jim was an anomaly. In the mid-1880’s, he hauled prospectors’ supplies over the Chilkoot Pass for money alongside Tlingit packers. After packing an enormous 156-pound load of bacon over the Pass, he earned the nickname ‘Skookum’, meaning ‘burly’ in Chinook Jargon (a trade language of the Pacific Northwest). Skookum Jim was also a prospector, and dreamed of striking it rich.

‘Tagish’ Charlie was Skookum Jim’s nephew, but he was not a giant like his uncle. Lean and limber, Tagish Charlie was, according to George Carmack in a later reminiscence, “alert as a weasel”.

Kate Carmack was Skookum Jim’s sister. Her mother was a member of the Tagish Wolf moiety and her father, Kaachgaawaa, was the chief of the Tlingit Crow moiety. According to local Indian tradition, she was the heir to her father’s title. Her daughter, young Graphie Gracey, was a mixed blood born to George Carmack.

George Carmack was the only white man of the group. He was Kate Carmack’s husband, Graphie Gracey’s father, Skookum Jim’s brother-in-law, and Tagish Charlie’s uncle. Carmack was a trader, fisherman, and trapper who had adopted the lifestyle of an Indian. Unlike Skookum Jim, his massive brother-in-law, he cared little for gold, and contented himself with living off the land and selling fish, lumber, and furs for white amenities. In contrast with many Yukon prospectors who took Indian wives and brought them into their cabins, Carmack took the Tagish-Tlingit Kate for his wife and moved into her caribou-skin lodge. For this, he was largely despised by fellow Sourdoughs. This effect was compounded by the fact that George Carmack had the nasty habit of stretching the truth. According to one Mountie stationed at Fortymile, Cormack was a man “who would never allow himself to be beaten and always tried to present his fortunes in the best possible light.”  In the Yukon Valley, many whites referred to him as ‘Lying George’.

Earlier that year, in May, the party of five was camped on the banks of the Yukon River near the charred ruins of Fort Selkirk, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post that had been razed by Tlingit warriors in 1852. According to legend, one evening, George Carmack had a strange, prophetic vision. While staring into the sunset, he had a feeling that something remarkable was about to happen. He took out a coin and decided to flip it. If it landed on heads, he would go up the Yukon River. If it was tails, however, he would head down the river. The coin landed on tails.  Later that night, while he was sleeping, Carmack dreamed that he was approached by two massive salmon. Their scales were made of gold, and their eyes were twenty-dollar gold pieces. Upon meditating upon his dream, Carmack- instead of interpreting the dream as a sign to go prospecting, as many white men would certainly do had they been in his position- decided that the proper course of action was to head south and go fishing.

And so George Carmack, his wife Kate and daughter Gracie, Skookum Jim, and Tagish Charlie found themselves fishing at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers when they were approached by Robert Henderson and his partners.

Henderson, a strict adherent to the prospectors’ code, informed Carmack of his find on what was now Gold Bottom Creek. However, like many Sourdoughs, he harboured a prejudice against Indians, and didn’t want to see any of them staking claims on the site. He told Carmack as much, and made sure that his Tagish family were aware that they were not welcome at Gold Bottom Creek. With that, Henderson and his party headed up the Klondike River.

Carmack, who did not lust after gold like his white counterparts, would not abandon his family to chase after the yellow metal. After some deliberation, the party of five decided to head up Rabbit Creek (a creek which flows from King Solomon’s Dome into the Klondike River just before its confluence with the Yukon) to scout out quality timber, which they might fell, dress, and float downstream to Fortymile. They cached their boat at the creek’s mouth and headed up its banks on foot. In time, they came to King Solomon’s Dome. On a whim, they decided to hike over the slope to visit Henderson and his crew, who were working an open cut.

Historians are divided about what exactly was said between the two parties on that fateful meeting. However, most agree that at least three things happened that day on Gold Bottom Creek: 1) it was decided that Carmack and his family would head back to Rabbit Creek; 2) Carmack promised Henderson that he would send back word if he or any of his Tagish family found anything worthwhile on Rabbit Creek; 3) Henderson refused to sell any of his tobacco to Skookum Jim or Tagish Charlie. When they had concluded their visit, Carmack and his family left Gold Bottom Creek the way they had come and headed back over the ridge to Rabbit Creek.

That evening, on August 16, 1896, George Carmack and his family made camp about half a mile downstream of the headwaters of Rabbit Creek. While Carmack dozed under a birch tree, Skookum Jim headed into the brush with his rifle, hoping to bag a moose for supper. The big Indian succeeded, and went to the river to wash out a frying pan in which he would cook some of the meat. As he was cleaning the pan, he noticed that a protruding rim of bedrock was shimmering dully in the light of the setting sun. He examined the rock and pulled out a piece of solid gold as large as his thumb.

Elated, Skookum Jim informed his family of the find. The big Indian, Tagish Charlie, and George Carmack whooped for joy and danced around the pan. Said George Carmack in a later reminiscence, “I felt as if I had just dealt myself a royal flush in the game of life, and the whole world was a jackpot.” After they were finished celebrating, the three men panned Rabbit Creek- which would then be known as Bonanza Creek- and accumulated enough gold dust to fill a Winchester shotgun shell. After staking claims on the creek the following morning by writing on the wood of a nearby spruce, the party headed downstream towards the Yukon River, and to Fortymile beyond, spreading the word of their find to every prospector they came across. Some of those prospectors to first learn of the bonanza- including Dan McGillivery, Dave Edwards, Harry Waugh, Dave McKay, and Alphonse Lapierre- would become millionaires. In their haste, or perhaps out of spite, George Carmack and his family neglected to send word of their strike back to Henderson as they had promised.

Word of the find on Bonanza Creek spread like wildfire throughout the Yukon Valley. Soon, the goldfields of Fortymile, Sixtymile, and Circle City were emptied as every prospector in the north flocked to the Klondike for a piece of the pie. It was the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush.

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Forward to The Klondike Gold Rush- Part 3: The Advent


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