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Klondike Gold Rush- Part 1: Background

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When I was growing up, my favorite poem, hands down, was The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert Service. If you’ve never had the pleasure of acquainting yourself with this fantastic poem or the man who wrote it, please allow me to fill you in. Robert William Service was a British-Canadian poet and banker who spent his youth tramping around in Canada and the United States, working odd jobs, before moving to Whitehorse, Yukon, in 1904. Only five years after the end of the famous Klondike Gold Rush, 30-year-old Robert Service began to write poems about the Canadian North and the hard men who inhabited it. One of his most famous poems is The Cremation of Sam McGee. In a nutshell, this poem is the story of a prospector who hauls the frozen corpse of his partner through the Arctic in search of a crematorium. The poem opens with the haunting lines:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun 

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.

Spectacular photo of The Northern Lights in the Yukon Gold Rush.

The Northern Lights.

Over the years, the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899 has been the inspiration for and backdrop of countless fictional tales, like some of Robert Service’s most famous poems. From Jack London’s White Fang to Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush to the radio series Challenge of the Yukon, this exciting piece of Canadian history has been immortalized in North American popular culture. In addition to their entertainment value, these fictional pieces all give rise to the questions: What strange things were “done in the midnight sun?” Who were “the men who moil[ed] for gold?” What is the true story of the Klondike Gold Rush?

The Yukon

Image of mountains and lake in The Yukon.

The Yukon.

Before we can learn the true story of the Klondike Gold Rush, we must first familiarize ourselves with the land in which it took place.

The Klondike Gold Rush took place in what is now Yukon, one of Canada’s three northern territories. Today, Yukon is bordered by America’s Alaska to the west, British Columbia to the south, the Northwest Territories to the east, and the Arctic Ocean to the north. Before 1898, however, the area was part of Canada’s vast North-West Territories a region which, at one time, included nearly all western Canada (except British Columbia).

Yukon’s summers are short and warm and almost perpetually light, owing to the fact that, in the far north, the summer sun only sets late in the evening. In the Arctic Circle, northerners experience the midnight sun, a phenomenon in which the sun remains above the horizon even until midnight during the summer solstice. In contrast, Yukon’s winters are long, dark, and bitterly cold. In fact, the coldest day ever recorded in North America occurred on February 3, 1947, in Snag, Yukon. That day, the temperature dropped to a bone-chilling -63° C, or -81° F!

Yukon Goldrush The midnight sun.

The midnight sun.

Most of the Yukon, save for the barren tundra in its north, is covered by taiga, or boreal forest, a timber-land consisting almost exclusively of pines and spruce. Yukon’s taiga is home to some sub-arctic denizens, including (but certainly not limited to) caribou, moose, wolves, eagles, ravens, lynx, and all three species of North American bear (black, grizzly, and polar). Due to its brutal climate, only the hardiest of animals survive in the Yukon.

In addition to the boreal forest and its residents, the Yukon is dominated by three main types of terrestrial features: mountains, lakes, and rivers:

The Coast Mountains in southwest Yukon include Canada’s five highest mountains: Mount Logan, Mount St. Elias, Mount Luciana, King Peak, and Mount Steele. In Yukon’s southeast are the Cassiar Mountains. In the east are the Selwyn and Mackenzie Mountains. The Yukon Ranges are in west and central Yukon, while the Brooks Range is in the north.

Image of Yukon- Canada's highest mountain, Mount Logan.

Mount Logan, Yukon Canada’s highest mountain.

Some of the  most prominent of Yukon’s many lakes are Kluane Lake, Lake Laberge, and Mayo Lake.

Last, but certainly not least, the geography of the Yukon is dominated by the watersheds of two massive rivers: the Mackenzie and the Yukon. The watershed of the Mackenzie River, which flows latitudinally down the Northwest Territories to the east, makes its mark upon eastern Yukon. The massive Yukon River, however, begins in the Coast Mountains of southwestern Yukon and winds north and west through the territory before turning west into Alaska and emptying into the Bering Sea.

Ariel view of The Yukon River.

The Yukon River.

Where was Klondike Gold Rush?

“The Klondike”, the site of the Klondike Gold Rush, is a sub-region of the Yukon which gets its name from the Klondike River, one of the many tributaries of the great Yukon River. The Klondike River begins in the Ogilvie Mountains, one of the Yukon Ranges of central Yukon, and empties into the Yukon River at the site of present day Dawson City.

The Klondike, in the context of the Klondike Gold Rush, is a relatively small patch of land in west-central Yukon. It is roughly bounded by the Klondike River to the north, the Yukon River to the west, the Indian River (another tributary of the Yukon River) to the south, and a small stream called Flat Creek (which today is paralleled by the Klondike Highway) to the east. This square-like area is covered by a spiderweb of creeks, all of which seem to emanate from a single point, like spokes from a the hub of a wheel. This point from which the creeks of the Klondike goldfields flow is a 4000-foot-high peak known today as King Solomon’s Dome. Some believe that this mountain was the source of the Klondike’s gold.

Image of an old map of the Klondike goldfields.

A map of the Klondike goldfields.

The Klondike Gold Rush Background

For centuries before the Klondike Gold Rush, the Yukon was home to various First Nations. Athabascan tribes inhabited the interior. The Gwich’in resided in the north, the Han in the central west on the Yukon River (and on in the Klondike), and the North and South Tutchone in the central and south-central Yukon, respectively. The Kaska lived in the southeast, while the Tagish resided in the southwest around Tagish Lake and Marsh Lake. On the west coast and within the Coast Mountains lived the powerful, warlike Tlingit.

Long before the arrival of European fur trading companies, the Athabascans of the interior had routinely traded with the coastal Tlingit. The Athabascans would trade copper, hides, dried meat, obsidian, and mats of dried berries. In return, the Tlingit would give them eulachon oil, dried red laver seaweed, and Chilkat blankets. Eulachon oil was such a popular trade item that the interior-coastal trade routes were called “grease trails”. One well-used grease trail crossed the Coastal Mountains of southwest Yukon via the Chilkoot Pass, a mountain pass which would feature prominently in the Klondike Gold Rush. The coastal Tlingit were fiercely protective of the Chilkoot Pass and guarded it jealously.

The Chilkoot Pass passes through Yukon's Coast Mountains.

The Chilkoot Pass passes through Yukon’s Coast Mountains.

Although the Yukon Indians were certainly aware that their country was chock-full of gold, they made no effort to extract the mineral. Gold is soft and malleable and a less than ideal material for tools. For many Indians, copper, another mineral prevalent in the Yukon, was a much more valuable commodity.

In the first half of the 1800’s, the Yukon was penetrated by two different types of European explorers from two different directions. Russian explorers employed by the Russian-American Company came from the west. Since 1732, the Russian Empire had laid claim to ‘Russian America’, the land we know today as the State of Alaska, and had established settlements along the Pacific Coast. They sought to exploit Russian America for its valuable furs, and paid little heed when explorers returned with tales of gold-bearing creeks.

A painting depicting the Battle of Sitka, a skirmish between Russian and Tlingit forces.

A painting depicting the Battle of Sitka, a skirmish between Russian and Tlingit forces.

At the same time, British-Canadian explorers employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company pushed into the Yukon from the east. The HBC had established fur trading posts on the Mackenzie River in present-day Northwest Territories, and sent expeditions further west in search of other prospects. They, too, were concerned predominantly with the acquisition of furs, and decided not to follow-up on rumors of a northwestern El Dorado.

The Yukon Pioneers

In 1848’s, far to the south, gold was discovered in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Over the next seven years, 300 thousand prospectors from all over the world flocked to the California goldfields to search for the precious metal. It was the first major North American gold rush.

Soon, gold fever made its way north into Canada. 1851 saw a minor gold rush on Queen Charlottes Islands, which mostly involved Hudson’s Bay Company employees and local Haida Indians. In 1857, gold was discovered on the Thompson River near present-day Lytton, BC. The ensuing gold rush, known as the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, was the catalyst for the formation of the Colony of British Columbia. Prospectors who had toiled in the Fraser Canyon to no avail left in search of greener pastures… and found one on Williams Creek, BC. The various strikes on William’s Creek and the surrounding area would lead to what has arguably become Canada’s most famous gold rush, the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1861-1867. Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, prospectors worked their way up Canada’s Rocky Mountains, starting the Wild Horse Creek Gold Rush of 1864 (near present-day Fort Steele) and the Cassiar Gold Rush of the 1870’s (in Cassiar Country in northwest BC).

Cariboo Country, the site of the famous Cariboo Gold Rush.

Cariboo Country, the site of the famous Cariboo Gold Rush.

Soon, the prospector diaspora which spread up western North America reached the remote wilds of the Yukon. The first man to enter the Yukon in search of gold was an Irishman named Arthur Harper. By the time he came to the Yukon, Harper was a seasoned prospector. He had worked the California goldfields in the 1850’s, and he had searched for British Columbian gold throughout the 1860’s. In 1872 and 1873, he traveled up the Peace, Liard, Mackenzie, Ray, and Porcupine Rivers to the Yukon River. He traveled further up the Yukon River until he reached Fort Yukon, an Alaskan village which revolved around an old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post of the same name.

There, Harper partnered up with two men named Alfred Mayo and Leroy Napoleon “Jack” McQuesten. Together, the three men panned the Stewart, Fortymile, Tanana, and Klondike Rivers for gold. They met with little success. In time, the prospectors began to work as traders for the Alaska Commercial Company. They established Fort Reliance on the Yukon River and traded American goods like flour, sugar, tea, and calico for Han copper and furs. In years to come, Fort Reliance became such a prominent landmark that creeks and rivers were named after their distance from it. For example, Fortymile River was so named because it flows into the Yukon River forty miles downriver from Fort Reliance.

The Fortymile River.

The Fortymile River.

Another of the early prospectors to come to the Yukon was an Ohio-born Quaker named George Holt. With the assistance of a two Indian guides, Holt traveled to the Dyea Inlet in southwest Yukon by boat sometime in the mid-1870’s. Then, he somehow managed to slip over the Chilkoot Pass without being killed (remember, the Pass was closely guarded by Tlingit warriors). He was the first white man to scale the Chilkoot Pass. Holt and his two native companions prospected around the headwaters of the Yukon River before travelling south to Sitka, a town on the Alaskan Panhandle. When Holt showed some of the Sitka residents the gold nuggets he had procured on the other side of the Coast Mountains, a number of enterprising prospectors traveled to the Chilkoot Pass armed to the teeth with rifles and Gatling guns. They persuaded the Tlingit to open the Pass for good.

After Holt, small groups of prospectors trickled through the Chilkoot Pass. They paid the local Tlingit to haul their outfits over the mountains. According to all accounts, Tlingit men were stocky, muscular, and physically powerful, and could easily shoulder heavy loads. Years later, during the Klondike Gold Rush, the ambitious Tlingit would make their fortunes hauling loads to the Klondike goldfields.

Another interesting prospector to make his way to the Yukon in the early years was a miner named Edward Lawrence Schieffelin. Schieffelin had been a prospector since he as 17 years old. He panned for gold and silver in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and California before moving to Arizona. There, while prospecting in dangerous territory controlled by hostile Apaches, Schieffelin stumbled upon a silver bonanza. He, along with his brother and a friend, founded the Tombstone Gold and Silver Mining Company. The three partners opened a series of mines and quickly became millionaires.


Ed Schieffelin in 1880.

Throughout his years of prospecting and studying geological maps, Schieffelin formed a theory that a great “continental belt” of minerals girded the earth. He believed that the belt roughly followed a path leading from Cape Horn, Argentina, up east Asia and down through the continental divide of North America. Interestingly, Schieffelin’s hypothetical mineral belt is roughly congruent with the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire (where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common). To test his theory, he decided to make a prospecting expedition to the Yukon to see what minerals might be found. Along with his brother and three companions, he commissioned a steamer which he christened the New Racket. In 1882, the men took the steamer up the Pacific Coast to the western coast of Alaska. They entered the Yukon River delta and traveled all the way into the interior. After some panning, the seasoned prospector quickly found gold dust. However, the American had made his fortune labouring under the sweltering Arizonan sun, and was not very well prepared for the frozen Arctic. After selling the New Racket to Harper, Mayo, McQuensten, and their new partner, Joseph Ladue, the millionaire headed home never to return.

The Fortymile Gold Rush

Meanwhile, in the Yukon, Arthur Harper, Alfred Mayo, and Jack McQuesten had developed into respected frontiersmen. Mayo was a wiry ex-acrobat and McQuesten a barrel-chested ex-farmer. Resultant of the years in the far north, however, all three were now seasoned northerners well accustomed with what Robert Service termed, in his titular poem, “The Law of the Yukon”. The three men made their living trading with local Han Indians and outfitting the handful of prospectors that came to the area. In addition to Fort Reliance, they established a number of trading posts along the Yukon River. According to an Alaskan Commercial Company employee, the three partners were “typically frontiersmen, absolutely honest, without a semblance of fear of anything, and to a great extent childlike in their implicit faith in human nature, looking on their fellow pioneers as being as honest as themselves.”

In the winter of 1886/87, Harper suggested that two prospectors try their luck on Fortymile River. Sure enough, the men found quality gold dust in the river. They informed Harper of their find, and began to spread the word to other friendly miners in the area.

The Fortymile River Gold Rush.

The Fortymile River.

After hearing the news, Harper realized that a gold rush in the Yukon would be disastrous. He and his partners were the only outfitters in the interior. If too many prospectors came to the area, they would not have enough produce to feed everyone. Widespread starvation was a very real possibility. In a panic, he sent a messenger to the nearest point of civilization, requesting more stock.

It so happened that the nearest point of civilization was a trading post on the Dyea Inlet. The post was run by none other than John J. Healy, an American with an interesting Canadian past. Back in the 1860’s, Healy had lived in Fort Benton, Montana. There, he traded whisky and other goods to the local Blackfoot in exchange for buffalo robes. In the late 1860’s, the U.S. Army drove most of the Blackfoot north into British possessions. Healy, a wily businessman, decided to follow his customers. At the site of present-day Lethbridge, Alberta, he and some partners established a trading post which would become known as Fort Whoop-Up. Others followed their example and built trading posts nearby. The whisky that the Americans sold from their forts had a terrible effect on the local Indians. Soon, the situation became so bad that the Canadian government was forced to act. In 1873, the North West Mounted Police was formed, and in 1874 the Force marched west. When they arrived on the western Canadian plains, the Mounties shut down the whisky trade. Embittered and out of business, John Healy returned to Montana and became the sheriff of Chouteau County. In 1886, he predicted there would be a massive gold rush in Yukon country. And so he left the prairies and established a trading post on the Dyea Inlet.

Anyways, a steamboat man named Tom Williams agreed to bring Harper’s message to Healy. He set off, with an Indian guide, up a route which would one day become known as the Chilkoot Trail. After a harrowing journey through brutal winter conditions, the two men arrived at Healy’s post. Williams had come down with a horrific case of frostbite on his face, feet, and fingers and only survived for two more days. Before he died, though, he managed to pass on his message.

The Dyea Inlet, the location of Healy's post.

The Dyea Inlet, the location of Healy’s post.

In time, word got around about the find on the Fortymile River. Soon, a minor gold rush was in the works. Many of the prospectors settled around the confluence of the Fortymile and Yukon Rivers, and a town quickly developed on the spot. The prospectors named the town Fortymile, after the river.

As Harper predicted, there was not enough food to go around at Fortymile during that first year. Many prospectors made the freezing journey to St. Michael, Alaska, at the end of the Yukon River. A handful remained in Fortymile and had a very hungry winter.

After winter, supplies arrived at Fortymile and the small gold rush resumed in full force. Adventurers, most of them American, flocked to the Yukon. Some were in search of fortune, others in search of respite from civilization. Some of them were Sourdoughs- hard men tempered by at least one winter in the north. Others were Cheechakos– newcomers to the Canadian subarctic. Some were veterans of the Civil War, while others were frontiersmen from the Wild West. Many were prospectors, and a handful were well-educated English remittance men. Some were even missionaries. All, however, had something in common. Perhaps Robert Service described this elusive quality best in the first verse of his poem, The Men That Don’t Fit In:

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
    A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
    And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
    And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
    And they don’t know how to rest.
The miners of Fortymile employed a unique mining technique to get to bedrock, where the gold was. Since the ground was perma-frozen, digging was next to impossible. Instead of digging through frozen earth, they built fires on the spot where they wished to mine. In the morning, the fires were out and the ground was thawed. The miners would spend the day digging through the thawed earth before starting the process all over again. In the spring, they built sluice boxes and diverted spring runoff into them. Then, they shoveled the dump from the mine into the sluice boxes, which was washed away by the water. In the crossbars at the bottoms of the boxes, heavy gold would accumulate.
Yukon Goldrush wooden sluice.

A wooden sluice.

The social life at Fortymile revolved around the ten saloons that sprung up. The saloons sold either diluted whisky or hootchinoo, a rough northern alcohol. In accordance with the strange, anarcho-communistic code of honour that the Fortymile prospectors adopted, every man who bought a drink was obliged to buy a round for everyone in the saloon. And everyone who received a drink was obliged to finish it. In addition, the patron, who paid for the drinks in gold dust, was expected to turn his back while the bartender weighed out the amount.
Another of the bizarre forms of entertainment enjoyed by the Fortymile prospectors was a weekly dance with local Han wives. According to a spectator:
“We were attracted by a row of miners who were lined up in front of the saloon engaged in watching the door of a very large log cabin opposite, rather dilapidated with the windows broken in.…
They said there was going to be a dance, but when or how they did not seem to know.…
The evening wore on until ten o’clock, when in the dusk a stolid Indian woman with a baby in the blanket on her back, came cautiously around the corner, and with the peculiar long slouchy step of her kind, made for the cabin door, looking neither to the right nor to the left.…
She was followed by a dozen others, one far behind another, each silent and unconcerned, and each with a baby upon her back. They sidled into the log cabin and sat down on the benches, where they also deposited their babies in a row: the little red people lay there very still, with wide eyes shut or staring, but never crying.…
The mothers sat awhile looking at the ground on some one spot, then slowly lifted their heads to look at the miners who had slouched into the cabin after them – men fresh from the diggings, spoiling for excitement of any kind. Then a man with a dilapidated fiddle struck up a swinging, sawing melody and in the intoxication of the moment some of the most reckless of the miners grabbed an Indian woman and began furiously swinging her around in a sort of waltz while the others crowded and looked on.
Little by little the dusk grew deeper, but candles were scarce and could not be afforded. The figures of the dancing couples grew more and more indistinct and their faces became lost to view, while the sawing of the fiddle grew more and more rapid, and the dancing more excited. There was no noise, however; scarcely a sound save the fiddle and the shuffling of the feet over the floor of rough hewn logs; for the Indian women were as stolid as ever and the miners could not speak the language of their partners. Even the lookers on said nothing, so that these silent dancing figures in the dusk made an almost weird effect. One by one, however, the women looked on.
One by one, however, the women dropped out, tired, picked up their babies and slouched off home, and the men slipped over to the saloon to have a drink before going to their cabins. Surely this [dance] was one of the most peculiar balls ever seen.…”
The culture of Fortymile was equally peculiar; almost utopian. Outfitters like Harper and McQuesten gave prospectors supplies on unlimited credit. Prospectors shared everything they had, including knowledge of gold finds, with their neighbours. And each man’s cabin was open to travelers. The only law that prevailed in Fortymile was the “Golden Rule”.
The prospectors of Fortymile settled their disputes in so-called ‘miners’ meetings’, which were typically held in saloons. Disputes were settled democratically, and decisions were made by a show of hands. In 1893, John Healy took offense to one of the rulings of a miners’ meeting, and took matters into his own hands. To make a long story short, he endeavored to restrict the freedom of one of his female employees, and was condemned for it by the miners, many of whom valued freedom above all else. Instead of accepting the verdict of the prospectors, however, he entreated the support of his old enemies, the North West Mounted Police.
Due in part to Healy’s entreaty, in 1894, the NWMP came to Fortymile. The small detachment, led by Inspector Charles Constantine, quickly brought Canadian law and order to the wild northwestern frontier. Little did the Mounties know that their presence in the area would prove to be absolutely vital in two years’ time, when the Yukon would be rocked by the biggest gold rush Canada has ever known.

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Klondike Gold Rush- Part 1: Background
Article Name
Klondike Gold Rush- Part 1: Background
The Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899 has been the inspiration for countless fictional tales. What is the true story of the Klondike Gold Rush?
Publisher Name
Mysteries of Canada

Written by

I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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