The Klondike Weekly, Dawson City, Yukon Territory

Before the Klondike Gold Rush

by Ken Spotswood

Posted on April 24, 1998

      When gold was discovered in the Klondike 100 years ago, the Yukon was widely regarded as being a vast, empty wasteland of unexplored, uncharted wilderness.
      It was a blank spot on maps.
      The same people also believed that North America wasn't 'civilized' until it was 'discovered' by Christopher Columbus in 1492. They couldn't have been more wrong.
      For thousands of years Alaska and the Yukon was home to many native societies of Inuit and Indian people. The earliest inhabitants were the Inuit who occupied the Arctic coast of Alaska and Herschel Island. Indians appeared later.
      The oldest traces of man in the Yukon show evidence of hunter-gatherer societies going back about 11,000 years in the Porcupine River area, and earlier around Old Crow. Archaeologists have established that native Indians were living in the Yukon about 8,000 B.C. They inhabited the shores of Kluane, Aishihik, Dezeadash, Kusawa, Tagish, Marsh, Laberge and Teslin Lakes.
      Inland Tlingit, related to the Tlingit Indians of the Pacific northwest coast, lived in the area of the southern lakes. The Athapaskan peoples--the Kutchin, Han, Tutchone and Kaska--covered much of the territory.
      They also knew about white people--before the first white man set foot in the Yukon.
      After the first contact with Europeans--the Russians in the 1740s, and the British in the 1770s--European trade goods such as knives, axes, pots and guns began showing up among the traditional items that coastal Indian trading parties brought to the interior.
      These centuries-old trade patterns began to include manufactured goods. They flowed steadily into the Yukon, in exchange for furs which the European traders wanted.
      It is estimated that the Indian population of the Yukon numbered between 7,000 and 8,000 people prior to contact, numbers which dropped sharply in some areas after contact, as the traders unwittingly brought European diseases with them.
      Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) explorer Robert Campbell first entered the Yukon and traveled the Pelly River in 1840. That year he built the first trading post in the Yukon, Fort Frances. Campbell continued to explore the region and in 1848 he built Fort Selkirk at the junction of the Yukon and the Pelly Rivers--to control the fur trade for the HBC.
      The river junction was already a popular gathering place for Tutchone Indians and other native groups. Families arrived each summer to harvest migrating salmon. The Chilkats, a Tlingit tribe from the coast, were trading partners and frequent visitors to the junction long before the fort was built. Their brother Chilkoots guarded the pass to the coast.
      Fort Selkirk threatened the trade monopoly of the coast and interior Indians. In August of 1852 they attacked and looted the fort. While none of the whites were hurt, they fled for safer havens. As soon as they did, the Indians burned the fort.
      HBC traders had also built Fort Yukon at the mouth of the Porcupine River, flying their Union Jack in Russian territory until the company was forced to abandon the post in 1869.
      For years the HBC jockeyed for control of the native fur trade with its chief rival--the Russian American Fur Company which maintained a series of posts along the coast and on the islands of the Alaska panhandle.
      By this time the first missionaries had entered the territory. The Protestants competed with the Roman Catholics, each one trying to be the first to convert the native people.
      The Indian societies had highly developed spiritual beliefs, but they weren't recognized or respected by Christian missionaries. Both the Catholics and Protestants began to impose their own religious beliefs and morals.
      The Protestants were first. Rev. William West Kirkby arrived at Fort Yukon in 1861. The Catholics arrived the following year. Father Jean Seguin of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (O.M.I) discovered, however, that the HBC's loyalty was to the Protestants who wasted no time in bringing in reinforcements.
      Rev. Kirkby was joined by Rev. Robert McDonald and, in 1865, by the Rev. William Carpenter Bompas who was later consecrated the first Bishop of Athabasca.
      About the same time an overland telegraph line had been proposed, which would link the United States with Siberia. Survey crews were being mobilized in parts of Alaska and the Yukon, but the plan collapsed in 1866.
      Russia had become disenchanted with its North American colony and, in 1867, sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million.
      HBC traders were forced to vacate Fort Yukon two years later. They moved to a site further up the Porcupine River, and established Rampart House in what was believed to be in Canadian territory, but wasn't. A later survey proved it to be on American soil, and eventually Rampart House was abandoned.
      With their schools, hospitals and new ideas, the missionaries had more impact on Indians than the fur traders did. But the biggest impact was still to come: The prospector.
      Gold had been discovered in the Yukon by Campbell and other HBC traders, but they ignored it for the more lucrative fur trade.
      Prospectors had been working their way steadily north since the California gold rush of 1849, followed by other rushes to Arizona, Colorado and the Fraser River and Cariboo in British Columbia. Gold was discovered in the panhandle in 1880 and the town of Juneau was born, drawing prospectors further north.
      In 1871 two groups of prospectors had a fortunate meeting at the mouth of the Nelson River. It was there that Jack McQuesten and Alfred Mayo met Arthur Harper and Frederick Hart. After learning about the U.S. purchase of Alaska, they decided to go and explore the new territory.
      Harper and his party explored and prospected in the Tanana region of Alaska, and later spent years in the Yukon with disappointing results.
      By 1874 McQuesten and Mayo had established a trading post for the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) at Fort Reliance, on the Yukon River about six miles below present day Dawson City. The two men spent the next eight years setting up and operating ACC trading posts along the Yukon. Fort Reliance became the centre of activity in the area. Harper re-joined his partners there in 1875.
      George Holt has the distinction of being the first white prospector to go through the Chilkoot Pass in 1878. He brought out a small quantity of gold, but he's best remembered for making the return trip through the pass without the knowledge or consent of the Chilkoot Indians who guarded it against outsiders. Holt was lucky to get out alive.
      The new trading posts prospered and McQuesten, Mayo and Harper eventually found themselves in the business of grubstaking the growing number of prospectors.
      The Chilkoots began to benefit also. They discovered they could make money by packing white men's outfits over the Chilkoot Pass. Fifty prospectors came through in 1880. Another 50 made the trip in 1882 and of these, 11 spent the winter at Fort Reliance.
      Meanwhile, new posts sprang up--Forty Mile, which was 40 miles downstream from Fort Reliance, and Sixtymile, which was 60 miles upstream. The trickle of prospectors continued, with 50 in 1883 and 75 the following year.
      Finally, gold was found in paying quantities on the Stewart River in 1885. This brought 200 miners across the Chilkoot that year. Among them was a young man from California named George Washington Carmack. He had come from California, via Juneau, and wanted to try his luck at prospecting.
      Among the packers working the Chilkoot were Tagish Indians from the Yukon interior. Carmack liked the Tagish people and he began to live with them. He also began his fortuitous association with Skookum Jim Mason and Tagish Charlie (later known as Dawson Charlie). Carmack married one of Jim's sisters, and when she died, he married another of Jim's sisters, Shaaw Tlaa. He called her 'Kate'.
      In 1887 they worked for William Ogilvie, the Canadian government surveyor who was later appointed commissioner of the Yukon. Jim, Charlie and Carmack packed Ogilvie's supplies over the Chilkoot, and traveled from Dyea to Forty Mile. Over the next few years the trio prospected along a number of Yukon rivers. They had become friends and, in 1896, they were to become legends.
      The federal government's Yukon Expedition of 1887-88 was organized and led by Dr. George M. Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada, with Ogilvie as one of the party chiefs. In addition, R.G. McConnell of the GSC started from Telegraph Creek and went down the Liard River to the MacKenzie River, crossed the pass to the Porcupine River the following summer and ascended the Yukon River, leaving by way of the Chilkoot. thus the main routes to the Klondike were mapped well in advance of the gold rush.
      Dawson distinguished himself by taking one of the toughest routes. He went from Wrangell up the Stikine River, the Dease River, the Liard and Frances Rivers and into Frances Lake. From there he went down the Pelly River to the Yukon, up that and over the Chilkoot Pass to Dyea.
      What many people don't know is that Dawson was crippled by a childhood disease that stunted his growth at 4'10", gave him a curved spine and a hunchback. To him, a 'handicap' was a golf term and nothing slowed him down.
      Scattered along the Stewart and Yukon Rivers in 1886, the miners took out about $100,000 worth of placer gold that year. Their activity flourished and by 1894, there were about 1,000 miners in the Yukon.
      By this time Herschel Island, off the Yukon's north slope, had become a thriving community of about 1,500 people--because of the whaling and fur trades.
      In 1895 over $400,000 worth of gold was extracted from the Forty Mile region, and from Miller Creek deposits in the Sixtymile gold field. By then the number of people living in and around the town of Forty Mile numbered about 1,000--most of them Americans.
      Bishop Bompas had established Buxton Mission nearby, and had also written two letters to the Canadian government in Ottawa, complaining that the liquor and loose morals of miners were corrupting the local Indians.
      Businessman John Healy had also arrived. He built the first trading post at Dyea, and then established Fort Cudahy for the North American Trading and Transportation Company directly across the Fortymile River from the settlement of Forty Mile.
      In response to pleas from both Bompas and Healy, two members of the North-West Mounted Police were ordered to the Yukon in 1894 to size up the situation. Insp. Charles Constantine and S/Sgt. Charles Brown helped affirm Canadian sovereignty over the Yukon, and they collected $3,200 in customs duties from the miners on the Canadian side of the border at the same time.
      Constantine returned to the Yukon in 1895 with a force of 20 men. They built Fort Constantine on the north side of the Fortymile River, above Fort Cudahy, at its junction with the Yukon.
      By this time Forty Mile had competition. A strike had been made in the Birch Creek district of Alaska and it was richer than Forty Mile's. McQuesten built a post to supply the miners at the new town of Circle City, named because of its location on the Arctic Circle. By 1896 Circle City had a population of about 700. Many miners left Forty Mile for Circle City, where McQuesten grubstaked them on credit. Back at Fort Cudahy, Healy's store would not.
      The arrival of the Mounties had put an abrupt end to miners' meetings and vigilante justice. The Mounties also collected liquor taxes, customs duties, and they didn't put up with any nonsense from troublemakers. It cramped the miners' freedom but, for the first time, it began to set the Yukon apart from its American neighbour.
      The North-West Mounted Police began to impose new standards on the Canadian side of the border. And none too soon.
      It was about this time that George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie began to pole their boat up the Klondike River to Rabbit Creek, panning for gold in the shallows as they went.
      The rest is history.

© 1998-2009 by Ken Spotswood

This article was provided by the Yukon Anniversaries Commission


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