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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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