Yukon Indians and the Gold Rush
by Ken Spotswood
Posted on February 27, 1998
With few exceptions, native people do not figure prominently in written
accounts of the Klondike gold rush.
As a race of self-sufficient people, however, it was almost their undoing
as tens of thousands of 'civilized' people suddenly invaded their
traditional homeland. Because of their greed for gold, the whites imposed
their laws and languages, their religions and social customs.
They brought new diseases against which the Indians had no immunities.
They brought alcohol which helped them exploit native men and women. And
they brought segregation and racial discrimination.
Prior to European contact, the native population of this northern region
was made up of several thousand people spread out in small camps and
villages over hundreds of thousands of square miles.
For centuries native trade patterns included travel through different
mountain passes of the region, including the Chilkoot Pass. This coveted
route had been the exclusive domain of coastal Tlingit people--the Chilkoots
who guarded the pass, and their brother Chilkats from the western arm of
Lynn Canal. In doing so they also controlled--and jealously guarded--access
to the interior. As a result, they held a virtual trade monopoly with other
native peoples of Alaska and the Yukon.
The Chilkoots enjoyed and prospered as 'middlemen'. On one hand they
dictated terms to the early explorers and white traders who wanted furs, and
to the Southern Tutchone and Tagish people of the interior who were eager
for European trade goods. Trade patterns also included the Han and Kutchin
who occupied the regions to the north.
Over centuries these trade expeditions had evolved into sophisticated trips
to the interior, often involving as many as 100 people.
For their part, the Southern Tutchone were skilled hunters who had a wealth
of furs and tanned and untanned skins to trade. They had moose, caribou and
sheep, as well as ground squirrels, snowshoe rabbits, beaver, lynx, marten
and other small furbearers. They had raw copper, sinew and a yellow lichen
that the Chilkats used to dye their blankets.
In return, the Chilkats provided edible seaweed, cedar baskets, dentalium
shell ornaments, slaves, European trade goods and the prized coastal
Eulachon are small fish which are very rich in oil. The Chilkoots boiled
and pressed the fish to extract the oil, which was highly valued as a food
seasoning and preservative. It was one of their chief trading commodities.
They packed so much of it over the mountains that the trails to the interior
became known as 'grease trails'.
European trade goods helped to ease the burden of daily life for native
people. They included blankets, calico, kettles, axes, knives, traps, guns,
muzzle loaders, shot powder, coffee, flour and tobacco. They also altered
existing trade patterns. The Southern Tutchone, for example, traded their
surplus European goods with their neighbours further in the interior.
The system of lakes and streams along the Chilkoot Trail made water
transportation an integral part of any journey to the interior. The Indians
designed and built their own dugout canoes. Skin boats, usually made of
moose hide, were also used.
One early account describes a fleet of walrus hide boats, similar to
umiaks, kept at the head of Lake Bennett. These were obtained from the
Tlingit of Yakutat and carried coastal trading parties down the lake to
Native canoes, however, were of no use to the stampeders headed to the
Klondike with a year's provisions in tow.
The Chilkoot Indians were a dominant force in the region. They had
effectively prevented any white men from going through the pass. In 1848
Hudson's Bay trader Robert Campbell established a trading post at Fort
Selkirk, near the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly Rivers. In doing so he
threatened the trade monopoly of the Chilkoot Indians of the coast with
those in the interior.
The Chilkoots didn't like the competition. They pillaged the post in 1852.
Campbell and his men escaped with their lives. The fort was later burned.
There was one notable exception to the Chilkoot domination of the coastal
mountain route. In 1878, prospector George Holt was the first white man to
make his way over the Chilkoot Pass--without the knowledge or consent of the
Indians. He came out with a very small amount of gold, but word soon spread
of his effort, and of promising finds by other prospectors who continued to
trickle into the sub-arctic.
By this time missionaries had also arrived in the territory and a process
of segregation had begun. The missionaries wanted to keep the natives from
drinking, gambling and carousing with non-native miners, fearing the natives
would revert to their 'heathen' ways.
In those days, missionaries rarely baptized Indians because it was felt
they lacked sufficient knowledge of the ceremony. Catholic pressure on
Anglican missions forced many clergymen to lower the standard of knowledge
and understanding required for baptism. For the clergy, the 'rush for
souls' became paramount.
Most Indians lived far away from the mining camps, and the newcomers
congregated in their own settlements. While many Indians chose to distance
themselves from mining communities, others were lured there by liquor and
the prospect of social and economic opportunities.
In his book Best Left as Indians, historian Ken Coates notes:
Alcohol consumption during the pre-gold rush period was, for Natives and non-Natives
alike, recreational. The Natives integrated alcohol into their potlatches and other
celebrations, and alcohol became closely tied to sexual relations between
Native women and non-Native men. Liaisons of the 'one-night-stand' variety
often developed out of the interracial drinking party..."
Coates goes on to point out that tolerance does not mean acceptance.
"Non-native miners, who saw little wrong with a short-term romance with a
Native woman, heaped scorn on men who 'descended' to live with the Indians."
These men were called "squaw men", a derogatory term used throughout Canada
and the U.S. Little did they know, however, that it would be a 'squaw man'
named George Carmack who would trigger one of the biggest gold rushes in
From 1880 on the numbers of prospectors increased. They wanted easy access
to the interior of the Yukon. The Chilkoots obliged and, for a while, made
even more money as guides and packers. They charged a fee to pack the white
men's grub and gear over the mountains.
Initially the native packers charged 12 cents a pound to carry outfits the
27 miles across the pass to the upper end of Lake Lindeman.
Under the watchful eyes of Canada's North-West Mounted Police at the
summit, all stampeders headed for the gold fields were required to bring in
a ton of provisions--each--or the equivalent of a year's supplies.
The native packers were in demand from the start, and by the end of the
first season of the rush their price had risen to 38 cents a pound for goods
in conventional packages, but higher for lumber, stoves, pianos, trunks and
any other odd-shaped or heavy merchandise. And sometimes the packers went
on strike when they learned that someone else was paying more per pound.
From all accounts the Chilkoot and Chilkat people were very strong
physically. They were shrewd dealers and knew the trails well. But they
had one major fault that delighted missionaries and confounded the
stampeders: These Indians were devout Christians--they refused to work on
Sundays. For the Klondikers who worshipped only gold, Sundays became
The rest of the week, however, they climbed into harnesses with loads of up
to 200 pounds per man. Women and children carried about 75 pounds each.
Except for trade expeditions, native people generally traveled lightly and
quickly. The sight of so many newcomers struggling under the weight of so
much baggage must have been a source of wonder and amusement to them,
particularly white women in Victorian dress.
Frances Gillis was a tall, slender and adventurous woman of 26 when she
left Seattle for Dawson City in February, 1898. She was also unmarried.
She and her travel companions had an unforgettable encounter with a group of
native men at Lake Laberge:
As we secured our boat and clambered out, a group of Indians who were
selling fresh trout to the hungry gold seekers came up to us. They
clustered around me, examined me silently and thoroughly, reached out dirty
hands occasionally to touch my clothing. Then they held a brief
consultation. Finally the chief spokesman of the group stepped forward and
addressed my companions: 'Nice squaw. We like her. Which one of you does
she belong to? We give you many fish, and even much money, if you leave her
here with us.'
Unfortunately, the Indians and their living habits were the cause of much
derision by these new arrivals.
The men, all dumbfounded by this strange offer, were completely
tongue-tied in their confusion and embarrassment. Finally, Mr. Britton rose
gallantly to the occasion. Stepping between the Indians and me he murmured
nervously that I was his squaw, and not for sale. I, the 'fine squaw,'
stood rooted to the spot, feeling more afraid than at any other time since
Among them was New York journalist Tappan Adney who was sent to the Yukon
in 1897 to record the events of the stampede and the gold fields of Dawson
City, in stories and pictures.
The men are short, heavy set, powerfully-built, broad and thick of chest,
large of head, with almost Mongolian eyes and massive jaws, Adney wrote.
Nearly all have stringy black mustaches that droop at the ends, and some
have scant beards. Their colour is light brown.
Face painting and tattooing were popular among the coastal Tlingit of
Alaska. They decorated their faces for dances and potlatches with a
combination of seal oil and soot. While the fragrance left much to be
desired, it was effective protection in the summer months against sun and
The women are hardly any of them good-looking, and have a habit of
painting their faces a jet black or chocolate brown, and I have seen little
girls who thus imitated their elder sisters and mothers.
The face is rubbed with balsam, then with burned punk, and this is rubbed
in with grease. They do this, I am told, for the same reason that their
white sisters use paint and powder. They leave enough of their faces
untouched about the chin, mouth and eyes to give them a hideous, repulsive
expression...Indian fashion, dogs and children, men and women, crowd into
their dirty abodes, which smell of spoiled fish.
It was also an effective disguise, which prompted Alaska governor Swineford
to ban the practice because it hindered law enforcement and made offenders
difficult to identify.
As packers the native people made themselves indispensable. "Twenty or
thirty Indians will take up packs and put a whole outfit over in two days,"
Adney wrote. However,
They are not trustworthy, and are wholly unscrupulous. They
do nothing even for each other without a price, and I have carefully noticed
that they make no distinction between themselves and whites even for the
Of all the Canadian and foreign correspondents who reported on the gold
rush, Adney stands out as one of the few who bothered to write about native
people--two short articles. The others were obsessed by the relentless
pursuit of gold and the mining of it, the hardships of getting to and living
in the Yukon, the excesses of those who struck it rich, and the folly of
those who squandered their wealth.
If one engages them at a certain price and someone offers them more, they
lay down their packs and take up the new ones; or if on the trail they hear
of a rise in the scale, they stop and strike for the higher wages. Some of
them speak good English.
Before contact with whites, native people had little or no use for gold.
They soon learned its value for the things that it, and silver, could buy.
At one point the Indians at Dyea hoarded most of the gold and silver coins
in circulation, which Adney noted:
They are taking all the small change out of circulation. They come to the
traders several times a day, making a trifling purchase to get change, and
then store it away. The small change problem is indeed a serious one.
There is not enough small currency to do business with. The gamblers and
the Indians are getting it all.
In spite of the racist overtones, native people played a role in the gold
rush--as guides, packers or labourers who cut cordwood for the many
riverboats. Non-native labourers earned between $6 and $10 a day. Indian
men earned from $4 to $8 for the same work. Native women also earned money
by making and selling mitts, hats, mukluks and other clothing.
They were expert hunters and fishermen. Salmon was needed for dog food,
especially in winter when dog teams were vital for transportation. There
was enough moose and caribou for everyone, but with the sudden influx of
thousands of people and noisy machinery, game retreated further into the
wilderness and hunters had to work harder to get it. Natives earned
additional income by either trading or selling meat and fish to the miners,
and there are many accounts by stampeders and prospectors whose lives were
saved with fresh meat or fish from the Indians in the dead of winter.
Even as labourers, the opportunities for Indians didn't last long.
Thousands of would-be miners continued to pour into the Klondike long after
the gold-bearing creeks had been staked. Many arrived penniless, desperate
for work, and they ultimately displaced native workers.
For Yukon Indians, the gold rush changed everything. Before 1896, Indians
outnumbered all others in the territory by about four to one. The 1901
census, taken two years after the height of the rush, showed a population of
eight non-natives for every Indian.
After the rush, the segregation of natives gradually gave way to outright
discrimination. In her book I Married the Klondike, Laura Berton
described the case of one young man, the son of a Dawson civil servant, who
married a mixed-blood woman while his parents were out of town:
She was a pretty little thing, bright and neat, and I think could have
made him a good wife, but the parents were so shocked they would neither see
nor speak with him. This attitude drove him from the town and back into the
bush, where his life was spent among the Indians, hunting and cutting wood
for a living.
Ironically, the Canadian government's Indian Act only aggravated the
problems. It had four goals--to promote native self-sufficiency, protect
the Indians from the 'evils' of non-native society, to encourage conversion
to Christianity, and assimilate the natives. Unfortunately, the government
had no consideration for Indian customs and traditions.
The reality was that Indian children were not welcome in white schools, and
white people refused to share hospital wards with native patients.
Gold fever, meanwhile, had made its way to Ottawa. A treaty with Yukon
Indians was ruled out until the territory's mineral prospects could be
further evaluated, and a national scandal erupted in 1898 with allegations
of widespread corruption of government officials in Dawson City. The
government clearly had other priorities.
Ironically, 95 years before a Yukon land claims agreement was finalized,
The Klondike Nugget addressed the issue with the following editorial on
April 1, 1900:
It will doubtless happen with these Indians as it has happened with every
other aboriginal race that has come in contact with what we are pleased to
term civilization. Civilization will ultimately wipe the Indians out of
existence. This is the whole story in a nutshell, and it is apparent that
the Indians themselves have a very well defined notion that such will prove
to be the case. They see the land, which they considered their own, taken
away from them without even their permission being asked. The game, upon
which they have been accustomed to depend very largely for subsistence, is
being driven back into the mountains, and when the game has all disappeared
the Indians see nothing ahead for them but extinction.
The writing was on the wall. It took another 95 years to achieve it.
The case which Silas advances on behalf of his tribe is a strong one, and
the points are remarkably well taken. Silas has a number of innate ideas of
right and wrong which lead him to believe that there should be some law of
compensation applicable in the case.
Formerly the Indians owned all the ground, all the fish and all the game.
Now they own nothing. Then they could do as they pleased, with no one to
interfere with them. Now they are liable to arrest for any breach of the
law, just as a white man.
How they could lose all they once possessed and get nothing in return is
something they can not comprehend. The case is worth consideration from the
authorities. Whether or not the Indians possess any legal rights in the
premises, there are certain moral obligations involved which should not be
overlooked. If there is any danger of actual want among them, the matter
should be promptly looked into and relief granted.
© 1998-2009 by Ken Spotswood
This article was provided by the Yukon Anniversaries Commission