History Reads: The Yukon Gold Rush

Yukon gold rush
Image courtesy of the University of Washington Digital Collections. | Eric A. Hegg

The Start of an Era

When people think about history, they often think of it as comprising dusty old dates, details, and who-did-what-when-and-where. It’s easy to forget that history elicits excitement as well, especially if you find the right reading material on a particular subject. The Yukon Gold Rush presents one great example of that for me.

Finding a good book was how I became interested in the Yukon Gold Rush in the first place. In elementary school, I received a free book, and I chose Jason’s Gold by Will Hobbs. Jason’s Gold follows the remarkable journey of young Jason Hawthorn who leaves his life behind to venture north in search of gold. Set against the historical backdrop of the Yukon (otherwise known as the Klondike) Gold Rush, Hobbs pits Jason against the elements, wildlife, treacherous terrain, and sleazy characters as he journeys from the bustling town of Seattle north along the Chilkoot Trail to Dawson City. Along the way he meets new friends. He also experiences many of the trials and tribulations his fellow spectators face such as inclement weather, wild animals, and starvation.

There was something about this book that lit a fire in Little Me. Maybe it was the lure of gold. Maybe it was the promise of an unforgettable adventure. Or, maybe it was just the fact this this book was different. Regardless of my reasons, I read this book over and over again until the cover deteriorated. To this day, however, I still enjoy reading about this epic moment of American history.

Brief History of the Yukon Gold Rush

Nothing lures travelers more than the promise of adventure and, sometimes, treasure. The nineteenth century saw a rush of, well, gold rushes, that started in the continental United States and extended well up into the frigid climes of Canada and Alaska. One of these became known as the Yukon Gold Rush.

The Yukon occurrence was probably the penultimate rush of a string of so-called “gold fevers” which caught the imaginations of spectators and prospectors alike from the Australian continent to the frigid reaches of Canada.

In 1896, George Washington Carmack claimed to have discovered gold along Rabbit Creek in the Yukon territory. To give my readers unfamiliar with the subject matter/region a point of reference, take a look at the map below:

Yukon gold rush
Map of the Klondike gold fields. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

The map is unfortunately unclear in most aspects, but the whole point is that the larger Yukon river branched off into several tributaries. One of these was Rabbit Creek. After the 1896 discovery, it became known as Bonanza Creek.

Of course, there exists a continuing controversy about who “staked” the discovery claim which set off the Klondike gold rush. Two men, Carmack, a white man who married into a native Tlingit clan, and Robert Henderson, another prospector in the area, both laid claim to the discovery (for further information, check out this link).

As a result of this discovery, upwards of between 100,000 and 200,000 people flocked to the endpoint of Dawson City and the surrounding areas. Men and women both desired to try their luck at becoming wealthy. Some tried by prospecting along rivers while others tried by prospecting off the prospectors.

The Legacy of the Yukon Gold Rush

The legacy of the Yukon gold rush extends far. Most seem to focus on the economic benefits and how the influx of miners helped to settle this resource-rich area of the Canadian north. Or, they remark on how it reflected the rise of boom-and-bust ghost towns reminiscent of other gold rushes such as the California gold rush.

We can’t forget the social aspect of the gold rush as well, especially in terms of women’s economic opportunities. Gold rush women found themselves able to advance economically in a time where women usually dominated the domestic sphere.

Typical gold rush lore romanticizes women as the “civilizers” of a wild, roving frontier. Author Frances Backhouse argues against this, however, noting that women often journeyed north of their own accord, desiring to serve miners in various capacities besides as suitable companions. [1] For the purposes of this post, I won’t delve into every single way in which women found economic opportunities.

Women’s economic opportunities included owning and managing land; owning and operating various businesses including laundrettes, restaurants and boarding houses; living in the raucous camps as a demimonde; selling their domestic services; and even prospecting in small capacities.

On a more artistic scale, the Yukon gold rush became a well-photographed event. Eric A Hegg documented prospectors along the Yukon Trail, from the jumping off camp of Skagway to Bennett to the established end point of Dawson City. His photographs comprise one of the most complete chronicles of the human story behind the gold rush. It’s easy to read the sensationalist newspapers and official documents behind the gold rush. It’s quite another to experience them through the eyes of a photographer.

Further Reading About the Yukon Gold Rush

If I’ve piqued your interest about the Yukon Gold Rush, check out some of the great books below for further reading!

The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush by Howard Blum

I recently picked up this book at my local bookstore, and I’m quite looking forward to reading it. Howard Blum, a New York Times best-selling author, writes a compelling book interweaving three narratives about three of the period’s most colorful and notorious figures. He writes about Charlie Siringo, a cowboy-turned-detective who joins the infamous and renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency; George Carmack, the aforementioned “founder” of gold in the Klondike; and Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, a conniving conman who maintained a criminal empire in the last vestiges of the Wild West.


Women of the Klondike by Frances Backhouse

Women of the Klondike is one of my favorite books on women in the Klondike. Although far less women braved the dangers of the Yukon than men, they nevertheless still encountered similar difficulties that men did: extreme and dangerous weather, hard work, no guarantee of riches, diseases, squalid living conditions, treacherous terrain, and more. Many entrepreneurial women, however, flourished within a gold rush environment. This book details how women experienced the Yukon gold rush. It’s a fascinating tale often not covered within the general context of gold rushes. Backhouse weaves a mesmerizing tale of intelligent, wise, and daring women.


Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899 by Pierre Berton

Read history from the perspective of someone who lived it! Pierre Berton, a Canadian author and journalist, was born in the Yukon in 1920. He traces the journey of prospectors along the dangerous Chilkoot Trail across the rugged majesty of British Columbia all the way to Dawson City where the Yukon trail ended. According to Amazon, we meet some of the gold rush’s prominent characters like “Soapy Smith, dictator of Skagway; Swiftwater Bill Gates, who bathed in champagne; Silent Sam Bonnifield, who lost and won back a hotel in a poker game; and Roddy Connors, who danced away a fortune at a dollar a dance. We meet dance-hall queens, paupers turned millionaires, missionaries and entrepreneurs, and legendary Mounties such as Sam Steele, the Lion of the Yukon.” It’s a riveting account of one of the last vestiges of the western frontier.


Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush: Secret History of the Far North by Lael Morgan

Good Time Girls by Lael Morgan regales readers with the saucy tales of the Klondike demimonde – the ‘”half world” of prostitutes, dance hall girls, and entertainers who lived on the outskirts of polite society. “‘ In writing on the Yukon gold rush for my senior thesis in college, I relied heavily upon the excellent research and writing. I was enthralled at the tales of those women who made something of themselves in the frigid north. The world of the demimonde offered up something most women in the 19th century lacked in most circumstances: agency. Women took advantage of their scarcity to transform themselves into a commodity. Read more about those amazing women in this book!


The Klondike Stampede by Tappan Adney

Tappan Adney experienced the Yukon gold rush first-hand. His employer dispatched him to the Yukon in 1897, and while there, he documented his time there with clarity and immense detail, drawing in readers with vivid descriptions and immersive words. As a primary account of the happenings Adney saw, this book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in this time period in history.


Citations

[1] Francis Backhouse, Women of the Klondike (Toronto: Whitecap Books, 2010): 180.

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