HM - Apr. 2015 - Storer
Teaching about the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-99)
By Tina Storer, Curriculum Specialist, Center for Canadian-American Studies, Western Washington University
and Joshua Tataran, WWU Student Outreach Assistant
Gold in Alaska! Thousands heard the cry across the United States. Soon after the initial discovery, many packed their bags and headed north to make it big in… Canada? When students learn about the “Alaskan Gold Rush,” many are surprised to learn that most of the gold fields, in fact, were actually located in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory. Even though there were many, albeit smaller, gold fields in Alaska, the Klondike drew the “stampede”. As students learn about this major event, it is important to point out connections that intertwined the histories of Canada and the United States from 1896 to 1899.
Headline from The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Klondike Edition) July 17, 1897
The Klondike Region of the Yukon Territory, Canada
A group of four, Skookum Jim Mason, Dawson Charlie, George Washington Carmack, and Kate Carmack, were the first to discover gold in Rabbit Creek (also known as Bonanza Creek), a tributary of the Klondike River, in August 1896. However, only the three men in the group were given credit; Kate Carmack did not share in the fame. The next year, an army of hopeful prospectors swarmed onto the bandwagon and headed north to strike it big. But, before delving into the full story of the Klondike Gold Rush, let us familiarize ourselves with the main characters.
Keish “Skookum Jim” Mason (James Mason) - The Candy Waugaman Collection
Skookum Jim Mason: Originally named Keish, he became known as Skookum for being able to haul loads of over 100 pounds on the Chilkoot Trail. He gained a cumulative amount of one million dollars after working the “Discovery Claim,” a stretch of Rabbit Creek that they mined for gold.
George Washington Carmack. University of Washington Libraries
George Washington Carmack: After meeting Skookum Mason on the Chilkoot Trail, they became friends and partners. Later on, he married Skookum Mason’s sister, Shaaw Tlaa (Kate Carmack). His gold claim from Rabbit Creek became the first official claim of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Kate Carmack, wife of George Carmack and sister to Skookum Jim.
Yukon Archives, James Albert Johnson, 82/341, #41
Kate Carmack: She and Skookum Mason were siblings, and she married his prospector friend, George Carmack. She changed her name from Shaaw Tlaa after the marriage. Unlike the others in the group, she did not get a part of the Discovery Claim.
Skookum Jim’s nephew, Tagish “Dawson” Charlied
Dawson Charlie: Nephew to Skookum Mason and Kate Carmack by blood, Dawson Charlie was also a co-discoverer of the first gold in the Klondike.
[NB: To find out more about these and other historical figures, visit: http://www.nps.gov/klgo/learn/historyculture/klondikekings.htm
One of the first major destinations at the start of the Klondike Gold Rush for most Americans was Seattle. From there, as well as other port cities on the Northern Pacific coast, loads of gold-seekers made their way by boat to either Skagway, Alaska to access the White Pass Trail or nearby Dyea, Alaska to access the Chilkoot Trail in order to ultimately reach Dawson City and the Klondike gold fields in the Yukon Territory. Although these two trails were the most popular, others—depicted in the map below—were also utilized. Now, let us learn more about these famous places.
Routes to the Klondike. While many routes existed to the Klondike, most took the Chilkoot or White Pass Trails.
Seattle’s Central Waterfront during the Klondike Gold Rush (1897)
Seattle: From a simple port town of roughly 40,000 people, Seattle quickly doubled in size. On July 17, 1897, eleven months after the initial discovery of gold, the steamship Portland docked in Seattle from Dawson with "more than a ton of gold", according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. With their pockets brimming and their voices loud, this group spun stories of the great riches that lay in the north. Merchants chimed in as well, advertising the city as the “Gateway to the Gold Fields.” The majority of eager fortune-seekers passed through Seattle, picking up their supplies on the way. Due to this boom in the economy, Seattle doubled in size by the end of the Gold Rush. The National Park Service still operates a Seattle Unit of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park to preserve the story of Seattle's crucial role in this event.
Skagway, one of the last places to gather supplies for the long trek to the Klondike,
was transformed overnight into a frontier boom town. Image Credit: Getty/Hulton AP
White Pass Trail, a horse falling was said to be “an hourly occurrence.”
Photograph from "The Klondike Stampede," Tappan Adney, 1900
Skagway and White Pass Trail: Founded by William Moore, a former steamboat captain, Skagway became one of the prime spots to pass through on the way to the gold fields. From there, gold-seekers took the White Pass Trail, which soon became infamous for the amount of animals that died by the time they reached the end. Although many people suffered trying to get up the pass, more animals died. They were overburdened, beaten, and ultimately shot.
Dyea, the trailhead for the Chilkoot Pass to the Klondike.
The Chilkoot Trail was more difficult than White Pass Trail and no animals could make the trek
Bound for the Klondike gold fields. Chilkoot Pass, Alaska.
Library of Congress - American Memory Collection.
Dyea and Chilkoot Trail: Only three miles away from Skagway, Dyea was also a popular spot to pass through. Prospectors trudged up the Chilkoot Trail on foot without animals. In fact, until late 1897 and early 1898, when tramways were built, they had to carry on their backs the “ton” of food required by the Canadian government.
People stream through Dawson City during the Klondike Gold Rush.
A group of miners employed by one of the Klondike’s major claim holders pose with a young girl and dog.
Thousands of small claims were consolidated into large claims years after the rush ended.
By marshaling resources, some still hoped to turn a profit. Getty/Hulton AP
Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Fields: Although almost all of the Klondike was already staked out before the majority of prospectors for this rush even arrived, that did not stop the thousands from pouring into Dawson City. Approximately 100,000 gold-seekers in total set off for the Yukon once news of the rush was published… but only 30,000 completed the trip. Many stampeders died, lost enthusiasm en route, stopped after going as far as they could make it, or turned back to save their lives. As detailed at https://content.lib.washington.edu/extras/goldrush.html, “the trip was long, arduous, and cold. Klondikers had to walk most of the way, using either pack animals or sleds to carry hundreds of pounds of supplies since the Northwest Mounted Police in Canada required all foreigners to bring a year's worth of supplies with them. Even so, starvation and malnutrition were serious problems along the trail. The story of the Klondiker who boiled his boots to drink the broth was widely reported, and may well have been true. Cold was another serious problem along the trail. Winter temperatures in the mountains of northern British Columbia and the Yukon were normally -20 degrees F., and temperatures of -50 degrees F. were not unheard of. Tents were usually the warmest shelter a Klondiker could hope for.”
By the middle of the summer in 1898, Dawson City had grown from in one year from a population of 1,500 to boasting 20,000-30,000 people in the region, most of whom were not able to prospect themselves, but were quick to capitalize on the newly-rich.
The stampede compelled the government of Canada to enact the Yukon Territory Act to constitute Yukon as separate and distinct from the North-West Territories. Dawson City became the territorial capital city and the largest Canadian city west of Winnipeg.
Legendary Sam Steele of the Northwest Mounted Police kept peace and order in Dawson City.
Order in Dawson City was kept by a legendary Sam Steele. Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1898, he had built himself a reputation for being able to settle the peace efficiently and was given full command of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the Yukon. Due to his relentless work ethic, Steele was able to fix the disease and sanitation problem that Dawson had, as well as maintain peace and control. Citizens of Dawson were actually upset to see him leave a year later.
Those who teach about the subject might be tempted to show classrooms the three-part Discovery Channel mini-series Klondike that aired in January last year, but, be warned: though the visuals are stunning, the script takes enormous liberties with the figure of Sam Steele (who remains unnamed in the production, thank goodness) and offers an inaccurate depiction of Dawson City as a lawless, rather than uniquely law-abiding, town. A love story develops between Dawson’s sheriff and the local “hooker with a heart of gold” that is entirely fictional. That aspect of the plot was more akin to an old episode of the TV show Gunsmoke, which I bet executive producer Ridley Scott used to watch. It does not do justice to the wonderful book on which it is very loosely based, Gold Diggers! Striking it Rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray.
Be sure to share the history-based Heritage Minute video from Historica Canada about Sam Steele, instead, at:
Eventually, as word spread across North America that that the Klondike gold fields were tapped, the stampede to the Yukon ended as quickly as it started. By the end of the summer of 1898, most prospectors realized any earnings had been spent and that there were no fortunes to be had anymore. The wisest of them either headed home or went on to test their luck in Nome, Alaska, where gold was rumored to have been found. The 1896-1899 gold rush and the economic boom it brought to key locations of both nations had long-lasting impact. The Klondike drew national media and political attention on both sides of the border and created a new awareness of the need to protect shared interests through economic policy. It can be argued that Klondike gold established Seattle as a global trade gateway, and, though remote geographically, both Skagway and Dawson City continue to celebrate—and cash in on—their historic ties to the Klondike Gold Rush.
|Superintendent Sam Steele of the North West Mounted Police
Sam Steele is one of Canada’s historical heroes. He was certainly no stranger to action. The big, burly Mountie had helped rid the west of whisky traders, policed the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and averted war between natives and white settlers in British Columbia. At last, as commanding officer at Fort Macleod, married, with three children, he thought he might settle into peaceful retirement.
But the discovery of gold in the Klondike changed that prospect. Canada needed someone to control the thousands of miners (mostly American) who flooded the Yukon. They also needed someone to hold the territory for Canada. The man for the job was Sam Steele.
Steele arrived in the American port of Skagway, Alaska in February 1898. Skagway was a wide-open town, dominated by a suave killer named Soapy Smith. Smith controlled the saloons and dance halls, where gamblers and prostitutes parted miners from their gold. Steele was determined to keep Smith and his type of corruption out of Canadian territory.
He scaled the passes of the St. Elias Mountain that terrible winter. With parties of Mounted Policemen, he set up border posts flying the Union Jack. The Mounties collected custom duties, confiscated handguns, and arrested men who mistreated their pack animals. It was clear that Steele was in charge. Soapy Smith's desperadoes were met at the border by Winchester rifles and Canadian law.
In the spring, Steele moved down to Lake Bennett, a tent city of more than 10,000 people. Here, prospectors saw two sides of Steele. He was known to lend his own money to men down on their luck, and to write personal letters to the families of those who died in the territory. But he could also be tough. One American caught with marked cards protested that he had rights as a United States citizen. Steele confiscated all of his goods and had a Mountie escort him on the 50 kmilometer climb to the border.
Once the ice cleared, Steele and the other stampeders of Lake Bennett rode the wild Yukon River down to Dawson, with many hazards and fatalities on the way. Dawson was a chaotic boomtown of saloons, gambling dens, dance halls and a population of 14,000, including a number of veterans from Soapy Smith's gang. With a force of only 13 men, Steele cleaned up the town. He knew that he could not prevent the gambling and other vices, but he made sure that the games were honest, and he dealt swiftly with those who disturbed the public order. He also formed a board of health that stemmed a raging typhoid epidemic.
Unfortunately, it was political corruption that ended Steele's posting. Politicians in Ottawa wanted their friends to get a share of the Yukon gold, and Steele stood in their way. The crooked minister in charge of the Mounted Police relieved Steele of his command, despite the pleas of the citizenry of Dawson.
When Steele tried to leave quietly in September 1899, the prospectors, gamblers, ragtime piano-players, and dancehall girls of Dawson poured down to the wharf to give Steele "such an ovation and send-off as no man has ever received from the Klondike gold-seekers," in the words of a local newspaper. They cheered Sam Steele until his steamboat was out of sight.
The Canadian Encyclopedia: Klondike Gold Rush
Klondike Gold Rush – Seattle Unit National Historic Park
The University of Washington Exhbits and Guides: The Klondike Gold Rush
Weider History and articles featuring the Klondike Gold Rush at history.net
RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING FOR TEACHERS/STUDENTS
Internet Sites (some with Primary Document Photographs)
Journal of Sam Steele - 1874 – NorthWest Mounted Police Trek West
Seattle Unit National Historical Park - Photo Gallery 1896-1899: Klondike Gold Rush
Smithsonian National Postal Museum (Article from Enroute) “Letters as Precious as Gold” by Nancy A. Pope
(http://postalmuseum.si.edu/research/articles-from-enroute/letters-as-precious-as-gold.html (and link to exhibit with stories from the gold rush)
University of Washington Special Collections – Exhibits and Guides – The Klondike Gold Rush
U.S. The Klondike Gold Rush: Photographs from 1896-98
The Klondike Gold Rush: Curriculum Materials for Washington Schools developed by
Kathryn Morse, Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, Department of History at the University of Washington: http://content.lib.washington.edu/topics-gold.html
National Endowment for the Humanities - Metaphorical Gold: Mining the Gold Rush for Stories (Lesson Plans Grades 6-8)
U.S. National Park Service
The Yukon Gold Rush (Book of Grades 4-6 Lessons for purchase from Rainbow Horizons Publishing)
Take students on a Klondike adventure without even leaving the classroom.
This virtual tour can help supplement lesson plans about the Klondike Gold Rush:
Children of the Gold Rush by Claire Rudolf Murphy
(Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1999)
Chilkoot Trail: Heritage Route to the Klondike by David Neufeld and Frank Norris
(Lost Moose Pub Co. Ltd., 1996)
Gold Diggers! Striking it Rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray
Klondike Women: True Tales Of 1897-1898 Gold Rush by Melanie J. Mayer
(Swallow Press, 1989)
The Last Great Gold Rush: A Klondike Reader by Graham Wilson
(Wolf Creek Books, 2002)
Pierre Berton’s Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush (1896-1899) by Pierre Berton
(McClelland & Stewart; Revised edition, 1986)
Young Adult Fiction:
Best Tales of the Yukon: Including the Classic "Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert W. Service
(Running Press Book Publishers, 2003)
Call of the Wild by Jack London
(Mass Market Paperback - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013)
Gold Rush Fever: A Story of the Klondike, 1898 by Barbara Greenwood and Heather Collins, illust.
(Kids Can Press, 2001)
Jason’s Gold by Will Hobbs
(Harper Collins, 2000)
Klondike Gold by Alice Provensen
(Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing, 2005)
WatchKnowLearn.org is a site that identifies free educational videos. There are four listed for Klondike Gold Rush that are available for free viewing on YouTube: