Anna Degraf, Klondike Pioneer
While others searched for wealth, Anna’s quest was not for gold
53-year-old Anna Degraf travelled on her own from California to Canada’s Klondike, carrying her sewing machine and hope.
An indomitable spirit is not a possession of only the young. The spirit of adventure, of hope and of resolution filled Anna Degraf with the ability to travel on her own from California to the land of the midnight sun in 1892. But she didn’t go in search of gold – she was searching for something far more valuable.
By the time Anna Degraf was 50 years old, she had already survived a violent crossing of the Atlantic, illness, the death of one of her children, the murder of her husband, and the loss of all that she owned in the Seattle Fire of 1889. Then, her 23-year-old son George went out for an excursion, telling his mother that he would return in two weeks. He didn’t come back.
Degraf Boarded Steamship to the North
Anna began the task of searching for him. When rumours of his appearance in Juneau, Alaska surfaced, Anna prepared to find him. She sold her established sewing business in Seattle and boarded a steamship heading to Alaska with her load of necessary possessions… along with her feather bed and her sewing machine.
Her sewing machine enabled Anna to make a good living as a seamstress in Juneau, Alaska for several years. Hearing in 1894 that her son may have been at Fortymile, a gold-mining camp, she packed up her gear to make the difficult trek into the Yukon. With a crutch to help her along from a poorly-healed broken leg, Anna joined a small group on the arduous climb over the mountains. She was in awe of the scenery spread out before her eyes and according to Jennifer Duncan’s Frontier Spirit book, said, “My God, how beautiful you have made the world!”
Attacks, Fires, and Icy Cold
No trace of her son at Fortymile, Anna traveled on, returning to California for a while to stay with her daughter and family. With a new sewing machine and bolts of fresh fabric, she returned to the north, arriving in Dawson City during the Klondike gold rush in 1897. She continued to earn her living by sewing all sorts of items, from tents and clothing to fancy costumes for the dance hall girls. It was a tough life in the north – women were outnumbered by men ten to one. Anna feared for her life on many occasions. She was attacked a number of times by angry, drunken men, wanting her goods, her mining claims or young women she was protecting. Fires burned her out of her home and business several times, and during one icy crossing of Lake Lindeman to reach Dawson City, she almost froze her feet. Anna had to be tough.
“My mother used to say, ‘You must howl with the wolves, when you are with the wolves,’ and so I made the best of things up there. Many times my heart did bump-I was so frightened-but I pretended I was the bravest thing in the world, and through all right.”
Decades of Search for Naught
The 60-year-old woman earned a reputation as Mother and a Good Samaritan, helping any young men and women that needed her. She managed a few gold stakes of her own, but with her many travels out of the area, she usually lost out on her claims. Her riches came from the beauty of the north, the people and from the evening events she loved to attend. (She was a real dance and music fan.)
Dawson City continued to be Anna’s home long after the Klondike Gold Rush was over in 1898. She left the Yukon in 1917 upon hearing of the birth of her great-granddaughter in San Francisco, California. She wrote a book and gave talks about her northern adventures, and worked at the famous Pantages Theater until the seasoned age of 90 as their wardrobe lady. Anna died at age 91. Her mission of finding her son failed. George Degraf was never found.
In the era of gold fever, brutality and great challenges, Anna Degraf was an independent woman of unusual strength and indomitable character. In her middle-age, she became a pioneer of the Klondike, making history in both the United States and Canada.
Frontier Spirit: The Brave Women of the Klondike, by Jennifer Duncan, Published by Doubleday Canada 2003.
Climbing the Chilkoot Pass in the search for Gold, 1898.
This Canadian History article first appeared on Suite101.com © Susanna McLeod