Gold! The Rush to the Klondike
From murmurs of gold on Bonanza Creek in 1897, word spread south with lightning speed. There was gold to be found, supplies to be purchased, but months of travel first.
Panning for gold in Canada’s north was an ordinary occupation, and usually not a profitable venture. For years, gold miners plied their skills at finding the shiny flecks, small pebbles and larger nuggets without finding any great lodes of wealth. That is, until George Carmack and his prospecting family were camped at a tributary of the Klondike River in the Yukon Territory, Canada, one day in August 1896. George, his native wife Kate (Shaaw Tláa), her brother Skookum Jim and their nephew Dawson Charlie spotted glints of gold nuggets shimmering up through the cold water, waiting to be picked up. Carmack named the creek Bonanza.
Miners found gold
With the speed of lightning, word of the amazing find spread throughout the north. Experienced prospectors swarmed, including those from established mining camps at Fortymile in the Yukon and Circle City in Alaska. The gold miners staked claims along the Bonanza, Eldorado and Gold Bottom rivers. Their campgrounds transformed into a rough town called Dawson City – and the initial gold miners found abundant riches. From approximately 50 claims, about $30 million was extracted.
A number of the newly-wealthy miners boarded ships south to San Francisco, California, taking their nuggets with them in their worn-out luggage. Rumours of their cargo trickled out on their arrival on July 14, 1897. Excelsior steamed into port laden with a half-million dollars’ worth of gold. On July 17th, the ship Portland arrived, carrying an astounding $1 million worth of nuggets. The docks were packed with reporters and the curious. Stories grew and inflated. The itch for riches exploded into a fever. Gold fever.
In the grip of Gold Fever
“Seattle is all ‘agog’ with this gold fever,” said reporter Eugene Semple of the Seattleite newspaper on July 17, 1897, “and the streets are crowded with knots of men so worked up over the news that they can scarcely avoid being run over by the cars and carriages,” Men left everything behind – their homes, families and jobs, to strike it big in the Klondike. As news spread, potential gold miners came from around the world – Europe, France, Australia.
The 1890s was a time of desperate poverty for the American people, with a huge divide between rich and poor. Both and women prepared to go to the Klondike to strike it rich. (Many thought at first that it was American-owned.) Cities along the coastline, Seattle, Vancouver and San Franciso expanded to double their sizes, as floods of travelers arrived to await boarding ships to the north. For prospectors coming from the east, Edmonton became the gateway to the north.
North West Mounted Police set up “customs offices”
Through knowledge of the territories, the Canadian government insisted that any hopeful prospectors going to the Yukon must have a year’s worth of supplies. It came to almost a ton of goods for each person. And the North West Mounted Police set up “customs offices” to ensure the prospectors complied with the strict rules.
But it wasn’t only the prospectors making huge amounts of money. The stores and outfitters found their own fortunes in selling stampede supplies. Food and tools, clothing, mining equipment, gear for camping and some sort of transportation were required. Fur caps, heavy coats, woolen underclothes, moccasins, sweaters and blankets were recommended and, of course, sold just for the occasion by the local merchants.
Long, cold journey over mountains
While travel by boat was available for the wealthy, the majority travelled overland by train, then horse and carriage, and then by foot, hauling their half-ton of supplies unimaginable distances over mountains and cold, rough terrain. Over 100,000 men and women made the grueling and perilous journey of many months. By the time they reached the Klondike in 1898, most of the claims on the rich riverbeds were already staked.
This was but the first spark of the Klondike Gold Rush. Some still managed to find their fortunes, others returned home disappointed and poorer than when they left. Many died along the trails from exhaustion, ill-health, starvation or caught in slides.
Frontier Spirit: The Brave Women of the Klondike, by Jennifer Duncan. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House Canada, 2003
More fascinating information at:
This article was first published on Suite101.com. Copyright Susanna McLeod