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The Days of '98 Compared With the Days of '49

The reported gold discoveries in the Klondike, and the reported gold discoveries of '49 in California, reflect several parallels.  To the average man the treasures of the Coast State were seemingly as inaccessible as are the riches of the Yukon River and its tributaries.  One was more than 2,000 miles across a trackless desert and over snow-bound mountain passes, beset by hostile Indians, whose deadly attacks marked the trail with bleaching bones across the Western States. The other is nearly 7,000 miles by water, through a rigorous climate, or almost 4,000 miles by land and water, with mountain passes to scale as dangerous as those of the Swiss Alps.

There were serious drawbacks to the northern Eldorado aside from the bitterness of its long, icy winters.  One was the scarcity of natural food products.  Nothing can be grown there; everything had to be imported at a high cost. 

The Klondike gold rush was decidedly more difficult than the one in California, since the prospectors were in -50 degree weather. They also had to used dog sleds and make tent cities. They ate little to no meat, fruit, or vegetables. People seeking gold mostly ate beans, bacon and bread.  Because of the harsh terrain and even harsher weather, it took gold rushers a year to reach the Klondike. The long climb over mountainous terrain and frozen rivers, coupled with the intense cold and frequent snowstorms, made for a long and arduous journey. When they entered Canada they were not allowed to come unless they brought food for themselves. This food weighed about one ton and they had to carry it over Chilkoot pass, a very narrow trail, on their backs.

The California gold fields ran along the Sierra Nevada range and spread west through the San Joaquin valley.  Unlike the Klondike, the California mining area was less well defined and contained at least three large separate regions with mines spread out over 10,000 square miles.  It is generally estimated that about 90,000 miners arrived in California in 1849.  This suggests that the Klondike had three times the concentration of potential miners per square mile compared to California. The Klondike district consisted of the valley of the river of that name, which flows westward into the Yukon, and extends 30 miles south to Indian river, also flowing into the Yukon. Midway between Klondike and Indian rivers is a hill called the Dome, and streams flow into them from the height of land between. Bonanza, 23 miles long, Bear, and Hunker creeks are tributaries of the Klondike, Eldorado of Bonanza, and Gold Bottom of Hunker. Quartz creek, No Name, and Dominion flow into Indian river.  All totaled, the Klondike gold fields covered about 200 square miles.

Although California had variations in temperature and rainfall throughout the year, compared to the Klondike it was temperate and hospitable.  The ground was never frozen, and the length of daylight varied little in comparison.  The ground in the Klondike froze solid, and only two feet of it thawed in summer. The miners built fires over the area they wanted to excavate, and when they burned about twenty-four hours removed the softened muck, and then lit fires again. In this way they sunk a shaft to bed rock, and then tunneled by the same process. This method of mining was expensive, and not all claims were rich enough to pay the cost. Where the bed rock was smooth there was no gold, but where it was rough the gold is lodged. Often the shafts did not strike a pay streak. Unless the ground yielded $15 a day to a man it was not profitable to work it, miners’ wages being $1.25 an hour, and the day six or seven hours long. When a shaft yielded not more than 10 cents to the pan it was abandoned. Around Dawson the bed rock is a soft shale, and was often worked to a depth of 2 or 3 feet. The material taken out was left in a heap until spring, when the torrents are flowing, and it was then panned and cradled.

Most importantly, given the transfer of government from Mexico to the United States and the abolishment of all Mexican laws in 1849, California had no formal mining laws when the first strike was made, and certainly no government infrastructure as existed in the Klondike prior to the rush.  When the number of miners and prospectors increased by the thousands in 1898-99, the North West Mounted Police, under the command of Sam Steele maintained a firm grip on the activities of the prospectors to ensure the safety of the population as well as enforcing the laws and sovereignty of Canada. As a result, this gold rush has been described as the most peaceful and orderly of its type in history.

For the first three years the mining technology in the Klondike resembled that of California a half-century before.  Miners explored creeks, panning for any indication of large deposits. Both gold rushes were also based on placer mining of alluvial deposits.  Late 19th century technology existed for dealing with this problem, including hydraulic mining and stripping, and  , but this required heavier equipment that could not be brought into the Klondike during the gold rush.

Social norms during the Klondike gold rush developed that any miner who struck gold was expected to freely reveal his information to any miner who crossed his path.  This practice not only held for the first strike on Bonanza Creek, it was maintained throughout the entire gold rush.  In California it was not the social custom for miners to share information of a gold strike.  Newcomers who asked for advice on where to start digging were usually directed to locations that had been thoroughly worked over.

If a miner abandoned his claim, then others were allowed to take over.  This practice was true in California and the Klondike.

In both the Klondike and California cases, access to water was a constraint.  In the Klondike it was often frozen, and in California the creek beds were often dry throughout parts of the year.

Another handicap in the Klondike was the lack of woman's society.  In the rush to California in '49 men took their wives and sweethearts with them in many instances, and as the climate and agricultural conditions were good, it was not long before permanent settlements were made and the nucleus of what is now a great state was started.  In the Yukon, aside from one or two daring tourists, few white women were seen, and few cared to brave the hardships of life there.  The miners' sole companions were Indians and dogs, which served as beasts of burden. 

Despite the tensions over the sizes of claims in the Klondike, the position of miners was in fact more secure there than in the California gold rush of 1848–52, where an influx of prospectors could lead to a reduction in size of existing claims.  The mine size shrank in California, while in the Klondike mines ended up having many miners work a specific mine.  In the Klondike when a strike was made, the lucky miner registered his discovery claim knowing it was secure.  When the rush was on for establishing rights to claims adjacent to discovery, there was no expectation that the initial claim was in jeopardy.  Regardless of how many other miners showed up, the claim size did not adjust.  Unlike the California case, the 30,000 late comers did not force existing miners to re-divide the claim sites.  Many disappointed simply left, some went and looked elsewhere, some purchased either whole or partial claims, but most went to work on existing sites as employees.  Thus, unlike the California case where the mine size shrank, in the Klondike mines ended up having many miners work a specific mine.  Miners did not have to sub-divide mines in order to defend what they were able to keep.

The property rights were respected because the close to 300 Northwest Mounted Police officers had no problem protecting 200 miles of creeks.  Had the gold rush been spread out across the entire Yukon territory as it had been in California, it's unlikely any policing would have been effective.  However, given the tight concentration of gold, the formal government infrastructure, and the general geographical and climatic constraints, there was little incentive for desertion, and a small area to police.  Policing protected the property rights of the miners against jumping, and therefore, did not hinder the incentives to share information on gold strikes, and encouraged miners to maintain legal claim sizes and legally subdivide or amalgamate them through contract.

The fabulous tales of wealth sent out by the California pioneers were no less wonderful than those brought back by the men who braved the last cold season in the Klondike mineral belt.  In both cases those who returned brought back with them great nuggets of the precious stuff that left little or no doubt in the mind of the hearer.  The California miner in the song who had so many nuggets that he was accustomed to "go a hatful blind" found his parallel in the Yukon miner who claimed to have "washed out" $212 in one pan full of dirt - a process that required ten or twelve minutes.

It is true that the small streams are the ones found to be rich in gold, which is generally at the bottom of thick gravel deposits. But the ground was not of equal richness, and the gold of the northern region has in combination more of the baser metals - iron, silver, and lead - than the gold of California, Yukon gold being worth $17 to $18 to the ounce, while that of California is worth $1 more.

The California gold rush of 1848–55 in the Sierra Nevada, which captured the popular imagination,  led directly to the settlement of California by Americans and the rapid entry of that state into the union in 1850. The main goldfield was along the south flank of the Klondike River near its confluence with the Yukon River near what was to become Dawson City in Canada's Yukon Territory but it also helped open up the relatively new US possession of Alaska to exploration and settlement and promoted the discovery of other gold finds.

Gold rushes helped spur a huge immigration that often led to permanent settlement of new regions and define a significant part of the culture of the North American frontiers. As well, at a time when the world's money supply was based on gold, the newly-mined gold provided economic stimulus far beyond the gold fields.




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