The Klondike Gold Rush
In 1893 a considerable
find on Birch Creek, a tributary that joined the Yukon at its
northernmost reach, brought in additional miners. By 1896 more than
1,000 prospectors, including some women, were in the Yukon basin on the
Alaskan side of the border. The great river and its tributaries had
become a familiar highway network, allowing travel by raft or steamer in
summer, by dog sled or snowshoes in winter. The mystery of Alaska's
interior was unfolding, and even a scant fabric of civilization began to
form - that is if an occasional rude cabin roadhouse or trading post
along the river could be called civilization.
A year later the Klondike
discovery in Canada would bring the first of 100,000 gold-crazed fortune
hunters storming through Alaska.
The large strike in the
Yukon began in 1895 when Bob Henderson had fair luck on Rabbit Creek.
The next summer he met George Carmack and told Carmack of the prospects,
who then went to Rabbit Creek to stake his claim. Carmack, along with
James "Skookum Jim" Mason and "Tagish" Charlie, two Indian friends,
began working their claim on Rabbit Creek. Carmack then officially
staked his claim by blazing a small spruce tree with the note:
It May Concern:
this day, locate and claim, by right of discovery, five
hundred feet, running up stream from this notice. Located
this the seventeenth day of August, 1896.
Word of a new strike traveled quickly in
the close circles of the miners in the area and by the end of November
500 claims were staked in the district. Carmack had made it a point to
tell those he met on his way to the outpost of Forty Mile to officially
record his claim that Rabbit Creek looked promising. A point of
contention in the history of the gold rush was that Carmack never told
Henderson of the wealth that could be made on Rabbit creek and Henderson
missed out on the strike, never to become rich.
The rest of the world was still unaware
that there were vast sums of gold being mined on Rabbit Creek - which
had been renamed Bonanza Creek. Carmack and the others at Bonanza
worked their claims, amassing more gold for nearly a year.
In early 1897 rumors trickled out about a
fabulous new gold discovery somewhere in the North. On March 14 the
Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted from a letter written in the gold
fields in January: "I may as well tell you," wrote W. F. Cornell, "that
in my 42 years' experience on the Pacific coast so much gold has never
been found in the same extent of country. In fact, you may believe
anything you hear; it can hardly be exaggerated." At first these
accounts were either ignored or discounted; it was simply too good to be
true. There were reports of nuggets the size of a man's thumb, lying on
the ground just waiting to be picked up. No one was certain precisely
where the gold fields were; apparently they were along the Yukon River,
but whether they were in Canada or the United States, no one seemed to
know. The area was described by a new term, the "Klondike."
But, these early accounts were all it
took to compel experienced miners to head for the Far North in the
spring of 1897. The ports of Seattle had begun to see the vanguard of
what would soon become a frenetic rush to the Yukon.
The silence of the Bonanza strike was
shattered publically with the arrival of two ships laden with gold. The
first ship to arrive, the
Excelsior, docked in
San Francisco on the fifteenth of July 1897 carrying more than a ton of
gold. Men on the docks were in awe when the miners lugged sacks full of
gold down the gangplank. Two days later, on the on July 17th, the
steamer Portland docked in Seattle. This ship carried more than
two tons of gold. News of the Portland's arrival preceded it to
port and by the time it arrived at Schwabacher's dock in Seattle a
reported 5,000 people were present waiting for the ship and the gold
that it carried.
The golden treasure on these two ships
confirmed the early reports of the richness of the Klondike discovery
and caused a dynamic public reaction. Newspapers boasted that the
Klondike gold fields were ten times richer than those in California and
that it was the richest gold field in the world. One of the miners on
the Excelsior, Joe Ladue, brought back five million dollars of
gold to San Francisco. This reported wealth that could be had spread
like wild fire across the United States and around the world. Newspaper
articles reported on the gold rush and the world soon knew of the Yukon
and the Klondike.
By the end of July, 1897,
the words 'Klondike' and 'gold' were on the tongues of every adventurous
soul around the world.
The following excerpts
from a newspaper story, datelined Seattle, July 17, 1897, describe the
excitement that existed in that city after the Portland's
It is safe
to say that never in the history of the Northwest has there
been such excitement as has prevailed in this city all day
long and which is raging to-night. It is due to the arrival
... of the steamer Portland, carrying sixty-eight men, from
the Clondyke gold fields, every one of whom brings down a
been so many stories sent out from Alaska of great strikes
which later proved to be without foundation that people were
reaching that period where they refused to credit them. But
when the big Portland ran alongside the ocean dock at 8
o'clock this morning and those sixty-eight men ... walked
down the gangplank struggling to hold up the weight of gold
which was stacked high on their shoulders, the thousands of
people who stood on the dock to receive them were suddenly
seized with Clondyke fever, and to-night Clondyke is on the
lips of every man, woman and child of this city.
not enter the ticket offices of the companies running
steamers between here and Alaska without waiting at least an
hour. How the steamers are going to accommodate all who
propose to go north is a mystery. One steamer is expected
to sail to-morrow. There will not be standing room on it.
claimed that these people who are going north are making a
mistake. conservative men who have been in the country ...
admit that all of the fields in the vicinity of the Clondyke
have been taken, but every river in Alaska is, in their
judgment, filled with gold, which can be secured if the men
are willing to risk the hardships.
Overnight the West Coast
hummed with activity as more than 100,000 men streamed in from around
the world on one of history's strangest adventures. Word of the new El
Dorado spread from Seattle and San Francisco across the land like
wildfire. Though most people did not know precisely where the new
placer field was, Klondike became the main topic of conversation
wherever people gathered. Day after day, newspapers carried illustrated
front-page accounts of the wonders of the Klondike, inciting thousands
of gold-crazed people to make plans for the long journey to the Far
Mountain News, Denver Colorado
SEATTLE, Wash., July 19. - The people of this town have
gone wild over the Clondyke discoveries. Not in the history
of the town has there been such excitement. Everybody who
can raise the money is going north. Steamer accommodations
have all been taken.
The statement that the new
fields would output $10,000,000 worth of gold this year has
made the excitement greater and tonight everybody is burning
the wires with telegrams to friends in the East to send them
money to invest in the fields.
Semi-Weekly Capital, Topeka, Kansas
SAN FRANCISCO, Cal., July 20. - When the steamer Alki
left Seattle and Port Townsend, Wash., yesterday, it had 125
passengers, 800 sheep and 50 horses. Thousands gathered to
watch the departure and the scenes were remarkable. Some of
the passengers had slept on the deck all Sunday night and
crowded the vessel at daybreak. None would leave to get
food. Not an inch of room was left on the vessel. The same
scenes will be repeated with each vessel which leaves.
The Klondike stampeders,
unlike the veterans who had been prowling Alaskan creeks for a
generation, were mostly cheechakos, as newcomers were known in Chinook,
the hybrid jargon of the Pacific Northwest. By and large, these men
were not miners or prospectors, but were clerks, teachers, accountants,
and other urbanized people. They had little qualification beyond an
ardent desire to get rich.
A strange madness had
gripped the world.