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The gold rush era was a time when ordinary people did extraordinary things.  Driven by the economic depression of the 1890s, many untypical gold-seekers - accountants, bank clerks, college students, storekeepers, and others - swelled the ranks of the stampeders.  Many of them had never spent a single night in the outside until they joined the rush to the northern wilderness.  Very few became rich, but most had one thing in common: the gold rush was the greatest adventure of their lives.


While the Gold Rush itself took place during a limited time span of two years, the events leading up to the stampede of people into the Yukon started slowly and took several additional years to develop. It is commonly thought that the discovery of gold in the Yukon basin happened by chance. It was not a case of one or two miners playing out a hunch of finding gold there and then embarking on a grand journey to find that gold. There were a few hardy souls looking for gold on the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers for many years before the rush.


The history of gold in Alaska and the Yukon goes back sixty-five years prior to the Klondike strike of 1897.  The first discovery of gold in Alaska was in 1832 near Kuskokwim River.  As early as 1867 there were newspaper reports of gold being found on the peninsula east of Cook's Inlet. All of the gold from these other strikes did not cause such fervor in the public as did the gold from the strike of 1897.

The Russians were the first on the Yukon river, in 1834, but they didn't care about finding gold; no more than the natives who had given the river its name of Yukon, meaning "The Greatest."  Even before the river was discovered, whispers of gold in Russian America had reached the ears of Alexander Baranov, the Lord of Alaska.  But Baranov, garnering a fortune in furs for his Czarist masters was not anxious for a gold rush. 

The Hudson Bay Company traders heard tales of gold, too, when they invaded the Yukon valley at mid-century, but paid them no heed, for furs to them were richer treasure.  They built Fort Yukon at the mouth of the Porcupine river,  and they built fort Selkirk some six hundred miles upstream.  They weren't aware, at the time, that their Union Jack, flying over Fort Yukon, was deep in foreign territory; the land was remote, the boundaries hazy, and the geography uncertain.

But they knew of the gold and did nothing.  Robert Campbell, one of the company's most industrious explorers, found traces of it at Fort Selkirk, but the discovery never intrigued him.  And sixteen years later another clerk, stated at Fort Yukon, wrote of gold in a letter home to Toronto: "on one small river not far from here the Rev. McDonald saw so much gold that he could have gathered it with a spoon."  But Archdeacon McDonald was intent only on translating prayer books for the Crooked-Eye Indians, and, as for the Hudson's Bay clerk, he had "often wished to go but can never find the time."

Gold was first reported in Alaska during the Russian occupation, about the time of the rush to the California gold files.  Lieutenant Peter Doroshin, a geologist with the Corps of Mining engineers, was hired in 1847 by the Russian-American Company to spend a five year term of duty investigating the mineral resources of its American territories. He arrived at Sitka 16 April 1848. 

Doroshin found traces of gold in the mouths of streams emptying into Kenai Bay in 1848, though he never found the source of the gold, and the report generated no excitement.  Few attempts at prospecting by the Russians are known.  It is generally believed that they suppressed information about the mineral wealth of Alaska, fearing an influx of American and English prospectors and the ruination of their lucrative fur trade.

In 1850, Doroshin was again sent to the Kenai Peninsula.  On 19 April he and a crew left Sitka to examine the Kaknu River and its tributaries.  When they returned on 22 September, he reported finding colors in many places, but did not trace the gold to its source. On 26 April 1851, they left again for another try.  However, they were unable to find the source of the deposits, and on 18 October they returned to Sitka empty-handed.

A series of placer gold discoveries in British Columbia began luring prospectors northward from California and other western mining communities in the late 1850s.  When production from these deposits slackened, the miners scattered in search of new gold fields. 

In 1859, when Governor of Russian-America Johan Hampus Furuhjelm took office, company affairs were prospering and fur procurement, especially of sea mammals, was a well-managed mainstay of the company's business.  In 1861, news reached Sitka of a gold strike on the upper Stikine River.  The strike was in British territory, but Furuhjelm feared that a flood of foreigners might spill over into Russian territory. He sent parties to the scene in 1862 and 1863 to investigate.  Their mining experts, among them the engineer Andreev, examined the gold strikes and reported on the numbers who were flocking to British Columbia, predominantly from the United States Pacific coast.  The Russian-American company and the government, well aware that gold was present in Alaska, were much concerned that the influx of gold seekers would spill across the international boundary.  At one point the company proposed that gold seekers be permitted to operate in Alaska provided they pay a certain fee.

The colonial chief manager worried about unmanageable hordes of profit-seekers invading the territory illegally.  The government in St. Petersburg worried that the foreign powers of Great Britain and the United States might develop designs upon Russian America.  But for the rank and file of Russian personnel, and for the Native inhabitants of the territory, life was running smoothly.  There was peace, supplies were flowing, and everyday life was orderly. 



American soldiers found gold near Sitka soon after the transfer of the former Russian capital.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, men in search of gold were continuing to straggle into the North.  Most were miners out of the Old West, seasoned by the diggings in California, Colorado, Montana and British Columbia. 

The veteran prospectors who arrived in Alaska to conduct the search for gold were ideally suited to the task.  They knew the gold pan, the pick and the long-handled shovel; their back and leg muscles had long been inured to squatting in creek beds, slowly washing the dross over the edge of the pan with expert swishes while they waited for the rich sheen to show itself on the bottom.

The prospectors came first in twos and threes with little more than a rucksack, a gold-pan, a short-stemmed shovel, and a phial of mercury, living on beans and tea and bacon, men fleeing ahead of civilization.  Whenever they struck it rich a parade of camp-followers crowded in upon them, saloon-keepers and hurdy-gurdy girls, tinhorn gamblers and three-card monte men, road agents, prostitutes, vigilantes, and tenderfeet.  And so, like the forward patrols of a mighty army, the first prospectors reached the last frontier and began, in the seventies and eighties, to infiltrate the Yukon Valley.

Two of the first arrivals on the Alaskan side of the Canadian border were Leroy Napoleon McQuesten and Arthur Harper.  McQuesten, New England born, had been a prospector all his adult life, having begun in the California gold rush and then following word of gold north in 1858 to the Fraser River country of Canada.  Harper, born in Ireland, had immigrated to the United States as a youth and thereafter had followed essentially the same trail as McQuesten.  At the time the two began panning for wealth in the Far North in 1873, there were not more than half a dozen white men along the whole, looping 2,000 miles length of the Yukon River.

In 1873 Arthur Harper came in from the interior of northern Canada traveling north and west from the Peace and Mackenzie river valleys in a wide flanking movement.  He was an Irishman with shrewd eyes and a great beard that later turned snow-white and gave him the look of a frontier Charles Evans Hughes.  Gold had drawn him north on the stampedes to the Fraser and the Cariboo, in the fifties and sixties.  Here, staring at his Arrowsmith's map of British North America, Harper asked himself why, if the run of gold stretched from Mexico to British Columbia, it should not continue north beyond the horizon.  Beyond the horizon he went, with five gallons of strong rum and five cronies, pushing down the Peace River in canoes hacked out of cottonwood poplar trunks, following the line of the mountains on their great northward curve across the Arctic Circle and into Alaska.  Twenty-five years later thousands would follow in his wake, on the same vain errand.

For two thousand miles Harper and his companions paddled and prospected, tracking their boats across the mountain divides, until at last, in 1873, they reached the Yukon River at its midpoint, where it curves across the Circle.  For the next quarter-century the river was Harper's highway; he roamed it, seeking in every tributary stream, testing the gravels, panning the sandbars, always hoping to find the treasure, yet never succeeding.  The gold was under his nose, but he missed it.  The stampede had started and there was gold to be had by the shovelful, but Arthur Harper was an old man by then, worn out from tuberculosis, slowly expiring in 1897 in Arizona.

Neither McQuesten nor Harper found any considerable traces of gold in their first Alaskan years, but being sure the mineral was there somewhere, they stuck with the search.  They may not have been striking it rich, but they and the few others like them were opening up the wilderness, learning the great Yukon river and its tributaries, cutting the opening wedge into the untapped and little-known interior.

In 1878 George Holt pushed directly in from the seacoast through the Chilkoot Pass, the only known gap in the armored underbelly of Alaska.   Nor did George Holt, the first man through the coastal mountains, find gold on the Yukon, though he sought it as fiercely as Harper.  He is a vague and shadowy figure, scarcely more than a name in the early annals of Alaska, but he is remembered for a remarkable feat: he was the first report of a white man crossing the Chilkoot trail came in 1878, twenty years before the Klondike gold rush, when George Holt, a white prospector, returned from the Yukon with two small nuggets which by his own imagination, excited the interest of the men at Sitka, the Panhandle capital, which was teeming with the backwash of the Cassiar rush.  Twenty prospectors, protected by a U.S. gunboat, debarked at Dyea Inlet not far from the foot of the Chilkoot, and here, after firing a few blank rounds from a Gatling gun, they convinced Chief Hole-in-the-Face that the pass should be opened.

The next year Ed Bean and the Rathe brothers tried to follow Holt's route and were turned back by the Chilkoot Indians.  They went to Sitka and sought help, and in 1880 returned with the U.S. cutter, Jamestown.  A few rounds fired from a cannon convinced the Indians that their monopoly on the Chilkoot Pass might more properly be shared with the white men who spoke with the voice of an avalanche.

It was 1880 when prospectors, Fred Harris and Joe Juneau, discovered rich placers at the head of what later was called Gold Creek in Southeastern Alaska.  The resulting stampede led to the founding of the mining town of Juneau and to the major lode gold discoveries in that vicinity.   And to Juneau came the wanderers and the adventurers, the Indian-fighters and the frontiersmen, men from all over the American west who could not sit still.  Juneau, in its turn, served as a springboard to Alaska and the Canadian Yukon.  By 1883 Juneau was the center of mining activity in Alaska. The Juneau strike produced 150 million dollars worth of gold, However, it was sixteen years before the Klondike and not properly a part of the Alaska gold rush.

In the next seven years nearly one hundred people crossed over the Chilkoot Pass to the headwaters of the Yukon - the trickle that led to the flood, the trailblazers for the stampede to follow.  There were the Whistling King, Cannibal Ike, Shoemaker Brown, Missionary Chapman, Seslie the Poisoner, Butter Frank, Caribou Steele, Russian Paul, Slim Jim Winn, and Dutch Kate Wilson, the first white woman to enter the Yukon on her own.

Meanwhile, gold seekers had also begun crossing the coastal mountains at the head of Lynn Canal, near Juneau, into the remote interior.  They trickled over the 3,739-foot Chilkoot Pass, on the Alaska-British Columbia border, to the lakes and streams which lead to the Yukon River.  The Tlingit Indians living along this section of the coast had long opposed the entry of whites into that country for fear of losing their trade monopoly with the interior Indians.  But assured that white men were seeking only mineral wealth, the Indians opened the pass in 1880.  Previously, white men reached the Interior of Alaska by way of a long all-water route, sailing by ocean steamer to Saint Michael, near the mouth of the Yukon River, and traveling up the Yukon in flat-bottomed river boats.  A major disadvantage of the Saint Michael route was that it was available only when the Bering Sea and Yukon River were free of ice - usually between late June and mid-September.  Though the Dyea Trail and Chilkoot Pass were more laborious than the Saint Michael route, it was less expensive and was open the year around, making it an attractive alternative route for prospectors.

In 1882 Ed Schieffelin went around to the Bering Sea opposite Siberia and moved up the long water highway of the Yukon River itself.  Schieffelin prospected during the trip in Alaska and found some specks of gold. He was for a while convinced he had found the continental belt he had been searching for. But he was extremely discouraged by the Arctic cold he experienced, up to 50 F below zero (-46 C).  He decided that mining in Alaska was a lost cause and he returned to the lower 48 states.  He died in front of his cabin in the forests of Oregon in 1897.

In 1883 Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka led an expedition across the Chilkoot Pass to Crater Lake, where the first waters of the Yukon gather from the melting snow of the encircling Coast Mountains.  From there, he mapped the river as far as Fort Yukon, and then on down the river to its northern mouth, though he assumed his exploration ended at Fort Selkirk.  He and his expedition were the first to follow the Yukon in its entirety.

By this time the men who were to make the final contribution to opening the Yukon country to white settlement were already there and had set in motion the train of events that were to lead to the great gold discoveries of the interior.  When Schwatka made his survey Leroy Napoleon "Jack" McQuesten, Arthur Harper, and Captain Al Mayo had been on the Yukon for ten years.  Joseph Ladue, who founded Dawson, reached the Yukon in 1882.  These were the men who made the last stampede possible, who opened the first trading posts and provided the supplies to make it possible for the prospectors and the miners to stay in this remote country and search for the gold that would bring thousands to the Yukon.  These were the men who started every town on the Yukon between Selkirk and Nulato.  Of the four, McQuesten had the greatest significance in the development of the upper Yukon, the most trusted and respected man on the river, and the most popular.  He first reached the Yukon in 1873.

As the California gold rush died out, the men who could never get the gold fever out of their blood gradually moved north.  As the old gold diggings were either overmanned or stripped clean or caught up by big companies, they sought new mineralized areas similar to those of the Sierra Nevada.  The prospected Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.  They pushed north into British Columbia, into the Caribou country.  They went up the Stikine River out of Wrangell, where in 1861 over four hundred Americans stampeded into Russian America and just over the border into British Columbia to the considerable alarm of the Russians in Sitka.  The Russians had seen what happened to the Mexican control of California when the dynamic Americans flooded that territory, and they feared that Russian America under the impact of a gold stampede might follow the same route.

McQuesten, Mayo and __?__McKrieff were among these prospectors.  According to Mr. McQuesten's own account, they were in the Caribou country of British Columbia when they heard of the American purchase of Russian America and decided to see for themselves what the country was like.  It took them nearly two years to make the trip to the Yukon.

And so, throughout the 1880s and early 1890s, a small number of gold prospectors and miners moved into and out of the Yukon River regions of the Yukon Territory and interior Alaska, making small gold strikes and moving from promising camp to promising camp. Alaskan villages, such as Circle City and Fortymile, were somewhat well known before the major strike along the Klondike River in 1896. The large, industrial Treadwell gold mine opened near Juneau well before the famous strike as well. Gold mining in the Yukon and Alaska was by no means an unheard of industry. Seattle and other Northwest cities saw a few gold miners, and supplied them with food and equipment. In early 1896, months before the Klondike discoveries, miners showed up in Seattle in increasing numbers, taking passage for Circle City and Cook Inlet, following news of gold strikes.

The Klondike and the Yukon River drainage was an area that prospectors felt would someday led to major gold strike. Gold strikes happened on several occasions, but on a very small scale. Miners working the tributaries of the Yukon; the Pelly, Teslin, Birch Creek, Steward and others, all had reasonable yields of gold. When a small amount of gold was discovered in the Steward River in 1884, all of the other camps in the area were emptied and the miners headed there. The same happened in 1893 at Birch Creek. These two stampedes combined still did not have the effect as the main strike of 1897.

By 1886 some two hundred miners had crossed over the Chilkoot Pass and gradually worked their way three hundred miles down the Yukon to the mouth of the Stewart River, on whose sandbars they panned out, in a single year, one hundred thousand dollars worth of fine placer gold. 

The first important discoveries of gold in Interior Alaska were made in the Yukon drainage basin.  In the winter of 1886 prospectors discovered the auriferous gravels of the Fortymile River, and by 1893 more than 300 men were at work on the creeks of this district, located along Alaska's eastern boundary.  News of a richer strike lured many of these prospectors north to Birch Creek, another tributary of the Yukon, in 1894.  The town of Circle became the headquarters of the Birch Creek district, and its population grew to 1,500 before it was nearly depopulated during the winter of 1896-97 by news that large amounts of coarse gold had been discovered in the Yukon Territory of Canada, not far from present-day Dawson.

The first strike of any consequence on the Alaskan side of the Yukon basin came in the autumn of 1887 on Fortymile River, a Yukon tributary named by prospectors because its mouth was approximately 40 miles from Fort Reliance.  Nuggets worth only about 50 cents apiece were reported, but the strike seemed promising enough to lure prospectors from both up- and downriver come springtime.

In this summary fashion was the dam broken each year, from 1880 onward, the trickle of men crossing the divide increased. Following the return of George Holt from the Yukon, more miners worked their way into the Klondike Basin. At all of the tributaries of the Yukon some gold was found, but never the amount that would cause a full blown gold rush. Interestingly, the presence of these miners is commonly overlooked in much of the history of the Yukon and the gold rush. Many of these men dedicated their lives to finding a large deposit of gold, hoping to strike it rich. This small group of individuals was so committed to finding gold that they adopted a hardy lifestyle to survive in an environment that was not always hospitable.



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:

To Whom It May Concern:

I do, 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 arrival:

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 fortune.

There have 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.

One could 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.

It is 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 North.

Tuesday, July 20, 1897 Denver Rocky Mountain News, Denver Colorado

Page 1

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.


Friday, July 23, 1897 Kansas Semi-Weekly Capital, Topeka, Kansas

Page 3

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. 




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