The intense phase of the gold rush lasted only until 1898. Then gold was discovered at Nome, Alaska, and many of the prospectors left. Unlike Carmack, Kate, Dawson Charlie, and Skookum Jim, but just like the unlucky Robert Henderson, the majority of prospectors had found little or no gold in the Klondike, and were ready to try their luck in a new location. By 1900 the easy gold was played out in the Klondike, and it was increasingly difficult to get rich by simply panning for gold and working the claims by hand. The gold mining industry changed from being labour-intensive to being capital intensive. Large sums of money were needed to buy the hydraulic mining equipment that washed gold out of the creeks and hills with high-powered hoses, and later, the dredges that chewed up the creek beds and could make a profit from a few cents’ worth of gold in a cubic metre of dirt. Mining passed from individuals into the hands of corporations that could afford the expensive mining techniques. Of course, fewer workers were needed to run these machines, and the population of the Yukon began to fall. In 1898 it was nearly 40,000 (no accurate census was taken at the height of the rush), but by 1921 it had fallen by 90%, to just over 4,000, of only 2,500 were non-Native. It did not grow again until World War II brought Alaska highway construction to the north.
What impact did the gold rush have on the First Nations of the Yukon? It has been estimated that the population of what is now the Yukon was about 8,000 in 1800, well before the first European set foot there. By 1921 it was only about 1,500, so it might be concluded that the gold rush had a terrible effect on the indigenous population. In fact, however, these sad statistics were the result of diseases originally introduced before the first fur traders arrived in the Yukon in the 1830s. Measles and influenza were carried by First Nations traders themselves from Russian fur traders on the coast into the interior, where they devastated the Yukon First Nations who had never met a European face to face.
Some Yukon First Nations people suffered because of the gold rush, especially those who became associated with the miners’ communities at Fortymile, and later at Dawson City. Bishop Bompas complained that the miners were “debauching” the local Indians with alcohol, and were abusing their women. True as this is, it is also true that many First Nations, probably a majority, had little or nothing to do with the gold rush. Even when the population of the Territory approached 40,000, most of the newcomers were concentrated in a very restricted area: small communities on the Yukon river, and mining camps on the creeks. The vast majority of the Territory remained undisturbed, and First Nations people could continue to hunt and trap as they had done before. Very few worked on claims, where they were not welcome. Some took advantage of the rush to make money: Chilkat packers made a good living carrying miners’ goods over the Chilkoot Pass, and other First Nations worked from time to time, as their way of life permitted, cutting the wood that fuelled the riverboats, and stacking it on the bank of the Yukon River. The money earned from such activities, which did not interfere with their traditional activities, could be used to purchase ammunition for hunting, foodstuffs such as tea or flour, and other goods at stores in the communities. Perhaps the most serious effect was that they were outnumbered by the newcomers, and became marginalized in their own lands, at least for the first two-thirds of the 20th century.
- George W. Carmack, My Experiences in the Yukon, 1922
- K.S. Coates and W.R. Morrison, After the Gold Rush, 2005
Newspaper or Magazine Articles
- n/a, Klondike Discoverer Dies in Poverty, New York Times, September 2, 1916
- n/a, Carmack Obituary, New York Times, June 7, 1922
Oral History or Interview