Henderson — Carmack Controversy

[ Bonanza Creek Today ]

Bonanza Creek Today, na, 1998, Klondike Centennial Society, 29350

Few present-day students of the Klondike gold rush can be but baffled by the controversy generated by the question, Who was the actual discoverer of Klondike gold? Baffled because the controversy has focused on the persons of George Washington Carmack and Robert Henderson, while the real discoverer, Skookum Jim, who was also known as Tagish Jim or James Mason, has been all but forgotten. What makes the controversy all the more surprising moreover, is that two of the most reliable contemporary observers, Tappan Adney and William Ogilvie, both conceded that Skookum Jim made the initial discovery on Bonanza Creek and then proceded to credit the discovery to someone else.

This pattern of resolving the question as to who should be credited with the discovery has persisted to the present day. How and why Skookum Jim has been conspicuously excluded from the debate is a matter of crucial importance if his role in the history of the Territory is to be properly appreciated. Those who advocate Carmack as the real discoverer simply point to the presence of his signature on the application for discovery claim on Bonanza Creek. That his application was only made after having deceived Jim into believing that Canadian mining regulations did not permit Indians the right of discovery has not been deemed sufficient evidence, at least to the present time, to alter the argument in Jim’s favour.

Robert Henderson’s right to be called the discoverer of the Klondike is far more complex. Although Henderson never staked a claim on Bonanza Creek it was he who advised Carmack of the gold-bearing potential of the region during the summer of 1896. An examination of the affidavits taken by William Ogilvie after the discovery, however, neither confirms nor denies that Henderson’s advice was of consequence for the series of events leading up to the discovery. In fact, Carmack, Jim and Tagish Charley merely carried on as they had always done, combining fishing, logging and prospecting as part of a typical day’s fare. Another argument in Henderson’s favor [sic] is that he was the first serious prospector in the Klondike district. Ogilvie also asserts that it was Henderson’s success on Gold Bottom that attracted those miners who staked Bonanza between August 19 and August 22 (two days after Jim’s discovery) and that therefore Henderson should be credited with the discovery. The defect of this argument is that it can be extended indefinitely until it encompasses anything and everything the advocate wishes to include. It also misses the main point. Henderson never advised anyone to prospect Bonanza or Eldorado creeks. Had he believed them to be more promising than Gold Bottom he would have been on one side of them himself. And without those two creeks there would have been no gold rush.

Nevertheless, Henderson was later recognized by the Canadian government as the official discoverer of the Klondike. How much his Canadian citizenship (Carmack was an American), Carmack’s unfulfilled promise to inform Henderson of a strike should he make one, and Henderson’s failure to discover a rich claim of his own influenced this decision can only be surmised. The present writer, however, considers them to have been of paramount importance. Whether they constitute sufficient grounds for tipping an historic event in Henderson’s favour, however, is surely open to question. . . .

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