Robert Henderson's Search for Recognition

[ Bob Henderson, Discoverer of the Klondike ]

Bob Henderson, Discoverer of the Klondike, H.J. Woodside, 1903-04, NAC, PA-016522

Standard histories of the Klondike credit George Carmack, Skookum Jim, and Tagish (Dawson) Charlie with the discovery of gold at Bonanza Creek on August 17, 1896. This was the defining moment which launched the Klondike headlong into its famous gold rush. Stories differ as to which member of the prospecting party made the actual discovery but no one disputes the fact that Carmack applied for and received "Discovery Claim" on September 24,1896. Reliable sources agreed that Skookum Jim, or Keish as he was known in his Tagish language, was the person who panned the first gold and then informed his companions. Some historians contend that Jim was denied due credit because of the systemic racism existing in Canada at the time. Even Carmack, an American living a Native lifestyle, understood this and arranged with Jim to sign his name to discovery claim, thus avoiding any difficulties recording it with the authorities. Since Jim's race relegated him to a minor role, the title of discoverer of the greatest gold find in history became a contentious matter. Carmack had a poor reputation and was American so some Canadians sought a more acceptable hero.

This faction found its champion in the person of Robert Henderson, a Canadian prospector who had been working in the vicinity of Bonanza for more than a year prior to the events described above. He had searched nearby creeks such as Quartz, Australia, and Gold Bottom for the elusive mother lode. Henderson embodied characteristics most Canadians valued in their heroes. He was described as strong, honest, hard working, determined and endowed with humility and a pioneering spirit. His supporters believed he deserved acknowledgement as discoverer. Due, however, to a combination of mishaps, bad luck and bureaucratic error he was prevented from enjoying this honour. Instead, he spent the better part of thirty-seven years seeking government compensation for his lost fortune and acting as standard bearer for those who wished to place the mantle of Discoverer upon him. This, then, is the story of his quest.

Robert Henderson was born in 1857 to Scottish parents. His father served as lighthouse keeper at Big Island, Pictou County, Nova Scotia. Young Bob developed an appetite for adventure at an early age. He dreamed of finding gold, first in his home province and then in more exotic locations. Such enterprise became infinitely more appealing than his apprenticeship to a carriage maker. While his upbringing was unremarkable, he soon demonstrated what became lifelong traits of courage and willingness to assume personal risk. At the age of fourteen he left home and signed aboard a sailing ship. For a number of years he travelled to distant lands searching for gold in New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. He then returned to North America and prospected in California. On one occasion he attempted to sail to Alaska in 1876 but just missed the steamer out of Portland, Oregon. In the late 1870s he returned to Nova Scotia and married. He began a new career as a fisherman-farmer but quickly succumbed to his insatiable wanderlust. In 1880 Bob and Eliza Henderson moved to Aspen.

In 1894 Robert set out on a prospecting adventure accompanied by two other men. Henry stayed to assist Eliza and three children. The three prospectors sailed north, crossed the passes, traversed lakes and the Yukon River. By the time they reached Sixty Mile the other two men had had enough and decided to return. Henderson, characteristically, stuck it out. Henderson first met George and Kate Carmack at a trading post they managed near Five Finger Rapids. With the support of Joe Ladue, Henderson obtained his grubstake with a new partner, began searching for gold in the gravel bars of the Yukon River. He spent the next year exploring the area southeast of the current site of Dawson City, concentrating on Indian, Australia, and Quartz Creeks. Earlier prospectors had reported the region barren of gold, but Henderson was undeterred.

In the Spring of 1896, Henderson explored the region beyond the headwaters of Quartz Creek. He crossed the watershed that divided the Klondike River and Indian Creek and f o u n d promising results on Gold Bottom Creek. He returned to Sixty Mile and convinced others to return with him. By the end of July Henderson was forced to make another expedition for supplies. On the return trip he passed the Indian River. Fearing that his moose skin boat would not be able to withstand rocks exposed by the low water levels, he decided to travel up the Klondike to the mouth of Gold Bottom Creek. At the junction of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers he met Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie. He told Carmack of his find. However, he also made it evident, in a blunt fashion, that Carmack's two Indian companions were not welcome to stake a claim. This slight was compounded three weeks later when he refused to sell any food or tobacco to Jim and Charlie after they arrived at his camp. These acts of intolerance left an indelible mark on the Native prospectors, so much so that they felt no compulsion to inform this obviously prejudiced man of any gold find they discovered.

Some years later Henderson tried to defend his attitude stating that "the Indian is not a prospector." As such he felt that they did not have a place staking on the gold creeks. This view was inaccurate since Skookum Jim had prospected with Carmack and on his own prior to the big strike on Bonanza. It was a view, however, shared by a large segment of the early pioneers in Yukon. Indeed it was reflective of a greater prejudice that was held by a significant portion of Canadian society.

William Ogilvie, surveyor and Yukon Commissioner, had the good fortune to be in the territory soon after gold was discovered and perhaps more fortuitously, for history's sake, was in Carcross in 1908. On both occasions he gathered information from participants about the circumstances surrounding discovery. The Carcross experience involved all the Native members of the Carmack party who offered eyewitness accounts, which he recorded and commented upon in a long letter to his friend and Henderson champion, Henry Woodside. On the matter of Henderson's refusal to sell provisions he wrote, "Many blamed him for what was termed heartlessness, and some agreed with him. I did know him very well at the time, and thought that he was unnecessarily severe with the Indians. I had forgotten this until Jim's story brought it back to my recollection." About the justification Jim and Charlie offered for not informing Henderson of their find, Ogilvie wrote, "They did not do this partly on account of the treatment Henderson accorded the Indians, and it may be that he intended his treatment as a hint to get out, in fact, it was so considered at the time."


Much has been written about the events surrounding the epic discovery, particularly in light of the recent one-hundredth anniversary. The number of works on the growing list of gold rush publications is staggering and, although details differ from one to another, essential facts remain constant. Henderson had established himself in the region and extended an invitation to George Carmack to try his luck. Carmack, Jim and Charlie did visit Henderson at his claim on Gold Bottom, but found results there less satisfying than indications on Rabbit Creek, which they had tested en route to Henderson's camp. The group returned to this creek, soon to be known the world over as Bonanza. The secret treasure trove of the Klondike had been discovered.

Oblivious to the growing excitement and activity just over the ridge from his Gold Bottom Creek claim, Henderson continued to work his still unregistered claim, securing enough gold to pay for his winter provisions. He did not become aware of the big strike until several weeks later when he was informed by latecomers, searching for open claims on other creeks, that more than two hundred claims had been staked on Bonanza and Eldorado. He cursed Carmack when he learned the location and the discoverer. His bad luck continued as the very creek he was working, and for which he claimed discovery, was staked, named, and registered by Andrew Hunker. Henderson was told by Inspector Charles Constantine, North West Mounted Police, and acting Mining Recorder, that his discovery claim on Gold Bottom was invalid because of the preexisting Hunker claim. The two creeks were considered to be one by the mining recorder, thereby allowing only one double discovery claim to be registered, and that had been issued to Andrew Hunker. Henderson was also told that his additional claim to discovery on Bear Creek, and a regular claim on Hunker Creek were not allowable since new mining regulations allowed only one claim per mining district and, with the Carmack discovery and Hunker's, no more would be allowed. The Klondike had been declared a mining district, so Henderson had to choose which claim to keep. He chose the claim on Hunker. These events were to prove critical in Henderson's future case for compensation.

Over the next few months Henderson was beset by recurring leg infections and underwent an operation to alleviate the pain. Time was running out on the three months allowed to complete the representation work required by regulations in order to maintain rights to a claim. He had to find a means of completing these requirements or he would lose the only property he had in the Klondike. His health did not allow him to do the work and he had no funds to hire someone else. His appeal for an extension was denied by the mining recorder. He was forced to sell the Hunker claim for $3,000 to cover medical costs and other expenses. His hard luck did not stop there. With little money left, his plight became known among the miners in Dawson and a benefit was held for him. The handbills advertised the event in aid of the "Discoverer of the Klondike." With his share of the proceeds, he booked passage on a steamer to Seattle in October 1898, the first leg of a journey to rejoin his family. During the voyage, the last of his money was stolen. He became so disheartened by this last series of setbacks that, upon his arrival in Seattle, he took his Yukon Order of Pioneers badge and pinned it on Tappan Adney stating, "You keep this. I will lose it too. I am not fit to live among civilized men." Remarkably, he did not stop his quest for gold. By September 1899 he was back in the Yukon once again pursuing the big strike which had eluded him.

Early Efforts to Obtain Compensation and Recognition

Henderson had battled privation, illness, injury and, in his mind, betrayal, but he was determined to regain the Yukon fortune denied him He returned to the Klondike to appeal for compensation from territorial and federal officials. His case was not based on being first to discover gold in the Klondike but, rather, the wrongful decision of the mining recorder who denied his discovery claim on two creeks and an ordinary claim on a third. Members of the Henderson family began to seek assistance from their political representatives. Mr. A. C. Bell, Member of Parliament for Pictou, Nova Scotia, made inquiries on Henderson's behalf to the Minister of the Interior in May 1898. He asked to have all departmental records pertaining to Henderson's claims. The Honourable D. C. Fraser, MP for Guysborough, Nova Scotia also wrote the department. Deputy Minister Smart, in his reply dated June 2, 1899, stated that there were no claims on record for the year 1896. He suggested the documentation may exist in Dawson. It was apparent that Henderson would need to shift the focus of his efforts.

At the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance, Henderson was introduced to Henry J. Woodside, editor of the Yukon Sun newspaper shortly after his return to Dawson City. Immediately the two men established a friendship and, moreover, saw in the other the qualities each desperately required. To Henderson, Woodside was the powerful advocate he needed to press his case forcefully and effectively. Woodside, on the other hand, saw in Henderson the perfect story. Here was an honest, Canadian hero wronged by a rigid, bureaucratic system. With Woodside at the helm, the movement for compensation became a formidable political force. Woodside had useful connections in Dawson and Ottawa, exhibited a creative lobbying skill and, above all, was personally sympathetic to Henderson's case. He was fully aware that a sizable portion of the Canadian mining community felt the same way. The symbiosis was quickly recognized and embraced.

Woodside was born and educated in Ontario, moved to Manitoba at twenty-two to start a series of enterprises including a jewellery business, newspaper, and a general insurance agency. In addition to these activities he maintained a lifelong relationship with the militia, serving in the military during the North West Rebellion, taking part in the South African War and being wounded during the First World War. His newspaper and military acumen aided him in securing a position as photographer and correspondent with the Toronto Globe. He came to the Yukon Territory when he was hired to cover the journey of the Yukon Field Force to the Klondike gold fields. He was a tall, robust, athletic man and admired these traits in others. Undoubtedly he saw in Henderson a reflection of his own adventurous spirit and that of his own father who had hunted for gold in British Columbia's Caribou District. Woodside and Henderson shared other traits; they were only a year apart in age, and shared a love of the land. Their partnership marks a perfect match of skills and personality.

With the publication in 1900 of Tappan Adney's book, The Klondike Stampede, the author made the first public appeal to the Canadian government arguing to federal authorities that they should acknowledge the hardship and misfortune endured by Robert Henderson. Adney went further in recognizing Henderson‘s efforts as "the direct cause and means of that discovery being made." He argued that "surely it would be a graceful act for him [the Minister of the Interior] yet to do something for this man, who scorns to be a beggar and to whom the offer of a pension would be an insult as long as he can tramp and dig and look. Canada owes no less to Henderson than California to Marshall, the discoverer of gold at Sutter's Mill."

Compensation became the focal point of a well-orchestrated public campaign launched by Woodside. Over the course of the Fall and Winter of 1900-01, Henderson and Woodside met frequently, the latter gathering facts for a barrage of newspaper and magazine articles he would soon launch. The goal was clear enough but Woodside's motivation was less transparent. He always maintained that his actions were altruistic, his goals were to see justice done and history corrected. He stated, some years later, that the only money he received from Henderson was a total of $175 which was to cover expenses incurred during the "recognition" campaign." Henderson was never a wealthy man. Indeed Woodside hired him as a temporary census worker and, on another occasion, arranged a grubstake for a prospecting trip." However, the potential settlement involving hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, could not have been ignored by Woodside. Perhaps this possibility moved him to suggest and obtain power of attorney for Henderson in April 1901. It was also a consideration that took on greater importance when Woodside was forced to resign as editor of The Sun in early February 1901. Subsequently, he hurled himself into the campaign in part to occupy his time, out of genuine interest and, undoubtedly, with a thought to some share of a compensation settlement as reward for his own efforts.

Woodside campaigned vigorously. He sent letters to Governor General Lord Minto, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton and other prominent politicians outlining the nature of Henderson' s case. With the help of Commissioner William Ogilvie the facts of Henderson's case were put before Clifford Sifton. In his letter he described the circumstances surrounding discovery and characterized Henderson as "the first white man to make any extensive and methodical prospecting on the waters of the Indian River and the Klondike.” He wrote a lengthy article entitled "The Discoverer of the Klondike," in part to support the claim for compensation but also to counteract the growing backlash led by American west coast newspapers. These papers rallied to give credit to their own champion, George Carmack, the Klondike's true discoverer, in their opinion. Other tactics employed by Woodside included circulating a petition supporting Henderson, signed by twenty prominent citizens of Dawson, including William Ogilvie, Yukon Commissioner, Big Alex McDonald, Hon. J.H. Ross, Ogilvie's successor as Commissioner and, later, Member of Parliament for Yukon. He also collected a dozen affidavits from individuals who were in the Klondike when discovery occurred. These proved to be effective weapons when coupled with the "systematic agitation" strategy Woodside employed.

One dimension of the propaganda message issued by Woodside was his strong desire to strengthen Canadian control over the Yukon Territory. One must remember that he came to the territory in the company of a military unit deployed by the Canadian government fearing for the integrity of a part of the country populated by 80 percent American nationals. The very real battle of competing nationalism was demonstrated by the jousting over the symbolic trophy of "discovery." Regardless of who found the gold first it remained on the Canadian side of the boundary. However, Woodside fervently believed that by crediting a Canadian, national morale would receive a much needed boost and strengthen the resolve to protect Canada's claim to the Yukon Territory. As the Alaska Boundary judgement would soon prove, there was strong reason to suspect American territorial ambitions. One need only to read the examples of prevailing jingoism in many American papers to sense the rising aggression among United States citizens. For example, the New York Sun published an editorial in 1897, shortly after news of the Klondike find circulated and after confirmation that the gold lay on the Canadian side of the boundary. The editors decried Canadian royalties levied on Klondike gold claiming that such action was an organized plundering of American miners, exacerbated by the support of a European monarchy. The editorial went on to propose annexation of Canada arguing that "it is as manifest as destiny that when the United States really wants Canada, Canada will belong to the United States."

Despite the best efforts of Henry Woodside and the support of William Ogilvie, Commissioner of the Yukon Territory, the Department of the Interior did not stray from its original position on the compensation question. P.G. Keyes, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, wrote to Woodside in July 1901, explaining that "no departure can be made from the decision already arrived at in connection with this matter. "In an earlier reply to a letter from Commissioner Ogilvie, Keyes stated explicitly his reasons why no variance from the original ruling was possible and why compensation was impossible:
I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 26th March last, File 2348, submitting an application for four placer mining claims in compensation for the loss alleged to have been sustained by him owing to his not having received sufficient benefit from the discovery made by him of gold in the Klondike and Indian River Districts. In reply I am to inform you that careful consideration has been given to the representations made in your communication but it would not appear that Mr. Henderson has any claim whatever for compensation on account of his alleged loss. There is nothing in his application or in your report to indicate that the insufficient benefit which Mr. Henderson claims to have obtained from his discovery was due to an error made by an officer of the Department. Any loss which may have been sustained would appear to have been the direct result of neglect on the part of the applicant, and should compensation be granted in this case, it would open a very wide door to applications of a similar nature from others.

The following spring Woodside left the Yukon for Halifax to join the Second Canadian Mounted Rifles leaving for the South African War. His departure left Henderson alone with his fight but with little hope for a satisfactory conclusion of the compensation battle. The Dominion government seemed firmly entrenched in its position, unwilling to budge. The lack of results had caused Henderson to question the whole enterprise. Now, without Woodside to assure him, he became depressed about the outcome. Just as hope waned, Keyes wrote to Yukon Commissioner, J.H. Ross, stating that a review of the evidence revealed that the original mining recorder's ruling was incorrect and proposed that, "Mr. Henderson should be granted consideration in accordance with the regulations in force at the time he staked and recorded. Please advise this Department of the consideration you think should be granted Mr. Henderson for the loss alleged to have been sustained by him." This was an unexpected and surprising reversal.

What caused this sudden change in the bureaucratic mindset? A subsequent letter from Keyes to Hon. D.C. Fraser, who had continued to lobby Ottawa on Henderson’s behalf, explained the turnabout. He described the decision to grant Henderson his claim based on the regulations in force at the time he staked and attempted to record. The government conceded that he was entitled to the other claims he gave up when forced, by Constantine, to choose. Undoubtedly the weight of public pressure and political lobbying swayed those departmental officials empowered to overturn decisions. It appeared victory was at hand, but the victory soon proved hollow. Henderson was granted 2,000 feet of "available placer mining ground” which, in reality, meant land either rejected or neglected by other prospectors or mined out of its most profitable holdings. By 1902 much of the Klondike had been systematically mined by hand. Hydraulic mining supplanted the earlier labour-intensive methods. The era of dredging was just beginning. As a result, the likelihood of rich, untouched ground was remote. There were some properties that had reverted to the government, but information relating to these was held in a secret file to which Henderson was denied access. All other open-ground was rejected as of no value. Through the Spring of 1903 Henderson presented several different proposals for property he might claim. By July of that year the Gold Commissioner had received ten applications from Henderson.

Despite his persistent efforts, Henderson was unable to secure open ground as prescribed by the Order-in-Council. In time his frustration grew and he decided to take his case directly to Ottawa, to make a personal appeal to the government. His resolve may have been bolstered or orchestrated by Woodside, who had returned to Dawson City after his military service. Indeed, in a letter to his own wife, Woodside described the thirty-one letters of introduction he had prepared for Henderson to be given to "Lord Minto, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and newspaper men." He managed to gain free transportation on the Canadian Pacific Railway from Vancouver to Ottawa through his contact with Vice President Whyte in Winnipeg. Woodside even advanced his client $275, of which $150 he had borrowed. The results of this personal lobby failed to move the departmental officials who slipped back into their familiar position that nothing more could be done unless so directed by Parliament. Additional lobbying by Hon. James Ross, former Yukon Commissioner and Member of Parliament for the Territory led to a suggestion of a $25,000 cash settlement. The underlying threat he made was that a court challenge could result in a much larger settlement. The Minister took notice and authorized a counter proposal of a post as a government assistant to the mining engineer at Dawson with a salary of $200 per month. Ironically, this small concession, offering one of the lowest paid positions in the territorial public service, did result in payment of approximately $70,000 as Henderson continued to occupy the post for twenty-nine years. He did attempt to earn his salary by aiding members of the Geological Survey of Canada in their field work and by conducting expeditions into the Pelly region and elsewhere. At least the steady income allowed him to bring his wife and three children with him in 1904.

Henderson had wrestled several hard-earned concessions from the government, but he and his supporters still believed that the compensation fell far short of what he deserved. Additional appeals to various officials failed to result in further gains. By the Spring of 1906 Woodside hardened his demands and suggested raising the stakes. The first new demand asked for the $200 per month salary to be guaranteed for life and then passed to his wife for the remainder of her life. Henderson was free to continue to prospect and stake mining claims as an ordinary citizen. The latter point had become contentious since, as a civil servant, in title at least, he was prevented from registering claims. The department conceded the latter demand but did not formally agree to the first. In 1907 Henderson applied for 2,000 feet of a hydraulic mining location within Lease Number 1 of the Klondike Government Concession, otherwise known as the Anderson Concession. Other claims had been received for this same property and the status of the land was under legal review. As such, Henderson’s request for this claim was deferred by the Gold Commissioner's Office. This further setback incensed Woodside, who fired off a blunt letter to W.W. Cory, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, threatening legal action if a suitable resolution to the compensation issue was not reached immediately. He cited examples of other gold rushes where governments were required to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements. In calculating the loss to Mr. Henderson, he estimated the gold mined from the Hunker claim at more than $450,000. The stakes were now being raised.

The increased intensity of negotiations between Henderson and the government coincided with Woodside's arrival in Ottawa, who moved there to establish himself as manager of the Imperial Guarantee and Accident Company. He was strategically positioned to launch assaults on cabinet ministers, members of parliament and government officials, which he did with vigour and relish. He coordinated his strategy with long-time ally James Ross, now a member of the Senate. In a letter to Ross written on November 7, 1907 Woodside described a recent meeting with the Hon. Frank Oliver. He relayed his charge that the department had failed to handle the Henderson case properly, noting that the grant of 2,000 feet of unoccupied government land "had been worthless." He told Oliver that he had battled the government for seven years and was prepared to fight that much again to secure a fair settlement. He revealed his plan to publish a pamphlet outlining the facts of the case, then distribute it to all members of parliaments throughout the British Empire. This proved to be no idle threat. In 1908 he circulated just such a pamphlet. Although the intensified campaign failed to achieve the main objectives, the indirect results included a more attentive Gold Commissioner who regularly notified Henderson of properties now available for staking. Indeed, over the next nine years at least thirteen different letters were sent to Henderson describing recently opened claims. None of these was accepted.

By 1922 Interior officials in Dawson began to question the utility of having a sixty-five-year-old man on the staff of the Mining Engineer's Office. O.S. Finnie wrote to Ottawa encouraging that office to offer retirement to Henderson. Since the unique relationship established by the Privy Council to the "discoverer" was not fully defined, the minister hesitated to provoke any further controversy. Thus, Henderson remained on strength. In 1923, however, after pressure was exerted by members of the local community, Henderson applied for leave to go "outside," ostensibly to receive medical treatment. He had not been out of the Territory since 1904. After a time the request was approved and Henderson left for Vancouver Island. He sought the aid of George Black, Yukon M.P., to intercede on his behalf and appealed to remain in British Columbia for health reasons.

Woodhouse kept apprised of Henderson’s activities up to his own death in 1929. He never lost hope that some form of official recognition and financial compensation for Henderson would result from all of his agitation. In 1928 he led the fight to refute letters to the editor written by J.J. Walsh, a staunch defender of Carmack. The controversy emerged as a result of several anniversary events celebrating discovery as well as the fact-finding activities of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board. The Vancouver Province published a series of articles and personal letters exchanged between these two men are a study in myth bashing and character assassination. After the points of history were challenged and rebuked by each side the tenor of their exchange took on a level of vitriol normally exhibited by warring nations. In their minds they were fighting for true, historical accuracy and competing nationalisms. There was no quarter asked. The result of this public debate was increased confusion among most readers. Defenders of Carmack and Henderson rushed to support their respective heroes, others added the name of Skookum Jim to the list of contenders for the title of Discoverer. No clear winner emerged.

The Historians and Henderson

Historians have debated the placement of Robert Henderson among the legendary figures of the Klondike Gold Rush. To some he was the true discoverer, others declared him a sad failure, still others believed he was only one in a series of early prospectors. The foremost chronicler of discovery and its aftermath, Tappan Adney, gave full credit to Henderson. Adney expressed great admiration and sympathy for Henderson, both in his book, The Klondike Stampede, and his private correspondence with Henderson. He suggested that Carmack would still be fishing had it not been for the guidance of the true discoverer. William Ogilvie, Klondike surveyor, and Yukon Commissioner, placed the mantle of "discoverer" on Henderson in his own book Early Days on the Yukon (1913). These first-hand accounts were supported by later writers such as the popular historian Pierre Berton. Over the years since the gold rush, many other experts have refuted Henderson’s claim to be named discoverer. Michael Gates has written that Henderson, "does not deserve the credit for the first discovery of gold on either the Klondike River or on Indian River." He cites a number of other men who found gold in the area years before 1896. Most Henderson critics treat him as a minor figure who, due to racist remarks, missed an opportunity at a fortune on Bonanza Creek.

Public Historians and Henderson

The most interesting historiographical debates took place among the public historians who worked for the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board. Members of this body, created in 1919, have been entrusted with the responsibility of interpreting, commemorating, and preserving sites with national historical significance. The process of choosing the correct words to cast into bronze often generates controversy. Such was the case of the Board efforts to compose the plaque text interpreting the facts of the Klondike discovery. Five plaques have been commissioned over the past seventy years to recognize discovery claim and the discoverers of Klondike gold. Several of these efforts set off a firestorm of controversy. To their credit, Board members and, later, Parks Canada historians, have provided a rich supply of documentation illuminating the conflicting views. A profusion of official minutes, correspondence, agenda papers and draft plaque texts began with one seemingly innocent question in 1925.

In the winter of 1925, Judge F.W. Howay, Historic Sites and Monuments Board member wrote to the Board Chairman, J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of the National Parks Branch. He proposed a plaque to mark the discovery of gold in the Klondike. Harkin admitted his ignorance of the details and asked Howay to gather evidence to support any Board decision." Despite the nearly thirty years which had passed since the event, it became apparent that opinions and emotions still had not diminished among the surviving participants, witnesses and supporters. In short order, Howay assessed the quandary the Board faced, stating that "whatever steps we make and whatever decision we arrive at we are certainly going to be criticized and to have fault found with our decision." As a precaution, the Board decided to launch a fact-finding mission which included a survey of existing literature and an appeal in west coast newspapers calling for eyewitnesses to submit evidence, "bearing on the discovery, especially with a view to determining to whom the credit should be given." It was this call for information that sparked the renewed and vigorous debate in Vancouver and Seattle newspapers. Much of the evidence which came forward showed the influence of Woodside for Henderson and J.J. Walsh for Carmack, although other original participants in the gold rush voiced their opinions. Copies of the documentation outlining the compensation awarded Henderson proved compelling evidence, but equally strong arguments were put forward by Mrs. Margarite Carmack, widow of the other main contender, which included a resolution of the Seattle Lodge Number 2, Yukon Order of Pioneers, passed on August 1,1921. The membership declared George Carmack the man who, "found the combination to the lock on Canada's refrigerator." Indeed, Howay conceded, school children in Dawson celebrated Discovery Day on August 17, the date of the Bonanza claim. Howay swayed back and forth between these positions as each new argument arrived in the mail. In the end, he explained to Harkin his quandary about what to propose as a draft inscription:
I have as you know been looking into this matter for the past year or so; and the more I look into it the more I fear to undertake the effort.The first thing we really have to settle is what we mean exactly by the "discovery of gold in the Yukon." If we take the words literally, we must go back to the days of the sixties. Of course that is not the sense in which they are used. But when we get down to the days preceding thegreat gold rush, we must decide whether we mean by "discovery"merely the actual first finding and promulgation of the knowledge to the world. As I understand the two sides in the question it is at this point that the struggle between Robert Henderson and George Washingon Carmack begins. And we have these two claimants and their supporters.

Howay resolved to go slow before rendering any decision.

As the debate intensified, it became more apparent that the Board was facing an unsolvable problem. Howay finally struck upon a compromise that would have made Mackenzie King proud. He split the credit and thus avoided alienating any one side. The original concept was refined through several drafts and resulted in the final text, which was adopted on May 17,1929. It read as follows:
Yukon Gold Discovery
To the memory of the indomitable prospectors and miners who, braving extreme dangers and untold hardships crossed the Chilkat and Chilkoot [sic] passes into the unexplored valley of the Yukon, and thus paved the way for the discovery in 1896 of the rich gold fields with which the names of Robert Henderson and George W. Carmack are inseparably associated.

The Board gave Henderson first mention because, as they conceded, he was entitled to more credit for discovery. After a four-year struggle the text had now been written, but it was another two years before the plaque was mounted in front of the Administration Building in Dawson. Robert Henderson died in 1933. He had been predeceased by Henry Woodside in 1929. He had always been more concerned with the compensation that he felt was owed to him by the federal government and that he never received. Woodside was more interested in gaining status for Henderson as the discoverer of gold. With their passing and the conclusion of the plaque debate, a period of relative tranquillity followed until 1959. At that time the federal government and local citizens were eager to raise the profile of Dawson. It was a growing tourist destination and officials within the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources felt that greater emphasis of the links to the past would help boost tourism raising it as an important economic resource. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board was asked to mark the site of the original gold discovery with an appropriate plaque. Eager to avoid re-opening the controversy, the Board adopted a more inclusive approach. The text read, in part: "Tipped off by veteran prospector Bob Henderson, George Carmack and his fishing partners, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, searched the creek gravels of this area. On August 14, 1896, they found gold and staked the first four claims." In his speech at the unveiling ceremony, the Honourable Walter Dinsdale, Minister of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources, summarized events leading up to discovery on Bonanza Creek He was careful to avoid choosing Carmack or Henderson and instead dedicated the cairn and plaque to the memory of all prospectors who "blazed trails into the farthest reaches of our mineral rich nation."

While the new plaque failed to ignite the passion of the old debate, it did serve as the starting point for several new controversies. The Board asked for a paper to be prepared in advance of the seventy-fifth anniversary. Gordon Bennett, Parks Canada historian, made an observation in his Agenda Paper of 1971 that shattered the previous notions of discovery. He dispelled the debate over Henderson-Carmack by stating that Skookum Jim was the "real discoverer." In his view the gold rush began as a result of the initial discovery on Bonanza Creek. Jim was acknowledged by both Tappan Adney and William Ogilvie as discoverer on Bonanza, but they then gave Klondike credit to Henderson. The supporters of Carmack conveniently overlooked the fact that Jim panned the first gold from Bonanza in making their case. The issue of race was deemed the primary reason for his relegation to the background. This position was not entirely new. Several individuals had put forward Skookum Jim as true discoverer but these efforts were dismissed, undoubtedly as a result of the fact that Jim was a Native person.

“This, of course, is erroneous, as gold was discovered in the Territory many years before Henderson even heard of it, and likely before he was born. It is true Henderson is officially recognized as the actual discoverer of gold in the Klondike and, no doubt, technically he is. Nevertheless, the Big Discovery, on Bonanza Creek that electrified the world and resulted in one of the greatest stampedes in history and in the formation of the present Yukon Territory, was made by Messrs. Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie. From my personal knowledge of the question and the parties concerned, if any credit is due anyone, I believe it is to Skookum Jim."

The Board, after analysing the Bennett recommendations, approved he review and revision of the Discovery Claim inscription. The new, bilingual text was approved by the Honourable Jean Chretien, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. It read, in part:
The names Robert Henderson, Skookum Jim, Tagish Charlie, and George Carmack are inextricably linked to the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek. Henderson was the first to systematically explore the gold bearing potential of the region, only to have the major find elude him. Then on 17 August 1896 Jim struck gold, and with Charlie and Carmack staked the first claims. The revised plaque managed to raise the profile of Skookum Jim while, ironically, giving more prominence to Henderson.

On April 17, 1972, the Edmonton Journal carried a front page story with a blazing red headline that stated, "Ottawa Accused of Re-Writing Klondike History." The article, by Steve Hume, Whitehorse reporter, discussed the proposed Discovery Claim plaque. The newsworthy aspects of the story were the facts that the plaque would contain French text and the text itself would "give all the credit for discovery... to Skookum Jim." The controversy intensified when one unnamed federal official in Whitehorse objected to the proposed changes since they contradicted the Henderson interpretation and said, "I don't see why there's any question of reinterpreting the facts." Former minister Walter Dinsdale used the article to question the current minister, Jean Chretien, in the House of Commons: "Has the minister rewritten the history of the gold rush on the Klondike, and is the new interpretation of the history to be placed on a new plaque substituted for the original plaque at the discovery site on Bonanza Creek?"

The Speaker ruled the question out of order and no reply was recorded. Opposition to the proposed plaque continued to spread including other members of the public history fraternity. Yukon Historic Sites and Monuments Board members challenged the federal board findings. The Parks Canada Western Regional Director took exception to Bennett's report and its finding that Jim deserved sole credit for discovery. He found it to be based on "insufficient research." He forwarded articles supporting Henderson as discoverer. Others took up the cudgel against those claiming sole credit for Skookum Jim including Pierre Berton, Ione Christensen, Vice Chair of the Yukon Historic Sites and Monuments Board. Lewis Thomas, member of the federal Historic Sites and Monuments Board, attempted to answer the critics, but the damage was done. Despite being approved by the Board and the Minister, the plaque was withdrawn and eventually destroyed in 1992. This text was finally mounted on the Discovery Claim.

The next round of debate over discovery began in 1994 with the tabling of a Board Paper, entitled "Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie (Keish and Kaa Goox).” Written by Historic Sites and Monuments Board Historian Hilary Russell this document raised the intensity of debate to the boiling point. She expanded on the research done by colleague Gordon Bennett reinforcing the pre-eminent role of Skookum Jim. At the same time Russell produced an uncompromising condemnation of previous Board actions in the Klondike. The omission of Jim and Charlie was termed "quite disgraceful," past Board decisions were "Eurocentric," Henderson's nature was governed by "unapologetic racism." New sources based on Native oral history and anthropological work cast the characters in a different light. Russell recommended commemoration of Skookum Jim and possibly commemoration of Dawson Charlie based on their efforts significantly altering the history of Yukon and Canada. It was not just gold but Jim's physical strength and strength of character that warranted this honour. But it was critical that the nature of the significance be based on a Native rather than white perspective. The plaque was proposed and text was tentatively approved in 1996. The plaque, which is to be erected in Carcross, Skookum Jim's home, outlined his clan affiliation, his discovery of gold, other exploits, spiritualism, and sense of community. The plaque will be unveiled once community input has been finalized.

Today, a survey of Parks Canada Internet Website offers a curious blending of the many texts issued for the sites in the region. Robert Henderson is described in Ogilvie's terms as the first individual to systematically prospect and undertake operations on some of the Klondike Creeks. The entry for Discovery Claim states that Henderson "tipped off" the others, Skookum Jim receives credit for the Discovery Claim find, and Carmack registered the Discovery Claim. In spite of the debate over discovery Henderson has managed to maintain his goal, or more accurately Woodside's goal of recognition albeit in an infamous manner. One assumes that Henderson would have preferred cash.


Henderson was thrust into the public spotlight against his will. His natural tendency was to seek anonymity but his image was the price exacted by Woodside for managing his claims battle with government. He won the battle when the federal government conceded that the claims were improperly denied him during the early days of the Klondike gold rush. However, he was never able to achieve a settlement close to the value of the gold he lost. Woodside made his story into a symbol in the nationalist war being waged in the Yukon Territory: Henderson, the Canadian "everyman," versus Carmack, embodying the worst of the American character. This subtext to the discovery controversy was an important feature of the event. Much later it was replaced by the debate over the role of race in the ultimate decision as to who would receive credit for discovery. All of these issues are clearly described in the archival legacy and still make interesting reading more than one hundred years after the event. The greater questions about race relations remain to be answered.

Source: Doug Whyte, "New Perspectives on the Klondike: Robert Henderson and His Search For Recognition As Discoverer of Klondike Gold," The Northern Review 19 (1998): 181-203

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