The Real Discoverer of Gold in the Klondike

By Mrs. William Campbell Lowden

Many people in all countries are laboring under the impression that George Carmack was the discoverer of gold in the Klondike district, but such is not the case. The name of the real discoverer of gold in that district is Mr. Robert Douglas Henderson, commonly known as Bob Henderson. Mr. Henderson is a typical Western prospector, keen, intelligent and energetic. He is one of the best known and most popular men in Dawson City. This famous discoverer of gold in the world-renowned placer fields of the Klondike was born in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, 1857. During his childhood and school days he read Alaskan history with more eagerness than any other study, and never failed to read all books and articles on the North that he could obtain, which developed in him an early ambition to be a prospector.

Mr. Henderson was brought up as a fisherman, and from his home on Big Island, when a lad, he took many trips along the coast of Nova Scotia, usually alone, and from his earliest recollection he was always looking for gold; but the nearest he ever came to finding it was in the form of white iron. This he would show to his chum, a lad no older than himself who would always console him by saying:
"Well. it's a kind of gold."

But a "kind of gold" did not suit Bob, and at the age of fourteen this enterprising youth started out for himself and spent a number of years in the New England states. From there he went to Portland, Oregon, with the intention of going to Alaska, but missed the steamship Alaska, which was at that time the only steamer on the run from the States to Sitka and Juneau. While waiting for the steamer to return he fell in with a California miner, Jim Fielding, and was persuaded to go to Patagonia for mining purposes; but, failing to get to his destination, he returned to his home in Nova Scotia.

In 1880 he went West again and worked in the Colorado mines for fourteen years, and in 1894 again decided to go North. He was landed at Dyea in April, 1894, and packed his outfit over the Chilcoot summit to Lake Linderman, where he arrived about the first of June with his last relay. He camped at this place, whipsawed some lumber and built a boat, then went floating down the Yukon as far as the Pelly River. He prospected for a while on the bars of the Pelly, panning out fifty-four dollars. Had his supply of provisions been sufficient, he would have spent the winter prospecting on this river, but they were running low and not being able to obtain more until he reached Sixtymile, a distance of one hundred and thirty miles from the Pelly, he was obliged to go to that place for a fresh supply.

He purchased a small outfit from Joe Ladue at the Sixtymile Post, and from here he and a man by the name of Jack Conlins drifted down the Yukon to Indian River. Poling up this river, they stopped and prospected on the different bars, finding gold in every pan. The gold was very fine and not enough to justify them in remaining there. They journeyed on up the Indian River for forty-five miles to a creek called Quartz Creek, but at that time the name of the creek was not known. At the head of this unknown creek they found ten cents to the pan.

They decided this would be a good place to spend the winter, and on the first of October started back to Sixtymile for their winter's outfit. The ice overtook them and they were obliged to abandon their boat and travel over the hills afoot. They saw the rough side of life in many ways on this trip, sometimes camping under trees for shelter and many times out in the open with no shelter, but by perseverance they managed to find themselves one day on the shore opposite Sixtymile Post, and a boat was sent across to them.

After resting a few days Mr. Henderson purchased his winter supply of provisions and made ready to start back to Quartz Creek. The river was throwing a large quantity of slush ice, and Mr. Ladue tried to persuade him to wait till the freeze-up. Being used to the ice, however, Mr. Henderson was not afraid to undertake the trip; but as Jack Conlins had grown tired of roughing it and remained at the post, he was compelled to go alone.

By hard work he managed to get to the mouth of Indian River and landed on the shore in safety, but the weather moderated and he was obliged to camp there until it turned cold enough to freeze the water in Indian River, and on that account he was thirty days getting back to Quartz Creek.

He prospected during the winter of 1894-1895 on the lower part of Quartz until February, then he went farther up Indian River to Australia Creek. On this creek he found fine gold everywhere he panned, but he was looking for something better and felt in his own mind that he would surely find it. Leaving Australia, he traveled on up Indian River until he came to Wounded Moose Creek. On this trip he encountered many hardships and misfortunes. The weather was cold and the snow was very deep, and he was sixty-four days hauling his outfit from Quartz to Wounded Moose.

From his camp on Wounded Moose he made seven trips to the summit to see if he could find a way to take his goods down in one of the valleys on the Klondike slope, but while traveling over the mountains, with the bright sun shining on the white snow, he became snow-blind and had to give up the trip.

He stayed in camp until his eyes were better; then he returned down stream. On his way his outfit got wet from the soft snow, which spoiled all the sugar he had. He made camp and spread his goods out to dry.

While here a band of caribou came along, and, seeing the red blankets, which were also spread out to dry, their curiosity got the better of them and they came nearer to investigate the bright color, and Mr. Henderson being hungry for fresh meat thought this a good opportunity to replenish his cache. Picking up his gun, he fired a shot, which struck one caribou, killing him; then the bullet glanced to one side and killed a second.

While dressing the animals it dawned on him that he could make a boat from their hides to convey his outfit down on the water which was running over the ice in the river, coming from the snow melting on the hillsides. The boat was too small to carry himself and outfit, so he loaded it with his goods, wading through the icy water and letting the boat drift ahead of him while he hung onto the rope, also made of caribou hide. Many places the water was very swift and occasionally he was unable to stop the boat and would be pulled into a deep hole in the ice and was obliged to swim.

From Wounded Moose to Indian River is only a very short distance, as the junction of Wounded Moose, Australia and Dominion Creeks forms the said river; but he was three days reaching Indian River, for he could travel only a short distance in the icy water when his legs would cramp and he would be compelled to get out, make a fire and dry his clothes. In many places he would have to clear the brush and trees out of the water in order to let his boat pass through without being snagged, which was another reason for it taking him so long to go such a short distance.

However, he managed to reach Indian River, only to meet with another misfortune, which almost ended his career. Just above the mouth of Australia he felled a large spruce tree across the creek to make a foot-log, on which to cross in order to go up the stream to do some panning. He had already found a prospect on this creek, but was still anxious to find something better.

The river ice had broken that morning and ice and water were running a regular torrent, and on a foot-log was his only way of crossing to the other side. After felling the tree, he took the axe and started limbing it, steadying himself with a pole in his left hand, which reached to the bottom of the creek. When he was about half way across the pole broke, and throwing himself back in order to keep from plunging head-first into the rushing water, he slipped and, falling backwards, struck one of the sharply cut limbs, sending it through the calf of his leg.

As he hung there, head downward, he thought it was all up with him. Then he became desperate and determined to get himself out. Fortunately, he still held the axe and after a hard struggle he succeeded in hooking it over a limb and by holding himself up in that way he was able to unfasten his leg and get back upon the tree.

After limping back to his tent he treated the wound as best he could by bathing it in ice cold water about every hour and keeping sliced pork bound on between times, which drew out the inflammation.

He was in this camp from the sixth to the twenty-second of May, and during his sojourn at this place moose, caribou and bear traversed the woods by the hundreds; wolves were plentiful, too; he could hear them howling around in his neighborhood every night, but there was plenty of game and the wolves were not hungry and he was not molested by them.

When he was able to hobble about he killed a couple of moose. His caribou skin boat was snagged and he must needs make another, so the moose hides were used for that purpose.

As soon as he was able to travel, although the wound in his leg was far from being well, he returned to Quartz Creek, where he prospected for two weeks longer; but as his leg kept bothering him he set out for Sixtymile Post, in his moosehide canoe, to get it attended. There was not much medical skill at Sixtymile, so after resting a couple of weeks he bought an outfit and made ready to start again; but when he carried the first load of provisions down to where his boat had been moored, he found that the dogs had eaten his moose hide and he was obliged to buy another boat.

He returned to Quartz, spending the remainder of the summer in his work of prospecting. In the early fall another trip had to be made to Sixtymile Post for more supplies, and that winter, the winter of 1895-1896, he spent again prospecting on Quartz, burning holes to bedrock and drifting tunnels in search of the pay-streak. During that time he panned out six hundred and twenty dollars in gold.

Yet Mr. Henderson was not satisfied, for he felt sure there was something better close at hand, and in the spring of 1896 he made another trip to the head of Australia Creek. Finding very little gold, he returned to his camp on Quartz Creek, and crossed over the summit to a creek he called Gold Bottom, which bears that name to this day.

On this creek he found fair prospects on the surface. Twice he panned fifty pans and weighed the gold, and it averaged two cents to the pan. He at once decided to spend the summer working here and returned to his camp to get his outfit. When he reached there he found eighteen men, who had come down the Yukon River to Sixtymile that spring, and Joe Ladue had sent them up to him to see what he might have in the way of pay dirt.

He told them of his prospect on Gold Bottom Creek, also told them if they wanted to go over and work with him during the summer in the fall they would divide up the gold equally between them. They could also have the privilege of staking on the creek anywhere they might see fit.

This proposition was agreed to by all, and they started in good faith, with their packs on their backs, over the mountains. But very soon some of them became tired and thought it too hard work, and by ones and twos they began to drop out and go back down the river, until all had left Mr. Henderson except three, who stayed with him through the summer.

While resting on the summit, Henderson, as usual, was looking over country, and he thought Rabbit Creek a good-looking creek, and would have gone down there instead of back to Gold Bottom only for the proposition he had made with the other men; but Mr. Henderson's word was as good as his note and he went on to Gold Bottom.

However, during the summer he left the men working and, with a small pack crossed over the summit on the right limit of Gold Bottom Creek and, coming to a creek which he named Gold Run, did some prospecting. Here he found five to thirty-five cents before he got to bed-rock.

That was the best he had found yet. He went back and told the other men but they all decided as they had such a good start with their work they would finish out the summer where they were.

By this time their food supply was running short, and as Mr. Henderson knew the country so well it fell to his lot to go for more. Going by the way of Quartz Creek to Indian River, where his had been left, he floated down to the Yukon and then poled up to Sixtymile Post. He took only a small quantity, enough to last them until the cold nights would compel them to suspend sluicing that season, and started on his way back to camp. The water was too low to pole up Indian River, so he went down to the Klondike River, that being a larger stream which always contained plenty of water. Going by the way of the Klondike he would not have as far to pack the provisions as if he had gone back by the way of Quartz.

When he arrived at the mouth of Klondike he found George Carmack with his Indian wife and family, and a number of other Indians, camped where Klondike City now stands, on their annual salmon fishing trip.

Mr. Henderson took Carmack aside, and told him of the pay he had found and invited him to come over and stake. Carmack said he would come at once if he could get the Indians to tend his nets.

Mr. Henderson went on with his load, poling up the river in places and lining up where the water was too swift for him to pole against it, to the mouth of his Gold Run Creek. He made a cache and left the provisions that he could not carry in one pack, taking two days to make the trip. At four o'clock in the morning he arrived at Discovery Camp on Gold Bottom to find that Carmack and his wife and two Indians had arrived the previous evening by traveling up Rabbit Creek and across the hills, thus making a shorter route.

Carmack and the two Indians staked and when they were ready to start back Henderson said:
"Carmack, I have been intending to do some prospecting on Rabbit Creek this winter, but you might do some panning on your way back, and if you find anything send one of the Indians back and let me know, and I will pay him for coming."

Carmack said he would and went his way, but when noon came and they stopped for their lunch Carmack lay down to have a nap, forgetting all about the prospecting, and the Indian wife, in wandering about, found a bit of bed-rock cropping out and taking a pan of the dirt went to the creek and, after washing it out, found that she had four dollars and twenty-five cents.

About three weeks later there came eight men from over the hills, with packs on their backs. When they arrived, Mr. Henderson said:
"Hello, boys, where did you hail from?"
"From Bonanza Creek," was the reply. "Bonanza Creek?" repeated Mr. Henderson.
That puzzled him. He had never heard of a creek by that name and he had been the only man in these parts for two years. Finally he asked : "Where is Bonanza Creek?"
"Just over the hills about ten miles," answered one of the men, pointing in the direction with his finger.
"Oh, that is Rabbit Creek."
"The people over there call it Bonanza Creek."
"Have they found anything over there ?"
"Found anything! Well, I should say so! They have got the richest creek there that was ever heard of!"
"Who found it?"
"George Carmack."
"The traitor!"

Mr. Henderson dropped his pick and seating himself on the ground, with his head resting in his hands, some very serious thoughts flew through his mind. To use his own expression, "I felt I should like to have Carmack by the neck."

Then he asked : "Have there been many claims staked over there?" "Yes, the whole creek is staked from one end to the other," came the answer.

The eight men did not seem to like Gold Bottom Creek and went back over the hills from whence they came, and Mr. Henderson and his comrades continued their work.

A few days later, at noon, two men came into camp from downstream. One of them was Andy Hunker, the other a man by the name of Johnson, British Columbia miners.

They said they were looking for Henderson, but had missed the camp and crossed over the hills to another creek, where they found a high rim of bedrock and had panned out twenty-two and fifty cents in coarse gold.

"Yes," said Henderson, "I have been over there and found gold and staked discovery claim. Did you see my stakes? I have been calling that creek Gold Run."

Yes, Hunker had seen the stakes and he, too, had staked and wanted the privilege of naming the creek. Well, to make a long story short, it ended by them tossing up a half-dollar to see which should have the right to name the creek, and it fell to Andy Hunker's lot.

Henderson and the three men continued with the work they had laid out for themselves that season, and when they had finished they possessed seven hundred and fifty dollars, which was, according to the agreement, divided equally among the four.

Then Mr. Henderson started to Fortymile to record his claims, as that was the nearest recording office. On his way down the creek he found that a great number of claims had been staked, and when he came to the mouth of Bear Creek he went up that creek and staked number twelve, for the law had been that a man was allowed one five hundred foot claim on each creek, and for a discovery he was allowed one thousand feet up and down the creek.

When he arrived at Forty Mile he went to the recording office and put in his application for discovery on Gold Bottom and Gold Run Creeks and for number twelve on Bear Creek.

He was told that there was no Gold Run Creek and on asking what the name was into which Gold Bottom emptied was informed that it was Hunker Creek; that a man by the name of Andy Hunker had recorded discovery claim on the said creek and was allowed to name the creek.

Mr. Henderson expected Mr. Hunker to name the creek, but he did not expect him to record discovery claim, and it was another great disappointment to him to think he had spent so much time in the country alone and had then been cheated out of his rights. Then he wanted to record his discovery claim on Gold Bottom and the claim he had staked on Bear Creek.

"The Klondike has been divided into two districts, and you can only record one claim in each district," was the answer he received.

He tried to convince the recorder that he was the first man in the country, and the first man to find gold on those creeks and had staked his discoveries before the country had been divided into districts; but Hunker had already recorded the discovery claim and it could not be given to two people. There were many people in the country by this time, and the recorder did not know Henderson, and again he received the same answer, "You can only record one claim."

"Very well, then I will record the one I staked on Hunker, which, according to your books, will be number three above discovery. I only want my just dues and nothing more, but those discoveries rightly belong to me and I will contest them, as a Canadian, as long as I live," replied Mr. Henderson.

He went back to Dawson, intending to work his claim that winter, but his leg began bothering him, gradually growing worse until, after walking a few steps, it would give way and let him down to the ground. He then decided to go to the coast for medical advice, and boarded a steamer for St. Michael, but the cold weather came on and the steamer did not get any farther than Circle City. He underwent an operation in Circle and was under the doctor's care most of the winter. He returned to Dawson the spring of 1897, but was yet unable do any work and applied to the gold commissioner for an extension of time in which to do his assessment work, but was even refused this, on the grounds that if time were extended to one it must be to another.

So in order not to lose his claim altogether Mr. Henderson sold it for three thousand dollars. He afterwards saw royalty paid on four hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of gold taken from this very claim, and later the same claim was sold for two hundred thousand dollars.

Mr. Henderson was as good as his word and did contest his right to the discoveries in the Klondike, and now has an order in council from the department at Ottawa granting him two thousand feet of unoccupied placer ground that he may find and until such time that he finds ground which will compensate his losses he is receiving and will continue to receive two hundred dollars each month from the government.

Mr. Henderson is a fine type of pioneer and spends much of his time in the hills prospecting, still seeking a discovery and deserves well at the hands of his countrymen.

A letter was handed me from one of the representatives at Ottawa, which reads as follows:
"Lest any doubt should remain in your minds as to who was the discoverer of the Klondike gold fields, I beg to inclose a letter from Mr. Ogilvie, late commissioner of the Yukon, and a pioneer in the Yukon in 1887 and 1895-'7, which should settle the whole matter in spite of the effort to give Carmack the credit. You will note that the alleged discoverer goes over to the States to spend his Klondike money, while the real discoverer stays in the Canadian North looking for other gold fields whenever he has an opportunity.

"In addition to Mr. Ogilvie's letter, I have obtained letters from Mr. F. T. Congdon, Major Wood and Mr. J. F. Lithgow, and have the promise of one from Hon. Jas. H. Ross, all giving the credit to Henderson. W. W. B. McInnis and Dr. Alfred Thompson, M. P., have also promised whatever aid they can give him."

Source: Mrs. William Campbell Lowden, "The Real Discoverer of Gold in the Klondike," Alaska-Yukon Magazine (September 31, 1908): 415-21

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