Gold At Fortymile Creek

Carmack led a life which was, in several ways, unlike that of the typical miner. He had married Skookum Jim's sister and, when she died, Tagish tradition dictated that her sister, Shaaw Tlaa (Kate), take her place. Thus Jim and Carmack had strong ties through marriage. George could speak a couple of Native dialects (as well as Chinook), and he lived a life not so very unlike that of the average Tagish male. He liked the independence of his lifestyle and took it as a compliment when someone said to him: 'Why, George, you're getting every day more like a Siwash! He was widely known as 'Siwash George' and 'Stick George,' and, although many of the miners in the Yukon valley had taken Native wives, Carmack lived in closer association with the Native people than the miners found acceptable. He was also given another name, `Lying George,' because he always tended to colour his stories to place himself in the best light. His lifestyle was eclectic: he had, at various times, been a sheepherder, a marine (he deserted the marine corps), a trapper, a trader, a labourer, a packer, and a prospector. Although he had looked for, and at least once found, gold, he was not regarded as a true prospector; for that reason he had no credibility amongst the miners.

Carmack's Dream

In late May 1896, while still at Fort Selkirk, Carmack tossed a coin and decided to go downriver. When he arrived at Forty Mile, he still had not resolved what his next move would be. That night, he had a very vivid dream. He dreamt about two beautiful fish, which were covered with gold nuggets rather than scales and which had twenty-dollar gold pieces for eyes. He interpreted this to mean that he should go fishing. On 18 July, he loaded up his boat and started upriver with a prospector named Cooper, who was investigating some quartz outcrops opposite the mouth of the Klondike River.

After arriving at the mouth of the Klondike River with Kate, he was soon joined by Skookum Jim and his two nephews, Charlie and Patsy. They had not heard any word from Carmack in over two years and had become concerned over his whereabouts. They established their camp on the shore of the Yukon River on the future townsite of Dawson and set their nets at the mouth of the Klondike River. Special fish-smoking structures had been constructed to cure the fish in Tagish fashion. It was here that Robert Henderson met them in early August 1896, as he returned to his mining prospects up the Klondike valley.

The Prospector

Robert Douglas Henderson was a stereotypical prospector. The tall, lean, blue-eyed, thirty-seven-year-old son of a Nova Scotia lighthouse keeper, he had been stricken with the lust for gold as a very young man. He had given up a secure career in the carriage-making business to wander the world from one gold rush to another, be it in Australia, New Zealand, or the United States. He lost his first opportunity to make a fortune when he gave up 160 acres of valuable property near Grand Junction, Colorado. Gripped by the quest for gold, it seemed, for him, that the seeking of this substance was more important than was the finding of it. After recovering from a serious illness, he had returned to Nova Scotia, married, and settled down to a successful life of farming and fishing. But he gave it all up to head for the Yukon.

Henderson was drawn to the Yukon by glowing reports of gold in the Fortymile region. He arrived at Ogilvie, Joe Ladue's post at the mouth of the Sixtymile River, without a dollar in his pocket. Ladue was an optimist. Confident that a big strike would eventually be made, and sure that it would be nearby, he encouraged all of those who stopped at his post to try the nearby tributaries of the Yukon River. Enthusiastic about prospects on Indian River (where an Englishman from Devonshire named Billy Readford had found promising prospects), Ladue grubstaked Henderson and sent him to try his luck in the waters of Indian River. Abandoning his original partners, Henderson struck out for Indian River with a new partner, Jack Collins. Eventually Collins, too, left Henderson, who remained at Indian River to find his paystreak.

Henderson spent the winter of 1894-5 alone on Indian River, thawing holes to bedrock. For a lone man, this was incredibly tedious, slow work. For his efforts, he recovered only a few colours. In March 1895, Henderson went further up Indian River to test a tributary called Australia Creek. It took him sixty days just to transport his supplies from his previous camp. Up Australia Creek, he found nothing to encourage him, although he was able to live off the land; he killed some moose and caribou and made a skin boat in which to float down Indian River.

It was while he was on Australia Creek that Henderson had another stroke of bad luck which he described:

In order to bridge the stream, I felled a large tree, and during the process of climbing it, held a stick in my left hand to steady myself. This unfortunately snapped off to the right and the broken jagged end penetrated the calf of my leg, thereby causing a bad wound and tearing the muscle of my calf. It was naturally very painful and I had to crawl back into camp, where I lay for 22 days only being able to creep on my hands and one knee to a nearby hole in order to bathe the wounded limb in the ice cold water. My leg would puff up and become much inflamed, but the cold water gave a great deal of relief. Not having any medicines, I used thin slices of bacon as a salve, and when these had done duty, I would throw them under the flap of my tent, from whence they would be devoured by prowling wolves of which there were hundreds in close proximity.

Robert Henderson

Henderson lost forty pounds while recovering from the injury. He was also the victim of snow blindness and, in another instance, he capsized his boat and nearly drowned.

When he was well enough to travel, he floated down to Quartz Creek in his skin boat. He travelled up this creek for a day and a half, then spent over two weeks building a dam to raise the water for sluicing. At the end of one and a half days of sluicing, he cleaned up only sixteen dollars worth of gold. Disheartened by this and the continuing discomfort of his wound, which was still healing, he returned to Ogilvie, where he picked up more provisions and a new partner, Billy Readford. They returned to Quartz Creek, where they ground-sluiced in preparation for the following season.

Again, Henderson returned to Ogilvie for more supplies, then returned to Indian River alone for the winter. He spent his time burning holes to bedrock and making preparations for the spring clean-up. This time he made $620, which was poor pay for a hard winter's work. In the spring and summer of 1896, he eventually worked his way over the summit above Quartz Creek and down onto a tributary he called Gold Bottom Creek, which flows into the Klondike River. Here he started getting good prospects, eight cents to the pan. He invited three men (Ed Munson, Frank Swanson, and Albert Dalton), who were working on the bars at the mouth of Quartz Creek, to join him; between them, they shovelled out $750 worth of gold. Running short of supplies, Henderson went back down Indian River and up to Ogilvie to replenish his outfit. Because Indian River was low, he decided to float down to the mouth of the Klondike River and return to Gold Bottom Creek from that direction. He left the word of his new discoveries with Joe Ladue, who, immediately and enthusiastically, spread the news.

Henderson touched shore at the mouth of the Klondike River. Surveying the small camp, the nets, and the fish curing, he saw George Carmack. 'There,' he said, 'is a poor devil who hasn't struck it.’ He walked over to greet Carmack.

The Encounter

Henderson hailed Carmack with news of his journeying from Joe Ladue's post to the mouth of the Klondike River. He explained that he was mining a tributary of the Klondike River, and that he was receiving a good return for his efforts. He and his friends were digging an open cut down to bedrock on Gold Bottom Creek, and he invited Carmack to join them and try his luck. Henderson also told Carmack that his Tagish relatives were not welcome. He did not like `Indians,' particularly those from the upper Yukon River. This was not the most hospitable thing for Henderson to say about Carmack's relatives, and it cost him dearly. Having passed on word of his find, Henderson pressed on to join his partners on Gold Bottom Creek.

The next day, Carmack, Jim, and Charlie prepared small packs of provisions (mainly fish), shovels, and pans and set out to see Henderson's find. Rather than follow the Klondike River for several miles to where Henderson's creek flowed into it from the south, they turned off at the first tributary, a small stream known as Rabbit Creek, and ascended it, prospecting and fighting the dense underbrush and the thick clouds of mosquitoes as they went. At a point not far from what later became the discovery claim, Jim and Charlie panned out ten cents worth of gold from the stream bed. The men discussed this and decided that if they found nothing better on Gold Bottom Creek, they would come back to test the gravels more carefully.

George counselled Jim and Charlie not to say anything about their find; they would pass the word along to the Henderson party if the prospect panned out. They continued up the creek bottom until they reached a fork; here, they chose the southerly fork. After following this fork for some distance and finding the travel difficult, they ascended the ridge above it and travelled to the east to where another ridge joined it from the north. They did not know it then, but the creek they had just left was later to become known as Eldorado Creek. From the point where these two ridges met, they looked down into the canyon below and, in the distance, saw a wispy column of smoke rising from a tiny camp. They descended the valley until they reached Henderson's camp. Here, they tested the prospect and, though finding nothing as promising as what they had just found on Rabbit Creek, they staked claims on Gold Bottom Creek near Henderson's quarry on 11 August 1896 and then left.

Before leaving, however, Henderson had an encounter with Jim and Charlie which sealed his fate. Being nearly out of supplies and sorely wanting some tobacco, they offered to buy some from Henderson, who declined. Henderson was still bitter about a perceived wrong which had occurred the year before, and which he blamed on 'Indians.' He had returned to a cache in which he had stored a good quantity of supplies, found everything gone and, as a consequence, nearly starved. He was convinced that the thieves were Natives, as he had been the only White man in the region at the time. As Carmack said later, 'his childish unreasoning prejudice would not even allow him to stake on the same creek with the despised "Siwashes" so his obstinacy lost him a fortune.'

Carmack, Jim, and Charlie climbed back over the ridge separating the waters of Gold Bottom Creek from those of Rabbit Creek. They slowly worked their way down Rabbit Creek, prospecting while they went. After three days, they had run out of supplies. At this point, Jim was fortunate enough to kill a moose. He signalled the others and, while he was waiting for them to arrive, went to the creek to get a drink. He saw gold in the bottom of the creek in greater quantities than he had ever seen before." Here they tested the gravel and were able to fill a shotgun cartridge with gold. The next day, after having tested the stream up and down for some distance, Carmack flattened the sides of a small spruce tree in the middle of the valley, and on it he wrote in pencil:

'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 17th day of August, 1896. G.W. Carmack.' Carmack took the discovery claim and another one above it (#1 Above Discovery) for Jim, the claim below discovery for himself, and #2 Below Discovery for Charlie.

Carmack and his partners immediately headed down the valley at top speed, floundering through the swampland and arriving at the mouth of Rabbit Creek looking like 'human pin cushions.' There they encountered four prospectors who had been directed to the Klondike River by Joe Ladue. Carmack redirected them up Rabbit Creek. At the mouth of the Klondike River, he met two Frenchmen, whom he also directed to Rabbit Creek. He sent Jim back up to start working the claim while he and Charlie headed for Forty Mile. He passed the word to more miners along the way, but he never sent word back to Robert Henderson, who, oblivious to the excitement just over the ridge, was still working with his partners on Gold Bottom Creek.

The two discoverers arrived in Forty Mile on 20 August 1896 with word of their new discovery, first making their announcement in a saloon and then crossing over to the NWMP post to file. The news of their discovery took root and consumed the passions of the miners. By the next morning, the town of Forty Mile was empty. Ironically, Carmack was unable to file his claim at that time due to insufficient funds. Inspector Charles Constantine told him that if he had indeed found gold, he could go back to get enough to pay his fees. After rushing to Forty Mile, he and Charlie had to turn around and struggle back upstream to pan out their winter grubstake and their filing fees.

The effect of the stampede upon the denizens of the mining camp was electric. Everyone was gripped by the fever to gamble on the untested ground of a newly discovered creek. Suddenly, the value of boats sky-rocketed while that of real estate plummeted. In the winter, the value of dogs surpassed that of boats. The race to stake a claim on the new creek was, indeed, frantic.

Source: Michael Gates, "Gold At Fortymile Creek" (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1994), 131-9

Return to parent page