Skookum Jim Biography

The following account of Skookum Jim’s life, given the limitations within which the historian must work, can hardly be described as a biographical sketch let alone a biography. Rather it must of necessity be an episodic outline of a series of Jim’s encounters and associations with the world of the white man. Born in 1854 or 1855, Skookum Jim was the first son of the chief of the Tagish Indians. Between 1854 and 1887 little or nothing is known of his life. In the latter year William Ogilvie, a Canadian government surveyor, engaged Jim, his cousin Tagish Charley and George Washington Carmack to pack supplies over the Chilkoot Pass. The word “Skookum”, which connotes a quality of magic among the Tagish Indians can also be translated as “strong.” Jim proved he was worthy of the latter by packing 156 pound of bacon over the pass for the surveyor in a single trip. After the party had crossed the summit Ogilvie retained him for a number of tasks, later recalling that Skookum Jim was “reliable, truthful, and competent to do any work I gave him.” Later that year Jim accompanied William Moore, the founder of Skagway, on his survey of the White Pass.

Carmack, who had drifted north in 1885, married Jim’s sister Kate in 1887. Their common-law union marked the beginning of a ten year association in which the paths of Carmack, Kate, Tagish Charley and Skookum Jim would continuously intertwine. Over the next two years the four of them hunted, prospected and trapped on the upper Yukon. In June of 1889 they went down the river to Forty Mile but did not remain there, proceeding instead to Fort Yukon. In 1890 they prospected on Birch Creek but were forced to return to Forty Mile for supplies. Although they had discovered fair prospects on Birch Creek, later the site of the Circle City diggings, they did not return. Between 1890 and 1894 Carmack ran a trading post at Five Finger Rapids. From the limited information available it is not at all clear whether Jim was with Carmack during this period. At any rate, 1896 found the four of them re-united along with several other Indians at the mouth of the Klondike River. It was there that the fateful encounter with Robert Henderson would occur, to be followed by the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek.

Skookum Jim has been all but ignored in the literature of the gold rush. Dance-hall girls, gamblers, saloon-keepers and white miners – the successful, the not so successful and the failures – these are the figures who step in and out of the gold rush narratives. Jim and Charley, the two Indians, are anomolies [sic] in a landscape that is as white as the Yukon snow. Pierre Berton is the sole writer to have traced Jim’s movements during the halycon [sic] days of the rush. What emerges, however, is an overdrawn one dimensional picture. Berton mentions him twice. The first time Jim and Charley are in Belinda Mulroney’s roadhouse, clad “in loud plaid shirts and gaudy ties, with scarlet bands on their black miners’ hats and heavy watch chains with double rows of nuggets draped across their paunches.” “They were treated as white men now,” Berton writes, by which he means they were allowed to drink. It says a great deal about the turn-of-the-century mentality that the right to imbibe was a criterion for entry into the white man’s world and considered a great concession to our native peoples. The second notice take of Jim during the rush finds him in Seattle, making headlines with Kate and Charley. [“]They loaded up with champagne and were arrested and fined for drunkenness. They caused a near-riot by throwing banknotes from their hotel window . . .” The truth is Jim was no different from most of the other prospectors who struck it rich in the Klondike. That he was an Indian is of no consequence when his behaviour is compared to his white counterparts.

After 1900 Jim sold his claim and returned to the land of his fore-fathers on Tagish Lake. He settled at Carcross which remained his home until his death in 1916. In July of 1903 he married but the marriage was of short duration, his wife leaving him sometime in 1904 or 1905. His daughter Daisy, to whom he was very devoted, was left in his custody.

Jim’s first years in Carcross were characterized by a series of bad investments in mining properties. He grub-staked friends on prospecting trips which failed to pan-out and was overly generous with his relatives. Finally he was persuaded to set up a twenty thousand dollar trust fund in his daughter’s name. At the same time he placed his financial affairs in the hands of W.L. Phelps, a Whitehorse lawyer. The arrangement proved to be a wise one and permitted Jim to live in financial security for the rest of his life.

The dream of making an important discovery he could call his own underlined Jim’s declining years. Although he still continued to trap, hunt and fish, prospecting remained his central interest. His search for gold covered the Teslin, Pelly, Macmillan and Stewart Rivers. In the winter of 1915-16 he prospected the upper reaches of the Liard. But the big find always eluded him and had it not been for the trust fund he had established in 1905 his last years might well have been spent in poverty.

In February of 1916 a kidney ailment forced him into hospital. He did not respond to treatment. When it became apparent he would not recover the manoeuvring began over the final disposition of his estate. Many of the local Indians pressured Jim to include them in his will, a possibility which his lawyer W.L. Phelps strenuously opposed. Phelps did not exactly distinguish himself either, expressing his opinion that Indians were an ungrateful lot and that he had “little faith that any of this money will ever be so arranged that it will be of any public benefit.” Why an Indian, as opposed to a white man, should have been expected to bequeath his estate to the public weal is a question which obviously escaped Phelps. Throughout it all Jim was the only person to retain his dignity. His last will, dated April 4, 1916 established “The Skookum Jim Indian Fund” which was to be applied towards the medical treatment and monetary assistance of needy Indians in the Yukon should his daughter die without issue.

As the end approached Jim made his final preparations. These included the purchase of a new suit, an “outside” coffin and a tombstone. On July 1[?], 1916 he died. Skookum Jim was buried in the Carcross cemetery beside William Carpenter Bompas, the former Anglican Bishop of the Yukon. This was in accordance with his long held wish. There is irony in the fact that Jim, who more than any other Yukon Indian shared the values of the white man should have found his final resting place beside a priest who regarded most of the white man’s social values with complete contempt. Jim’s death received only cursory notice in the Whitehorse Star. The Dawson Daily News honored his passing with front page coverage, but added little to the already sketchy details of his life.

Source: Yukon Territorial Archives, 32/221 MSS40 file 2 of 2, Gordon Bennett, "Skookum Jim Biography," ca. 1980, 2

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