The Alaska Gold Rush

FROM THE STEWART RIVER, the Yukon flows north some seventy miles before making a question-mark sweep to the west. Here a sparkling, clear river enters the silt-umber Yukon. On July 17, 1883, Lieutenant Schwatka's exploration party beached their raft at the juncture of the two rivers, believing they were in the proximity of the Canadian-American boundary. Schwatka says in his journal that this stream was called Deer Creek by the traders, because of the large numbers of caribou or woodland reindeer seen in this valley at certain times of their migrations. Actually McQuesten, the only trader in the immediate area, knew the stream by its Indian name, Trundeck, a name popularly mispronounced by stampeders, Klondike.

Sixteen years later George Washington Carmack, a Californian, was fishing there with his Indian friends when a passing Canadian prospector, Robert Henderson, told him of finding gold on a Klondike tributary; and it was this information which led Carmack to his own discovery of gold on another tributary. At least, this is the popularly accepted story.

Who actually discovered gold first in the Klondike region? Who was responsible for the Klondike stampede? The official Canadian version credits Robert Henderson, perhaps because he was a Canadian and the only Canadian even remotely connected with gold discovery in the Klondike region. Others say Arthur Harper or George Pilz or Joseph Ladue first discovered gold there. Whoever the discoverer was, the immediate catalyst for the stampede was Carmack, but for prejudicial reasons, even those who credit him with filing the discovery claim tend to denigrate his character and question the propriety of acknowledging him as the man responsible for the greatest stampede on the Yukon. The truth is clouded by contention.

The first white gold-seekers on the Yukon were Harper, Mayo, McQuesten, and their associates, who came down the Porcupine in 1873. It was in that year Harper worked the White River area, eighty miles above the Klondike. From 1875 to 1878, Harper and Mayo were at Fort Reliance, but Harper was never one whose mind was far from prospecting. Although it is not reported, it is safe to assume that Harper prospected all the creeks in the area of Fort Reliance. This would certainly include the Klondike, which is only about five miles upriver from the station. In 1883 George Pilz, the German engineer credited by many, himself included, with the discovery of gold in the Juneau area, came into the Yukon and claimed to have prospected the Klondike without finding anything of great interest.

In May of 1886 Peter Nelson, Dan Sprague, Joe Ladue, and John Nelson prospected various creeks emptying into the Klondike but did not consider the area of particular significance, "as we could make all the way from $50 to $100 a day on the Stewart River bars, if we caught low water."

Frank Buteau gives Henry Willet and Joe Wilson credit for the initial discovery: "In 1892 they went up the Indian River and located gold near King Dome. Four years later, in 1896, Bob Anderson and Andrew Hunker went over the hill to find the gold Willet and Wilson had located. They found it on Gold Bottom and Hunker Creek, which flow into the Klondike, and up at the head of Dominion Creek, a tributary of Indian River."

Joe Ladue was then running a trading post at Ogilvie, near the mouth of Sixty Mile River. He made it his business to know of gold strikes in the area, so that he could encourage miners to work the streams within a reasonable radius of his post. As the Indian River was only about ten miles downriver from his store, when Robert Henderson arrived at the Ogilvie trading post in 1894. Joe Ladue painted a glowing picture of the prospects there. Henderson, accepting Ladue's account, started up the Indian, prospecting along the way. He went as far as Quartz Creek, and up Quartz to the divide of the Klondike watershed. Finding no good prospects, he returned to Ogilvie for provisions.

The next year Henderson followed the Indian to its headwaters and crossed the divide to Gold Bottom, a tributary of the Klondike. Here he found fair prospects. He wintered on the creek that year; and the following summer, convinced now that he had a good strike, he made the long trip back to Ogilvie for more supplies. This time he was able to settle up his account with gold, and he told Ladue where he had made his strike and how promising it looked. Together, they figured out on a homemade map just where Henderson's find was located and determined it would be easier for him to return via the Klondike, instead of portaging over the divide from the Indian. When Henderson reached the mouth of the Klondike, he met George Carmack, fishing for salmon with a couple of Indians, and he told Carmack of the strike on Gold Bottom.

To this point, most versions of the discovery of gold in the area are in agreement. According to the official Canadian account, which credits Henderson with starting the Klondike stampede, he told Carmack of his gold find and continued on to Gold Bottom. Later, Carmack and the two Indians, while hunting moose, did visit Gold Bottom and tried a few pans on the stream. They did not like what they found and left, after promising to inform Henderson if they found good prospects on Rabbit Creek, where Henderson had suggested they try their luck.

Carmack's account differs in important details. He and his Indian friend, Skookum Jim, had explored the country the day before Henderson's arrival and had selected Rabbit Creek as a likely stream to prospect. He agrees that Henderson told him of Gold Bottom, but he was not particularly interested. Later, with Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, he did go up the Rabbit and found good prospects. The three men then crossed over to Henderson's claim and tried Gold Bottom, which they did not find as good as Rabbit Creek. Carmack says he told Henderson this and advised Henderson to come over to Rabbit Creek.

Carmack and the two Indians then returned to Rabbit Creek, where they found richer prospects than before. Those who try to discredit Carmack say that Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie found the gold while Carmack was sleeping. Others say that Kate Carmack, his Indian wife, found the gold while she was washing up after lunch.

Whatever the version accepted, Carmack did go to Forty Mile and was the first to record the discovery of gold on a tributary of the Klondike. He says he reported his find to half a dozen prospectors he met along the way, men looking for Henderson's strike, about which they had heard from Joe Ladue. Certainly the Rabbit was heavily staked within a few days. Even before Carmack could return to his claim from Forty Mile, there were some fifty miners in the area. A miners' meeting was held opposite Number 17 Below Discovery on August 22, at which twenty-five miners were present. David McKay was elected local recorder, and Rabbit Creek was officially renamed the Bonanza.

Source: David Wharton, "The Alaska Gold Rush" (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), 77-80

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