The Gold Hustlers

[ View of Dawson City, South Dawson (Lousetown) in Foreground ]

View of Dawson City, South Dawson (Lousetown) in Foreground, H.J. Woodside, 1900-06, NAC, PA-017130

The Klondike discovery could have come many years before 16 August 1896, the day George Carmack's party found coarse gold in the gravels of Rabbit Creek. For more than twenty years, restless men advancing from northern British Columbia and the lower Yukon River area had been testing the creeks of Yukon and Alaska for placer gold. In late August 1874, Jack McQuesten had established a trading post at Fort Reliance, about seven miles downstream from the mouth of the Klondike or Trundeck River as he knew it. The post became the reference point for this part of the Yukon River and many tributary streams such as the Fortymile and Sixtymile rivers were named from the approximate distances down and upstream, respectively. Working from Fort Reliance, McQuesten and his partners, Arthur Harper and Al Mayo, had prospected and found traces of gold in a vast area that included the Fortymile and Sixtymile gold fields. Somehow, the Klondike had been missed although McQuesten had tested the creeks behind Fort Reliance where, "I found colors but did not find anything that would pay to work."

In 1885, fine gold was discovered on the bars of the Stewart River; about $100,000 was taken from them in 1885 and 1886 but the bars were deserted the following year after discovery of coarse gold on the Fortymile River. In 1887 and 1888, between 100 and 350 miners were at work on the Fortymile; production was about $100,000 in 1887, falling to $20,000 in 1888 because of continued high water throughout the summer. The town of Forty Mile grew at the mouth of the river, supplied by sternwheelers operating from St. Michael on Norton Sound, a distance of about 1,600 miles away on the lower Yukon River. Later, more promising discoveries were made upstream on the Fortymile, on the Alaska side, and, in 1892, the Sixtymile gold field was rediscovered by prospectors who crossed the divide between the two watersheds. Gold production increased slowly and there was always the hope that richer deposits, as yet undiscovered, lay somewhere in the area.

When George Carmack and his party reached Forty Mile about 21 August 1896, those who saw the gold he shook from a brass Winchester cartridge case knew from its appearance that it was not from any of the placer diggings they were familiar with. Some scoffed, but others stampeded to the new discovery, hoping that this was the El Dorado they had been waiting for. Gold, if it was there in paying quantities, would lie on bedrock beneath a cover of permanently frozen black muck and gravel, probably ten feet or more thick, and testing would have to wait until winter when the surface water had frozen. However, if Carmack, no miner, could find coarse gold in the stream gravel there was almost certain to be pay on bedrock.

Events were moving swiftly. On 22 August 1896, before the Forty Mile stampeders arrived, twenty-five men (some of whom had staked before learning of Carmack's discovery) held a miners' meeting on the new creek. At it, they resolved, among other things, that henceforth the name should be Bonanza Creek, a more fitting name than Rabbit Creek. One of the last in the area to learn of the new find was Robert Henderson, whose earlier discovery on Gold Bottom Creek, some ten miles to the east, had brought many of those at the miners' meeting to the Klondike. Late in July, Henderson, en route to his ground, had stopped in at the camp at the mouth of the Klondike River, told Carmack of his find and invited him to stake. Carmack arrived at Henderson's camp on Gold Bottom a few weeks later with two Indians, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie. They were completely out of tobacco and nearly out of grub; Henderson, perhaps because of his dislike of Indians, refused to sell them any. The group left soon after without bothering to stake. Their new find was made on their return journey, close by the spot where Skookum Jim had shot a moose. No one took the news to Henderson, although it was his understanding that Carmack had promised to let him know if they found anything better than his Gold Bottom ground. By now, there was no ground left for Henderson to stake on Bonanza and, if that were not enough, Andy Hunker had already been granted a claim on the other fork of his creek, now officially named Hunker Creek. At Forty Mile, Henderson was allowed to record a single claim, close to Hunker's discovery claim. Years later, the Canadian government would award Henderson a pension of $200 a month for his part in the discovery of the Klondike. Until the early 1920s, however, he was still searching the Yukon creeks and hills for the bonanza that would forever elude him.

Source: Lewis Green, "The Gold Hustlers" (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Publishing Company, 1977), 1-3

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