The Search for Bonanza

Although the first whites to penetrate the Yukon — the explorers, the fur traders, and the missionaries — had left their mark on the country, it was a gentle and largely unobtrusive one, for they amended but did not radically alter its economy, its appearance, or its racial balance. It was the miners who changed the face of the land irrevocably, bringing it firmly into the orbit of the modern world of development and technology. Perhaps nothing in the history of the western hemisphere has been so disruptive of native societies, or has acted as so powerful a magnet to lure men into new and strange territory, as the possibility of a gold strike. So it was with Mexico in the early sixteenth century, and California in the 1840s, and so it was, to a much milder degree, in late-nineteenth century Yukon.

The great discovery of gold in the Yukon that occurred in 1896 did not occur in a vacuum. It seems simplistic to say so, but gold discoveries are rarely serendipitous; people do not stumble over it while out for a walk. In order for gold to be found, there must be people looking for it. As had happened in California in 1849 and later in British Columbia, gold was discovered in the Yukon because miners knew or had good reason to believe it was there, and had spent years looking for it. If there was gold in the southern and central parts of the western mountain chain, then why should there not be gold in the north as well?

In 1872 three men came to explore the mineral possibilities of the upper Yukon valley. Leroy Napoleon McQuesten (who understandably preferred the nickname “Jack”), a farm boy from New England, had participated in the California gold rush and had later prospected on the Fraser and Finlay rivers in northern British Columbia. For a time he had worked in the north for the Hudson's Bay Company, learning survival and trading skills that were to serve him well in the Yukon. A good-natured, generous man, he later came to be called the "Father of the Yukon." Arthur Harper had emigrated from northern Ireland as a teenager in 1832 and had followed gold rushes in North America for two decades. It was Harper who reasoned that there ought to be gold in the northern part of the Rockies, since there had been plenty of it in the south. Alfred Mayo, a slight wiry man, was a former circus acrobat from Kentucky. A man who liked practical jokes, he was driven, like the other two, by a hunger for discovery and adventure.

While still in the south, the three men heard from a man who had worked at Fort Youcon that there were rumours in the north about gold. Stories had been circulating among the fur traders since the 1850s that there was gold in the tributaries of the Yukon River. One of the employees of the Hudson's Bay Company had written home in 1864 that gold had been found upriver in good quantities, but for some reason he did not investigate this story. Thus when the three men came into the Yukon in 1872 by way of the Bell and Porcupine rivers, the smell of gold was in the air. McQuesten later related a story he had heard about an early find:
One of the officers [of the Hudson's Bay Company] that came up on the steamer washed out of a jar of dirt near Fort Yukon and he had about a teaspoonful of something yellow in the pan and the officer threw it away remarking that it would not do to let the men see it as they would all leave the steamer... by the way the officer acted trying to hide it from the other men he supposed it must be gold. . . .

In 1873, while Harper was looking for gold in the Tanana region of Alaska, McQuesten and Mayo took jobs with Moise Mercier, of the Alaska Commercial Company, the major company on the American side of the 141st meridian. In the summer of 1874, Mercier and McQuesten travelled from St. Michael aboard the company's steamboat Yukon upstream past the company's posts on the river, across into the Canadian part of the valley. Six miles downstream from the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, near the Indian village of Nuklako, the men built Fort Reliance, the first settlement in what would become the gold country. The purpose of the post was to shorten the journey that the Han people had to make to trade at the posts on the lower Yukon. McQuesten and an assistant, Frank Bonfield, hired the local people to carry legs for the post, and to hunt and dry meat for he winter. A crude drawing made by a local artist in 1884 shows the buildings — six in all — huddled near the riverbank, their log roofs covered with shingles made of birch bark.

Fort Reliance was an instant success. The traders had plenty of meat, they lived in secure quarters, aid before the spring of 1875 they had traded all their goods to the natives for furs. That year Mayo joined them and they took over the trade of the upper Yukon Valley on behalf of the Alaska Commercial Company, operating it on a commission basis. They eventually established other posts in the region, but Fort Reliance became the centre of activity in the area and the point from which distances to later communities would be reckoned; Fortymile was forty miles downstream arid Sixtymile River sixty miles upstream.

But McQuesten, Bonfield, Harper, and Mayo were primarily miners who had turned to trading for a living, and when rumours of gold reached them, they listened eagerly. Although they had not found gold themselves, they had put into place the support network which would sustain the miners who were to come. A main feature of this system was the "grubstake," a system in which the traders gave prospectors supplies and equipment for a season's work on credit. The trust involved in this arrangement was an essential feature of Yukon society in this era. . . .

All through the early 1870s tantalizing traces of gold appeared in the Yukon Valley, and stories about finds of gold circulated among the men in the region. McQuesten reported that "Harper & Co. . . . had done considerable prospecting... found Gold in all of the streams... but nothing that would pay." Again, "Mr. Rob Bear had about thirty dollars in coarse gold that an Indian by the name of Larieson gave him." In the fall of 1878, McQuesten went to Sixtymile River and "found Gold on all the bars in small quantities — I found some place where a man could make $6.00 to $8.00 per day but not extensive enough to put on a string of sluices."

The first man who actually found enough gold in the Yukon to cause a degree of interest outside the country was probably George Holt, who in 1878 also had the distinction of being, with his party, the first white man to cross the Chilkoot or the White Pass — it is uncertain which route he took. This required some courage as well as stamina, for the Tlingit (Chilkat) people of the region were jealous of their territorial rights; having made a good living for years acting as middlemen between coastal traders and the native people of the interior, they were not keen to see outsiders exploring their trading routes. Somehow, however, Holt got past them and reached the headwaters of the Yukon River. . . .

The route over the passes became known as the "poor man's route," for it was far shorter, and thus cheaper, than the long steamboat ride upriver from St. Michael or the route over the mountains from Fort McPherson. Beginning with Holt's journey, a small number of men began to use the passes each spring, many of them prospecting in the Yukon Valley only for the summer before drifting on down the river to the outside world. Some, however, did spend more than a summer in the north; it has been estimated that by 1882 about fifty white men were wintering in the region.

In that year another party of miners reached Fort Reliance via the Chilkoot Pass. This one included a French Canadian named Joseph Ladue, who would later play a large role in the gold rush. Ladue and his partners spent the winter of 1882-83 at Fort Reliance, and, to keep themselves busy during the winter, experimented with a new mining technique. During the winter it was impossible to see if the ground was gold-bearing or not, since it was frozen solid. Ladue and the others tried building fires on the ground and scooping out the mud when it thawed. This worked well at first, but after spending three days on a ten-foot hole which promptly filled with water, they gave up.

The little party of miners spent most of their evenings in the store at Fort Reliance, talking and playing cards with Jack McQuesten. At one point, everyone decided that, since there was sure to be a gold rush sooner or later, and since there was no formal authority in the district, they had better make some laws of their own to keep order when the rush occurred. Borrowing from the traditions established in California and elsewhere, they drew up a set of mining laws establishing the size of claims, the rules for staking them, and other matters of interest to miners. McQuesten was selected as the first mining recorder.

The pivotal year in the early mining era was 1885, for in that year a party of prospectors on the Stewart River found a small but tantalizing amount of gold — several thousand dollars worth — enough to stimulate interest in the region. The technique they used was "bar" mining — panning the sandbars in the river and creeks. Within a year there were two hundred men wintering in the upper Yukon valley. In the summer of 1885, Jack McQuesten, convinced that there was more money to be made supplying the miners than catering to the traditional trade trade, went to San Francisco to convince the directors of the Alaska Commercial Company to change their retailing policy from trading for furs with the Indians to supplying the miners. He returned to Fort Reliance that fall with fifty tons of mining supplies. In the next year he and Harper moved their post from Fort Reliance to Fort Nelson, at the Stewart River. Now the trade with the indigenous people was rapidly supplanted by commercial activity revolving around the search for gold; the trading frontier was being pushed into the background, and the mining frontier was beginning to unfold.

After 1885 the number of men searching for gold in the Yukon Valley began to increase. There were a few white women too, for some of the miners brought their wives with them. The two hundred of 1885 grew to about a thousand by 1894, three years before most North Americans had even heard of the place. A majority of these men were veteran miners — men who had gone to earlier rushes in California, Nevada, Colorado, or British Columbia. They were not greenhorns or idealists, and they did not take foolish chances if they could avoid doing so — very few travelled in the winter months, and they wintered close to a trading post whenever possible, to avoid the risk of starvation. Life in the north was not easy, and the chances of real wealth were slight, but life in the factories of the nineteenth-century American industrial revolution was not much easier, and there the chances of real wealth were virtually non-existent. Gold mining, for many of these then, was an alternative to low-paid wage labour, and thus provided an escape from the factories, as pioneering in the west did for others — with the difference that gold miners sometimes struck it rich while farmers rarely did.

These were not the wild-eyed, almost crazed goldseekers of the later Klondike rush, but pragmatic men, weighing their chances, looking out for opportunities, and working patiently while awaiting the arrival of the big strike. They made up a highly mobile population; since they owned nothing but their mining equipment and their personal effects, they could easily move from one location to another. Walter H. Pierce was a typical example. Pierce had worked in the gold fields of Colorado, Idaho, and the Cassiar district of British Columbia before crossing the Chilkoot Pass in 1884. He and his partners built a boat at the headwaters of the Yukon, then spent the summer floating down the river, panning the sandbars at the mouths of the creeks that fed the river. In some places they made as much as $25 a day, more than ten times the average industrial wage for that era. In other places they found only traces. In any case the gold in the sandbars soon gave out, since there was never much in any one place, and the miners were thus constantly on the move. In the fall they retraced their journey and wintered in Juneau. The next year Pierce and his partners came again, this time with enough supplies for eighteen months. Again they spent the summer on the Yukon and its tributaries, testing “favourable looking streams, sometimes staying a week in one place.” Where necessary they built canoes or rafts, and went up likely tributaries. They travelled light, living off the land, finding traces of gold almost everywhere but no substantial amount. They had a hard winter; during 1885-86 two of the party died of scurvy, and in the spring Pierce and the other survivors went south. One of the early pioneers of the region, Pierce met the fate of a number of men who led the free and irregular life of the miner; back in Juneau in the fall of 1886 he was charged with the murder of a dance-hall girl. He was acquitted, but died four years later of tuberculosis, still in his thirties.

In 1886 the first substantial discovery of gold was made in the region. Harry Madison and Howard Franklin, two of Joe Ladue's original partners of 1882, went down the Yukon River forty miles from Fort Reliance to the mouth of the Fortymile River, then poled their boat twenty-three miles upstream. This took them westward across the 141st meridian into Alaska, though they likely neither knew nor cared that by doing so they had entered the United States. After some searching, they found a rich deposit of coarse placer gold. Again the three traders — McQuesten, Harper, and Mayo — moved their operations, this time from the Stewart River to the mouth of the Fortymile. Though the Stewart post was kept open, the main activity now shifted to the new settlement of Fortymile, which, though the strike upstream was in the United States, was by accident of geography in Canada. Fortymile became the first fairly permanent town in the Canadian part of the Yukon Valley, remaining as a centre of activity until the strike of 1896, when it was largely abandoned.

News of the strike in the Fortymile district brought more miners to the Yukon, and by the winter of 1886-87 there were perhaps five hundred men wintering there, mostly in the vicinity of the new discovery. It was in this period that sympathetic observers (mostly the local missionaries) began to see what the mining frontier held in store for the aboriginal people of the region. At first the arrival of the miners brought a kind of prosperity to some Indians, for a few were hired as packers or day-labourers. But the long-term impact on them was almost entirely bad. The Hudson's Bay Company had always banned liquor as an item of trade in the area. The miners, however, wanted alcohol, and either imported it or made their own, and had, moreover, no objection to teaching the distillers' art to the native people.

Source: K.S. Coates and W.R. Morrison, Land of the Midnight Sun: A History of the Yukon (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005), 49-56

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