A History of Europeans in the Yukon

[ Social scene showing interior of parlor, Dawson ]

Social scene showing interior of parlor, Dawson, E.A. Hegg, 1898, Univ of Washington, Hegg 2051

The first Europeans arrived in the Yukon surprisingly recently, with the arrival of fur traders working for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1840s. The reason for that late date was the relative inaccessibility of the region. The H.B.C. traders were based in Montreal and York Factory on Hudson Bay, and it was a very long way by foot, boat, and canoe from those places to the Yukon, a route that went from the Canadian prairies almost to the Arctic Ocean near present day Inuvik, before heading southwest into the Yukon. It was hard to make a profit with such a long trade route, which is why Europeans were late in trying. The Russians, who controlled Alaska until they sold it to the Americans in 1867, were of course much closer, but the Russians were not interested in trading into the interior. The Russian-American company traded for sea-otter pelts, which were a very valuable source of luxury furs, and of course these were found on the Pacific coast, not in the interior. So for many years, the First Nations of the Yukon were not directly contacted.

Although Europeans did not penetrate to the interior, European diseases did. There was a trade between Russians and the Yukon First Nations, carried out by way of First Nations traders, often Chilkats from the vicinity of modern day Skagway, who carried goods back and forth over the passes into the interior, and fiercely guarded this trade against intruders. They also carried diseases that wreaked devastation on the Yukon First Nations well before the arrival of the first traders.

For about thirty years, from the arrival of the first fur trader in the mid-1840s, to the arrival of the first miners in the 1870s, the only Europeans in the country were H.B.Co. traders at three posts in the Yukon, and a few years after the traders, a missionary or two. The posts were Lapierre House, in the northern Yukon, not far from what is now Old Crow, Fort Selkirk in the central Yukon, and Frances Lake Post in the southeast. There was also a post at Rampart House which was in Alaska for some time and in the Yukon for some time; no one then knew where the international boundary was, nor did it much matter.

The Hudson’s Bay traders are now sometimes portrayed as exploiters and dominators of the indigenous people, but relations between First Nations and traders in the mid-19th century were not at all like that. And how could they be, with thousands of First Nations in the country, and only perhaps half a dozen fur traders and some Métis employees, plus a missionary or two. The Yukon was in fact a good example of “agency” in First Nations’ affairs, the idea that they had far more control over events than some historians give them credit for. In fact, they largely controlled the trade in the 19th century. They told the traders what kind and quality of goods they wanted, and would not settle for less. They threatened to trade with the Russians if the H.B.Co did not meet their demands. At one point, unhappy with the trade, they burned Fort Selkirk to the ground.

As for the missionaries, Roman Catholic and Anglican, who began to visit the Yukon in the 1860s, it is hard to say that they had much influence on affairs before the end of the 19th century. They had such a huge area to cover that they could not run schools, nor could they give more than a rudimentary idea of Christianity to the First Nations. Their power would increase later, in the 20th century.


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