Yukon Settlement Essay, Research Paper
By: Randy Bonds Jr
The Yukon area of Northwestern Canada and Alaska was settled in
the early 1900’s . The gold rush of 1896 through 1900 was a major
contributor to this settlement. Though the terrain is rugged and cold, many
of the prospectors who came in search of the illusive yellow metal found
riches beyond their wildest dreams. Others found homes and places of
business in a country they truly loved. Some flourished and others barely
scraped by, but they all served as a necessary start to the civilization of the
area. Towns began and grew steadily throughout the rush, and a few still
persevered to the present day. This and the people of the gold rush became
factors that settled the great north, and gave the Yukon River the privilege
of being the lifeline of the North.
The gold rush had a very simple and humble beginning, but served as
an awesome part of the settlement of the area. “In the summer of 1896,
three men were working along Rabbit Creek, a small tributary of the
Klondike River. George Carmack, a white “squaw man” married to an
Indian, and his two Indian companions, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie,
had been fishing for salmon that summer. The fishing had been poor and
they’d turned to cutting timber which they intended to float down river to
Forty Mile. Bending down to scoop drinking water from the stream,
Skookum Jim discovered gold flakes scattered in the sand along the
“By gentleman’s agreement, prospectors who made a strike were
obliged to pass the news of the discovery to other prospectors. After
claiming seven 500-foot claims along the banks of Rabbit Creek (Soon to
be renamed Bonanza), Carmack and Charlie boarded a log raft for Forty
Mile, leaving Skookum Jim to guard their find.”(Anderson, 42)
“Filing claims and announcing their discovery at Forty Mile, they
galvanized the miners who promptly headed upstream as fast as they
could go. Within days, the town was all but deserted. By mid-September,
prospectors had staked every inch of Bonanza Creek as well as it’s smaller
tributaries and were taking out gold that ran $25 to $50 per pan and
occasionally as high as $500 per pan.”(Anderson, 42-43) They are no
exact numbers as to how many prospectors were involved that far, but the
fever would take time to reach to the rest of the world.
The trip into the rich North was often began at Chilkoot Pass, the
start of a long journey through many perils. “For centuries, powerful and
wealthy Tlingit natives controlled the Chilkoot Trail, an inland trade route
that meandered undisturbed from Pacific water into the headwaters of the
Yukon River. Then, in 1897, the trail’s silence was replaced by the din of
thousands as the news spread from Seattle to San Fransisco to New York:
Gold! Gold in the Klondike!
The gold seekers, looking for the cheapest and quickest passage to
the Klondike, quickly discovered that the 33-mile inland passage would
take them from the now-defunct town of Dyea, Alaska to Canada’s Lake
Bennett and the headwaters of the Yukon River. From the lake, they could
raft the remaining 400 miles to Dawson., where streams where reportedly
“busting with gold.” But soon they discovered that the route to the
Klondike was ponderous, and the Chilkoot Trail was far more formidable
than they imagined.” Heimbuch, T1)
With the onset of winter, difficult living conditions became nearly
impossible, but the lure of gold drove them onward. Subsisting on flour,
beans, and sometimes smoked salmon, many of them contracted scurvy.
They were sickly and ridden with lice. Home was a hastily constructed
hut, lean-to, or tent, filled with smoke and icy cold. Burrowing into the
frozen ground, miners built fires to thaw the gold-bearing gravel then
piled it in clumps to be panned out in the spring. But the hardships paid
off for some of these first Klondikers. They struck it rich beyond their
wildest dreams. The average claim that winter produced about $600,000,
and several topped the 1 million mark. (Anderson, 43)
The Yukon River was and is a major source of transportation in the
North, its ultimate source is the Nisutlin River, a tributary of Teslin Lake.
The Yukon initially flows northwest in Yukon Territory, past Whitehorse,
Carmacks, Fort Selkirk, and Dawson; its main tributaries in this section
are the Big Salmon, Pelly, White, Stewart, and Klondike rivers. The
Yukon then enters Alaska, where it flows west across the state for 1265
miles before emptying through a large delta into the Bering Sea. (Encarta)
The Yukon is navigable by shallow-draft commercial vessels as far
upstream as Whitehorse. Known to Russian fur traders as early as 1831, it
was an important transportation route in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries but now is used principally by local traffic. Several thousand
indigenous people still live in the region and continue to rely at least partly
on hunting and trapping for their livelihood. (Encarta) The Yukon was as
a lifeline to the miners throughout the rush and into the present day.
Goods and supplies are transported up and down the river and it’s many
tributaries. The overall length of the river is 1979 miles, and it flows
through The Yukon territory and Alaska. It serves as a mode of
transportation as well as a way for supplies to reach the many towns along
Many people were effected by the gold rush of 1896, and many were
changed. Writers, businessmen, people from all walks of life saw the gold
rush mold their lives into something new and different. An article in the
Seattle Post-Intelligencer of July 17 showed this by carrying these banner
GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!
Sixty-Eight Rich men on
the Steamer Portland
STACKS OF YELLOW METAL!
some have $5,000, Many have more, and
a Few Bring Out $100,000 Each.
THE STEAMER CARRIES $700,000
This showed just how the media portrayed the events happening
throughout the rush. A few people saw the land and rush in a different
light, as we see in Robert Service’s poem:
The Land God Forgot
The lonely sunsets flare forlorn
Down valleys dreadly desolate;
The lordly mountains soar in scorn
As still as death, as stern as fate
The lonely sunsets flame and die;
The giant valleys gulp the night;
The monster mountains scrape the sky,
Where eager stars are diamond-bright.
So gaunt against the gibbous moon,
Piercing the silence velvet piled,
A lone wolf howls his ancient rune-
The fell arch-spirit of the Wild.
O outcast land! O leper land!
Let the lone wolf-cry all express
The hate insensate of thy hand,
Thy heart’s abysmal loneliness.
This poem showed how a person who experienced the terrors of the
Great North felt about the land. Many people went to the Northern
Alaska-Yukon border in search of gold, and instead found themselves.
They had time with but a few companions on many trips and were
allowed the thinking time to figure out just who they are. Gold was a
definite plus to the gold rush, but few people actually came out terribly
rich, others started businesses that have thrived to the present day, such is
the story of Thomas Andrew Firth.
Firth was born and grew up in Ontario, Canada. In his youth he took
a brief trip to Pennsylvania and disappeared from family records. He
resurfaced at the age of 31 to join the Klondike Gold Rush. Firth did not
find gold in the land of the Yukon, so to make the best of his
circumstances, he started a business. The business he started was the Firth
Insurance Agency Brokerage, founded in 1906. The agency is run to this
day by Firth’s family members. (Gold Rushers, WWW) Firth and many
others started business like this, beginning economic growth in the
An organization that specializes in the history of the gold rush, and
personal accounts conducted an interview with firth’s grandchildren. It
shows through their eyes how their Grandpa went through the gold rush.
Ghosts of the Gold Rush spoke with Firth’s grandchildren, Nancy
Houston, 44, and Ton Firth, 50, both live with their families in
Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Here are a few excerpts:
How did your grandfather end up in the middle of the Klondike gold
My understanding is he was looking for work, as all young men were
in that time, and he was traveling across the United States with a
couple of friends picking up odd jobs here and there and found
himself in the West at the time the Portland came in – July 17, 1897 -
into Seattle. As everybody else, he was all excited about the gold in
the Klondike, and thought that he and a couple of his buddies would
like to go north.
So they jumped on a steamship in Seattle and ended up in Skagway?
That’s correct, and he climbed over the Chilkoot (Pass).
Did he spend time in Skagway and run into Soapy Smith and his army
of thugs and gangsters?
I doubt it. He was already in the Klondike when Soapy Smith met his
Is there any information about his Chilkoot hike?
He was in partnership with three Americans from Seattle. They
assisted each other getting their supplies over the pass, and they
apparently rafted down and came through (into Dawson City) about
May of ‘98, when there was a whole flotilla of people leaving Bennett
and floating down the lake and coming through the river system.
They built their own boat at Lake Bennett?
That’s right. They made it out of whipsaw lumber as everybody did,
and when the lake ice went out, everybody launched their boat and
headed off down the lake.
Did your grandfather experience any trouble on the river system?
My brother told me it was his understanding that they had to check
through the police post in Tagish and that they had contracted with
somebody like Jack London to bring their boats through the rapids
and they hauled their supplies around. They drifted on down to
…On his birthday, September 1. In the newspaper clippings that
Dad had (it said) that on September 1, on his 31st birthday, he landed
in Dawson City.
He worked for Big Alex McDonald (at one time the richest man in the
He used to write Alex McDonald’s cheques for him because apparently
he (Big Alex) couldn’t read or write. So our grandfather wrote the
cheques and then witnessed his signature. He (Big Alex) was one of
those who actually made it rich.
We did a rough calculation. My father said he’d written out a
return – what we call a royalty cheque. Because there was no personal
income tax, they paid tax royalties on the gold produced, and this tax
royalty cheque was for $50,000 based on $18 fine ounce value of
gold. Our grandfather wrote out the cheque for (Big Alex) and sent
it into the government. Now, if you take today’s dollars and the value
of gold today, the man’s personal income was probably (the equivalent
of) 5 or 6 million dollars. There was a lot of money flying around up
there. A lot of these fellows were illiterate, so T.A. (grandfather)
found that he could use his skills by assisting them with their
properties, their claims, writing up lay agreements, and witnessing
their signature or their “X.” He coined the expression that his pen was
mightier than his pick. (Gold Rushers, WWW)
This is proof of how a man looking for gold could head to the north,
and not find gold, but still find work, and a new beginning for his life.
In the 1840’s, the Hudson’s Bay Company began establishing trading
post along the Yukon River, helping to start commercial businesses in
Alaska and Northern Canada. The region was virtually unihabitated until
1896, the year of the Gold Rush in the creeks and rivers of the North. At
the peak of the gold rush in 1898, the population of Dawson alone was
more than 400,000. This shows how big of an affect the rush was having
on the region’s population. Over 100 million dollars worth of gold was
discovered in the region between 1896 and 1904. The reason for many
people to be there was to get rich quick, but others also found a new
beginning to their lives. The population of the area began to decline
because of an exhaustion of the richer placeer deposits, in 1921, there
were a mere 4157 people in the Yukon territory. The population had a rise
during World War II with the construction of the Alaska Highway.
In 1901, the population of the Yukon territory was roughly 27
thousand people. In the next decade, the region suffered a great drop in
population the continued into 1931 when the population had dropped to a
mere 4 thousand people. Slowly the region began to rebound economically
and became the mining industrial power that it is today. In 1971, the
population of the Yukon territory was 18 thousand people. From then on,
the population steadily increased showing strong growth. By the year
1991, the population of the Yukon territory had reached it’s early post-
gold rush levels. The population in that year was as it was in 1901, a
astounding 27 thousand people. (Encarta)
The gold rush was an obvious foundation for the growth of the Yukon
territory and Alaska. It was a humble beginning for the economy of the north.
Many people were involved in the rush, and some even died in the search of
gold. Others, who found no gold, found a beginning in their lives. As
Andrew Firth and many others did, they started business that eventually
would become the basis to the economy of The Yukon Territory and Alaska.