Klondike discovery launched a gold rush
August 1, 2021 | View PDF
George Washington Carmack and his two inseparable friends, "Skookum" Jim Mason and Tagish Charlie, had wandered up and down the Yukon for several years before their gold discovery electrified the world in August 1896.
Carmack traveled over glaciers, through marshes, among forests, lakes, rivers and mountains in search of his destiny. He seemed a misfit in a land where every man was looking for gold. He only wanted to live like the Natives among whom he'd made his home since coming north in 1885.
When he joined Maj. William Oglivie's party, sent to survey the Alaska-Canada border in 1887, Carmack knew the country well and could speak both the Tlingit and Tenneh languages.
Jowly, round-faced Carmack married the Tagish chief's daughter, Kate, and many said his ambition was to someday become chief of the tribe.
Skookum and Charlie were Kate's relatives. The three packed occasionally and did odd jobs for traders at Dyea. Carmack also made an effort to do something with the coal he'd discovered near the settlement known now as "Carmack's," Yukon Territory. He grew tired of the effort, however, and in 1895 posted a note on his cabin door that read, "Gone for grub," and never returned.
One day in spring 1896, while sitting alone among the ruins of old Fort Selkirk, Carmack had a premonition that a great change was coming in his life.
"Right then and there," he later recalled, "I made up my mind to take action on that hunch. So taking a silver dollar out of my pocket – that was all the cheechako money I had – I flipped it high into the air."
If it came up heads, he thought it meant he should go upstream. If tails, it meant that fate had something in store for him downstream. Tails turned up, so Carmack got into his canoe and started paddling downstream the 200 miles or so to Forty Mile.
Then one night he had a vivid dream.
"I dreamed I was sitting on the bank of a small stream of water, watching the grayling shoot the rapids. Suddenly, the grayling began to scatter as two large king salmon shot up the stream in a flurry of foaming water and came to a dead stop in front of the bank where I was sitting. They were two beautiful fish, but I noticed that instead of having scales like salmon, they were covered with an armor of bright, gold nuggets and had $20 gold pieces for eyes...."
Carmack interpreted his dream to mean that he must go salmon fishing and decided upon the Thron-diuck – later called Klondike – because it was a good salmon stream. He and his wife, along with Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, set nets and hauled in a few king salmon along the riverbank. But fishing was poor, so they gave up and cut timber instead. That was a good way to make a few bucks before winter – the sawmill at Fortymile paid $25 per 1,000 board feet (about $768 today).
They worked their way down Rabbit Creek that August, through fallen trees and devil clubs, gnats and mosquitoes and glacial ooze. When their provisions ran out, Skookum Jim went hunting, shot a moose, and called for the others who where a short distance away.
While waiting for them, he looked at the sand of the creek where he'd gone to get a drink. He saw gold in greater quantities than he had ever seen before. That was August 17, a memorable day that still is celebrated in the Yukon territory.
When news of the find reached Fortymile, the rush was on. Drunken men were thrown into boats, one man was tied and made to go along. By midnight, the stampede was in full swing and Fortymile was deserted in just a few hours.
Two hundred claims were staked before the news got down in Oscar Asby's saloon in Circle City. During that winter and following spring, hoards of prospectors panned for golden riches. And in July 1897, when steamers Portland and Excelsior carried tons of gold to Seattle and San Francisco, the rush to the Klondike began in earnest.
Carmack, Kate, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley all reaped benefits from their major discovery. But life has a way of intervening with success.
Civilization and the means to satisfy his desires seemed to have extinguished Carmack's plans to live like a Native. He abandoned Kate and her people and married a camp-follower in Dawson, who lived with him until his death at age 62 from pneumonia in Vancouver in June 1922.
Kate finished out her life at Carcross, on Lake Tagish, living on a government pension. She always wore a necklace of nuggets taken from the famous claim on Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza) that started the gold rush. She died in 1917.
Tagish Charlie and Skookum Jim were made honorary citizens of the Dominion of Canada for their part in discovering the Klondike gold. Charlie sold his mining properties in 1901. He spent the rest of his life at Carcross where he operated a hotel, entertained lavishly, and finally one summer's day, fell off a bridge and drowned.
Skookum Jim spent the rest of his life traveling ceaselessly across the north seeking another gold claim – even though his mining property paid him royalties of $90,000 a year (close to $3 million today). He died in 1918.
This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk." Volumes One through Five are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com and Amazon.com.