A tale of four travellers

My wife Kathy and I came across an obscure travel narrative that provides a new perspective on the time around the gold discovery that put Dawson City on the map. 

My wife Kathy and I came across an obscure travel narrative that provides a new perspective on the time around the gold discovery that put Dawson City on the map. Of course, Dawson didn’t even exist at the time the narrator visited the site.

“Sketches from Alaska” by Omer Maris was published in 1897 by the Chicago Record newspaper. No doubt the Record was taking advantage of the sudden appetite for Klondike information sparked by the mania of the gold rush. But it describes a trip that the author took into the Yukon basin in 1896, before the Klondike was discovered.

This little gem was hidden in plain sight. I checked the standard references for the gold rush; it wasn’t referred to by Berton in his book Klondike, nor by Wickersham or Ricks in their bibliographies. Parks Canada Bibliographies failed to mention it as well. Fortunately, a copy of this 60-page booklet can be found in the Yukon Archives.

Maris was one of two journalists hired by the Record to write about their journeys into this wilderness far away from Chicago; the other was William Douglas Johns.

Johns wrote articles that were published, I am told, in the Chicago Record, but his manuscript, a lengthy narrative of his travels into the Yukon, was never published. Fortunately, a copy of his manuscript is also held at the Yukon Archives. Johns’s manuscript is memorable because he was on the scene and described what happened when Eldorado Creek was named and staked.

His account surrounding the events of the discovery of Eldorado is copied almost verbatim in Tappan Adney’s book, The Klondike Stampede. Johns also staked a claim on this small but rich tributary of Bonanza Creek.

Maris makes reference to others traveling into the Yukon during the summer of 1896 who wrote about their experiences, most notably Josiah Spurr, a geologist working for the United States government, and English traveler Harry De Windt. Curiously, Maris didn’t make any mention of fellow journalist Johns.

What makes all of this so interesting is that we have a series of parallel written accounts of journeys into the Yukon by four different observers the summer of 1896. Their accounts of people and events overlap and interconnect. Events described in detail by one are omitted or barely mentioned by others. Spurr mentions a Catholic priest, and masks De Windt’s identity by calling him Danlon. De Windt identifies the priest by name, Father Barnum. Spurr gets the name of the vessel that took them from Juneau to Dyea wrong, but De Windt and Maris remembered it clearly.

Yet by careful comparison of the various accounts, it is possible to assemble an interesting description of events on the Yukon River the summer of 1896. So what did these travellers see, I wondered, when they passed the mouth of the Klondike River later in the summer?

Spurr is vague about many details, particularly about names and dates. When he arrived at the mouth of the Klondike River, he found on the south side “a village of probably two hundred Indians, but no white men. The Indians were living in log cabins; on the shore numbers of narrow and shallow birch canoes were drawn up…” Most of the men were stationed along the river waiting for the salmon run.

Harry De Windt, the Englishman, arrived, according to his account, July 5, at a “long line of log shanties on the right bank of the river.” There was, he recounted, “an air of clean prosperity about the dwellings” where “the beauty of the place was then unmarred by the squalid little white settlement across the stream [Klondike River].” Beyond that, he seemed to have little to report.

Maris, on the other hand, has much more to say. At Tagish, en route to the interior, he sees a notice written in pencil on the front door of one of the First Nation houses stating that “First Charley” has gone down to the Sixty Mile River for two years. Could this be Tagish Charley (now known as Dawson Charley)? At the lower end of Lake Laberge, Maris encounters a man named “Stick Jim,” who comes from Tagish. Jim is traveling down the Yukon with a small party, to meet his whiter brother in law. This was, in fact, Skookum Jim, looking for George Carmack. When Maris arrives at the mouth of the Clandike (Klondike), he and his party land a kilometre and a half or so downstream from the “Indian village” near its mouth.

The camp there consisted of a few tents and birch-covered sheds which were being built for drying the salmon. The unnamed man occupying the camp was the brother in law of Stick Jim – obviously George Carmack. Carmack was waiting for the arrival of the salmon run, which he was expecting any day, but which did not occur for another two weeks. Carmack was planning to sell most of his dried fish for dog feed at 33 cents a kilogram. With Carmack were his wife and two little children, who spoke mainly their native tongue, but for whom he seemed to have “genuine affection.” Across the Yukon from the mouth of the Clandike, Maris noted, was the first hard rock mine in the country.

We don’t know when Maris arrived at Carmack’s camp, but it precedes Johns, who landed on the bank of the Yukon where the Northern Commercial store was later to stand. Today, that is the site of the two-storey log building that houses Dawson’s visitor information centre and the offices of the Klondike Visitors Association. According to Johns, Carmack’s camp was a tent pitched on the bank beside an old pole salmon drying rack. At the camp were Carmack’s wife Kate, and her daughter. The mouth of the Klondike River was “filled with fish weirs woven with willows to catch the salmon.” The native village was upstream on the other side of the mouth of the Klondike River.

While Johns camped there overnight, he gave Kate a large silk handkerchief in exchange for a pair of hand-made moose skin mittens. “She sat up all night to make them and was immensely pleased by the bargain,” reported Johns.

Johns asked Kate where George was. According to his account, “she said he had gone looking for gold with her two brothers.” They found it, too, on a tiny Klondike tributary called Rabbit Creek. It was later known as Bonanza.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net