‘You’re a dirty, lying sonofabitch. You take it back!” growled Jack Dalton, and with that, he drew his gun and put six slugs into Jack McGinniss right there in the saloon.
According to popular accounts, McGinniss was a blowhard and ne’er do well who had it coming when Dalton filled him full of lead.
McGinniss had told everyone that Dalton had a sloop full of illicit whiskey anchored off Skagway that he was going to sell to the Indians, and Dalton was not about to have his reputation tarnished.
Dalton immediately turned himself in and was quickly exonerated by his peers
Sounds like a story out of the Wild West doesn’t it, with a good guy, a bad guy, tarnished reputations and guns blazing in the local saloon?
It even has possible links to the infamous Dalton gang back in Kansas.
This story was inspired by a book by Martha McKeown called The Trail Led North.
Published in 1948, McKeown’s book is based on the narrative of her uncle, Mont Hawthorn, who was in Alaska before the great gold rush.
“For many months we have worked together getting things down straight,” said McKeown, who wrote down Hawthorn’s narrative
He has insisted on accuracy in every detail. Everything in this book has been told exactly as it happened, set down in his own words.
So it must be true, right?
Over the years, other authors have borrowed elements of this colourful narrative to retell the story.
But it didn’t happen that way.
It didn’t happen in Skagway, as reported in one story. And it didn’t happen in a saloon.
McGinniss didn’t get six slugs in the chest, by the way, and his name wasn’t even Jack, it was Dan.
There’s much about this story that isn’t even close to the truth.
Housed in the United States National Archives are the original transcripts and documents related to the Trial of Jack Dalton for the murder of Daniel McGinniss, and they paint a different picture.
According to the sworn testimony of Patrick Woods, the only eyewitness, Dalton walked into Murray’s Cannery store in Haines where the 120-pound McGinniss worked as a clerk, and accused him of telling lies.
Apparently, McGinniss had told members of the Chilkat Tlingit that Dalton was going to develop a trail and set up a trading business in the southwest Yukon, where the Chilkat had, up to that time, held a monopoly.
Forty years earlier, the Chilkat travelled hundreds of miles into the Yukon to burn down the trading post of the mighty Hudson’s Bay Company, who was competing with them for local trade.
The HBC didn’t return to the area for another 80 years — but that’s another story.
Dalton clutched the surprised clerk, pulled a pistol out of his pocket, and started hitting the seated McGinniss over the head with the butt repeating the words “You’re a liar!” with each blow.
The fourth blow caused the gun to go off, hitting McGinniss in the shoulder. Dalton swung one more time, hitting the wounded man in the stomach, and discharging the fatal lead into his gut.
When the dying McGinniss was brought to Juneau for medical care, he didn’t live long enough for the doctor to treat him.
A warrant for Dalton’s arrest was issued the following day, and an officer was sent to Haines to arrest Dalton and bring him back to Juneau for trial.
The shooting took place on March sixth, 1893, and the trial occurred in late June.
The trial was short, and relied heavily on the sworn testimony of witness Patrick Woods.
When the jury brought back a not-guilty verdict, the response, according to the press, was divided.
One newspaper reported that the people in the gallery cheered upon hearing the verdict, while another stated that there was much outrage over the decision.
The Sitka Alaskan reported that an angry mob intent on lynching Dalton was finally convinced to give him three days to get out of town.
The members of the jury working for the big mine in Juneau were all fired and reportedly left town shortly after.
And what about the lies that Dalton accused McGinniss of telling in the court testimony?
Well, they weren’t lies after all.
Dalton went on to develop trade, and the native travel routes into the Yukon into a travel corridor for transporting livestock to Dawson City during the gold rush.
They called it the Dalton Trail. The Chilkat tried to sabotage his enterprise and even attempted to kill him, but without success.
Dalton went on to a variety of other successful business ventures over the years, and as his fortunes improved, so did his reputation. In later years, he had many influential friends and contacts.
So what was Dalton really like?
His exploits in the wilds of the Yukon and Alaska are legendary. He was an excellent horseman, a good cook and he had a compass hard-wired into his brain, for if he ever went over a piece of country, he never forgot it.
Edward Glave, the English explorer who travelled into the Yukon with Dalton on two separate expeditions, called him the best all-round man he ever saw.
Given the circumstances, this is strong praise for the hardy pioneer entrepreneur.
Dalton also had another reputation, as a tough, almost menacing figure.
Edward Morgan described him this way: “a diminutive figure with broad and powerful shoulders somewhat out of proportion to his stature.
“He was always pre-eminently fit and in condition as he would need to be to perform on the trail as he did. He was an agreeable man and square shooting person to or do business with, but a bad hombre to cross or run up against.”
Crossing swords with Dalton was risky business.
He was alleged to have killed Matt Egan in Oregon. Egan had been fired, and had confronted Dalton after learning the news.
He also beat a Haines man named Vogel to a pulp for supplying his workmen with liquor, and he followed a party who refused to pay his toll for using his route for herding cattle to the Klondike, threatening to kill them if they ever set foot on his trail.
In later years, he punched out a government agent in Cordova, when the man held back on the approval of Dalton’s payroll money on a contract.
When his business interests were threatened, he occasionally used force to get his way.
Dalton was a small in size, but left a giant imprint in the pioneer history of Yukon and Alaska.
His real exploits were enough to earn him a legendary reputation. It wasn’t really necessary to fabricate a Hollywood-style gunfight to achieve it.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.