letters from alaska and the northwest

Before I get started on this week's column, I want to thank Ken Mulloy for pointing out I described the subject of last week's column leaving Seattle (July 23) after arriving at Bennett, BC (July 5).

Before I get started on this week’s column, I want to thank Ken Mulloy for pointing out I described the subject of last week’s column leaving Seattle (July 23) after arriving at Bennett, BC (July 5).

Obviously, I intended to put June 23, but my mind was wandering when my fingers keyed in the wrong date. Thanks, Ken.

In my last column, I traced the journey of our lady traveller with her brother George from Denver to the Klondike, where she arrived in August of 1898.

The Gold Rush was at its peak. Thousands of men and hundreds of women had converged on this desolate point where the Klondike River meets the Yukon.

She and her party settled into the largest cabin of a 100, located five kilometres up the Yukon River at a place called Silver Bend. Sharing the cabin with several men, she had partitioned one corner as her own ‘state-room.’

“The greatest hardship to me,” she confided in her fourth letter home, “is the lack of light; one so misses the sun.”

“We illuminate entirely by candles, and after supper, when the work of the day is done, we all sit around one candle. As a special favour, if I wish to sew in the evening, two candles are used.”

To pass the time, two of the men created a checkerboard and players. One of the men devoted himself to writing letters, while another worked on solving nautical problems.

“I sit and read, write, sew or think of my loved ones so far away,” she said.

“I have had hanging a number of photographs, but yesterday I ‘retired them,’ as they seemed to encourage homesickness.”

Imagine how lonely she must have felt isolated, far from home, and separated from her family and children in the cold and dark, with mail coming once a month, if at all!

Yet, rather than write about herself, she devoted many of her letters home to describing the circumstances and people around her.

She found it difficult preparing meals for the hungry men using limited provisions such as “granulated potatoes, crystallized eggs, evaporated fruit and vegetables, condensed milk, and canned meats.”

Yet for Thanksgiving she was able to provide a five-course meal including: tomato soup, bread sticks, oyster patties, olives, baked stuffed ptarmigan, corn, potato puff, bread butter and jam, mince pie, cheese and coffee, followed by a dessert of popcorn balls and fruit cake.

No one refused an invitation to that meal.

Any visions of a quick and easy profit had been dispelled that winter.

“When leaving home,” she said in December, of the thousands who came to the Klondike, “they little realized the privations that must be met by pioneers, but expected to gather the gold from under the grass roots instead of many times having to dig into frozen ground over 100 feet before finding a color.”

One neighbour she wrote about, a one-armed man from Seattle named Frank Fuller, exemplifies the grit of a determined man. First of all, he his was robbed on the boat trip to Skagway, arriving there with but two dollars. He began packing on the trail and made enough to continue on his journey.

En route, Fuller joined two others labouring over the construction of a raft of logs to sell in Dawson, but that investment was destroyed in river rapids along the way. Fuller camped seven miles above Dawson, and while he was out gathering berries, his entire camp – tent, stove, food and clothing, were stolen.

He pushed on until reaching Dawson, and while building his own cabin with a comfortable stove made from mud and stone, he lived on shore in his boat.

Despite all of that, he remained undaunted. “He … says he will remain until successful,” she reported.

The most surprising news of her entire correspondence, and news for which her family back home was totally unprepared, was simply delivered in an entry in her letter dated February 10th, 1899:

“On Tuesday, at noon, January 31st, my third son was laid in my arms.”

“With delight I … commenced to count the days until I could write you that the baby was as hale and hearty as any born under happier auspices.”

“Do not be anxious for us. There are times when I long for the luxuries of civilization, but one learns to put such thoughts away, and forget self in the midst of a country where self-denial is the rule.”

“More satisfied each day am I that we did not build winter quarters in Dawson. The town is unhealthy in the extreme and deaths from typhoid and malaria are of daily occurrence.”

She did not want them to worry, so had withheld news of her condition until her new son was secure and healthy in her arms.

Her letters continue with descriptions of their mining, the change of the seasons, and in the spring, the continuing flood of “steamers, barges, scows, canoes, rafts, and in fact every moving, floating thing that can be used for river transportation.”

In May, she finally revealed the privation and monotony that they suffered during the winter, and confided she longed to return to her family far away.

“Embrace my little ones for me,” she wrote, “and be ready to welcome the wanderers.” Meanwhile, her infant son thrived.

The summer of 1899, her father came north to the Klondike to see her, and together, they returned to civilization, leaving Dawson City by steamer August 14th and arriving at Victoria on the 25th. Now she could write about the beauty of the scenery and speak with anticipation of her return from the Klondike.

“No matter what the pecuniary results,” she wrote, “the lessons of life are deeply impressed. A desire for all that is best must come to those who have been so ‘near to Nature’s heart.’”

“In another week we will be re-united; the All-Powerful grant it may be safely … My boys will be glad to see me, and they must be prepared to give a warm welcome to the little brother….”

Now you may think that a one-year sojourn in the Yukon would be enough experience for any Victorian mother of three, but our writer was a hardy soul. She later returned to Dawson City and managed a family business.

In the course of conducting business, she met a dynamic lawyer, and after divorcing her former husband, whom she never saw again after heading to the Klondike, she married the lawyer in Dawson in August of 1904.

This is an account with a storybook ending, for the woman’s name was Martha, and the lawyer she married was George Black. They became embroiled in life’s adventures, and for nearly 50 years, they were at the very heart of politics in the Yukon.

In 1935, American-born Martha was elected to Parliament, only the second woman to be so honoured.

While the account of events in her letters of the time were later polished up and retooled for her autobiography titled My Seventy Years, they reflect the first-hand experiences and impressions of a woman whose romance with the Klondike was just beginning.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.