Day three of a five-day hike back in 1981. My friend Bruce and I had started out early in a light drizzle from Sheep Camp on the Chilkoot Trail because we knew it was going to be the longest and hardest day of the entire journey. We gained elevation rapidly as we approached the Scales, a point not far from the foot of the final ascent of the “golden stairs” to the top of the Chilkoot Summit.
My heart was pounding and my energy was totally gone. I stopped to gain my breath, drink some water and eat a couple of power bars. Feeling rejuvenated, we made the final steep ascent over large boulders clinging to the face of the mountain. Reaching the top, we were greeted by a spectacular view to the north. The chain of lakes and barren rocky terrain were bathed in sunlight.
We felt exultant at that moment, having overcome the most challenging part of the trail, but I was humbled when I remembered my history – that the First Nations used this trail for generations as a major trade route to the interior, and that the packs they carried were as much as four times the weight of the one I had shouldered.
I don’t know when trade started between the people of the coast and those of the interior, but it preceded the first European contact by many generations. According to Tlingit lore, a Hoonah man who survived an epidemic in his village made his way inland over the glaciers, where he encountered the people of the interior. He initiated contact and showed them a more efficient way to catch salmon.
After living with them for some time, he brought them to the coast, where he introduced them to coastal villagers, with whom they established trade partnerships. After that, the Tlingit started making annual trading trips into the interior over the various mountain passes, the access to which they controlled.
Their commerce extended far into the interior, but eventually settled into meetings at rendezvous points such as Neskataheen, and Tagish, where social and economic exchange took place. Intermarriage occurred, cementing long-term trading relationships.
The Chilkat Tlingit fiercely protected their access to the interior over the Chilkat passes to Neskataheen, the Tatshenshini River and Kusawa Lake, where the first Europeans did not penetrate until 1890.
The picture was different over the Chilkoot Pass, just a few miles farther up the Lynn Canal, where the first white men entered the interior in 1878. This access was formalized when Kohklux, the great diplomat of the Tlingit people, invited U.S. Navy Lieutenant L.A. Beardslee to settle an intertribal dispute in 1880.
While trade and exchange between the coast and the interior continued until the gold rush, the main form of enterprise for the native people via the Chilkoot Pass became the packing business.
The control of the packing on the trail was based upon the native system of land tenure. The crow clan of the Chilkoot Tlingit controlled access to the Chilkoot Pass from the coast and required the ever-increasing stream of prospectors crossing the summit to use their packers to carry their supplies to the headwaters of the Yukon River.
According to tradition, the Tagish people controlled the packing of supplies from the summit into the interior. This access often extended to the coast as well. Keish, also known as Skookum Jim, was one of the most well-known packers during the 1880s. He often transported goods inland from the coast.
The capacity of the native people, especially those of the interior, to carry heavy packs was frequently noted in the historic record. Women and children, some as young as 10 years of age, were observed carrying packs of 20 to 45 kilograms. They received very good pay for this work.
John J. Healey, who ran a trading post at Dyea, on the coast, saw men packing loads of up to 100 kilograms. Of these, Keish was mentioned frequently in historic accounts as carrying loads near that amount, which is why he became known as “Skookum” (strong) Jim.
These packers handled the hauling of prospectors’ outfits into the interior, but as the number of prospectors and miners grew, it placed an increasing demand on the local packers, who couldn’t keep up. Impatient miners, waiting their turn during a very short mining season, threatened to overwhelm the packing business.
Control of this commerce was slowly slipping from Chilkoot hands. Chief Klanot was already angry with John J. Healy for his interference in the Chilkoots’ fur trade with the Stick Indians of the interior, and now Klanot saw Healy developing the Chilkoot trail for pack horses.
Healy soon undercut the Tlingit packing rates as far as Sheep Camp, leaving the Tlingit with the more difficult packing from Sheep Camp to the summit. Eventually he tried to supplant even this concession by hiring Tlingits from Sitka to handle the shipment of goods over the entire pass.
This boiled over some years later, by which time, hundreds of prospectors were attempting to reach the Yukon watershed. Events led to the so-called “packing war” of 1888, during which Klanot, the local chief, battled with another chief, Jack, from Sitka.
Both chiefs and a number of others were killed in the conflict, which led to resolution of the dispute. Agreement was eventually reached that the visiting packers would pay a percentage of their packing fees for the right to pack over the pass.
Circumstances climaxed with the influx of thousands of Europeans who stampeded north during the excitement of the Klondike stampede. The construction of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway brought the packing business to an end once and for all.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available. You can contact him at email@example.com