death in dawson

The recent discovery of the remains of four executed men came as a surprise to the crew that was working at the site of the future sewage treatment plant off Fifth Avenue in Dawson City.

The recent discovery of the remains of four executed men came as a surprise to the crew that was working at the site of the future sewage treatment plant off Fifth Avenue in Dawson City. Uncovering human remains in such a context brought everything to a grinding halt. Specialists had to be called in, remains had to be located and carefully removed for study, and construction schedules were delayed.

But in a region of our country where human remains have been found in a remote area of the Tatshenshini Valley a decade ago, and where 8,000-year-old artifacts are melting out of ice patches on mountain sides in the south-west Yukon, it should be no surprise at all.

During my years working for Parks Canada, many interesting things emerged from the ground in the Klondike region, both because of the excellent preservative effect of the permafrost in the region, and because of the unusual events surrounding the Klondike Gold Rush.

Take for example, the Dawson Film Find – an amazing collection of old silent movie reels found buried in what was once the Yukon’s first indoor swimming pool. Most of the large collections of old silent movie films housed in Hollywood were destroyed by huge fires over the years. Meanwhile, hundreds of reels of early silent movies were resting peacefully under a skating rink behind what is now known as Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, waiting to be discovered.

But there was more – during my early years in Dawson City, the water and sewer system was being replaced. Roads were dug up all over the gold rush capital, and in the detritus extracted from the trenches running down the streets were many intriguing relics from the early days.

Not only that, as the shaky foundations of the old buildings resting on the boggy frozen ground of Dawson were repaired, buildings were moved, holes were dug, and more turn-of-the-century artifacts were exposed. I remember what appeared to be an old whiskey keg exposed in the hole that was excavated after the Midnight Sun Hotel was destroyed by fire in the early 1980’s.

Archeological excavations in the ground beneath many of the old buildings restored by Parks Canada exposed thousands of bits and pieces that, when studied, revealed much about the material history of the buildings – and the community – more than a century ago. Such work is vital to compiling a complete and accurate story of life in Dawson City in the early days.

The same thing occurred in the goldfields surrounding Dawson City. Thousands of shafts were dug into the gold-bearing creeks outside of Dawson by early day miners. Many of them have been unearthed during the resurgence of placer mining from the early 1980s to the present day. Old coins, lead shot, tools, even dead horses have been captured in the sluice boxes along with the gold. Plenty of cast-off clothing has been dug up. A few years ago, one miner found a pair old Levi’s jeans, which were identified and dated by company historians. Could they test the sweat-stained apparel for DNA I wonder?

From the sluice box at another mining operation, they recovered a bucket full of steel tips broken off the miners’ picks during the heyday of early hand mining.

Yukon’s earth has yielded many unusual treasures that enrich our history and help to portray more accurately the events of bygone times.

In 1986, I watched from my office window in the Old Courthouse in Dawson City as big machines scraped away the gravel from the exposed Yukon River bottom to prepare for the construction of the waterfront dike. This was a defensive measure intended to spare the town from another disastrous flood like the one we had in 1979.

They unexpectedly exposed a cache of old Lee-Metford rifles that had belonged to the Yukon Field Force, a company of 200 Canadian soldiers that were stationed in Dawson City during the gold rush. They were there to assert Canadian sovereignty over the largely American population. From the scattered gnarled and corroded remains, I recovered one rifle not as badly mangled as the others, and, with assistance of many others, incorporated it into an exhibit explaining the role of the Field Force during the gold rush.

In the late 1980s, I met Jack (Tich) Watson, a retired Mountie, who had been stationed in Dawson City five decades before. As I recall, he told me that while he was stationed there, the commanding officer instructed him and other officers to carry the obsolete rifles down to the river bank and throw them in the frigid waters. I’m sure they never expected these weapons to ever be seen again!

Watson also convinced Parks Canada to conduct excavations in the park area behind the Comissioner’s Residence where, he said, many old pieces of military paraphernalia were buried. We found nothing, but, there was also the intimation that we might uncover the remains of the prisoners executed there.

Upon arriving in Dawson City in 1932, Watson’s first assignment was to stand the death watch over condemned killer Barney West. West had, while drunk, bludgeoned Michael Essanasa with a leather poke filled with lead shot, and then stole the dead man’s money belt. Paying off all of his outstanding bills, and buying jewellery for his girlfriend betrayed West’s cruel action, and he was arrested, tried and convicted of murder. Watson wrote about it in his personal journal.

On his final day, Dr. Nunn, the attending physician offered West a drink:

“Barney, would you like a drink?”

“Yes I would, Doc, more than anything.”

West held the bottle of Johnny Walker up to the light, examining the golden liquid, then poured a full glass for a final toast:

“Johnny Walker, you son-of-a-bitch. You got me into this. Now see me through to the end.”

With that, he downed the entire glass, and then resolutely, even willingly, strode to the gallows, where he was hanged and quickly buried in an unmarked grave. West may have been the last condemned man of a dozen or so to die in a hangman’s noose in Dawson City.

So you can see why I wasn’t surprised when the remains were uncovered by the construction crew.

If you have to dig into the ground anywhere in the Yukon, don’t be surprised by what you find.

The big question is: will you give what you find to specialists to study and learn about our unique and interesting past, or will you throw it away because it is only going to slow down the job you are trying to finish?

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book History Hunting in the Yukon is now available in good stores everywhere in the territory.

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