Skip to content

Early gold recorders kept order on the creeks

One hundred and twenty five years ago, no more than a dozen prospectors spent a long cold winter in the Yukon River basin.

One hundred and twenty five years ago, no more than a dozen prospectors spent a long cold winter in the Yukon River basin.

For 10 years, there had been a mere handful of them in the country, but for the first time, parties of miners reached Fort Reliance, located a few miles below the future site of Dawson City, where they spent the winter.

During that winter, they convened a meeting, the first of its kind in the Yukon valley, to establish some rules about the use of water for mining, and how large their claims would be.

Jack McQuesten, who ran the tiny trading post at Fort Reliance, was elected the first mining recorder.

In McQuesten’s own personal recollections, he does not spell out exactly what his specific responsibilities as mining recorder were.

The early miners and prospectors lived in a political vacuum, a wilderness devoid of boundaries.

As such, they had no formal constitution, nor was there any formal body there to enforce one.

Thus they implemented the rules established in the camps of previous gold rushes; they managed their affairs under an anarchistic democracy called the miners’ committee.

These committees were flexible. When gold was discovered on the Fortymile River, a miners’ committee decided that each claim was to be roughly 460 metres in length.

The next season, however, when the Fortymile was flooded with prospectors, the claim size was reduced to 90 metres to reduce the potential for conflict, and ensure that everybody was able to take out enough gold to pay for their grubstake.

This method of administration was effective and practical, but it also had a dark side.

As the population of miners in the Yukon valley increased, the potential for these committees to go awry increased, especially where there was liquor involved.

Cases were heard by miners committees that resulted in patently unfair judgments.

In 1895, more than 20 years after the first prospectors arrived, the North West Mounted Police came on the scene. 

The Mounties were assigned many responsibilities during their posting at Fortymile; the role of first official mining recorder in the Yukon fell to the commanding officer, Inspector Charles Constantine.

Constantines’s duties in this regard were clear: he was to apply the regulations pertaining to staking and recording of placer claims according to rules set out by the Canadian government. 

Many of the miners on the creeks were ready for a change, and those who weren’t quickly moved to Circle, Alaska, beyond the reach of British justice.

In the summer of 1896, there was a dispute over non-payment of wages by a man who had leased a claim on Glacier Creek in the Sixtymile district.

A miners committee held the claim owners, who were innocent third parties, liable for restitution.

The claim owners appealed to Inspector Constantine, who dispatched a dozen armed officers and men to settle the dispute.

This was the first time the decision of a miner’s meeting was overturned and it foretold the end of an era, but not before one final miners’ meeting was held a few weeks later, on a tiny tributary of the Yukon, fifty miles above Fortymile.

In mid-August of 1896, George Washington Carmack and his First Nation relatives Skookum Jim Mason (known as Keish in his Tagish community) and Dawson Charley found a significant showing of placer gold on a minor tributary of the Klondike River named Rabbit Creek. They had been invited by Canadian prospector Robert Henderson to visit him on a tributary of Hunker Creek named Gold Bottom.

On or about August 17th, as they were returning to the fish camp they had set up near the mouth of the Klondike River, the three men discovered promising prospects and staked four contiguous claims along this small stream.  Carmack and Charley made their way to Fortymile to file their claims with the mounted police while Jim remained at their claims to guard the ground and begin working it.

Joe Ladue, the trader who operated a trading post on an island in the Yukon River near the mouth of the Sixtymile River, was optimistically steering incoming prospectors in the direction of Henderson’s promising reports on Gold Bottom. Some of those who were headed in that direction encountered Carmack and Charley with word of the new find; and hearing of this new discovery, amended their plans and headed up Rabbit Creek instead.

Carmack also announced his discovery in the town of Fortymile.  This had the electric effect of clearing out the community in short order while Carmack was presenting himself to Inspector Constantine to file his claim.

Carmack had thrown his gold down in Bill McPhee’s Saloon when he announced his find, and not having kept any, was unable to present a sample to Constantine as proof that he had in fact found gold on his newly discovered claim.

As required in the regulations, Constantine sent Carmack back to his prospect to recover the requisite gold, and it was therefore almost six weeks after the original staking that he was in fact able to file his claims with the Inspector.

While Carmack was away in Fortymile, more prospectors had made their way up to the newly discovered gold stream.

Six days after the Carmack trio had staked, two dozen miners assembled on a bench overlooking the creek and convened a miners meeting.

They re-named the Creek Bonanza, and its main tributary Eldorado, and appointed a Nova Scotian named  Dave McKay to act as the mining recorder.

Using a length of rope, McKay measured out each man’s claim, and listed them on paper.

When the stakes became high, as they were on Bonanza Creek, the work of the mining recorder became more of an exact science than was possible with an impromptu field appointment.

The problems were compounded by the varied and inexact knowledge of the mining regulations and the antics of the prospectors who stampeded to Bonanza in the days after the discovery.

The rope that was produced to measure the claims was not itself properly measured, so all the claims were shorter than allowed. Another claim proved to be almost double the legal length, the result, it was alleged, of having been measured out in darkness.

Another claim was so poorly measured that the lower post on this claim proved to be four metres above the upper one, leaving the owner with four metres less than nothing.

Many claims were staked in the absence of the reputed owner, and in one case, a deputation of miners relocated one miner’s clam four miles further down the stream.

Chaos reigned over the creeks, and these circumstances were beyond McKay’s capabilities to deal with.

You can on imagine the turmoil that would have resulted had the confusion not been resolved.

The miners turned to the one man they all trusted to unravel the confusion of claims: William Ogilvie the government surveyor. Over the winter, Ogilvie applied his technical skills, knowledge of the regulations and the wisdom of Solomon to sort things out.

In the end, Ogilvie created order out of chaos and his decisions were accepted by all without dispute.

The days of the miner’s committee were at an end. The appointment and responsibilities of the mining recorder could no longer be a spur of the moment affair.

It was time for the government to take over the job.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.