The First horses came into the Yukon in 1891. Actually the first horses in the Yukon were here thousands of years ago, but they became extinct; these were the first to return.
Edward J. Glave was an Englishman who came to America after having spent six years in Africa, three of them under the tutelage of Henry Morgan Stanley, the famed British explorer.
Glave had been to the Yukon the year before, in 1890, when he and American pathfinder Jack Dalton travelled through the south-west Yukon as members of a party sponsored by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. At Kusawa Lake, the party divided into two components, one of which consisted of Glave and Dalton, who hoofed it to Klukshu via Frederick Lake, then south to the Southern Tutchone trading centre of “Neska Ta Heen.”
From there they hiked over a route to a village on the Alseck River (we now know it as the Tatshenshini), then by dugout canoe to Dry Bay on the Alaskan coast.
Glave couldn’t find anybody to sponsor a return expedition to this region, nor even interest the government in providing him with scientific instruments with which to chart the regions he planned to visit, so he financed it himself. Fortunately, he was able to sell his account of this second journey to Century Magazine upon his return to New York City.
Glave had bigger plans than Alaska; he really wanted to return to Africa to write about his travels, but to do that, he had to demonstrate his ability to undertake exploration in a small party. A return trip to Alaska might be the way to prove himself capable of the challenge.
On this trip, Glave reflected the view of expanding empire. He intended to show that it was possible to visit the interior of Alaska using pack horse, thus opening it up to mineral development and better transportation. In particular, white men were exceedingly interested in accounts of rich copper deposits in the White River region. But they couldn’t do any of this if they didn’t have convenient and affordable transportation.
To this date, he said, access to the interior was controlled by the Chilkat Tlingit at Klukwan, who already had a monopoly over transportation into the south-west Yukon. The Chilkats “controlled the situation and commanded exorbitant pay,” said Glave.
“Moreover,” Glave complained, “his (their) arrogance, inconsistency, cunning and general unreliability are ever on the alert to thwart the white man … Often the Indians will carry their loads some part of the way agreed upon, then demand an extravagant increase of pay or a goodly share of the white man’s stores, and failing to get either, will fling down their packs,… leaving their white employer helplessly stranded.”
From their own perspective, the Chilkat weren’t too excited about anybody undermining their monopoly over transportation and trade to the interior, and furthermore, the two dollars a day plus grub to act as guides paled in comparison to the ten dollars a day they could make working in one of the coastal canneries.
Glave and Dalton purchased four sturdy ponies and shipped them from Seattle by boat to Pyramid Harbour, which was situated across the Chilkat Inlet from present-day Haines. From here they took them up the Chilkat valley and Klehini River, following the receding snow until they were able to take their animals across the summit.
While awaiting the melting snows, Dalton improvised home-made snowshoes for their horses. They were 35 centimetres in diametre, fashioned from spruce saplings and then lashed to the horses’ hooves by a series of loops drawn up tight around their fetlocks.
Patiently, over a period of several days, Dalton was able to train the skittish animals to accept these devices on their feet, but when they crossed over the summit, the snow had hardened into a hard crust that made the snowshoes unnecessary.
They carried on to “Neska Ta Heen,” where the local residents thought these strange animals were some kind of large dog. One woman started removing her meat from the drying racks so that these strange creatures wouldn’t consume it!
The people in the village were not interested in guiding the two strangers to their source of native copper, which was a valuable trade commodity, so the duo shed their unwilling guides and, each leading two of their pack animals, they struck out on their own in a northwesterly direction.
They quickly settled into a routine of back-breaking work that included striking camp in the morning, loading the pack bags and mounting them on the horses. They searched for the trails, following them where they could, and cutting their own when they couldn’t, then unpacking the loads at day’s end, setting up a camp, preparing meals, and constantly watching the horses, who, despite being hobbled, could wander off.
They travelled over variable and trackless grassy terrain, interspersed with spruce and tamarack. Then they would encounter grassy meadows that proved to be treacherous bogs overlain by a thin skin of sod, which sagged beneath their weight and set up “slimy grassy waves.” Two of their horses sank into one of these bogs and it took them two hours to extract the struggling beasts.
Finally, they met a small party from “Hootchy Eye” (Hutchi), and the two explorers accompanied this party north as far as the Nisling River, where to his horror, Glave found the tracks of another party, belonging to the veteran Yukon explorer, Frederick Schwatka.
They turned south toward “Tloo Arny” (Kluane) Lake, and there appropriated a dugout canoe they found, to explore the perimeter of the lake. They were caught in one of the sudden squalls that blow on the Yukon’s largest lake, and almost drowned, but managed to push the overturned canoe to shore, where they landed, shivering and teeth chattering, but alive.
Reunited with their horses, but without essential supplies, which were lost in the lake, the survivors beat a hasty retreat to “Neska Ta Heen,” where they waited for the right weather to cross the summit and return to Pyramid Harbour.
They completed the journey without finding any gold or mineral deposits. Their accomplishment was diminished somewhat by the fact that Schwatka beat them to the area, but Schwatka’s accounts of his trip vanished into obscurity.
Jack Dalton continued to return to the Yukon over this route, setting up a trading post in the interior, and following a traditional native route, commenced packing supplies by horse to the Yukon River and down to Fortymile. This route became important for a short time during the during the Klondike gold rush.
And Glave? He got his sponsor and returned to Africa, where he eventually died 12 May, 1895, at the age of 32, but not before writing a series of articles exposing the brutality of the Belgian colonial occupation of Africa.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, History Hunting in the Yukon (Harbour Publishing), is now available in stores throughout the Yukon.