It started as a conflict over a woman, so the story goes, between a Frenchman and an Englishman in the little log mining town of Forty Mile. They decided to have it out in the form of a duel.
Each was armed with a Winchester rifle and they stood 150 metres apart. They would each fire at the other, then advance one pace and fire again, until one or both of them was killed.
A delegation of 10 men armed with rifles, under the supervision of a big Scotsman named Neal McArthur, came out to witness the affair and ensure that this lunacy was played out according to the rules of fair play.
Before they started, the Englishman noticed that McArthur had a 15-metre length of rope, so he asked what role this hemp was to play in the pending shoot-out. McArthur’s reply was that this was the rope with which they intended to hang the winner!
Sizing up the odds of coming out of this situation alive, the two combatants wisely chose a peaceful resolution.
As bizarre as this story sounds, it actually happened. I found several variations of the events in other narratives of this pre-gold rush era; even Jack London, holed up for the winter in a tiny cabin on the Yukon River during the Klondike Gold Rush, heard the yarn, and later recounted it in his short story The Men of Forty Mile.
When I made this connection, I raced off to share my revelation with Dick North, writer, historian and curator of the Jack London Exhibit in Dawson City. North is a confirmed history hunter himself, and one of the most knowledgeable men in the world on the topic of Jack London.
North was not surprised at all by my excited announcement. He was well aware of London’s penchant for basing his stories of the North on first hand observation and a good ear.
A quick scan of London’s work reveals other examples of his skill at adapting actual events into stories. Buck, the main character in London’s classic work, Call of the Wild, is modeled after Jack, the dog belonging to London’s Dawson City neighbours Louis and Marshal Bond.
The League of Old Men is a story told through courtroom testimony of a native man on trial for killing “innumerable” gold rush stampeders. He was seeking retribution for the various violations the newcomers had inflicted upon the land and ways of the accused and his people.
The story was probably inspired by the Nantuck Brothers. The brothers were under arrest for the murder of a prospector, and the wounding of another on McClintock Creek at the time that London was making his way toward the Klondike.
Another example comes from the story The Priestly Prerogative, in which a group of stampeders finds fortune in a small way without ever reaching Dawson City. Stopping at Yukon Crossing, a point on the Yukon River below the last rough water, these men exploit an opportunity by converting the offal from the butchering of cattle at the end of the Dalton Trail into dog food.
All winter, the men package the waste material and fill their money belts by selling their product to hungry dog teams at $1 a pound.
Many of the names of characters in London’s stories are derived from actual Yukon pioneers like Father Roubeau (Aloysius Robaut, a Catholic priest) and Bettles (Gordon Bettles, after whom Bettles, Alaska, was named).
London spent the long cold Klondike winter listening attentively to the stories told by weathered sourdoughs, many of whom had spent years searching for gold in the Yukon.
London was gregarious and highly intelligent. As one of his travelling companions remarked: “Jack’s companionship was refreshing, stimulating, helpful. He never stopped to count the cost or dream of profits to come.”
While others were frantically seeking the elusive pay streak in the hills that ringed Dawson, London was making notes and writing down the stories he heard and capturing the characters he encountered.
During his short stay in Dawson City, London visited the bars, where his attentive ears were welcomed by miners who were eager to share a drink, and a story or two.
According to author Irving Stone: “By listening to the right men, the trappers and sourdoughs who had been in Alaska before the Klondike strike, he gathered the first authentic history of the early days of the country.”
Others, who experienced the excitement of the era first-hand, wrote fictional stories deeply steeped in the detail and colour of their impressions. Reverend Robert Dickey, author of Gold Fever followed the stream of humanity over the Klondike Trail. Arthur Thompson, who wrote Gold Seeking on the Dalton Trail, was a member of a party who prospected for gold along the Dalton Trail in 1898.
Much of what they tell in their narratives can be substantiated from other documentary sources.
Other authors who wrote colourful fictional accounts of the Yukon, however, never set foot in the place. Robert Ormond Case, a Hollywood screenwriter, wrote a gripping novel, The Yukon Drive, which is an account of a cattle drive over the Dalton Trail. For much of the book, the descriptions appear to be historically accurate, but the accuracy deteriorates as the story advances.
Jules Verne, an even more famous novelist, wrote a book titled The Claim on Forty Mile Creek. Again, the facts of the story and setting seem historically accurate, but neither Verne nor Case ever experienced the land of the midnight sun, or felt the cruel bite of 60 degrees of Yukon frost.
I admire the efforts of these latter two men for their attention for detail, but have to reject their work as historical documents. If only they had placed footnotes in their stories stating from where the details were derived! If only they had included a bibliography at the end!
What about London and Dickey and Thompson? Can we use their writings to document a bygone era? Each had his own inspirations. London wanted to tell a compelling, lively, unvarnished story. Dickey wrote with a missionary purpose, imparting Christian morality; Thompson converted his experiences into a story appealing to young readers.
Sift carefully through their work, evaluating it in the context of what is known from other sources; you should be able to derive a fairly reliable historical picture of people, places and events. What you may lose in historical accuracy, though, will most certainly be compensated by colour, texture and intensity.
If you are a history hunter, don’t write off these fictional accounts until you know who wrote them, and how they derived their knowledge.
Sometimes how the stories were inspired and presented is as interesting as the stories themselves.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.