family search yields insights into early yukon missionaries

I met Hugh and Jan Naylor by accident, at the Yukon Archives. They were inquiring about their ancestors, who had been in the Yukon during, and even before, the Klondike Gold Rush.

I met Hugh and Jan Naylor by accident, at the Yukon Archives. They were inquiring about their ancestors, who had been in the Yukon during, and even before, the Klondike Gold Rush.

I try to be helpful with visitors under such circumstances, but these folks were on the trail of a couple of interesting relatives, and, as it turned out, had an interesting personal story to tell.

They were seeking the story of their gold rush ancestors, both of whom were involved in missionary work for the Anglican Church in the early days. Hugh’s grandfather was Henry Naylor, who came into the Yukon with his wife Ada in July of 1896; Jan’s ancestor was Charles F. Johnson, who was involved in one of the most famous stories of survival ever to come out of the north.

With them, they had brought a remarkable document: the letters written by Henry Naylor to his family in Quebec, while he was stationed in the North.

Naylor came from a religious family. Both his father and his brother were archdeacons in the Anglican Church back in Quebec. He was sent to the Yukon, arriving in the tiny log town of Forty Mile only weeks before the discovery of the Klondike gold fields.

The letters, which have been transcribed and typed out, are the personal reflections of Naylor and his wife to his family about their experiences and the momentous events unfolding as the great stampede took place.

They begin with the Naylors’ trip to San Francisco and the voyage to St. Michael, at the mouth of the Yukon River. They describe their arrival in Forty Mile, their first winter in the North, and the impact of the gold rush on their lives.

Naylor travelled extensively in the region, visiting miners in the Fortymile River district, and making trips to the newly discovered gold fields.

I found these entries intriguing because I recognized the names of miners that Naylor met in the Fortymile; they were miners and prospectors from the pre-gold rush era that I wrote about in my first book, Gold at Fortymile Creek.

Naylor talks about the landscape, the people and the events going on around him. He describes his dog mushing trips up the creeks, and to Dawson in its infancy. He describes poling up the Yukon River, and living conditions. One winter night, en route to Dawson, he relates the experience of sharing a cabin only five metres square with 15 men and 20 dogs.

He tells his family back home of his encounter with a miner who was starving despite carrying a poke bulging with gold. Naylor also describes their own challenges finding adequate food, and paying the greatly inflated prices on the humble fixed salary of a Christian missionary.

Not everyone shared their religious zeal.

“I don’t see how any man can remain untainted here,” he writes his mother and father, “unless he is a staunch Christian. Public opinion is so low and sin is so open and religion is so despised that it takes a firm man to stand against it all.”

In 1901 he returned to the Montreal Diocese and held various posts, the last of which were assistant priest at St. Cyprian Church in Montreal, from1927 to 1933, and incumbent at Valleyfield, Que., until 1945 when he retired. Naylor passed away in 1957 at the age of 83.

Charles F. Johnson’s life followed a rather different course. Born in Stockholm, he came to the United States while still very young. He showed a natural aptitude for engineering, and became a skilled machinist, but the lure of Yukon gold drew him north by way of Edmonton and the Mackenzie River. It took him a long time to get there.

Wintering at Hay River, he was drawn into the service of the Anglican Church, later operating the mission steamer on the Mackenzie River. He married and had three children before leaving the Mackenzie.

In the fall of 1909, he joined Bishop Isaac Stringer on a trip from Fort McPherson to Dawson City. Things did not go well for them; they became lost, and ran desperately short of food. To fend off starvation, they resorted to cooking their sealskin boots.

“Breakfast from top of boots,” Stringer reported like a connoisseur, in his diary, on October 20, 1909, “Not so good as sole.”

They survived the experience, and Stringer became famous as the “Bishop who ate his boots.”

Johnson remained in the North for the rest of his life, dying at the age of 59 years, in Dawson City, after a lengthy illness. He worked at the Chooutla School in Carcross from 1913 until 1923, when he was transferred to Dawson, becoming the principal of St. Paul’s Hostel.

The lives of these two men, like those of the missionaries of all churches in the North, were not filled with the mad pursuit of gold as were those of most who came in the early days, but they were certainly filled with adventure, challenges, and even death.

Archbishop Seghers, for instance, accompanied by Jesuit fathers Tosi and Robaut, scaled the Chilkoot the summer of 1886 en route to Alaska. Tosi and Robaut remained behind for the winter in the tiny mining camp at the mouth of the Stewart River. (Jack London later heard stories of these men from the old-timers wintered there during the gold rush, and incorporated them into some of his short stories.)

Seghers continued down river into Alaska with his lay assistant, Frank

Fuller. Within a short time, Fuller had murdered the unfortunate cleric and eventually went to prison for the crime.

Another missionary, Robert MacDonald, translated religious works into the local dialect for the purpose of teaching religion in the native tongue.

Reverend Vincent Sims worked himself to death proselytizing among the Han people of the Yukon valley in the mid 1880s, while Father Judge, another Jesuit priest, did the same thing more than a decade later, while tending to the sick and needy in Dawson City.

Another churchman, Reverend George Pringle, nearly perished in a storm Christmas Eve, 1905, on Gold Run Creek as he attempted to force his way through the winter snows to attend a Christmas service on Sulphur Creek.

The exploits of these men of God fill a large volume in Yukon history.

As for Hugh and Jan Naylor? Over dinner in a restaurant on their outbound journey, after having retraced their ancestors’ steps to Dawson City and beyond, they filled me in on the interesting story of their lives. They met on a ski holiday in the United States more than 40 years ago and got married in 1966.

Little did they know when they first met a lifetime ago that they would also discover a common strand in their ancestry linking them to the Yukon. What a surprising coincidence that life has offered them!

Michael Gates is a local historian

and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.