Finding Prairie roots for a Yukon adventure

I visited Saskatchewan last week for two specific reasons: first, to give readings from my new book, Dalton's Gold Rush Trail, and second, to learn more about the origins of Prairie cattle drives that headed for Dawson City during the gold rush.

I visited Saskatchewan last week for two specific reasons: first, to give readings from my new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, and second, to learn more about the origins of Prairie cattle drives that headed for Dawson City during the gold rush.

These were among the longest cattle drives ever undertaken.

I drove west from Regina across the vast prairies with their broad unbroken skyline. The highway ran arrow straight to Moose Jaw, past countless fields of gold unbroken by fences. Most of the crops had been brought in, but I could still smell the organic residue of the harvest, lying in the fields. Memories of my own youth spent on a central Alberta farm washed over me.

The landscape subtly changed west of Moose Jaw. The flat plain became gentle undulations, although a hill with an elevation of 30 metres would be considered a prominent feature. The fields were confined by fences and many contained cattle.

The weather during the days I spent in southern Saskatchewan was unseasonably warm, reaching 27 degrees Celsius. The air was cloudless and calm and filled with a low haze that made the sun a blood-red ball when it cut the plane of the horizon at dawn.

My first stop in Swift Current was the museum, where I met its director, Lloyd Begley. Lloyd provided me with information about cattlemen from his district who brought herds north to satisfy the tremendous demand for beef in the Klondike.

Ed Fearon, from Maple Creek, took 100 longhorns north in 1897, selling five tonnes at a dollar a pound ($2.20 a kilo), and the rest at a dollar and a half ($3.30) to the general public. The price back home was a few cents at the time.

News like that was incentive for others to try their luck. The following year, H.Y. Jones (in partnership with James Smart) trailed a herd from Saskatchewan Landing, north of Swift Current, to Edmonton. From Edmonton, he proceeded northwest, pursuing a course that later became the Alaska Highway.

Jones’ herd never made it to the Yukon; he sold off the last of his steers in the Stikine during the winter of 1898/99.

The third Saskatchewan party to participate in the great gold-rush meat race was that of George Tuxford, his brother Alan, and brother-in-law James Thomson. They departed Moose Jaw by train with a herd of 70 animals on May 24, 1898.

The Tuxford party arrived in Dawson City five months later with part of the butchered herd on a raft. The remainder of their shipment, on two more rafts, which were trapped in Yukon River ice both above and below Dawson City, took another month for delivery.

Tuxford was too late arriving to demand top dollar for his beef. That honour went to the outfits of Pat Burns from Calgary, and Jack Dalton from Haines, who cleared a cool quarter million between them.

But Tuxford was fortunate. Though he did not make the fortune he dreamed of, he returned “well satisfied with the result of their trip, both from a financial point of view and as an experience.”

Tuxford was a Welsh immigrant farmer who homesteaded 18 kilometres north of Moose Jaw. My hostess, Laura Shtern of the Moose Jaw Public Library, introduced me to Amanda Oliver, in the archives, where boxes of early Saskatchewan documents are housed.

For two days, Amanda fielded my questions, and brought me files of documents, photographs and books. She helped me with the microfilm reels of old newspapers. This yielded a treasure trove of information about Tuxford and his cattle drive that I could never have dreamed of finding had I not visited Moose Jaw.

The archival files contained a lengthy narrative of Tuxford’s life between 1888 and 1918. Published in serial form in the Western Producer, the articles, titled Tuxford of the Plains, were derived from the same memoir that I relied upon in my book, but also from 1,100 letters and Tuxford’s diaries.

The content of the Producer series was intriguing, but not all the details meshed with what I had previously uncovered. Names and events conflicted. Even the size of the herd he took north was at variance with my previous information.

Did they take 70 head, or just 55? Was the herd comprised of oxen, as implied in this newly uncovered information, or a mixture, as Tuxford’s memoir stated? Where were the original documents from which the Producer series was derived?

A bit of detective work back in Whitehorse has led me to the source of the letters and diaries. It’s now a waiting game until the photocopies arrive.

When I delivered my presentation at the library on Saturday afternoon, I met Keith Delahey, a resident of Tuxford, a small village north of Moose Jaw which was named after George (in honour of his success in bringing the railroad to town). From Delahey I learned that there are no Tuxford descendants living in their namesake community any longer. He thought perhaps there might be some living in British Columbia.

Despite my disappointment in that regard, I rose before dawn on Sunday morning and drove the highway north to the sleeping village of Tuxford. En route, I pulled to the side of the road to absorb the glorious sunrise.

The eastern sky lightened as I stood in the chilly morning breeze watching the clouds, tinged a rosy hue, slowly turn to gold. Behind me, the full moon faded in the growing light. With my camera, I captured the moment the sun broke free of the horizon, and I then continued to Tuxford.

The village has become a bedroom satellite of Moose Jaw. There is no store or gas station, just two giant grain elevators, relics of an earlier era, and a couple-dozen tree-shaded homes. The rays of the sun saturated the village in colour and painted an unforgettable still life. A short time later, it started to rain, a signal that my journey was nearing its end.

The speculative character of pioneer farming, which led to the establishment of a bustling little settlement on the Prairie, also spawned a venture to the Klondike. Time has passed it by and Tuxford’s gold rush cattle drive is preserved now only as a memory in his papers and by bones that lie scattered on the bank of the Yukon.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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