She was an American woman who gave up the life of high society, comfort and privilege to live the tough life of a miner in the wilds of the Yukon and northern British Columbia.
The lives of women of the late Victorian era were circumscribed by a multitude of social customs and constraints. They were certainly not considered to be up to the rigours of wilderness life. Yet there were a few who defied conventions of the time and proved they were as capable of meeting the challenge as any man.
Frances Muncaster was one of these women. She was born Arabelle Frances Patchen in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1874. Her family moved to Spokane, Washington, when she was 12 years old, then on to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a year later. She was only eighteen years old when she married Samuel Allen, a prominent older prosecuting attorney in Spokane in 1892 and became “an ornament to Spokane society.”
In her early days as a trophy wife, she was elegantly attired in fashionable gowns. Later, as a seasoned veteran of the North, she was attired in the rough and ready garb of the outdoors.
She might have lived in comfort for the rest of her years had she not participated in a charity fund raiser and scandalized her husband by riding bareback into the arena wearing a fluffy, pale blue knee-length skirt over pink tights. After only three years of marriage, Belle Frances Allen moved on. Two years later the couple was divorced.
The attractive, petite woman had a magnetic attraction to men and one of them, Thomas Noyes, the son of a Montana mining tycoon, married her. Like thousands of others, the newlyweds headed for the Klondike, spending a winter in Skagway, followed by prospecting at the foot of a glacier and ultimately arriving in Nome in 1900.
Unlike many others, Frances Noyes and her husband stayed in the north, in a full partnership, becoming involved in numerous ventures with varying success. At one time, Frances was the toast of Monte Carlo, but eventually they were wiped out financially, leaving only memories of “perilous trips, lost trails, and climbs over glaciers.”
They adopted a half-Inuk girl named Bonnie in 1905. In 1914, they stampeded to the Chisana region along the Alaska-Yukon border hoping to recover their fortunes, but met only failure. Tom died of pneumonia in 1916.
Frances, now a widow in her forties, remained in Alaska, managing a cannery store where a man 15 years her junior fell in love with her. In June of 1919, she married Bill Muncaster, a surveyor.
For their honeymoon, they set off with their daughter Bonnie over two glaciers to the head of the White River through deep snows and temperatures so low that the mercury had retreated into the bulb. They spent that winter and following summer in a cabin on Wellesley Lake, hunting, fishing and gardening. When they left, she wrote in her diary: “Thus ends my year in the interior and happiness.”
Her husband Bill once wrote in admiration that “Have seen her day after day cover 20 to 25 miles on snow shoes (and she) just took it like an ever(y) day chore.” At a time when other women would be thinking of relaxing, Frances Muncaster was only just beginning her adventures.
On one trip driving horses from Wellesley Lake to Burwash in 1923, her adoring husband said “it was (so) cold our thermometer went to the bulb at 56 below and stayed there for some ten day(s). But we had to keep going for we were out there us two 100 mile(s) or so from nowhere but she loved it.” For years, they continued their quest for gold in the southwest Yukon.
In 1927, now in her fifties, she and Bill were in Washington state, but she yearned to be back in the North. While visiting the Muncaster family in Seattle, Frances was overheard by a nephew having a conversation in the next room with her husband. She was crying and saying that she wanted to go back north, and he promised to do so as soon as they had a grubstake together.
When word reached her through the moccasin telegraph in 1927 of gold being discovered by Paddy Duncan at Squaw Creek on the Alaska-British Columbia border, she immediately set off on her own to seek fortune, with husband Bill following soon after.
She staked a claim on Squaw Creek and she was soon appointed as the mining recorder for the district. She and Bill continued to mine for the next 20 years.
Her nephew described their trip back to Squaw Creek in 1928: they relayed their supplies by dog team, caching their gear, and then back tracking through the snows to bring in the next load. They were attacked by wolves, tracked by wolverines, and when it became too warm during the day to travel through the melting snows, they waited till the cool of the evening to travel over the frozen snow crust.
When her husband, bringing supplies by horse joined them, they crossed the swollen Tatshenshini River by holding on to their horses’ tails for dear life.
They recovered $35 in gold per day at Squaw Creek, but due to the high cost of goods in this remote region, this was only enough to carry them from one year to the next.
Author Madge Mandy described their encounter in the early 1930’s: “She looked beyond middle age….with silvered brown hair and a very feminine fragile appearance. Her pretty face was lined with character and her outgoing personality had warmth like a friendly embrace.”
At age 60, she was teaching a younger man how to pack supplies by dog team from Haines to Squaw Creek through the thawing snows of the Chilkat summit. But as the years advanced, her energy diminished and her mining trips became shorter and less arduous. She died of a heart attack at Haines, Alaska, at age 78 in 1952 after a remarkable life.
Hers was a life of rebellion and adventure in which she overcame numerous hardships. Hers is also the story of the men she loved, and who loved her, and the passion for mining. For miners are all dreamers.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org