Frances Muncaster: From socialite to wilderness woman

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.

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 msgates@northwestel.net

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Maria Metzen off the start line of the Yukon Dog Mushers Association’s sled dog race on Jan. 9. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Mushers race in preparation for FirstMate Babe Southwick

The annual race is set for Feb. 12 and 13.

The Yukon government is making changes to the medical travel system, including doubling the per diem and making destinations for medical services more flexible. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Subsidy for medical travel doubled with more supports coming

The change was recommended in the Putting People First report endorsed by the government

Chloe Sergerie, who was fined $500 under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> on Jan. 12, says she made the safest choice available to her when she entered the territory. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Woman fined $500 under CEMA says she made ‘safest decision’ available

Filling out a declaration at the airport was contrary to self-isolation, says accused

The Yukon Department of Education building in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. Advocates are calling on the Department of Education to reverse their redefinition of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that led to 138 students losing the program this year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Advocates call redefinition of IEPs “hugely concerning,” call for reversal

At least 138 students were moved off the learning plans this year

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

The Fish Lake area viewed from the top of Haeckel Hill on Sept. 11, 2018. The Yukon government and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced they are in the beginning stages of a local area planning process for the area. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local area planning for Fish Lake announced

The Government of Yukon and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced in… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Fire damage, photographed on Jan. 11, to a downtown apartment building which occurred late in the evening on Jan. 8. Zander Firth, 20, from Inuvik, was charged with the arson and is facing several other charges following his Jan. 12 court appearance. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
More charges for arson suspect

The Inuvik man charged in relation to the fire at Ryder Apartments… Continue reading

The grace period for the new Yukon lobbyist registry has come to an end and those who seek to influence politicians will now need to report their efforts to a public database. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Grace period for new lobbyist registry ends

So far nine lobbyists have registered their activities with politicians in the territory

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21, 2020. Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive up to $20,000 to help recover from losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Details released on relief funding for tourism and culture non-profits

Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive… Continue reading

Most Read