Frederick Schwatka’s forgotten expedition

If you have heard of Frederick Schwatka, it is probably because of his famous Yukon River trip, taken in 1883.

If you have heard of Frederick Schwatka, it is probably because of his famous Yukon River trip, taken in 1883. Very few readers may know that eight years later, he returned to the Yukon for a second, less-publicized expedition.

The first voyage through the Yukon was a military reconnaissance sponsored by the United States Army through Canadian territory, the purpose of which was to assess the military capacity of the indigenous population.

One of the legacies of the 1883 journey was that Schwatka named practically every landmark he encountered after someone important, as a means of currying favour.

Bennett Lake, named after an American newspaper publisher, and Miles Canyon, honouring a US army general, are two examples of Schwatka’s misplaced place names.

Schwatka had an interesting, if short, career. Born of Polish immigrant parents, he graduated from West Point military college in 1871 with the rank of second lieutenant in the United States Army.

He was an intelligent man, and in 1875, through his own initiative and study, he was admitted to the bar in the district of Nebraska.

The following year, he received a degree in medicine which involved apprenticeship, short residency and passing a written examination.

He was assigned to the US Cavalry on the central plains and participated in the campaigns against the Sioux under general George Crook. In 1876, he engaged in battles at Tongue River, the Rosebud and Slim Buttes, but fortunately for him and for Yukon history, not at the Little Big Horn.

His first taste of exploration came when he was seconded from the army in 1878 to join an arctic expedition sponsored by the American Geographic Society, in search of the ill-fated Sir John Franklin, who perished while searching for the North West Passage.

The two-year expedition found evidence of the tragic demise of Franklin’s party, and in the process, Schwatka earned a reputation as an Arctic explorer. Three years later, under instructions from General Nelson Miles, he was dispatched to the Yukon River basin in the semi-official expedition, through Canadian territory, to determine the military strength of Alaskan natives.

With the Indian Wars slowly coming to an end and career opportunities limited in the military, Schwatka resigned his commission and cashed in on the notoriety gained from his Arctic experiences, by writing books, most notably, A Summer in Alaska, and giving lecture tours, on which he related his experiences to eager  audiences across the United States.

Three years later, in 1886, Schwatka attempted another Alaskan exploration. This time, he planned to climb Mount St. Elias, but due to his poor health and poorer physical conditioning, this journey ended in failure. Schwatka had mixed success in subsequent campaigns to the Yellowstone region and the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.

Badly overweight, his reputation flagging, he desperately needed another successful exploration to bolster his reputation, and his career.

In 1891, under the sponsorship of the New York Ledger, a  New York newspaper, he was able to convince John Wesley Powell, the head of the US Geological Survey to have C. Willard Hayes, a rookie geologist, accompany him on an expedition through Canada to the White and Copper River areas..

In the summer of 1891, the duo headed north to Juneau, and with the guidance of an experienced prospector named Mark Russell, they followed the Taku River route to Teslin Lake and thus down the Teslin River to the Yukon (then called the Lewes) to Fort Selkirk.

At Fort Selkirk, the trio, after engaging a number of local native guides, set off on foot overland to the White River region in the southwest corner of the Yukon Territory, then down the Copper River to the Alaska Coast.

They cut across country over hilly terrain, crossing streams and encountering the occasional group of local residents encamped at key fishing spots.

When they arrived at the base of the St. Elias Mountains, they skirted along the edge of the glaciers, and by this time travelling on their own, the threesome made their way over the Skolai Pass, and downstream to the Copper River.

The plan, after the expedition was completed, was for Dr. Hayes to write up the more formal, scientific findings of their journey, while Schwatka would write up a popular account for the newspapers and perhaps another book.

Hayes’s account included the first geologic reports of the Taku River area, and the route from Fort Selkirk to the Chitina River, in Alaska. His was the first technical report describing the native copper deposits at the head of the White River. Anticipating Schwatka’s own accounts of the journey, he mentioned little about his travelling companion.

Schwatka penned a series of articles published in the New York Ledger in 1892, but any plans for a book never materialized. Plagued by ill health, alcohol and morphine addiction, and a disappointing speaking tour, it is believed he committed suicide by taking an overdose of laudanum. His slumped body was found in a doorway in Portland, Oregon, November 2, 1892.

Schwatka’s account of this journey slipped into obscurity and was quickly lost from public consciousness; it wasn’t until 1996, when retired forester Arland Harris, with dogged determination, tracked down the accounts in the short-lived New York Ledger, that his last adventure was at last widely known.

Within a few weeks of the passage of Schwatka’s party through the Nisling River country south and west of Fort Selkirk, another exploring party, consisting of Edward J. Glave (of Stanley Expedition fame) and Jack Dalton came across Schwatka’s trail.

Embarrassed by not being the first white man to reach this remote part of the Yukon, Glave did not report the encounter in his publications. Again, Schwatka’s travels remained hidden from public awareness.

Dalton and Glave almost perished in the tempestuous waters of Kluane Lake that summer, but survived and proved the feasibility of using the Chilkat Pass to bring pack horses over the mountains into the interior.

They were aware of the potential opportunities for mineral wealth even before the Klondike gold rush, and it was Dalton, who, in 1898, brought noted mining engineer and entrepreneur Henry Bratnober to the White River, hoping to find a source of copper that could be developed for mining.

They returned to the coast bearing 14 kilograms of copper nuggets, some of them fist-sized.

Aside from producing quantities of native copper, the mining potential of the White River area never came to anything.

In front of the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse, however, at the corner of First and Steele, you can still see, prominently displayed, one of the largest copper nuggets ever found. Weighing 1175 kilos, it took a team of six men, in 1958, with the help of the Canadian Army and heavy equipment, five days to haul the slab out from the White River to the Alaska Highway.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.