Frederick Schwatka’s forgotten expedition

If you have heard of Frederick Schwatka, it is probably because of his famous Yukon River trip of 1883. Readers may not know that eight years later he returned to the Yukon for a second, less-publicized expedition.

If you have heard of Frederick Schwatka, it is probably because of his famous Yukon River trip of 1883. Readers may not know that eight years later he returned to the Yukon for a second, less-publicized expedition.

His first trek through the Yukon was a reconnaissance project sponsored by the United States Army, 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 one of his social connections 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 attempts to ingratiate himself to influential colleagues.

Schwatka had an interesting but 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, was admitted to the bar in the district of Nebraska. The following year, he received a degree in medicine.

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 Little Bighorn.

His first taste of exploration came when he was seconded from the army in 1878 to join an arctic expedition sponsored by the American Geographical Society in search of the ill-fated Sir John Franklin, who perished while searching for the Northwest Passage. The two-year expedition found evidence of the tragic demise of Franklin’s party.

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 on a semiofficial 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. He wrote books, most notably A Summer in Alaska, and lectured on 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 ill health and poorer physical condition, 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 venture to bolster his reputation. In 1891 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 to the White and Copper river areas, sponsored by the New York Ledger.

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

From the fort, the trio engaged a number of local native guides, then set off on foot 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 an occasional group of local residents encamped at key fishing spots. When they arrived at the base of Mount St. Elias, they skirted along the edge of the glaciers, and three members of the group pushed through over the Skolai Pass and downstream to the Copper River.

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

Hayes’s version included the first geologic reports of the Taku River area, and a 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 companions.

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

Schwatka’s account of this journey slipped into obscurity. It wasn’t until 1996 when retired forester Arland Harris tracked down the accounts in the short-lived New York Ledger that Schwatka’s last adventure became widely publicized.

Within a few weeks of the passage of Schwatka’s group through the Nisling River country south and west of Fort Selkirk, another exploring party consisting of E.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 – just one more reason Schwatka’s travels remained hidden from public awareness.

Dalton and Glave almost perished in the tempestuous waters of Kluane Lake that summer, but their survival helped prove the feasibility of using the Chilkat Pass to bring pack horses over the mountains into the interior. These two men were aware of the potential opportunities for mineral wealth well before the Klondike gold rush.

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 Avenue and Steele Street, you can still see prominently displayed one of the largest copper nuggets ever found, at 1,175 kilos.

In 1958 it took five days for a team of six men using heavy equipment and the help of the Canadian Army to haul the slab from the White River to the Alaska Highway.

This column is reprinted from the book History Hunting in the Yukon, which is available in fine stores throughout the Yukon. Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.

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