“Seems like I only remember the stories I have pictures from,” said J.J. Van Bibber of Dawson City.
And J.J. Van Bibber was a prolific picture-taker. The result was the book, I Was Born Under a Spruce Tree. Told in his own voice, it is an account of a life lived, of hard work, social change, and cultural identity.
As the title says, Van Bibber was born under a spruce tree on the banks of the MacMillan River on Sept. 6, 1920. His mother, Eliza, was on her way to Russell Post for supplies at the time.
“J.J.” was born of a mixed marriage. His mother was a First Nation from Aishihik, while his father, Ira, came from West Virginia looking for gold and ended up trapping in the vicinity of Fort Selkirk and Coffee Creek when the couple met.
Ira and Eliza had 16 children; J.J. (named John James) was number nine. He remembers a childhood growing up on Mica Creek on the Pelly River, not far from present-day Pelly Crossing. There they grew vegetables while Ira hunted and trapped.
The Van Bibber children were raised in a social milieu where they were not part of the white world, nor were they fully First Nation. They stood somewhere in between two cultures, with a foot in each camp. “Boys,” his father often told them, “you’re going to run into some rough obstacles in your life. One of them is being Indian.”
But the transition between cultures was easier for J.J. than it was for many others. He was as comfortable on a trapline as he was operating a Caterpillar tractor.
As historian David Neufeld states in his epilogue to this narrative, “for J.J., work was not about overcoming obstacles, rather it was a way of taking advantage of possibilities.” That seems to apply to all aspects of his life, which illustrates that wealth and happiness are not always measured in material things.
J.J. and his siblings were sent to attend school at Dawson, where they stayed at St. Paul’s Hostel. There, they experienced food deprivation, beatings and illness. One of his sisters eventually died of tuberculosis she contracted while staying in the hostel. Had his father known what was going on, J.J. states, he probably would have killed the man in charge of the hostel.
He left formal schooling behind at 12, and so began his remarkable career. At first, he trapped in the winters, and tended the garden, hunted and cut wood in the summers. He left home at 16 and got a job as a longshoreman, then drove Caterpillar tractors at Keno. He never had trouble getting a job because he was a hard worker.
He was in Dawson cutting wood when he first met Clara Taylor, whom he would eventually marry and remain with for the next 61 years. Clara was a hard worker too, and when J.J. left the employment of the dredging company in Dawson because of appendicitis, he never returned. Instead, he started helping Clara fish for salmon. He said they made a good team.
He later logged on the McQuesten River, then operated a trading post at Moose Creek on the MacMillan River. Quickly, things began to change. First the price of furs fell through the floor, then the construction of the highways to Dawson and Mayo did away with riverboats, and the focus of life moved away from the rivers.
For J.J., the transition to a cash economy was an easy one. He worked for contractor Leo Procter, then at United Keno Hill Mines. After a stint of placer mining on the McQuesten, he mined for Lorne Ross, and eventually became a consultant to other placer miners.
Meanwhile, he gained experience operating Cat trains in the winter to supply camps in remote regions, which led to a family business operating supply trains. Following this, the Van Bibber family mined on Clear Creek in the 1980s.
He had a hard time after Clara died, but with the attention of the heritage department at the First Nation in Dawson, he told his stories and shared his thousands of photographs. “They made my life worth living again,” he said.
He was a natural storyteller, and his narrative was compelling, filled with the richness of the details of personal experience. His powerful storytelling style led to collaboration with anthropology graduate student Niall Fink.
Working with J.J., Fink “reconstructed his sentences and idioms until I felt I had captured his storytelling voice in written form. Then I would read his stories back to him and he would make sure that they were told correctly.” The result is both readable and fascinating, filling in the story of the era that follows the gold rush.
J.J. Van Bibber passed away last January 10, before he could witness the completion of this book.
I Was Born Under a Spruce Tree is 157 pages long, on glossy paper, with a foreword by granddaughter Shannon Van Bibber and an introduction by Niall Fink. It is followed by an epilogue written by historian David Neufeld, a simplified Van Bibber family tree, and an album of small photos.
The story is richly illustrated with 115 photographs, 30 of which are in the five-page album at the back of the book. My only complaint about the excellent photos is that some of them, particularly in the album, are too small to fully engage the viewer.
The book is further enriched by a number of illustrations by great grandson Shane Van Bibber.
This is a captivating book that belongs on your Yukon book shelf.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.