I once wrote a piece about Jack London in which I posed the question: Did Jack London make the Klondike, or did the Klondike make him? The answer, of course, is that London’s Yukon books and short stories were the basis upon which his writing career was established.
London is arguably the pre-eminent American author of the Twentieth Century. In fact, he may be the most widely read American author around the world. London wrote nearly 200 short stories during his tragically short writing career; in close to half of these, he turned to his northern muse for inspiration.
My wife Kathy and I recently attended, and participated in the Jack London Festival in Dawson City, an event sponsored by the Klondike Visitors Association, which celebrated the works of the great author. My modest part in the event was to join in a short discussion about Jack London that caused me to explore my own connection to the great author.
Almost thirty years ago, I aspired to write my first book of Yukon history. For inspiration, I turned to the works of other authors and read about their struggles to become writers. One of these authors was Jack London, and his semi-autobiographical work, “Martin Eden.”
My first book focused upon the early prospecting and mining that preceded the Klondike gold rush, so one of the Jack London stories I decided I should read was “The Men of the Fortymile.”
I recognized the historical underpinnings of this story. It is about two men in the early gold mining town of Forty Mile who resolved to settle a dispute by means of a duel. The residents of Forty Mile showed up to witness the battle, carrying with them a rope, with which to hang the winner. Faced with a no-win outcome, the two combatants settle their differences without firing a shot.
I was excited by this revelation for I had chronicled this event, which was described in detail in several different accounts uncovered during my historical research. With great excitement, I hurried to the Jack London Museum in Dawson to speak to Dick North, who at the time was the curator of the display, as well as being the Yukon’s foremost authority on London’s northern escapades.
One of the characters in the Fortymile story was a Catholic priest named Father Robeau. In fact, this character was based upon one of two Catholic priests who accompanied Bishop Seghers into the Yukon wilds the summer of 1886. Fathers Aloyisius Robaut and Pascal Tosi spent the following winter at the tiny mining community that sprang up at the mouth of the Stewart River, the very same place that London later spent his short, but eventful winter in the north.
Father Robeau appears in another of London’s stories, “The Priestly Prerogative,” which describes some stampeders who spend the winter at Yukon Crossing, the end of the Dalton Trail. There, they make their fortune, not by mining gold, but rather by parceling up the cast-off offal from Klondike-bound cattle that were butchered along the banks of the Yukon River, and selling the product to dog mushers as dog feed. These men left the Yukon with a small fortune the following spring, without ever having set foot in the Klondike.
“The Unexpected,” a short story published in McClure’s Magazine in August, 1906, is another example. An article in the Dawson Daily News in August of 1906 attests to the fact that numerous individuals in Seattle and Juneau could confirm the truth of the details of London’s story, which was based upon an actual event.
It involves a small party of stampeders stuck at Lituya Bay on the Alaskan coast. One member of the group tries to kill the other members of his party. After shooting one member of the party, the remaining two individuals, a man and his wife, are forced to guard him day and night. When this proves to be more than they can handle, they resort to hanging the killer.
North was not surprised by my discovery; he too, had made similar observations about the Yukon derivation of several of London’s famous stories.
In his book, “Sailor on Snowshoes,” Dick North reveals other historical events that inspired other London stories. The short story titled “Finis” was probably based upon the gruesome O’Brien murders. The real O’Brien hid in the snow-covered bush and murdered three men who were walking out over the frozen Yukon River the winter of 1899. He shoved their bodies into a hole in the river ice, but with some remarkable detective work, the Mounted Police were able to piece together the events of the case.
O’Brien was tried, and on the basis of the evidence that had been carefully gathered, was convicted of the three murders and was eventually hanged.
Similarly, North made the connection of the story “The League of Old Men” to the notorious case of the Nantuck Brothers, First Nation men who sought revenge for the sin of one European passerby by shooting the unsuspecting members of another passing party, killing one of the men in the process.
London later became rich and famous. The foundation upon which he constructed his reputation was built upon literary gold, rather than the mineral type that thousands of others sought during the gold rush. London’s astute mind was attentive to the stories told to him during the long dark winter nights spent huddled in tiny log cabins at the mouth of the Stewart River.
It was the stories inspired by his personal experiences in the north and the accounts told by the old time prospectors that inspired his writing and fueled his remarkable rise to fame. When he used up all of the stories he had heard during those long winter nights, he wrote to other Klondikers for more story ideas. But by that time, his career had already been propelled along its meteoric rise.
London later summed up the Klondike experience in his own words in an essay that was published after his death:
“Having decided that I was a failure as a writer, I gave it up and left for the Klondike to prospect for gold. It was in the Klondike that I found myself. There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. You get your true perspective. I got mine.”
I couldn’t have said it better.
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