Jujiro Wada: Prospector, legendary musher and champion marathon runner

It was the autumn of 1902 and the Yukon was hungry for another gold strike. There was a find near Fairbanks, and suddenly Jujiro Wada found himself in the midst of the frenzy.

It was the autumn of 1902 and the Yukon was hungry for another gold strike.

There was a find near Fairbanks, and suddenly Jujiro Wada found himself in the midst of the frenzy.

Wada was tasked with delivering 300 claims to Circle by dogsled to be registered, and then travelling to Dawson to bring news of the strike.

After three weeks on the trail in temperatures that plunged below minus 60 degrees Celsius, Wada arrived in Dawson. Word of the gold find spread quickly.

“It was reported as a strike in a district that may be destined to be known as a gold producer equal to the Klondike or Nome,” reported the Yukon Sun newspaper of January 17, 1903.

Hundreds of men took off for Chena and nearly all were disappointed when they found the best claims were already staked and the price of goods was high.

Despite all of his hard work in getting the news to Dawson, some blamed Wada for their misfortune. Some of the frustrated men threatened to kill Wada.

Or did they?

Five years later, Wada himself cast doubt on this version of the story, which appeared in many accounts of his life.

“The story that I was about to be hanged for causing a thought-to-be fake stampede was not correct,” Wada told the Dawson Daily News on September 28, 1907.

“The fact is the miners held a meeting to decide as to the price of flour then being offered by one of the trading companies. They thought the price exorbitant.”

True or false, this tale marks just one point in the life story of a fearless adventurer that reads like a legend.

Wada was born on January 6, 1875 in southern Japan. He stowed away on a freighter to San Francisco in 1891, to find work.

He spent the next three years working aboard a whaling ship bound for the Arctic.

While working on the ship and spending time on the northern coast of Alaska and Yukon, he was introduced to hunting, snowshoeing and dog sledding by the Inuvialuit of the region.

“Wada did not see a future for himself in Japan, but in the land of the northern lights, he was completely free from both the yoke of the rigid class system of his native country and the segregation that existed in San Francisco,” wrote Fumi Torigai in his article The Life of Jujiro Wada, which summarized the 1995 book The Samurai Dog-Musher Under the Northern Lights by Yuji Tani.

Although Wada’s story is captivating, there is not much written about the man or about other Asian people who made history in the Yukon.

To remedy this historical inequity the Yukon Archives has researched and put together a virtual museum website on Asian heritage in the Yukon.

They will launch this site along with a display on the Yukon’s Asian heritage in the Cultural Cabinet at the MacBride Museum on Thursday, May 6 to mark Asian Heritage Month.

“I didn’t learn about my history when I was growing up,” said Lillian Nakamura Maguire, who works with the Human Rights Commission and was part of a working group with Yukon Archives and the Yukon Status of Women in starting the Hidden History Project to get the word out about the lesser known cultures in Yukon history.

After the stampede in Chena, Wada prospected on the Arctic coast, earned money as a three-time marathon champion and helped to pioneer the Iditarod Trail.

Around 1913 it was rumoured that Wada had southern financiers with deep pockets backing his exploration and prospecting on the northern coast, but allegations that Wada was spying for Japan quickly quashed those prospects.

“He was falsely accused of being a Japanese spy based on unsubstantiated evidence,” wrote Torigai. “Due to a strong anti-Japanese sentiment that was brewing in the southern states, Wada’s reputation was irreparably damaged by this false accusation.”

In his later years, Wada continued to prospect in the Mackenzie Delta area, and took a trip to Winnipeg by dogsled to promote the latest oil discovery, at what is presently Norman Wells.

In March 1937, Wada died alone in a hospital in San Diego.

“Wada was not different from many of the people who came to work in the north, and the fact that he was Japanese didn’t stop him. He overcame prejudice and unfair laws.

“We need to learn from his story to make sure that the same kind of discrimination doesn’t happen with new immigrants.”

The Asian heritage display and website will launch on Thursday, May 6 at the MacBride Museum.

The launch will feature presentations from members of the Japanese Canadian Association of Yukon, the Canadian Filipino Association of the Yukon, Yukon Archives and the Yukon Human Rights Commission. Admission is free and all are welcome to attend.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

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