lies our grandfathers told us

I came across an interesting article a while ago, and upon re-reading recently, I was reminded that a history hunter has to exercise great caution when digging into the past as there are many pitfalls.

I came across an interesting article a while ago, and upon re-reading recently, I was reminded that a history hunter has to exercise great caution when digging into the past as there are many pitfalls.

The article came from September 12, 1938 edition of Time Magazine, which reported on the tenth annual International Sourdough Reunion, in Portland, Oregon. Some 500 men and women, Klondike veterans, gathered at the Multnomah Hotel the previous week.

According to the report: “Swapping tall stories, but doing little whooping in the Multnomah bar which, like other Oregon taprooms, serves no hard liquor, were such diverse sourdoughs as Alaska’s Episcopal Bishop Peter Trimble Rowe, Henry Macaulay, first mayor of Dawson, Editor Frank J. Cotter of Seattle’s Alaska Weekly, scores of old Yukon prospectors, storekeepers, mail clerks.”

Joining in on the festivities was “Klondike Mike” Mahoney, decked out in checkered jacket, and armed with colourful stories of his Klondike experience, many of which later appeared in Merrill Dennison’s 1943 book, titled Klondike Mike, An Alaskan Odyssey.

Apparently, Mahoney spent every available opportunity reciting the poetry of Robert Service, most notably The Shooting of Dan McGrew and the Cremation of Sam McGee.

According to Mahoney, he was present, beside the Yukon bard, when: “…a crazed engineer named Madden burst into the Dominion Saloon and shot Gambler McGrew for running away with his wife. What poet Service did not mention,” the article goes on to state, “was that the ‘lady called Lou’ was also shot. She recovered, he said, and was two years ago reported living quietly in Prince Rupert, BC”

This was quite a feat, considering that the woman never existed, and Mahoney never witnessed the event at Service’s side. Service was nowhere near the Klondike during the gold rush.

Fortunately, the news magazine astutely checked a second source regarding this report. Portland reporter George Sterns produced a letter written to him by Robert W. Service ten years earlier.

“I have no doubt that the Malamute Saloon was entirely imaginary,” wrote Service in the letter, “At this distant date, however, I have little recollection of the circumstances in which my notorious ballad was perpetrated, and my only regret is that I have been unable to live it down.”

Regarding Sam McGee, an old-time Yukon veteran and maritimer named Skiff Mitchell wryly commented: “I knew Sam McGee, the fellow who was cremated in that other poem, before he was cremated. Mahoney knew him afterward.”

With that sly and subtle put-down, Mahoney was exposed for embellishing his tales.

Mahoney was not alone in doing this, however; in fact, he had some company. Frank Hahnenberg, another Klondike veteran, reminisced decades later about his northern experiences. He recalled that Robert Service was camped in the tent beside his on the Chilkoot Trail the winter of ‘98, years before Service actually came north as a clerk for the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Whitehorse.

No less prominent an historical authority than Alaskan Judge James Wickersham remembers seeing Service behind the counter in a bank in Skagway, although that never happened either.

It seems that with the passage of time, the Klondike pioneers melded fact with fiction in the memories of their gold rush experience.

Martha Black later recalled in her 1937 autobiography My Seventy Years, defying the Mounted Police and riding her boat through Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids. Her letter written to her family back home, in 1898 stated that she was more timid and walked around the rapids. Her husband George later talked about knowing both Service and Jack London, though it is unlikely that he and London ever crossed paths.

I could go on at some length describing such truth-stretching. Jack Dalton’s shooting of Dan McGinniss in Haines before the gold rush was glorified by any number of witnesses who never saw the event. Many individuals recalled other vivid details, such as music that was performed in Dawson City during the gold rush despite not having been composed until years later.

The reasons for why such false memories were recounted can be many. Obviously, someone retelling events five decades later will be fuzzy on the details. Things that they experienced were mixed with things that others talked about, thus contributing to a blended memory of the event.

Some may have left out the details that were unpleasant and added details that would impress the listeners, and perhaps enhance the perception that the teller wanted to create about him or herself.

Let’s face it. Many of those who participated in the events had very ordinary experiences – of seeking gold and digging holes into the frozen gravel, of building a cabin to live in for the winter, and feeling isolated and lonely. Some visited companions who had become ill and received treatment in the hospital, or were themselves stricken with typhoid, pneumonia or other diseases.

Some suffered frostbite or left the North penniless, but years later, they all wanted to remember the collective thrill of what they were participating in.

To a great extent, the diaries and written accounts produced near the time that things were happening are less likely to be subject to such shifting of reality, but even then, the accounts are filtered through the perceptions of the witnesses.

When my wife Kathy and I recently embarked on our cross-country tour in search of more Yukon history, we were seeking out the stories and evidence from the past. I sought more details of the Dalton Trail, as well as maritimers who came to the Yukon; she was tracking down evidence for George Black’s New Brunswick roots and parliamentary career in Ottawa.

There are photos and documents hidden away amidst tens of thousands housed in the national collections in Ottawa, and the archives, libraries and museums of New Brunswick. We succeeded in unearthing a few of them that we haven’t encountered before.

In so doing, I also hope that we will be able to reveal a more accurate and detailed account of Yukon history, unaltered by fading memories, nostalgic revision and interpretations of the way things should have been.

But isn’t all history filtered through the eyes of the teller?

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based

in Whitehorse.