Life was harsh for the early pioneers in the Yukon

"If you could see the food we had to eat from 1886 to 1893," said Frank Buteau "you might laugh, but if you found yourself a thousand miles from civilization, without roads, as it were, it might bring tears to your eyes.

“If you could see the food we had to eat from 1886 to 1893,” said Frank Buteau “you might laugh, but if you found yourself a thousand miles from civilization, without roads, as it were, it might bring tears to your eyes.’‘

Frank Buteau knew this because he was one of the earliest gold seekers to come into the Yukon back in the 1880s.

In the early period of Yukon prospecting, the supply of food was neither good nor reliable. The early day gold hunters could bring their own supplies with them, they could seek provisions from the Alaska Commercial Company (A.C.Co.) trading post, or they could supply themselves from the land. None was a totally satisfactory method.

Those who brought their own supplies often lost them on the trip down the Yukon River, or found them damaged. Food became mouldy from exposure to moisture. Hunting for game was hit and miss. The food provided by the A.C.Company, when it was available, was far from satisfactory.

According to one pioneer description, “one could easily see from the brands and quality of goods received that they (the trading companies) did not want any miners in the Yukon River Valley. The bacon was in slabs three feet long, all of which was yellow. We called it ‘YARD BACON’. The flour was mouldy, the rice was lumpy, the fruit was green and in the beans were plenty of rocks and gravel.”

But it gets even worse; another early day prospector recalled it this way:

“I – and I can answer for 16 other men – got flour in the fall (of 1889) … that had been soaked in salt water for several days then shipped up the river, where, while aboard the steamer, it had been soaked and heated, so that we had to chop a sack, or rather split it lengthwise, like cordwood. In the middle we could get about 15 pounds of hard lumps that were not green or yellow like the rest. This we had to powder with a hammer and run it through a sieve before we could use it.”

These early prospectors were too busy hunting for wealth in the gravels of countless Yukon and Alaska streams to take really good care of their diet. None had the time to grow a garden; that was primarily the domain of the few traders there in the early days because only they stayed in one place long enough to make a go of their horticultural ambitions.

There were opportunities to augment their diet with local game, but often as not, the prospectors went where the gold was, rather than where they could find game. There were hungry winters, especially if the cranky little steamers didn’t make it to the trading posts with their fall provisions because of low water or other conditions.

If food was short, they learned how to make do with what was available. They even developed a substitute for butter, known as “bone butter,” which was produced by boiling bones and horn for an extended period of time, and adding salt to the mixture before it cooled and congealed, to form a white buttery substance.

Poor diet, combined with the hard work and the harsh climate, lack of understanding of the origin of disease, and the lack of medical practitioners created serious health problems. Diseases such as dyspepsia, anemia, rheumatism, pneumonia, bronchitis, enteritis, cystitis were common afflictions.

Tuberculosis, or consumption, as it was commonly known, took many of the early miners, who were worn out after years of privation.

Of these diseases, the most insidious and poorly understood was scurvy. Caused by a lack of vitamin C, it was commonly thought at the time to be the result of “improperly cooked food, sameness of diet, overwork, want of fresh vegetables, overheated and badly ventilated houses,” or lack of exercise.

The disease invariably set in with the confinement of winter. The patient first developed excruciating pain in the extremities. The parts affected would swell, discolour or turn black, and the skin would lose its natural resiliency. One could pinch the skin in this state, and the impression would remain as if made in putty. The gums became sore and started to bleed; the teeth loosened and fell out. The illness progressed for weeks or months, with the patient suffering incredibly, and slowly weakening.

The condition would be made no better and usually worse by the mistaken notion that abundant exercise would prevent the disease. Ironically, while these victims suffered terribly, the cure for the disease was already well known. The miners later recognized the curative value of willow or spruce, juniper, sage, or “Hudson Bay Tea.”

Housing was no better in the early days. When they settled in for the onslaught of winter, the early miners built crude log shelters. Chris Sonnickson, one such winter camper, described his cold weather accommodation at his bar diggings on the Upper Yukon. He built a small cabin, which had a square hole in the roof. A rock hearth on the earthen floor of the cabin contained the fire. Its smoke and fumes escaped through the hole above. As soon as the fire went out, the cabin was as cold indoors as out.

The first miners to construct a cabin at the mouth of the Fortymile River, a location that soon became the busy log town of Forty Mile, built a log shack barely three metres to a side. To heat it, they constructed a “Russian furnace,” which was made of mud and stones, but even this improvement did little to advance the living conditions.

Without window glass, they resorted to installing a block of clear river ice in a hole in the wall. Despite the so-called furnace, the cabin was so cold that the same block of ice remained in the window, without melting, for the entire winter.

Compared with open fires and crude earthen fireplaces, portable sheet-iron stoves were, by the late 1880s proving more serviceable for producing heat. One of the miners, later reflecting upon the earlier impoverished times, recalled that with the advent of iron stoves, there was “No more smoke in the cabin, no more baking bread in gold pans in the wintertime.”

For windows, others used grease-impregnated cloth, stretched skins, or cast-off liquor bottles to admit enough daylight to augment the use of candles. The candles, which cast a dull glow, often had to be rationed in a miserly fashion to last through the winter.

In some cases, sourdoughs resorted to the use of a “Yukon lamp,” which consisted of a bit of twisted cotton inserted into a container filled with oil rendered from wild game.

So as I sit at my desk in my cozy and well-illuminated basement office, I am grateful that I can enjoy the comfort of my substantial wood stove, augmented by a modern furnace.

As a matter of fact, I think I’ll go up to the kitchen and prepare something nice to eat on our new ceramic-topped stove!

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.