‘Lyin’ George’: The man who started the stampede

In one day, George Washington Carmack went from gold-hungry prospector to Yukon legend. The fateful day was August 16, 1896, when George, his wife Kate, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie found gold on Rabbit Creek in the Klondike.

In one day, George Washington Carmack went from gold-hungry prospector to Yukon legend.

The fateful day was August 16, 1896, when George, his wife Kate, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie found gold on Rabbit Creek in the Klondike.

(There is still some dispute over who actually found the gold. Some historians say it was George, others say it was Skookum Jim, and Robert Henderson, a prospector who was in the area took credit for finding the first load of gold on the creek.)

Though know as ‘Lyin’ George for his exaggerated claims, George was not fibbing when he told a group of miners at a bar in Fortymile that there had been a big strike up the river.

The gold lay so thick on Rabbit Creek, which was renamed Bonanza Creek after the strike, it began the Klondike Gold Rush, one of the most famous stampedes in Canadian history.

George Carmack was born on September 24, 1860, in Contra Costa County, California. His parents died while he was just a child and he was raised mostly by his sister.

He left home early to join the US Marine Corps., but left for good after he was denied shore leave to visit his sick sister.

He knocked around the world until he ended up in Juneau in 1885.

Carmack soon found that Juneau was panned out so he migrated to Dyea, where he packed the Chilkoot Trail with Skookum Jim.

He began spending his winters at Tagish, where he met and eventually began living common law with Jim’s sister Kate.

They moved upriver to start a trading post and mine coal in the area now known as Carmacks.

They had a daughter named Ahgay, whom Carmack called Graphie Grace, in 1893.

In 1900, Carmack met Marguerite Saftig in Dawson and left Kate behind.

“I can’t ever live with Kate again; it is simply misery for me. You may tell Kate so if you like. I will send her some money,” Carmack wrote in a letter to his sister quoted in the Book Carmack of the Klondike.

Carmack and Maguerite moved to Seattle and, in 1910, Graphie came to stay with them. She ended up marrying Marguerite’s brother Jacob Saftig.

Though George made a fortune from the Klondike discovery, he never gave up mining.

“It just gets in your blood,” he told the Dawson Daily News in 1922. “Although I don’t go out into the hills like a used to, I’d be lost if I dropped mining.”

Carmack caught a bad chest cold and died on June 5, 1922, at age 61.

Several hundred friends attended George’s funeral at the Masonic Temple in Seattle, Washington, more than a month later on July 9. Marguerite neglected to invite George’s sister Rose, or his daughter Graphie.

And, for more than 50 years, his body lay in an unmarked grave.

While the three women fought over the right to inherit his estate, the money was tied up in legal proceedings. There wasn’t even enough to pay for a gravestone for Carmack.

Three years later they settled out of court, each receiving a portion of the fortune.

It wasn’t until August 17, 1975 that Carmack was given a proper headstone.

On the 79th anniversary of Discovery Day, the Alaska Yukon Pioneers of Seattle placed granite monuments on the graves of George Carmack and Marguerite.

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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