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New book reveals early Yukon exploration

Hot on the heels of the Whitehorse history book comes a fascinating volume that will be of interest to many Yukon history lovers.

Hot on the heels of the Whitehorse history book comes a fascinating volume that will be of interest to many Yukon history lovers.

Travels to the Alseck by Edward J. Glave is edited by the sterling team of Julie Cruikshank, Doug Hitch and John Ritter. It is the account of two exploration trips made to the southwest Yukon in 1890 and 1891 by the aforementioned Glave and his sidekick, Jack Dalton.

I have a personal connection to this account. In 1971 and 1972, during my first summers in the Yukon, I travelled over much of the same landscape as these two white men, although I did not know it until later.

Glave was an Englishman who, during an age when class structure dominated British society, turned to the exploration of faraway places to advance himself. Starting in 1883, he served for three years at an isolated outpost in the Congo under the tutelage of famed British explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

Glave, who described himself as “a man who relishes a task for its bigness, and takes to it with a fierce joy,” then spent another three years on a riverboat for an ivory trading company on the upper Congo River. This and his later accounts of travel in Africa are said to have been the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s famed novel, Heart of Darkness.

In 1890, Glave was in America, where he was engaged by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper as a member of a party that was sent to explore the remote regions of Alaska. This was the beginning of the narrative that is detailed in Travels to the Alseck. The series of articles published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper are reproduced in this volume, followed by the text of two articles that were featured in the highly regarded Century Magazine after his second trip the following year.

In 1890, Leslie’s party travelled up the Chilkat River valley, and crossed the coastal mountains at Kusawa Lake. There, the party split in two. Glave and Dalton turned westward and trekked over to the Shakwak valley, eventually navigating the Alseck River (today known as the Tatshenshini) to the Pacific Coast. The remainder of the expedition party continued down the Yukon River, ultimately reaching Alaska.

The following year, after failing to find sponsors, Glave self-financed a second trip into Alseck country, again accompanied by Dalton, this time using pack horses. Following the route of the present-day Haines Highway, they reached the northernmost point of the Tatshenshini River, continued north, crossed the Dezadeash River, passed Kloo Lake, and then retraced their steps to the coast after nearly drowning in Kluane Lake.

But there is more to this story than Glave’s articles reveal. What makes this book more fascinating is that the editors incorporated the diary entries kept by Glave from his unpublished notebooks, which are now housed in the archives at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. These faded diary entries are made on the tattered pages in Glave’s nearly illegible scrawl. They include information never before published, which throws light on Glave’s travels through Kluane country.

Cruikshank provides insightful commentary about the narratives, both public and private, contrasting the 1890 trip with the 1891 venture. Unlike his contemporaries, she notes, Glave “sought out indigenous inhabitants, did his best to learn local languages, recorded names of those he interviewed and incorporated them into his reports.”

The published account of the second journey takes on the more traditional narrative voice of the period, and masks the fact that a disillusioned Glave considered his self-financed trip into the wilds of the Yukon a failure. They nearly drowned, lost much of their equipment, including his faulty map-making instruments, and failed to find mineral wealth. Cruikshank assumes that his true motive behind his Alaskan journeys was to position himself for a return to Africa.

Not mentioned in Cruikshank’s analysis, I note, are Glave’s intriguing reference to an unnamed love interest back in New York City, and the implication that fame and fortune from his 1891 exploration would establish his reputation and provide economic security so that he might win her hand in marriage.

Place names are important to Glave’s narrative. In order to connect the names with the correct places, Doug Hitch analyzes Glave’s notes and map references. In doing so, he establishes clearly the route followed by Glave and Dalton on both of their adventures. The notebook entries are illustrated with numerous annotated sketch maps in this volume, accompanied with interpretation by Hitch, of the route using contemporary maps of the region.

Fortunately, some of the photos of the 1891 journey survive, and are included in this volume, along with the original drawings rendered from these photographs, and modern-day photos taken of the same views. These validate Hitch’s interpretation of the route followed by the two adventurers.

Glave took particular interest in the traditional place names of the region he visited and recorded these in his notes. In addition, he recorded the personal names of those he met, traditional Tlingit and Athabascan words and phrases, and word lists in both Tlingit and Southern Tutchone. Of particular note is how modern geographers have displaced traditional places names with contemporary ones, or assigned traditional place names to the wrong features. This volume documents these and sets the record straight.

The tributary today known as the Blanchard River, for instance, was originally noted as Tarjansini by Glave, That native name (Tatshenshini) was assigned, by 1900, to the Alsek. The name Alsek was assigned to what was known traditionally as the Kaska Wurlch (Kaskawulsh). As Cruikshank noted, “Shifting names created cascading confusion for local residents… local elders still express feelings of displacement as their country was renamed around them - ironically using their own names.”

The text is divided into three main sections; one for the 1890 expedition, and two for the 1891 venture. Each includes a section by Doug Hitch analyzing Glave’s notes and interpreting the route that they followed.

Travels to the Alseck, which is published by the Yukon Native Language Centre, and can be obtained at their office at Yukon College, is hardbound, with 408 glossy pages of text, profusely illustrated with 108 photos and drawings, and 85 maps. It includes a bibliography and index.

For anyone interested in the history of the Kluane region, this book is a must read.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at