old maps help chart yukon history

If every picture tells a story, then the same statement should be doubly true for old maps. I know; I've been driving myself crazy searching for and then poring over old maps related to the Dalton Trail.

If every picture tells a story, then the same statement should be doubly true for old maps. I know; I’ve been driving myself crazy searching for and then poring over old maps related to the Dalton Trail.

My purpose was clear was clear, at least in my own mind: If I was going to tell the story properly, then I had to be able to describe the route over which the storied path led. That seemed easy to accomplish. Find a map to accompany my story, and the problem is solved.

It proved more difficult than I thought, but far more interesting. I found my first map easily enough; it accompanied an interesting book titled Gold-Seeking on the Dalton Trail, a factual account of events thinly veiled as a boy’s adventure story, written by Arthur R. Thompson back in 1900.

Thompson was a member of a party which had the intriguing name of “The Mysterious 36.” They had come to the Yukon, like many others during the gold rush, to find gold and get rich. Like just about as many others, they never found it.

Thompson was a Yale educated man from Hartford, Connecticut, who, while not your typical outdoorsman, had had plenty of adventure before embarking on his journey to the Yukon in 1898. Five years earlier, while still a student at University, he spent a summer aboard the steamer Viola on an expedition to Labrador and Greenland. That journey produced his first book, and others followed his Klondike adventure.

The map of the trail in Gold-Seeking was very detailed and useful, but it had some shortcomings. It was quite detailed about the portion of the trail from Pyramid Harbour, on the Chilkat Inlet, not far from Haines, Alaska, to Champlain’s Landing (now known as Champagne). From the latter point to the Yukon River, the details of the route are reduced to a vague squiggly line.

Thompson was obviously not as knowledgeable of the terrain and the geography north of Champlain’s Landing, and it is therefore likely that he didn’t go there or spend much time there if he did. This shortcoming was compensated for by the inclusion of details related to the activities of the Mysterious 36. His map, after all, was a visual portrayal of his grand adventure in the Yukon.

On the map, some of the camps established by the mining syndicate are named after members of the party: Pennock’s Post, Reitz’s Tent, and Moran’s Camp. Photos of these places taken by Thompson in 1898 give them form and substance.

More recently, I searched for some of these places, hoping to find their remains. I succeeded, but it was not easy. Some creeks were given names by the mining party that have not been captured on any later map. Where was Frying Pan Creek, for instance? It appears on Thompson’s map, but nowhere else.

Could “Roly’s Lake” be the St. Elias Lake near Dezadeash Lake now depicted on topographical maps? Is a peak nearby that is conical in shape, just like the one thus named on Thompson’s map? The map also shows the Kha Sha River flowing into Dezadeash Lake, but no such river exists.

I had to to turn to other maps in order to detail the extent of the gold rush trail. This was not easy. Some charts were obviously the product of wild speculation and lack of specific knowledge of the terrain.

Other maps of the region depict alternate routes for the trail. For instance, one map shows a trip taken by government surveyor, J.J. McArthur. This trail was only followed once, in 1897, but it was included on many later maps. Another route named the G. Bounds Trail, was included on many gold rush maps, but it too appears to have been used only once.

I studied dozens of maps of the area seeking the details of the Dalton Trail, each of which provided slightly different information. To clarify the confusion, I went to the area in person and located portions of the trail just to be sure of my facts.

Studying these old maps taught me something: each one is developed to serve a particular purpose, and provide specific information. By studying them as historical documents, they actually have a story to tell.

You may think that maps are intended to help you find your way across the landscape, but they also convey a point of view. Take the multitude of maps that were generated during the Klondike gold rush. The accuracy of these varies, but most were intended to guide travellers to the gold fields at Dawson City. Their true purpose, however, was to make money for the manufacturers; during the gold rush, everybody was trying to cash in on the mania that had loosened tight purses all across the continent.

During my recent trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, I had the opportunity to examine a collection of maps belonging to a private collector. My goal was to find more information on the Dalton Trail. What I got instead was an interesting lesson in applied cartography.

The maps were produced by various shipping companies to attract passengers and freight – a goal which they undoubtedly achieved. These maps showed in detail the routes along which their company ships travelled, but beyond that, the maps are again generally vague. After all, once the passengers get off the companies’ steamships, they were on their own.

Another purpose for maps was ownership. Colonialism was at its peak in the nineteenth century, and as various nations charted the twists and turns of great rivers and plotted the irregularities of coastlines, naming things as they went, there was an implied acquisition of ownership.

In 1899, Canada, Great Britain and the United States were enmeshed in a dispute to define the boundary line between Canada and the United States. Maps were essential to their purposes.

Other important maps created by indigenous peoples, including the Kohklux map and the Kandik map, affirm an occupation and knowledge of lands that often predates the first European explorers. Pencil and paper were foreign a foreign medium of expression, yet with these materials, they revealed their intimate knowledge of the landscapes of the Yukon and Alaska.

To indigenous map-makers, the land was not plotted in kilometres, the points of the compass nor in altitude, latitude or longitude, it was charted by prominent named features on the landscape and by days of travel from one place to another. Although they were limited to the span of personal knowledge of the terrain through which they had travelled, they also revealed their intimate relationship with the land.

As English explorer Edward Glave undertook to chart the regions of the southwest Yukon previously unknown to Europeans, it is ironic that he relied heavily upon the knowledge of the people he met along the way to guide him, and to fill in the features and names of places on the map that he never got to see for himself.

For these old maps, what they depict isn’t as important as why.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is available in stores throughout the territory.