Gold! Gold! Gold!
The front page headline proclaimed a ton of gold arriving in Seattle in July, 1897. It sparked a stampede unlike anything we will ever see again.
While the allure to go north mainly attracted men, women were also affected by “Klondicitis.” Indirectly, they were affected when their lovers, sweethearts, husbands, brothers and fathers set off for the Klondike seeking opportunity, fortune, and adventure.
But a small percentage of women came north as well. While some, Like Della Murray Banks were well equipped for what was to come, most were ill-prepared for the journey.
In New York, the Women’s Klondike Expedition Syndicate was formed by the Big Apple’s social cream; it was organized into committees and with an executive, of course. It had plans for 40 members to hire two Pullman sleeping cars to transport them across the continent in comfort by rail, then up the coast to Sitka.
At Sitka, they were to travel on by self contained horse-drawn caravans to Dawson.
For each group of 20 women, there would be three vans equipped with sleeping quarters, while two more would carry their provisions.
I never learned what became of this scheme, which, like many reported on at the time, quickly disappeared from the pages of the newspapers.
The wife of senator Stewart of Nevada was stricken with a bad case of Klondike fever. Mrs Stewart announced that she was going to follow her oldest grandson on the trail to Dawson City. As a young bride, she had lived the hard life on the frontier in Virginia City, and now a grandmother, she was determined to do it again.
Three women in Seattle announced that they were incorporating the Women’s Yukon Alaska Mining and Investment Company, using the capital to hire men to go to the Klondike and do the work of mining for a share of the gold they would recover.
Another scheme, The Women’s Clondyke Expedition, took 500 women by boat around the southern tip of South America, headed for Skagway. They became shipwrecked in the Straits of Magellan, and by the time they got to Seattle, they threw in the towel and went home.
The relatively small number of women who did make it to the Klondike had their job cut out for them. Some thought they could get over the Klondike trails without spoiling their appearance, soiling their clothes, or letting a hair fall out of place. Two women actually travelled with a circus-like entourage that included useless paraphernalia like a portable bowling alley.
Another woman was seen travelling on the Dalton Trail in farmers’ overalls, wearing a fancy hat, and carrying a canary in a cage as a precaution against mine gas!
In contrast, another woman set out with a syndicate of stampeders from the eastern United States. She was the only female among 100 men, destined to reach the Klondike by crossing the glacier-covered coastal mountains from Yakutat Bay. “The journey is only 425 miles,” proclaimed one Alaskan newspaper of this route, “and that … over rolling grassland! No mountains to ascend, no passes to plod through, probably no deep mud fields to wade across, and, most certainly, no great extremes of cold to endure.”
This was one of the most tragic attempts of all; 40 of the hundred perished on the ice of the Malaspina and Nunatak glaciers. The remainder survived starvation, scurvy and blindness, but none ever reached the Klondike. For the sole woman in the group, the expedition must have been hell.
One veteran northern woman who travelled over the Dalton trail in 1898 was Della Murray Banks. Accompanying her husband Austin and a party of nine others in search of gold, she was no newcomer to northern conditions, having made three previous trips to Alaska before joining this group. During an earlier trip to Alaska, she had burned her hand and lost two fingers.
She could adjust herself to any situation, an admirable trait for the journey she was involved in. In her account of the trip, published in the Alaska Sportsman in 1945, she wryly commented on some of the men in her party: “It wasn’t the man who didn’t know, but the man who wouldn’t learn, that made it hard.”
She was assigned a durable steady pack horse named Polly as her mount. She rode Polly with only a blanket and rope surcingle. She had neither stirrups nor saddle, not even a bridle – just a rope halter for guidance. But Polly didn’t need guiding, for she followed the trail at a walk, slow and steady.
Mrs. Banks was hired on at $50 a month as the cook for this party. Everyday, regardless of where they were, regardless of the weather, under the open sky, with a flimsy sheet-metal stove, she prepared meals for the hungry men.
Each evening, she baked 90 biscuits, 15 at a time, in a simple sheet-iron stove. More often than not, she did this, working on her knees, wherever the camp was set for the day.
At the end of one hard day, one of the men in her party told her that if it were up to him, there would have been no meal prepared that night, to which she simply observed that she had walked the same distance that he had.
At Pyramid Harbour, the starting point of the trail, Della met two ladies, who were planning to accompany the party. One regarded the trip as a lark, wanting to go just for the fun of it, and naturally didn’t expect to do any work. She wouldn’t think of going if there was any possibility of getting her feet wet!
She couldn’t ride a horse – and at best it would be a three-hundred mile trip. She wouldn’t eat off a tin plate, nor drink from a tin cup; nor could she eat beans or bacon. She lived on cream, milk, and eggs.
Della decided she wouldn’t go if those women went. “I was willing to do my share,” she said, “but that didn’t include waiting on Mrs. Tucker.” The two ladies finally decided instead to spend the summer in Seattle, where they could keep their feet dry. Della smiled when she heard that, she said, “They didn’t know Seattle!”
Della didn’t make it to the Klondike either, but her memories of the summer spent on the Dalton Trail were still vivid 45 years later.
Nineteenth Century society had not prepared most women for the kind of exploits that came with a trip over a Klondike trail, though First Nation women, raised in a different culture, lived in the north and travelled it with ease and familiarity.
When a woman from the civilized streets of New York, Vancouver or Seattle ventured north the summer of 1898, the way that Della Murray Banks did, they were generally unfamiliar with the physical and personal terrain they would traverse.
When they succeeded, it was a testimony to the ir determination, because they had to go against the social grain to get there.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.