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People help put a human face on the past

Never underestimate how important a personal contact is when hunting for a story from the past.

Never underestimate how important a personal contact is when hunting for a story from the past. Sometimes, the best source of information regarding some individual or event from bygone days comes from a family album, genealogical research, or just talking to someone. This is an especially valuable way to put a human face on individuals from the past who weren’t prominently featured in newspapers or biographies.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece about a young lady, Zowitza Nicholas, from Dawson City who volunteered as a nurse during the First World War. I came across the name while conducting research about the Yukon and World War I. At first, I learned little more than the fact that she had enlisted as a nurse, but then I came across a couple of interesting articles in the Dawson Daily News.

The newspaper had reprinted letters that she had sent to her mother after she signed up. One described her preparations, while stationed in New York City awaiting transportation to France; another described her travels through war-torn Germany, Belgium and France after the war had ended. It was clear that she was an eloquent writer with great curiosity about exotic places.

Then my wife Kathy came across a reference to her on a genealogical website on the Internet that included an attractive image of her in her nursing uniform. There was a contact listed and so I sent a message of inquiry. What followed was an invaluable exchange of e-mails and information. David Cann, her great nephew living in Virginia, had assembled family history, but hadn’t seen these newspaper articles, so we exchanged information. He also sent me photographs. Now Ms. Nicholas took form.

Many years ago, when I had been working for just a few months as a curator for Parks Canada in Dawson City, I had a drop-in visit from Dick and Julia Kavet, from Albuquerque, New Mexico. They were inquiring about Dick’s grandfather, Joseph Walter Kavetzki, who was a harness maker of Polish ancestry, living in Dawson.

I was able to arrange a visit to the old shop where his grandfather had worked on Third Avenue. At the time, the building was filled with the dusty abandoned remains of a business that had closed down more than a half century before. It has since been demolished. The Kavets were most excited to see the relics of his grandfather’s past.

Each fact that they provided me led me to another reference, directory or old record that answered more questions about Dick’s grandfather. I mentioned that I had found a metal harness fitting upon which was embossed Kavetzki’s name and announcement of a patent pending. This was news to the family, and they were later able to obtain a copy of the patent documents.

It was mutually rewarding encounter on both our parts, and they later sent me a compilation of facts about J.W. Kavetzki consisting of more than 100 pages, to which I had been able to make a substantial contribution.

This collaboration had an interesting bonus. A year later, we recovered a collection of old photographs from one of our old buildings, but there was no information as to what they represented or who the individuals in the photograph were.

Perhaps it was my own Polish ancestry, combined with the large walrus moustaches on the men wearing sashes and standing in front of St. Mary’s church in one of the photos, that made me suspect that the people captured in these images were also Polish.

I photocopied the images and mailed them off to the Kavet family. It was a classic case of serendipity; in due course, they returned the photocopies to me, and they had written in the names of the people they could identify in the photographs. More history revealed.

And that is the way it works. The names and faces, more or less forgotten for generations take on shape and substance from these fortunate collaborations. And the history becomes human.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I met numerous people who had returned to Dawson, often after an absence of more than 40 years. I met Emile Fournier, whose family once operated a roadhouse at Bear Creek. The building was gone by the time of his return, but the memories were still strong.

I took out my tape recorder and prepared to interview him, when we ran into Henri Thibault, who was, I believe, his cousin. They knew each other well, and I invited Henri to join us. It didn’t take much effort on my part to prompt them to talk. Each stimulated the other’s recollections of past people and events. The interview practically ran itself. It was a remarkable opportunity to learn about earlier times in the Klondike.

The Yukon Consolidated Gold Company (YCGC) dominated the Yukon economy during the decades after World War I and II - it was known simply as “The Company.” I talked to Matt, a man who had worked as a flunky (cook’s assistant) for “The Company” and also on a bull gang at a dredge camp in the late 1930s. The summers he worked (during the depression, not everyone could find a job) were memorable for him, and moved him to tears as he thumbed through the old photos that he had brought with him.

He was not the only man who responded this way when reconnecting with his Yukon past. I drove John Calam, another former “Company” employee out to the now-vanished dredge camp at Granville, 100 kilometres south of Dawson, where he, too, had worked on a thawing crew. There, he pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and played a tune he used to blow when he sat on the steps of his bunkhouse after work. He too had moist eyes as he remembered the time when he was working his way through university.

John King, the former superintendent of the Gold Room at Bear Creek, was confined to a wheelchair when he returned to Dawson for a visit in 1993. His son and son in law, in an obvious act of respect, carried John and his wheelchair up a steep flight of stairs on Dredge No. 4 so that he could explain how they set up, and later cleaned up, the sluice boxes that captured the gold.

His determination to share his memories, and the strong emotional expressions of the others who I mention here are just a few examples of the many people I have met over the years who instilled me not only with the facts of the past, but also with the emotions.

These encounters are every bit as important - and interesting - as hunting for old cabins or gathering facts from old documents and books. They put the flesh on the bones of history and give meaning and life to the people and events to which they refer. They make history come alive.

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