rooting out the family tree can reveal fascinating history

There are plenty of genealogists around; in fact, it is big business, with television programs and websites dedicated to helping enthusiasts search out the roots of the family tree.

There are plenty of genealogists around; in fact, it is big business, with television programs and websites dedicated to helping enthusiasts search out the roots of the family tree. The pursuit of kin yields not only the family tree, but fascinating history as well.

I should know, I encounter such pedigree puzzlers all of the time.

I had coffee with Bert Bounds of Whitehorse recently and we had a good talk about his family history. As we sat and chatted, his enthusiasm was obvious; he is an impassioned family genealogist. He’s been doing it for years.

The reason I was talking to him was that we shared a common interest in a couple of his ancestors, who came into the Yukon before the gold rush: Willis Thorp and George Bounds. They were cousins, both born in Oregon, though Thorp was 15 years senior to Bounds.

I was happy to provide him the details of Willis and George, who appear in the book I am writing about the Dalton Trail.

Their story is an interesting one. Willis Thorp was from a cattle-raising family and had been involved with cows all his life. He had moved to Juneau in 1886 where he opened a butcher shop. He built a slaughterhouse on the southern outskirts of the town and began bringing in live animals, so it is no surprise that he decided in 1896 to drive a herd of cattle into the Yukon.

Little is yet known about the circumstances that brought Bounds to Juneau, but he joined his cousin on the cattle drive into the Yukon.

The Klondike had not yet been discovered when Thorp took his herd to Haines and started moving the herd up the Chilkat valley toward the mountains. His plan was to drive them over the Dalton Trail to the Yukon River, and then float them down to Forty Mile or farther, to Circle, Alaska.

The going was tougher than they had imagined. The herd struggled upstream for 16 kilometres against the strong current of the Chilkat River, which Thorp likened to “the mill race of hell.” His plan worked well until they were resting the herd just beyond the Tlingit village of Klukwan.

Thorp knew that Jack Dalton would not be pleased with his plan to use a trail that Dalton considered his own. That night in camp, Thorp warned his men to be prepared for Dalton, and have their weapons at the ready; after all, there were nearly a dozen men in the Thorp party.

When Dalton rode into their camp the next morning with a revolver strapped to his waist, he made no bones about the situation.

“Thorp,” said Dalton, “I want you and your crowd to get off this trail and I want you to keep off it, and I want you to be damn quick about moving.”

Though outnumbering Dalton more than 10 to 1, their resolve vapourized faster than the morning mist. Instead of following Dalton’s trail, the party turned right where the Chilkat joined the Klehini River, and the herd struggled up the Chilkat River, and over the mountains past Kusawa Lake.

They eventually reached the Yukon River, and ever since then the route that they used over the mountains to the Yukon River has been entered on maps as the Bounds Trail.

They floated their herd downstream, but they never made it to Forty Mile. Instead, they were frozen into the Yukon River at the mouth of the Klondike River at one of the defining moments in Yukon history, and to their good fortune, the stampeding prospectors were hungry for beef.

Thus, the Thorp party saved the miners from starvation that winter, while reaping a tidy return for themselves.

After that, George Bounds had time to look for gold. He staked the first bench claim in the Klondike, overlooking claim Number 1 Above Discovery on Bonanza Creek, December 17, 1896. Today, this bench is known as Cheechako Hill.

Bert Bounds isn’t the only one tracking down his family’s Klondike connections. A few weeks ago, I met Dorothy Dixon and her husband Keith. They had travelled half way around the world from New Zealand, on their way to the Klondike on the trail of her grandfather, Francis William Hiscock.

Hiscock had left his home at Dunedin in New Zealand March 1, 1898 and spent more than three years in the Klondike. The account of his experiences was chronicled in a thin volume titled A Kiwi in the Klondike, a copy of which I obtained from the Dixons. It was an interesting read, and I was fascinated by the different word usage, for example: a “dish” for gold pan, and “pegging,” instead of staking a claim.

In one entry in his account, Hiscock describes a dwelling constructed near Dawson by two Maoris, using willow sticks, moss and mud to create a beehive-shaped affair with a small log porch entrance. I later found a photo of this most curious Klondike cabin, which was fitted with a Maori figurehead over the entrance.

I met a pair of Californians, Sheldon Gebb, and his wife, Barbara, in Dawson City recently. Retracing the steps of Sheldon’s father, John Wesley Gebb, the Gebbs have made several trips to the Yukon following the route taken by John Gebb a century before. The result is a new book titled In the Footsteps of My Father, which was just launched at the Dawson Museum last week.

Gebb’s father spent 18 months in the Yukon and Alaska. He came to Dawson and worked on the construction of the Yukon Ditch in 1908, then mined on Clear creek, where their neighbour, Big Alex McDonald died in early January of 1909. Gebb then went on four bear-hunting trips in the Klondike before deciding to seek opportunity elsewhere.

John Gebb returned to Whitehorse and travelled north-west through Kluane country to seek employment at the Kennecott Mine in Alaska before returning to the Lower 48.

Each of these people has tracked their ancestors’ travels through the Yukon. I sense that for each of them it was a rewarding journey. Filling in the blanks in their forefathers’ travels has been important to them.

I was able to help Bert fill in some of the details in his relatives’ gold rush journey. With any luck, I’ll find more information.

From the others, like a voyeur, I have been able to experience their forefathers’ lives through their own words.

But the excitement of genealogical discovery has also come much closer to home. While conducting some research for a cousin in England recently, my wife Kathy, who descends from an English family line, uncovered the fact that her great, great, great grandmother was born in Quebec City in 1804, and later returned to the sceptered isle with her parents.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer living in Whitehorse. His book most recent book is History Hunting in the Yukon.