Last year I wrote about the butchering yard near Fort Selkirk. Earlier this summer, I wrote about the Tuxford cattle drive over the Dalton trail (Yukon News: May 27, June 3 and 10).
All of this writing got me thinking that there must be more evidence of cattle drives along the Dalton trail. After all, there were more than two dozen herds driven over the trail in 1898.
Billy Henry, working for Pat Burns out of Calgary, had 180 head. Burchell and Howie brought a herd all the way from Brandon, Manitoba. Charlie Thebo brought in 1,000 head in total. More than 3,000 head of livestock tramped over the Dalton Trail that year.
George Tuxford, his brother Alan and neighbour John Thomson departed Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, headed for the Klondike, on May 24, 1898, with 70 cattle and oxen in CPR boxcars, on a 2700 kilometre ride to Vancouver.
Following a 1,600-kilometre boat ride through rough seas, fog, and rocky shoals, they arrived at Pyramid Harbour, across the inlet from present-day Haines on June 13. There, the animals were herded ashore and immediately set off north along the trail, headed for the Yukon River.
During the next two months, they slowly made their way 560 kilometres over the Dalton Trail to Carmack’s Post on the Yukon River (present day Carmacks). They swam the herd across the Yukon River and then Alan Tuxford and John Thomson herded the livestock downriver to Rink Rapid, where they joined up with George, who had floated their supplies down the Yukon River and through Five Finger Rapid in a leaky eight-metre-long scow.
At Rink Rapid, there was good grazing, good timber and the Yukon provided a good source of water for the cattle. There were no more rapids to negotiate below this point. Here, the three men set about constructing corrals and slaughtering pens, cutting logs and building three large rafts to float their meat to Dawson City.
The task of killing the animals fell upon Jim Thomson, who attempted to dispatch the first steer by hitting him on the head with the flat end of the axe, but that didn’t work, so Tuxford returned from his tent with his rifle and placed a bullet in the animal’s forehead. After that, the rifle was used to kill the rest of the herd.
Having butchered the animals and loaded the meat onto the rafts, the party set out, on October 3, for Dawson.
Would it be possible, I wondered, to find any evidence of the Tuxford party six-week encampment beside the Yukon River? To answer the question, I enlisted the aid of Bruce Barrett, Historic Sites project officer with the territorial government, and linguist Doug Hitch.
After consulting written sources, maps and aerial photographs, I concluded that we would be able to get to the suspected site of the slaughter by hiking in from the Klondike Highway.
The weather was clear and warm when we began our walk, which took Barrett, Hitch and me, Barrett’s dog Charlie and my retriever Casca, through dense forest and bush, up and down steep slopes and along the thickly vegetated banks of the Yukon. The dogs, we thought, would be an added deterrent for any bears that we might encounter during our trek.
As we approached the target zone, we encountered uneven topography that would have been unsuitable for an encampment. The land must have been more open a century ago because a cow would have found the going difficult through today’s undergrowth.
Hitch stumbled across a pile of wood that included some obviously sawn poles. Then we encountered the iron remains of what appeared to be old sled runners. The wood had long since rotted away. Were we in the right vicinity?
As we approached the target zone, the ground levelled off and the forest cover opened up considerably. Eyes scanning the ground, we spread out in a more or less systematic search pattern that would improve our chances of success.
I came upon across a rusting tin can; a short while later, I found another … I was encouraged by these isolated finds; if a party of drovers had spent six weeks in the area, I would expect to find a small midden filled with tin cans.
If butchering had occurred anywhere near this place, we could expect to find skulls, jaw and foot bones, which were the only parts of the carcass that were cast aside during the butchering process.
Barrett announced the discovery of an enamelware coffee pot, and then he struck historical gold: a small cluster of bone fragments consisting of pieces of a skull, teeth and jaw. Peeling back the moss covering the decomposing skull I exposed a gaping hole in the centre of the forehead of the skull!
This was encouraging evidence, but could we find more?
We tightened our search pattern to cover the area adjacent to the find. We noted a shallow rectangular pit, but this proved to be barren. Then Barrett announced another skull, and a foot bone. Nearby were more jaw and skull fragments.
Hitch found a small piece of bone exposed. When I peeled back the moss that nearly covered the piece, it proved to be a complete jawbone. Nearby, I found another fragment, and when I pulled this out of the moss, it was another skull, again bearing a cavernous crater in the forehead.
I was exultant. If we found nothing more, we had at least found enough evidence to demonstrate that cattle were killed and butchered at this site. We continued to scout the area of these discoveries and uncovered more scattered bones, but no dense concentrations. Nor did we find a midden of cast-off tin cans.
The afternoon was progressing, and anticipating a long, tiring walk out followed by hours of driving, we departed, satisfied that we had confirmed the location of the Tuxford encampment.
Reading numerous accounts of cattle drives from this era, one thing is obvious to me: All along the Yukon River between Five Finger Rapid and Fort Selkirk, numerous parties stopped during the gold rush and slaughtered their herds on the banks of the river. Unless the river has eroded these exposures, this section of the river should be dotted with similar finds of century-old cow bones.
I am left with questions about these unique finds. If I revisit the bones encountered last year, will it be possible to observe cut marks on the jaw bones? Tongue was considered a delicacy, and they would certainly not have left them behind. If the area of this year’s find is examined more thoroughly, will there be more remains hidden under the moss, waiting to be discovered?
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book is History Hunting in the Yukon.