Two hundred and fifty columns doesn’t seem like much when you say it quickly. That is the equivalent to four books that I have written on the pages of this newspaper since 2007. The time flew by with amazing speed.
In 2007, I approached the former editor of the Yukon News, Richard Mostyn, to discuss the possibility of writing a column about Yukon history. We pondered what to call it. I reflected on the intimate connection that came from actually visiting places in the Yukon where events took place. I had made several trips onto the Dalton Trail in my quest for the untold story, and spent countless weekends and holidays to go into the gold fields outside of Dawson in search of history. Thus was born the History Hunter.
Since I came to the Yukon in 1971, I have had an intimate affair with the Yukon’s past. I have travelled to Victoria to learn about the Sisters of St. Ann, who cared for the sick and aged in Dawson for 65 years. I tracked down the roots of a Saskatchewan farmer who brought a herd of cattle to the Klondike in 1898. He didn’t get rich, but what an amazing journey he took! I have travelled to Ottawa, New Brunswick, South Dakota and Alberta, to name a few places, and everywhere I go there seems to be a Yukon connection.
One intriguing, if circuitous, quest I went on occurred when I sought to verify a short article I read in the Dawson News from 1931. It referred to a murder trial where George Black, lawyer and long-time Yukon MP, defended a man accused of murder. The accused had served with Black during the Great War (1914-1918) and Black rose from his seat in the House of Commons to travel to Edmonton to defend the man.
It took me 18 months to get to the bottom of this story, and in the end, the story turned out to be significantly different from the original newspaper article that sparked the quest. One of the lessons that I learned was not to take everything that I find in the old newspapers at face value. I hope, of course, that my articles can be taken at face value, but one thing I have learned in my quest for the historical truth is that there are many stories, and many viewpoints about each one.
At first, I wondered whether there would be enough history worth exploring to write my weekly columns. Based upon my experience, there are as many stories about the history of the Yukon as there are people, so I don’t think I will run short of material to write about in the near future.
I recently responded to an inquiry about the gold rush and the type of art popular during that era. One of the photographs showed a large stage curtain in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall in Dawson City (today you know it as Diamond Tooth Gertie’s).
I pondered the origins of the painting on this curtain, and my wife Kathy found the answer in an old issue of the Dawson Daily News. This led to a story about Max Kollm, Yukon artist. Kollm was instrumental in the establishment of the Arctic Brotherhood. Kathy found plenty of material about Kollm in the newspapers of the day, and that led to the story of the Arctic Brotherhood, and eventually to the Seattle Exposition of 1909. The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was first proposed by a member of the Arctic Brotherhood, and the story actually resulted in two columns: one about the exposition and the other about one Yukoner’s role in the event.
I enjoy writing about Yukon history-related events. Columns about conferences and special lectures have also found their way into the History Hunter. The same could be said for book reviews of new publications on Yukon history. One event that combined music at Arts in the Park with a visit to the local MacBride Museum resulted in a fascinating performance; 10 local musicians who each rendered their museum experience in a musical expression. I wrote about that. Another favourite is the heritage fair, an annual event engaging school children. I am astonished and impressed by many of the historical subjects that these inquiring youngsters have tackled.
I receive inquiries from readers and do my best to answer their questions. Some lead to fascinating stories while others prove to be fruitless quests. I store the latter away for future reference because I never know when I will encounter the key that will open the door to another fascinating historical treasure. If I wasn’t able to help your query upon first examination – don’t worry, I haven’t given up on the story.
One interesting example of where a story will lead occurred a couple of years ago. I wrote about Morley Bones – a fascinating but somewhat reclusive man who made a living as a prospector/fur rancher/guide/outfitter based at Kluane Lake. Before the Alaska Highway was built, Kluane was an isolated camp. Bones often didn’t receive his mail for six months at a time. My quest for Bones’s story eventually led to his family home in California, where the local historical society was able to fill in some of the gaps in his story.
When preparing a story, I will read extensively. Before I make an assertion, I will invest a considerable amount of time verifying statements to make sure that they are accurate. Even so, I don’t always get the facts right. I thank those who contact me to point that out.
I share my nascent columns with my wife Kathy, who often points out to me that I have missed a prime element in a story. I rewrite again, polish and refine until the column is, I hope, readable. The product is given a final review by eagle-eyed editors at the News, who often point out details that need clarification.
Writing about Yukon’s remarkable history has been an incredible journey so far. The people, places and events that I have experienced – and shared – have only whetted my appetite for more. I hope that you will agree with my assessment. I hope that you will find the next 250 stories to be as interesting as the last batch has been.
I look forward to sharing the adventure with you.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org