My wife gave me a diary for Christmas. As a matter of fact, she gave me four.
No, this wasn’t a subtle hint that I have to start writing my memoirs. These diaries, published in book form, or compiled in Acco binders, describe the personal experiences of various individuals during the Klondike Gold Rush. Other accounts are captured in letters sent home describing their quest for gold.
The number of diaries dating to the gold rush is quite amazing. Most of them are found in libraries, archives such as the Dawson City Museum and the Yukon Archives, or other institutions scattered across the continent.
These diaries were written by ordinary men living an extraordinary dream. Some have found their way into print for a variety of reasons—family genealogy work, pride in ancestral achievement, or the riveting stories they convey. Some of them are printed raw and unembellished; others have had the benefit of extensive background research and editorial work. In some instances, they are enhanced by photographs taken, or acquired by the diarist.
Some of them make pretty scanty reading, containing little information beyond the date, the weather conditions and the state of their personal health. But many of the more detailed and colourful accounts have found their way into print over the years.
In 1898, if a personal account was to be kept, in this pre-computer era, it was in pencil or ink in a journal or notebook, or written in letters. There was neither blogging, FaceBook, or e-mails during the gold rush! Back then, travel was slow, and people had the time and opportunity to write about their experiences along the way.
Some of the letters written also found their way into print in the newspapers of the day and allow us now to be voyeurs of the past.
Why did so many come north during the gold rush? One might think that it was because they wanted to get rich, but I think there was more to it than that. More to the point, I believe they wanted adventure. The gold rush came at the end of a decade known as the Gay Nineties, but it could hardly have been described as a happy time.
The continent was gripped in a severe depression. Jobs were hard to come by, and people starved to death in the streets. Twenty per cent of the work force was unemployed. With men jobless, women and children were forced to go to work. There was even a popular song during that era: “Everybody works but father”.
Newspaper accounts told of men and women in tatters, just arrived from the Klondike, walking off a boat in Seattle carrying sacks filled with gold. Thousands of men saw an opportunity to regain their self-respect, dignity and secure financial position, by going north. Whether or not they found gold, they perhaps saw it as an opportunity to redeem themselves.
When embarking on the grand adventure in 1897 and 1898, they knew they were part of a unique event and many resolved to keep a record of their experience. Over the decades, a number of their accounts found their way into print, forming a remarkable legacy.
These gold rush diaries and letters reveal the unvarnished gold rush experiences rather than the excitement and glamour recounted in popular history.
In one account that I read in the Yukon Archives a few years ago, the diary’s author was camped in a small log cabin in West Dawson, which was across the river from the main city. His daily winter activities were a mundane cycle of keeping warm and staying fed.
He had a partner with whom he had travelled, who came down with typhoid. In each daily entry, he referred to his trip across the ice of the frozen Yukon River to visit the friend in the hospital at the north end of town.
At the Yukon Archives another account, that of Israel A. Lee, captured in the letters he sent home, describes Lee’s attempt to get to the Klondike by travelling over the Dalton Trail in the fall and winter of 1897. After months spent labouring over the Chilkat Summit through brutal cold, snow and winds, he reached Dalton Post, a mere 160 kilometres from the coast. By then, his horses were all dead, and he had hauled the mass of supplies through the snow himself over the final portion of the trail. At Dalton Post, he sold everything off, and retreated to the Alaskan coast, but instead of returning to civilization, he turned to the White Pass.
One of the most insidious afflictions for stampeders was scurvy, caused by lack of vitamin C in the diet. The cause of scurvy was not widely understood during the gold rush, and it afflicted many of those who struggled over the trails, dreaming of wealth and adventure. J.G. MacGregor, in his book, The Klondike Gold Rush Through Edmonton, portrays the worst ravages of this disease through the accounts in two diaries, one written by a man stricken by scurvy, the other by one of his fellow travellers.
Camped in the mountains somewhere between the Mackenzie River and Dawson City, the dying A.D. Stewart described swollen joints, agonizing pain, blackening skin and teeth falling out. From January to February of 1899, as long as he was able, he made regular entries in his diary. Then he became too weak to continue, but R.H. Cresswell, who, in his entries, had paralleled Stewart’s account, chronicled his final days.
Hunter: The Yukon Gold Rush Letters of Robert Hunter Fitzhugh, Jr. 1897-1900, another published account consisting of the letters sent home by a stampeder, describes his experiences in the Yukon and Alaska for a period of three years and concludes sadly with the letters from Fitzhugh’s friends to his mother, recounting the circumstances of his death in an avalanche.
Not all of them end so tragically. William Shape, in his account, published as Faith of Fools, described his journey over the Chilkoot and down the Yukon River, prospecting up the Stewart River in 1898, followed by his exit trip out over the Dalton Trail in August and September. Like thousands of others, he had made a long journey of nearly 7,500 kilometres.
The trip cost him about ,000 and took 14 months to complete. Though poorer monetarily for his experience, Shape came out healthy, 12 kilograms heavier, and stated that he would gladly make the trip again, provided next time he could turn a profit.
The diaries and letters of the Klondike stampeders represent the personal stories of those who experienced the stampede first hand and lived, or sometimes died, to tell the tale. If you want to feel a personal and intimate connection with this defining historical event, look for some of these narratives on the shelves of your local book store or library, or go to your community archives.
Michael Gates is a local historian
and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.