A killer, an explorer, entrepreneur, notorious outlaw, man of integrity, a scoundrel.
There is only one word that most would agree describes him: pathfinder.
More than 60 years after his death, all we had to know him by was a sketchy feature newspaper item by Whitehorse historian Bill MacBride, occasional references in newspapers, books and articles and highly painted, often-distorted renderings in recent books and magazines.
Yet as Alaskan historian Mark Kirchoff states in his new biography, he probably explored more of Alaska than any other man of his era.
His name is Jack Dalton.
I became aware of Jack Dalton soon after I first came to the Yukon in 1971.
Dalton Post, in the southwest Yukon, was one of the first historic sites I visited in the North.
Shocked by the wanton vandalism I witnessed at the site, I campaigned, unsuccessfully, as a student, to get the government to provide some form of protection for it and the neighbouring aboriginal village of Nesketahin.
One thing was certain, the trading post’s namesake was an intriguing character who was hard to get to know.
Dalton was a cowboy in Oregon. He went sealing along the Aleutians and explored much of the coast of the Gulf of Alaska. He was on the first expedition that attempted to climb Mount St. Elias.
Dalton guided the first exploration of the southwest Yukon and then proved that horses were a viable means getting there.
He explored for minerals all up and down the coast, and into the interior.
Using long established native trade routes, he established an overland trail to the Yukon River.
He rafted the entire length of the river, and was there at the mouth of the Klondike about the time that Skookum Jim, Dawson Charlie and George Carmack discovered gold.
He brought in cattle to supply the starving miners of Dawson City and continued to do so for a decade.
He drove his last herd over this trail to Fairbanks in 1906.
Dalton was a gold miner and entrepreneur at the mining town of Porcupine, near Haines, Alaska. He also helped establish the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad to Kennecott.
He was at Anchorage, when it was known as Ship Creek, helping establish the Alaska Railroad.
He became a successful businessman.
He became involved in politics, and at one point was involved in a controversy that decided the outcome of an American presidential election.
Dalton also travelled widely in the United States and around the world. In his later years, he searched for minerals in Mexico and the jungles of South America.
In fact his travels and exploits will leave you breathless.
All of this is revealed in this new book.
So why did we know so little about him, and what did he really accomplish?
What was Jack Dalton really like?
These are questions that Kirchoff attempts to answer in Jack Dalton: The Alaska Pathfinder, published late last year by Alaska Cedar Press of Juneau.
In the process, he accomplishes what a number of historians had hoped to do — reveal the man behind the mystery that was Jack Dalton.
Yukoners will find his narrative both interesting and informative — over a period of 15 years, his activities were intertwined with territorial history.
In 1890 he was part of an exploration party that entered the southwest Yukon where he and English explorer E.J. Glave, formerly with the Stanley Expedition of Africa, explored the southwest Yukon and traveled down the Tatshenshini River to Yakutat.
They returned the next year with packhorses to demonstrate that it was possible to open up the Yukon interior to mineral exploration in this way.
After that he set up trading posts in the interior and extended his route along native trails to the Yukon River.
During the Klondike Gold Rush, his route became a minor, but important trail to Dawson City, and the major means by which cattle and other livestock were transported to feed thousands of hungry stampeders.
Little was known about Dalton the man, and over the years, his personality and character have been misrepresented and inaccurately portrayed.
One of Kirchoff’s most significant accomplishments is to present us with a personal insight into Dalton’s character.
Jack Dalton was first and foremost a businessman, and this biography exposes this aspect of his life.
For years, as he developed his trail from Haines, Alaska, to the interior of the Yukon, he fostered the animosity of the Chilkat Tlingit, whose trade monopoly he usurped.
They made several attempts to kill him but failed miserably.
Anybody who interfered with his business aspirations stirred his temper, which led to at least one killing and a number of severe beatings for anybody who stood in his way.
He was, after all, a determined man who always got the job done — by force, if necessary.
Dalton was a ladies’ man who married a number of times, while engaging in numerous liaisons. It was said of him, with some envy that: “Jack has a way with women and horses; he is always gentle on the bridle.”
Most noteworthy is the detailing of his accomplishments as an outdoorsman and pathfinder.
In this regard, he had few equals.
Dalton had an aversion to publicity. Instead of promoting his image as a frontiersman, he was living it, which is one of the reasons why he died in San Francisco in 1944 with hardly a ripple of acknowledgement.
Kirchoff’s book has again brought to light the character and accomplishments of this inscrutable individual.
The author hunted down information from widely scattered sources and assembled them into a well organized chronology of Dalton’s life and personality.
He makes excellent use of a wide variety of sources of information, including numerous newspaper accounts, primary documents as well as published and unpublished sources.
The 243 pages are packed with well-organized, well-written narrative that readers should find easy to follow and enjoy. The 25 pages of chapter notes are detailed and will allow the enthusiast to follow up on interesting events described in the story.
The illustrations are well chosen, if rather fuzzy in some cases, and the maps inserted at various places help place events in their proper geographic context.
The index was useful, although the organization of references specifically related to Dalton was a mystery to me.
One historical inaccuracy that Canadians may find offensive was the author’s repeated reference to the Royal North West Mounted Police. During the gold rush period, they were formally titled the Northwest Mounted Police. The Prefix “Royal” was only added by King Edward VII in 1904.
Don’t take my criticism the wrong way. This is an excellent book that greatly advances our knowledge of an intriguing character in northern history, and I recommend it.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. Stay tuned for more stories about the Dalton Trail in History Hunter.