It was a mother’s love that brought Anna DeGraf to the Yukon before the discovery of gold in the Klondike, but it was her strong character that kept her here.
When Anna’s son George bid her farewell in July of 1892 and walked down the street from her Seattle home, whistling cheerfully, his bag in hand, he called back, “I’ll be back in 14 days.”
Time passed and he didn’t come back; then she received word that her son had been in Juneau, and decided to follow. He was filled with a yearning for adventure, she knew, and she was so determined to find him that she sold her business and left Seattle for the North, with her sewing machine and her strong maternal instinct to guide her.
If she faced a harsh life in the North, it didn’t deter her; she had long endured hardship, turmoil and adversity. Born Anna Lotsch in Saxony in 1839, she left her war-torn homeland in 1867, following her husband to the United States.
By then she had witnessed firsthand the revolution of 1848, and the Seven Weeks War of 1866. She lost her first child in infancy, and then almost succumbed, along with her second offspring, to cholera and then she was nearly lost at sea.
A few years after arriving in America, her husband lost everything in a financial panic in 1873 that left Anna and her small children broke and homeless in New York City. They moved west, but then her husband was murdered while prospecting near Yakima, Washington.
Her Seattle home and dressmaking business burned to the ground in the great fire of 1889. She then suffered a badly broken leg, followed by her son’s departure.
When Anna arrived in Juneau, it was, she recalled, a small frontier town of 1,000, most of whom were miners.
“There were,” she wrote later, “saloons, a dance hall, and a few general stores on Front Street, and the cabins were scattered on the beach and hillside.” It was a wild town, with little law, except for that enforced at gunpoint.
She went out to the nearby mining camps in hope of gleaning word of her missing son, but to no avail. For two years, she plied her trade with her sewing machine without hearing any news of George.
Then one day, she met Joe Ladue, who had come to Juneau from his trading post and sawmill at Ogilvie, which was located on an island in the Yukon River at the mouth of the Sixtymile. Yes, he remembered somebody by the name of DeGraf, who stopped at his post with a party of others.
That was enough to set things in motion. In July of 1894, she joined a party that included a married couple and two single men who were headed into the interior. She took with her the clothing that she wore, the feather bed that she had brought from Germany when she first emigrated to America, and her sewing machine.
This was before the gold rush, so Dyea was nothing more than a trading post. The Chilkoot Trail at that time was nothing more than a path that followed the Dyea River toward the mountains, and then climbed through a rocky cleft in the coastal mountains.
Anna DeGraf was now a woman 55 years of age. In addition, the leg she had broken several years before still bothered her so she walked along the trail with the aid of a crutch.
The small party she had joined struggled along the trail to the headwaters of the Yukon, where they built a boat on Lindeman Lake, and they started their journey. They survived a storm on Bennett Lake, and braved the turbulent waters of Miles Canyon, then portaged around the Whitehorse Rapids.
They made their way down the Yukon River past Fort Selkirk, which at that time consisted of an Anglican mission and a trading post. At Joe Ladue’s trading post, she received independent confirmation that a man named Degraf, possibly her son, had passed by.
She continued on to Circle City, arriving there in a heavy snow storm at the end of October. She set up her sewing business, and was soon hard at work filling orders for the Northern Commercial Company, and a never-ending succession of miners.
Throughout her time in the North, she worked hard at her trade. She also served as mother-confessor, protector, and champion for less fortunate women who lived there. Over the years, she earned the respect of many of the pioneers who made the north their home. She often encountered them in later years, and many of them extended their hospitality and kindness to her.
For two years, she kept asking for her son, with no further news. Then, in 1896, she took the boat downriver and returned to her daughter in San Francisco with $1,200 in gold dust.
The North had cast its spell upon her, and it wasn’t long before it called to her again. Equipped with her feather bed, a sewing machine and supplies, she made her way north in 1897, ever hopeful of finding her son.
The gold rush was now at its peak and she joined the thousands who were headed north. She had the advantage of having been there before, but it was too late in the season and she turned back in the cold and storms of winter.
She finally made it to Dawson City, where again she set up her sewing business. Every couple of years, she would return to the Outside to visit her family, but she kept coming back. She twice lost everything in terrible fires. The second time this happened was in Whitehorse, when she was returning to Dawson, so she turned around and made her way to Skagway, and then Juneau, where she set up her business once again.
She worked happily in Juneau for two years until 1917. Nearing 80, she had saved up enough money to once again return to San Francisco. She never came back.
Anna DeGraf continued to work, but she had enough energy at age 85 to write a memoir of her experiences in the north, which was published seventy years later as: Pioneering on the Yukon 1892-1917.
“…my hope is that someone may read these words,” she said, “even the boy himself may send me a message … that I may see him again on this planet.”
“As I sit and stitch, stitch, on the beautiful skins, some of which came from that far-away land,” she wrote, “I live over the experiences I had on my travels of over thirty thousand miles in the Land of the Midnight Sun.”
She lived a life of misfortune and setback, but she was never defeated by circumstances, not even the disappearance of her son, whom she never saw again.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book is History Hunting in the Yukon.