the tragic death of special constable stick sam

The Dalton Trail fell into disuse after the Klondike gold rush subsided. By 1903, there was very little activity over the trail.

The Dalton Trail fell into disuse after the Klondike gold rush subsided. By 1903, there was very little activity over the trail. With the completion of the White Pass and Yukon Route railway in 1900, there was no longer an advantage to shipping supplies over it. Other events had shifted the focus of attention elsewhere in the Yukon and Alaska.

Then gold was discovered on Ruby Creek in the southwest Yukon by Skookum Jim, Dawson (Tagish) Charley and Jim Boss in the summer of 1903. The participation of two of the discoverers of the Klondike gave credence to the find, and a stampede to the area ensued. Within days, 500 men were reported headed for the region to get in on the action.

Claims were being staked on creeks all over the southwest Yukon. Early reports were promising. Morley Bones and three others, for example, staked claims on Bullion Creek in September that yielded 43 ounces of gold in nine days of crude hand mining. Superintendent Snyder of the North West Mounted Police speculated that a lot of freight would be hauled into the area from Whitehorse during the winter, in anticipation of a hectic prospecting season in the spring.

While virtually no freight was hauled over the Dalton Trail to the Kluane district, the Mounted Police detachment on the trail was called upon to send a patrol into the vicinity of the new discovery. Inspector A.E. McDonell, Const. Povoas and Special Const. Stick Sam patrolled the area during the month of July.

First Nation men were frequently engaged in the Yukon as special constables by the Mounted Police. The first of them employed in this role were on the Dalton Trail. They were highly regarded for their knowledge of the region, and were hired as guides on patrol, as well as for their abilities handling dog teams and for working in the region.

Over the eight years that the Dalton Trail detachment operated, a number of special constables were employed by the Mounties. One was known as “Doctor Scottie,” who served as a scout and guide, and was highly regarded by the officer in charge. Another, who was referred to in the records as Special Constable Johnny, was undoubtedly Johnny Fraser.

Fraser assumed this surname because of his close association with Dr. S.M. Fraser, the surgeon assigned to the Dalton trail detachment at Pleasant Camp, where the doctor was posted for a number of years. Johnny Fraser later became a respected and long-lived elder residing at Champagne. I had the opportunity to meet him there in 1971 during my first summer in the Yukon. Bent with age, and hard of hearing, he could still remember the early days.

Another of the special constables posted on the trail was Paddy Duncan, who was later known for his discovery of gold on Squaw Creek. He too lived to an advanced age, spending his final years at Klukwan, Alaska.

But the one most remembered today is Special Const. Stick Sam.

Sam, a young man in his mid-20s, was regarded by the mounted police as “best and most intelligent Indian in that district.” He first signed on with the police on Sept. 28, 1899 and served in this capacity until his tragic death in 1903.

McDonell, Povoas and Sam patrolled the creeks of the new district during July to assess what was happening there. They had completed this assignment and were returning to their base at Pleasant Camp, at the Canada-U.S. border.

The party headed south from Ruby Creek and camped the night of July 28 in the Kaskawulsh Pass, not too far from the place where English explorer Edward Glave and Jack Dalton had forded the Dezadeash River in 1891. Dalton almost drowned during that crossing.

The police officers rose early in the morning and proceeded to a point on the river where they could cross safely to the far side. McDonell went ahead, and thinking he had crossed the worst of the water, he signalled the other men to proceed.

Sam immediately found himself in deep water. According to his report on the incident McDonell later stated:

“As soon as he (Sam) struck swimming water, he commenced tugging at the reins, until he pulled the horse over backwards, sinking him. The horse however came up again, struggled a little and turning on his side floated to shore about a mile down the river on the same side we had started in from.

Sam took only a few strokes and then disappeared, not coming up again. By this time, Povoas had mounted again and had started to cross. This time his saddle cinch broke and the saddle floated away. He quit his horse and grabbed hold of the mule, which was packed but which however swam quite high out of the water and got to shore that way. We then followed the stream down but see nothing of Sam, excepting his hat which landed a little above where the horse hung up.”

They dragged the river with grappling hooks and McDonell was confident of finding the body, but the grim outcome was that Sam left a wife and children practically destitute. Until further instructions were received, the saddened inspector continued to provide rations to the family.

I don’t know if they succeeded in locating Sam’s remains. He was the 26th officer of the mounted police to die in the line of duty since it was formed in 1873. Today, he is remembered by the RCMP as one who died serving honourably.

His name is inscribed on the RCMP honour roll, and you can see the listing at :

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, will be available in May. You can contact him at

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