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Time for summer history reading

Summer is here. Whether you plan to relax at your cabin, your favourite lake or just on your back porch, it's an opportunity to curl up with a good Yukon history book and immerse yourself. Here are some you might enjoy.

Summer is here. Whether you plan to relax at your cabin, your favourite lake or just on your back porch, it’s an opportunity to curl up with a good Yukon history book and immerse yourself.

Here are some you might enjoy.

For starters, there’s Pierre Berton’s classic book, Klondike. For those who haven’t already tackled this piece of literature, it is the best summary of the event that led to the formation of the modern Yukon. The narrative is compelling, the story is well paced, and three generations after its original release, it is still the definitive narrative of the last great gold rush.

I remember my first encounter with the book, while sitting on my rickety iron frame bed in my $12 room in early June during my first visit to Dawson City in 1976. I couldn’t put it down until I had finished reading it from cover to cover. It never got dark outside, and, oblivious to time, I finally closed the book about 5 a.m.

If you want to read a more personal rendering of the Klondike experience, you might try Berton’s book Drifting Home. This is an account of a trip he took with his family in 1972, retracing the journey taken by his father in 1898, and a second trip taken years later down the Yukon with his parents when Berton was a young boy. I know of at least two people who decided to come to the Yukon after having read that book.

If you are looking for a thrilling personal account of the gold rush written by a participant, I recommend Tappan Adney’s The Klondike Stampede. Writing for Harper’s magazine, Adney provides a journalist’s eye-witness portrayal of the events in the early days of the gold rush.

There have been plenty of gold rush books written since Klondike came out, but many are simply a rehash of the story, inspired by Berton’s narrative. One exception is Charlotte Gray’s book Gold Diggers, which weaves the story of the gold rush from the accounts of American miner William Haskell, saintly missionary Father William Judge, woman entrepreneur Belinda Mulrooney, British journalist Flora Shaw, the Mounties’ ramrod-straight Superintendent Sam Steele, and the aspiring young writer, Jack London. Gray’s book has successfully broken away from the mould cast by Berton.

If you want to capture the pre-gold rush Yukon history, you should be able to find Prelude to Bonanza by Al Wright, in the public library. It is a detailed account of early white exploration of the territory before the discovery of the Klondike. Another classic work is Early Days on the Yukon by William Ogilvie, a colourful personal story of Ogilvie’s time in the Yukon as a government surveyor. Ogilvie was a personal witness to and participant in many of the events that made up the Klondike gold rush.

If you are interested in First Nation history, then you might wish to read Helene Dobrowolsky’s book, Hammerstones, which tells the story of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, the people who lived at the mouth of the Klondike River, of their displacement by the gold rush, and their struggle to regain control of their land and their lives in the century that followed.

Part of the Land, Part of the Water by Catharine McClellan, an overview of First Nation life in the Yukon, would be an enjoyable and informative introduction to the subject, while her two volume ethnography of Southern Yukon native people titled My Old People Say would be a more comprehensive follow-up.

Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank has produced a remarkable body of work, including oral histories of First Nation women elders, which some might find fascinating, but her more recent volume, Do Glaciers Listen? Is an excellent synthesis of the First Nation and personal wisdom acquired during her career. Cruikshank also collaborated with John Ritter and Doug Hitch on another book, Travels to the Alseck, which details the personal narrative of English explorer Edward Glave and his companion Jack Dalton, into the remote regions of southwest Yukon. This fascinating book is only available through the Yukon Native Language Centre at Yukon College, or the public library, but would make an excellent read.

Three more First Nation histories worth looking at are Listen to the Stories: a History of the Kwanlin Dun issued by the Kwalin Dun First Nation, I was Born Under a Spruce Tree by J.J. Van Bibber, and The MacDonalds: The Lives and Legends of a Kaska Dena Family by Allison Tubman. The first of these is an illustrated history of the Kwanlin Dun people. The second is personal account of one man’s fascinating life on the land, while the last of them is a new release of a history of a Kaska Dena family. All are well illustrated, but of the three, the photographs in Tubman’s book are the largest, best reproduced and most compelling glimpses into a First Nation family’s life.

The post gold rush history of the Yukon has not been fully chronicled, although there are a few books that might fill in the picture for you. The Gold Hustlers by Lewis Green details the history of the corporate placer gold mining that dominated the economy of the territory for the first half of the 20th century. Laura Berton wrote I Married the Klondike, a charming personal account of life in the Klondike in the decades after the turn of the century. Martha Black’s autobiography, published under various titles (My Seventy Years, My Ninety Years, Martha Black) is the story of an American woman who came to the Yukon during the gold rush, married a prominent lawyer, became involved in politics and eventually was elected to Canada’s Parliament.

There are many new releases, and I will only mention three of them. All are worth reading. First, there is Whitehorse: an Illustrated History by Helene Dobrowolsky and Linda Johnson. This book is the collaboration of several Yukon writers, and is the long awaited and well-illustrated overview of the history of the Yukon’s capital.

Lady on a Pedestal by Gordon Bartsch is the account of one couple’s romance with commercial flying in the Yukon in the formative years, and with each other. Skull in the Ashes by Peter Kaufman is a stirring account of murder and a manhunt across the continent to the Klondike. The apprehension of the killer and the subsequent trial was a landmark case in American justice. Of all the three books you might find this the most interesting story.

There you have my very brief and incomplete list of volumes you might want to curl up with this summer. I would be delighted to hear from any of my readers, who might want to share their summer book experience in Yukon history. In any case, have a happy summer, and good reading!

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