Most Yukoners know George Carmack as the man who staked the discovery claim that started the Klondike Gold Rush. By then, he had already been tramping around the Yukon for 11 years.
In the spring of 1885, he arrived at Dyea, at the head of Lynn Canal. He spent the summer prospecting the upper reaches of the Yukon River, coming back out for the winter, to work at Juneau. He then signed on as a second mate on Healy and Wilson’s schooner, Charlie, and subsequently helped the traders erect their first building at Dyea.
The following year, 1886, he accompanied miners named Hill and Muldoon into the Yukon, prospecting down river to the Big Salmon River. Discouraged from their search by high water, he sold his outfit and hiked out across country to Dyea with three others.
Carmack was at Dyea the winter of 1886/87 when a man named Tom Williams delivered his dying message about the discovery of gold on the Fortymile River to Healy and Wilson. The following spring, Carmack made a living packing goods over the Chilkoot trail with his brother-in-law Skookum Jim (Keish). Among those that he helped were Canadian surveyor William Ogilvie and his party. Carmack spent the winter of 1887/88 trapping west of Tagish Lake.
For a while, in the spring of 1888, he hauled freight over the Chilkoot for other miners. Then he took trade goods over the pass himself, and down to the Big Salmon River, with Skookum Jim and Jim’s nephew Kaa Goox, also known as (Tagish) Charley, to trade for furs. Each obtained a good set of pelts for their efforts. They tried their luck rocking for gold on the bars of the Yukon, but were unsuccessful.
In September, the three men, having lived on meat and fish all summer, walked to Marsh Lake, where they found a small boat and paddled up the string of lakes to the Chilkoot Pass. Carmack sold his furs when he arrived at the coast, and then returned to the Yukon to spend the winter of 1888/89 in the mountains west of what is now Carcross. Living for months on caribou, sheep and moose, he bivouacked under a canvas tarpaulin with an open fire for heating and cooking.
Carmack returned to Dyea in March of 1889 and sold his furs to finance another trip into the interior that spring. He travelled overland from the lower end of Marsh Lake to the Teslin River, and travelled downstream to the Salmon River, which he ascended to the forks. He wanted to prospect the country between the Salmon and the Pelly Rivers as it hadn’t been done before. Since the local Indians had convinced Jim and Charley that it was bad medicine to go into this country, Carmack proceeded on his own, without prospecting equipment, and without success. He wintered down river, below Fort Yukon in a primitive cabin with H. H. Hart.
The following three summers, 1890, ‘91, and ‘92, Carmack mined on the Fortymile River and one of its tributaries, Nugget Gulch. In the fall of 1892, he went back upriver to Fort Selkirk and, with Joe Ladue, worked for Bishop Bompas that winter, sawing lumber at $100 per thousand feet. The following spring, Carmack cut and hewed the logs for a large mission building. That summer, he hauled two tons of food and supplies 20 miles above Five Finger Rapid, and established a trading post near the present location of the village of Carmacks.
In the spring of 1894, he went downriver to help at the mission at Fort Selkirk, and then later floated to Ladue’s trading post at the mouth of the Sixtymile River. From there, he spent the winter prospecting on Indian River and Quartz Creek, as well as in the Sixtymile.
He worked at Joe Ladue’s sawmill the next summer, and returned to Fort Selkirk to look after the post for Arthur Harper until Harper arrived on a later steamer. This steamer did not arrive until late in the season, so Carmack was again stranded at Harper’s post for the winter with Harper, Stewart Menzies, and two others. The spring of 1896, after breakup, he tossed a coin, and headed down the Yukon to Fortymile.
We know about Carmack’s first 11 years in the Yukon because his handwritten account of these events was found in the papers of George T. Snow, the historian for the Yukon Order of Pioneers, when he died in Seattle in 1925.
Carmack’s account of the actual discovery of the Klondike, however, survives only as a pamphlet published in 1933, 11 years after his death, under his name, but ghostwritten by Snow. How heavy a hand Snow applied to the rewriting of the account, and how factual it is, can only be surmised as the original Carmack notes are missing.
Fortunately, William Ogilvie, surveyor and future Commissioner of the Yukon, interviewed all the parties to the discovery shortly after it occurred. In his book, Early Days on the Yukon, he concluded that Skookum Jim, Tagish Charley and Carmack ran short of food while returning from their visit to Robert Henderson’s party on Gold Bottom Creek, and after shooting a moose, Jim found gold in the sand of Rabbit Creek and brought this to the attention of the other two men. They spent a couple of days panning the creek in the area before selecting the ground that they staked on August 17.
Of course, we will never know for sure the events surrounding the discovery as everybody later wanted to claim a hand in it. In an article in the Dawson Daily News on May 21, 1904, Carmack was already distancing himself from certain events. He claimed that he never had any native relatives, and that Jim and Charley were only working for him as packers. In both his handwritten account and the pamphlet, he fails to mention Kate, his native wife of a dozen years.
In the 1933 Carmack pamphlet, Carmack takes credit for naming Bonanza Creek, but it is a well-established fact that the creek was named at a miners’ meeting on August 22, five days after the discovery claim was staked.
It is the task of the historian to evaluate all of the sources and sift the truth from the fabrication. The fact is that it is not always easy.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org