Was the Klondike really discovered by the Russians?

"WORKED MINES LAST CENTURY," proclaimed the headlines of this 1907 article in the Deseret (Salt Lake City) Evening News.""Russian Political Prisoners Labored in Alaska and Klondike Hundred Years Ago," it said below that.

“WORKED MINES LAST CENTURY,” proclaimed the headlines of this 1907 article in the Deseret (Salt Lake City) Evening News.””Russian Political Prisoners Labored in Alaska and Klondike Hundred Years Ago,” it said below that.

“There is ample evidence that the Klondike gold fields were discovered by Russians in the early (eighteen) thirties, last century,” stated the article, which asserts that the Klondike was not discovered in 1896 by Robert Henderson, George or Kate Carmack or Skookum Jim (take your pick).

According to the article, miners, working a lay on Hunker Creek, came across traces of an old tunnel during their excavation. The name of the claim owner and the claim are not identified. Finding interesting things underground was not unusual as the creeks were riddled with old drift tunnels from the early days of the Klondike gold rush.

The miners reported that the timbers shoring up the walls of the tunnel were old and rotting, as if they had been there for half a century. At the end of the tunnel were the bones of a couple of men, on whose legs remained the heavy manacles with which, the newspaper claimed, the Russians hobbled their political prisoners in days gone by.

Nearby were “century-old picks, heavy, blunted instruments and inefficient instruments.” According to the article, the remains of the “prisoners” were respectfully reburied and the tools and leg irons were saved, to be put on display at the forthcoming Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition to be held in Seattle in 1909.

Hidden deep in the Russian archives, the article asserts, are the records proving that the Russians had long known of the vast gold deposits of the Klondike. Similar to the ending to the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, these records, like the Ark of the Covenant in the film, remain buried in the paperwork of the Russian bureaucracy.

The article concluded that the gold fields were known to the Russians a half century before Skookum Jim made his eventful discovery.

Historians, sharpen your pencils; the history of the Yukon requires a major rewrite.

Or maybe not. I had read an almost identical article in one of the Dawson newspapers years ago. It was not the topic of my research at the time; while I mentally noted its content, I didn’t bother to print a copy or record the date of publication. Of course, as on many occasions, I later kicked myself for not having done so as it was impossible to find the article at a later time. I will, however, continue to search for it.

I recently heard this story in conversation with a friend, who said he had met a man who had seen these historical remains himself. I have heard several similar accounts over the years. It’s time to put this myth to bed for good.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Russia was engaged in trade for the thick soft pelt of the sea otter on the Alaskan coast. The Russian claim to Alaska was tenuous and treaties with the Americans (1824) and the British (1825) established, in the former case, trading rights in Russian America, and territorial delineation in the latter. A critical detail in the British-Russian Treaty was establishing the 141st meridian as the dividing line between Russian and British territory.

The line was in a sense unnecessary, as the Russians never made it that far into the interior.

Between 1841 and 1843, The Russian explorer Lavrentiy Aleksyevitch Zagoskin explored the region of the Seward Peninsula and the lower Yukon River, reaching, in 1843, a point on the Yukon River approximately halfway between Nulato and the mouth of the Tanana.

In 1863, a Russian Creole named Ivan Lukeen was chosen by the chief Russian trader to determine the extent of British trade on the upper Yukon. They must have suspected that the British had stepped over the line into Russian territory, which was only possible because the Russians had not at the time penetrated that far into the Alaskan interior.

Lukeen accompanied a trading party as far as Nuklukayet, at the mouth of the Tanana River, and then proceeded upriver alone to spy on Fort Yukon, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) trading post at the mouth of the Porcupine River. He is credited as being “the first one on record to trace the Yukon from the sea to the Porcupine River.”

In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from the Russians, and the era of Russian exploration came to an end.

Let’s return to the suggestion of a Russian penal colony in the Klondike. It is clear that the Russian exploration of the interior had not extended as far as the Klondike region by the time of the Alaskan purchase.

The treaty of 1825 had established the 141st meridian as the boundary between Russian and British territory. Why would Russia establish a penal colony on British soil in an area that even the hardiest Russian explorer had failed to reach, and into which no tenable supply line had been established? The farthest penetration of the interior by Russian explorers was hundreds of kilometres downstream from the agreed-upon boundary line. The Russians were more interested in the “brown gold” of the sea otter than they were of the lustrous mineral variety.

Further evidence lies in what is not recorded. If Russian explorers had extended into the Yukon, would not the HBC traders at Fort Yukon, Lapierre House or Fort Selkirk have mentioned it? There would certainly have been conflict of some sort over trade and territorial encroachment had this been the case. The truth is that the British at Fort Yukon were trespassing on Russian territory and the Russians could do nothing about it. It was left to the Americans to force the HBC back up the Porcupine River into Canadian territory after the Alaskan purchase of 1867.

The finding of human remains such as those described in this story would certainly have attracted official attention and would have been mentioned in Mounted Police records, yet I have found no mention.

The validity of the entire story rests upon an unsubstantiated report from an unidentified source.

Did the Russians actually discover the Klondike a half century before the great stampede of 1898? I don’t think so, but it makes a great story, don’t you think?

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

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