Before the discovery of the Klondike, the prospectors who wandered the hills and valleys of the Yukon River lived in a political vacuum.
There were no police; the formal hand of the law had yet to reach this borderless country which had been inhabited by First Nations for millennia before the arrival of Europeans. There was no formal constitution, nor was there any formal body there to enforce one. Implementing the rules established in the camps of previous gold rushes, they managed their affairs under an anarchistic democracy familiarly called the “miners’ committee.”
This method of governing was an informal method of establishing rules of conduct and resolving issues of conflict. At various times, it dealt with civil and criminal matters, and established mining procedures for each vicinity according to need. The first meeting of such a body occurred in the winter of 1882-83, at Fort Reliance, an early trading post 15 kilometres below the mouth of the Klondike River. There, rules governing the size of placer claims and water rights were established in case any discoveries were made, and Jack McQuesten, the trader who ran the post, was appointed recorder of claims.
These meetings were egalitarian in nature. Every member who participated had a vote. If a man had a grievance, a meeting was convened to resolve it. A moderator was chosen to conduct the meeting. Both prosecutor and defence were chosen: each side had an opportunity to question and cross-examine the witnesses, and in the end, summations were given. A motion was put before the meeting, and it was passed or defeated. The sentence was carried out immediately. In serious cases, such as theft, the guilty party was banished immediately from the Yukon, which, meant serious hardship if the penalty was imposed during the winter months.
The miners’ committee was widely respected – for a while. Even Judge Wickersham, the first judge on the American side of the boundary, commented on the speed and efficiency with which justice was dispensed. One decision of a miners’ committee, a case of self defence in Circle City, Alaska, where the accused was found not guilty, was even referred to Washington, and the decision was confirmed.
This system of self-administered justice worked because of the small population it affected, and the homogeneity of the community. The miners were well acquainted with each other, and the meetings stuck pretty much to business.
In the winter of 1886-87, a miners’ committee found itself faced with the disposition of a serious crime, that of attempted murder. Jack Leslie was taken prisoner for attempting to kill the other members of his prospecting party, who brought him before a miners’ meeting at Arthur Harper’s tiny trading post at the mouth of the Stewart River.
Leslie pleaded his case, claiming that his welfare was in jeopardy because threats of violence had been uttered against him. The majority of the committee tended to agree that his actions were justified, but, nevertheless decided that he should be banished from the community. Leslie was furnished a sled and a supply of provisions, and ordered to move up-river at least 250 kilometres, or risk being shot on sight.
In later years, as the number of prospectors in the Yukon increased, miners’ meetings were often held in the local drinking establishment, and the justice administered gained a bad reputation. Take the case of French Joe. On a trip to Forty Mile, Joe was asked to deliver a small poke of gold for a miner of Fortymile Creek. He did so, but the recipient complained that he was owed an additional ounce, and demanded that French Joe produce it. Joe refused, of course, having delivered all that he was given, so a miners’ meeting was called in Bob English’s saloon.
Eighty six men listened to the case, and then voted six to five in favor of French Joe supplying the additional ounce of gold. The remainder of the miners abstained from voting. In addition to paying the ounce of gold, Joe was charged 20 dollars for the use of the saloon, and had to buy drinks for everyone. The total amounted to over $100, a large penalty to pay for doing a favor for a stranger.
As the century slipped away, a few white women trickled into the region. Joe Ladue, one of the original sourdoughs in the Yukon, asserted that “Nobody can get justice from a miners’ committee when women were on one side.” Sergeant Brown of the North West Mounted Police witnessed such a meeting at Forty Mile in January of 1895.
A meeting was called by a servant girl working for the manager of the North American Trading and Transportation Company that winter. The manager had contracted the woman to work for him for a period of one year. After a while, she began to take off in the evenings to meet her boyfriend. Her employer warned her to stop, and then fired her.
At the meeting, it was resolved that the manager should pay her a full year’s wages, her boat fare back to the coast, and enough food to carry her over till her departure in the spring. The crowd was so worked up that the committee openly discussed blowing up the company safe in order to obtain the necessary funds. Sergeant Brown, the lone Mounted Policeman stationed there, counselled the manager to comply.
The boyfriend benefited from the young servant’s windfall, which amounted to less than $600. Afterward, some of the older and more seasoned sourdoughs were embarrassed or even ashamed of their participation in the affair, and the abuse of the system. The trading company was not popular among some of the miners, but that did not justify the harsh and violent actions threatened by the miners.
A full detachment of North West Mounted Police arrived in the summer of 1895, and a year later, overruled a miners’ meeting that was called on Glacier Creek, thereby establishing British law as the firm authority in the Yukon. But the miners had one last meeting that later became quite significant.
On August 22, 1896, 25 of them met on a hillside overlooking Rabbit Creek, one and a half miles below George Carmack’s discovery claims. At that meeting, they renamed Rabbit Creek “Bonanza,” and the rest is history.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing book about the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org