William Ogilvie chronicled the time before the gold rush

In 1887, three small groups of men set out for the Yukon. The first representatives sent by the Canadian government, they helped define what the Yukon was to become.

In 1887, three small groups of men set out for the Yukon. The first representatives sent by the Canadian government, they helped define what the Yukon was to become.

One of these groups, led by William Ogilvie, DLS, a government surveyor, travelled down the Yukon River to the vicinity of the 141st meridian to define Canada’s western boundary with Alaska. Ogilvie helped establish the Yukon’s place in Confederation.

The Yukon that Ogilvie was sent to consisted of an indigenous population of a few thousand people in a land twice the size of Great Britain. There were also a couple of hundred prospectors and traders who were mostly American.

Because of this growing population of newcomers, the Canadian government felt obliged to stake out its turf, defined on its western perimeter by an imaginary line that Britain and Russia had agreed to in 1825. It was Ogilvie’s job to find that line and mark it on the landscape.

Like all the gold seekers slowly trickling into the Yukon in 1887, Ogilvie also trekked over the Chilkoot Pass, but with a crew of six men and six tons of supplies to carry them through the year ahead.

He hired Chilkoot Tlingit packers to handle the physically demanding job of hauling the freight over the craggy coastal mountains to the headwaters of the Yukon, while he extended his survey step by step over his route. Among the packers he hired were two who were later to feature prominently in the Klondike Gold Rush: Skookum Jim Mason, and George W. Carmack.

Travelling down the Yukon River, he encountered many prospectors along the bars and banks. These men were not thrilled to see government officials arrive at this frontier. Ogilvie, however, established excellent rapport with these highly independent individuals and eventually won their respect.

By the beginning of September, Ogilvie arrived at the newly born community of Forty Mile, where Jack McQuesten and Arthur Harper had established their trading post. A few days later, he reached the area believed to be the point where the international boundary crossed the Yukon River.

Ogilvie’s party established a camp where they would spend the winter, while he sought out the ideal site for the instrument readings he would require to firmly establish the line that defined two nations.

During his stay in the Yukon, he came in contact with the miners who, though viewing this government interloper with suspicion, asked him many questions about the laws pertaining to mining. Ogilvie took what he learned about mining with him on the long trip back to Ottawa. There, he was able to influence the development of the mining regulations that applied when the Klondike was discovered.

Ogilvie returned to the Yukon in 1895 to extend his survey line south of the Yukon River and confirm the location of newly discovered gold creeks in the Sixtymile area as being in Canada. He also surveyed the site of the mining camp of Forty Mile.

He chronicled the eccentricities of the miners who occupied this remote land before the gold rush, relating their improvised system of justice, in the form of the miners’ committee. He recounted some of the outrageous stories they fabricated, while passing the long winter hours in their log cabins.

Ogilvie remained in the Yukon in 1896 and was fortunate to witness the events surrounding the discovery of gold in the Klondike. Where he had previously reported the potential of the region, he could now state: “I am pleased to inform you that a most important discovery of gold has been made on a creek called Bonanza … The indications are that it is very rich, indeed the richest yet found …”.

Ogilvie was also able to interview the trio of men who staked the first claims on what became known as Bonanza Creek and rendered the most accurate account of the details surrounding the discovery.

Ogilvie kept busy, first surveying the town site at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, then clearing up the awful mess and confusion of the claims hurriedly staked by the first prospectors on Bonanza Creek.

He discovered a tiny fraction of open ground on Bonanza Creek between two claims that had been overstaked by the owners. Instead of taking it for himself, he gave his chainman, Dick Lowe, the opportunity. This small parcel of land made Lowe one of the richest men in town. But the incorruptible Ogilvie, despite many opportunities, never tried to feather his own nest. It speaks well of his integrity that the miners turned to him to resolve the confusion and that they respected his decisions regarding the placing of the claims.

Ogilvie left the Yukon in the fall of 1897 and during the winter of 1898 he published “The Klondike Official Guide.” It became one of the few accurate sources of information available to those stampeding to the Klondike in the early days of the event. His book, “Early Days on the Yukon,” published in 1913, is one of the most colourful and detailed accounts of life in the Yukon before and during the early days of the Klondike gold rush.

A year later, he returned to the Yukon, this time as the second commissioner of the newly established territory. He replaced James Walsh, whose indifference to his job led to much corruption and controversy.

Ogilvie was the right man for the job. He was in the Yukon before the stampede, and understood the mood and sentiments of those who were there. He organized the services essential to the proper administration of the territory and of Dawson City: the police system, a fire department, a board of health, proper streets, schools and a drainage system for the marshy ground back of the shore. He established the provisions for the care of the indigent sick, and working with his council, passed laws appropriate to the territory.

Ogilvie understood the nature of the gold rush town, and supported the wide-open conditions. He shared in common with a later commissioner, George Black, a personal experience in and knowledge of the Yukon that made him well suited for the job.

On Discovery Day, Aug. 16, 1975, a plaque commissioned by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada was unveiled in the park beside the Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson City, declaring his work in the Yukon to be of national significance.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net.

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