william ogilvie helped define modern yukon

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…

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.

The first group, led by George Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada, entered the Yukon via the Stikine River, and followed the route of the Hudson’s Bay Company to Fort Selkirk, on the Yukon River. They then travelled upriver, returning to the Pacific Coast.

The second party, led by Richard G. McConnell, also of the Geological Survey, went over the Stikine, and then travelled down the Mackenzie River.

Originally destined to return up the trade route of the Mackenzie, he was given a change of orders and turned west to the Porcupine River of the Yukon.

The third party, led by William Ogilvie, DLS, a government surveyor, travelled over the Chilkoot Trail and down the Yukon River to the vicinity of the 141st meridian to define Canada’s western boundary with Alaska.

Ogilvie later contributed to establishing the Yukon’s place in confederation. It is Ogilvie that I want to focus on today.

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, plus a couple of hundred prospectors and traders who were mostly American.

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

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

He hired Chilkoot Indians 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 of the Yukon. These men were not thrilled to see government officials enter what until that time was unadministered territory.

Ogilvie, however, established excellent rapport with these highly independent individuals and won their respect.

By the beginning of September, Ogilvie arrived at the newly born community of Fortymile, where Jack McQuesten and Arthur Harper were establishing their trading post.

A few days later, he arrived at the area believed to be the point where the international boundary crossed the Yukon River.

Ogilvie’s party set about establishing 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.

To save weight, he left behind the cumbersome apparatus to mount his surveying instrument. Instead, he looked for a tree stump 56 centimetres in diameter to serve as his platform.

This being the Yukon, he didn’t find a tree large enough for the job, but as he did many times, he improvised. Over the winter, he patiently waited for the clear conditions necessary to take his reading of the moon and stars that would enable him to determine the position of the north-south line across the Yukon River.

For his work in establishing the boundary, he was awarded, in 1891, the prestigious Murchison Gold Medal.

During his stay at the boundary, he came in contact with the miners who inhabited the region, and answered many questions about the laws pertaining to mining.

Ogilvie took what he learned about the mining with him on the long trip back to Ottawa, where 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 his former camp to confirm his previous determination of the boundary.

He was busy during his stay in the North, extending his survey line south of the Yukon River to confirm the location of newly discovered gold creeks in the Sixtymile area as being in Canada. He also surveyed the Fortymile townsite.

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 that something big was about to happen, he could now report: “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….”

This, of course, was an understatement.

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.

It speaks well of his integrity that the miners first 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 the winter of 1898 published The Klondike Official Guide.

A year later, he returned to the Yukon, this time as the second commissioner of the newly established territory, replacing James Walsh, whose indifference 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, board of health, proper streets, schools and drainage system for the marshy ground back of the shore.

He set up the provisions for the care of the indigent sick, and working with his council, established laws appropriate to the territory.

Ogilvie understood the nature of the gold rush town, and supported the wide-open conditions.

He often resisted the instructions given him by his masters in Ottawa and, instead, applied common sense based upon his experience in the North, which led to considerable friction between him and his federal boss, Clifford Sifton.

Ogilvie resigned his position in April of 1901, claiming ill health.

In my mind, Ogilvie shared with one other commissioner, George Black, a personal experience in and knowledge of the Yukon that made him one of the best men for the job.

On Discovery Day (August 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, acknowledging his contributions to the development of the Yukon.

There is more to this story. Stay tuned to a future column for another story of Ogilvie’s 1887 expedition.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.

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