When Ellis Lucia’s book Klondike Kate: The Legend of Kitty Rockwell, the Queen of the Yukon was published in 1962, one review in the Bend, Oregon Bulletin asked the question that many locals had posed: “Did Kate Matson really win her fame as Klondike Kate in the Dawson dance hall or did she build up the Klondike Kate persona in later years?”
Good question. Historians I have talked to over the years have expressed a similar sort of skepticism about the claims made in the Lucia biography, and the many interviews she so gladly allowed in her later years. Were they just the imaginings of an older lady well past her prime?
According to the biography, Kate Rockwell, the stepdaughter of a Spokane judge, got into show business and in 1899, joined the crowd going north during the gold rush. She probably stopped in Skagway to work, and stopped again in Bennett for a two month run in a “dimly lit saloon with a small low stage at one end and only a piano player for accompaniment,” before moving along the Klondike trail.
She allegedly defied the Mounted Police (there was a $100 fine for doing so) and, disguising herself in men’s clothing, rode a scow through Miles Canyon and Whitehorse Rapid. Did she fabricate this defiant gesture, or did it really happen? She stopped to dance in one of the places in the new town of Whitehorse, again to earn some more money, but turned back to Victoria, where she joined a theatre troupe. The following spring, the troupe was on its way to Dawson to perform in the newly renamed Savoy Theatre.
According to the Lucia biography, she became “undisputed queen of the dance-hall girls, sought after and popular,” and “one of the city’s top female entertainers and dance-hall hustlers, bringing in thousands of dollars a month.”
I sought out her tracks in the historical record and found that much of what is said in the book is based upon facts, if not rendered factually. Yes, she arrived in Dawson in 1900, though in August, and not on the first boat of the season, as suggested by Lucia. Yes, she performed in the Savoy Theatre (we know it today as the Palace Grand) and later, the Orpheum, though not as a headliner. Her name appears in the credits, but in the middle of the list of cast that was published in the newspaper.
A check of the census records for 1901 also revealed that she wasn’t the best-paid performer in the troupe. The most ink I found regarding her theatre credits praise her for directing theatrical tableaux. A tableau is a representation of a painting, statue or scene by a silent and motionless person or persons on a stage.
Yes, she performed the serpentine dance on stage, trailing “yards and yards” of silk, but at a fund-raiser in the Auditorium Theatre for a local baseball team, where soprano Beatrice Lorne, the “Klondike Nightingale,” topped the bill.
No one questions the assertion that she met, and fell in love with, even shacked up with Alexander Pantages. By Christmas of 1900, only a few months after arriving in Dawson City, Rockwell is already on the bill at the Orpheum Theatre, which was managed by the Greek impresario.
The Lucia book states that they left the Yukon together in 1902, after which she toured about, raising money to help him get started. The records suggest that he left Dawson for Seattle in 1902, while she remained till September 1904, then left, accompanied by one Lotus Rockwell.
Who Lotus Rockwell is remains a mystery, but in the biography by Lucia, he refers to an orphaned infant boy that Rockwell took care of, then passed to foster parents back in the United States, and whom she later supported through university. Could this have in fact have been her own child? Much in the Lucia book consists of half-truths designed to create the legend rather than reveal the person.
Will unearthing the facts of the matter tarnish the popular image held of Kate Rockwell? There is more to this story hidden in old records from the gold rush, just waiting to be uncovered.
Not long after leaving the Klondike, Kate discovered that Pantages had married a 17-year-old violinist named Lois Mendenhall, so she sued Pantages for breach of promise, claiming she supported him in Dawson, and later helped finance the start of his theatrical empire.
I scanned the newspapers and googled the Internet to see when the term Klondike Kate first appears. The first time she is linked with that label appears to be in October of 1929, when Kate appeared in Los Angeles to attend the highly publicized rape trial of her one-time lover.
Mobbed by the press outside the court, a photo subsequently appeared in newspapers, showing her dabbing her dry eye with her handkerchief. The appellation of Klondike Kate stuck, and she started a personal campaign of self-promotion as the belle of the Klondike. Nostalgic sourdoughs and the press leaped at the notion. She attended sourdough reunions and other events, introducing herself as Klondike Kate. The newspapers loved to write about the Queen of the Klondike, and she never discouraged them.
Separating the fact from the legend is a formidable challenge. Clearly, some of her claims about being the premier attraction of the theatre circuit in Dawson City appear overstated, but she was there, and she did participate in the hard life of the theatre and dance halls. She undoubtedly had a relationship with one of America’s future theatre legends.
In fact, she was close enough to the epicentre to be considered the real thing. In later years, that was enough to earn her the title of Queen of the Klondike.
After her death, one newspaper commented: “Klondike Kate dead? No, not as long as history and the poems of Robert Service, depicting Alaska at the turn of the century, survive.”
“Klondike Kate is a legend,” it goes on, “and legends, unlike old soldiers, neither die nor fade away. They grow in colour with time, and thus will be the fate of the memory of the fabulous Kate.”
“Klondike Kate will never die.”
So to paraphrase the timeless editorial from the New York Sun, Yes, Virginia, there is a Klondike Kate, and she will still occupy the hearts and minds of generations to come.
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