I recently shared a book about pioneer Yukon women with my wife, Kathy. The table of contents revealed all the usual suspects: Martha Black, Emilie Tremblay, Belinda Mulrooney and Kate Rockwell, derived from all the same sources that the numerous similar books of this generation have used.
I refer to them as derivative history. I don’t intend to disparage the efforts of this author, or of the others in this category, because they are very talented writers, but often the facts are the scaffolding upon which a narrative is built, and too often, the well-crafted narrative is loaded with factual errors.
It wasn’t long before I heard her exasperated sighs. “Martha Black was not the second woman to become Speaker of the House of Commons!” she snorted. Kathy has learned a lot about Martha Black as a consequence of gathering facts pertaining to Martha’s less well known husband, George. I suggested that she underline anything in this particular chapter that was factually suspect. Soon, the pages were filled with notations.
The same applies to George Black. Though a successful lawyer and the most prominent politician in the Yukon for a half century, I have seldom seen references to him that aren’t riddled with errors of one sort or another.
He once defended a man charged with murder. The accused was someone who had served with him during World War I. According to a newspaper account published in the Dawson News not long after he was appointed Speaker of the House of Commons, he had put on a gallant defense on behalf of his comrade-in-arms and as a consequence, the accused was acquitted. So how do we know this account is accurate?
I hunted for 18 months before I finally tracked down the trial records and newspaper coverage of the trial. In reality, George sat second chair for the defence, but his client was found guilty, and the poor fellow went to prison for 10 years. Yet the heroic version with the winning outcome was repeated in the Canadian Press bio for Black for the next 30 years.
Lesson learned: that the account most often repeated over the years is not necessarily the truthful or accurate one, and that you sometimes have to dig deeply to ferret out the real story. In order to do this, you have to seek out original source documents.
Murders are fertile ground for misinformation. Take the trial of Jack Dalton for shooting Dan McGinnis, a fish cannery employee near Haines, Alaska, in 1893. Over the years, I had read many renditions of the story of the shooting, all of which seem to have been derived from an alleged eye-witness account published in a book in 1947.
Typically, the scenario was a shoot-out similar to those depicted in movie westerns:
Dalton’s honour was called into question; he confronted the accuser in the saloon, they drew, guns blazed, and Dalton shot him through the heart. One account places Dalton in Skagway; the facts vary from one account to another. In the end, it was the court transcript from the trial that provided the most reliable rendering of events. The actual circumstances were not as romantic as the often repeated accounts of later years.
There are many reasons why the past becomes mythologized, especially when famous or infamous characters are included.
Accounts written years after the fact either by the eye-witness, or by someone interviewing the witness, tend to become distorted by fanciful recollections of the events. Even Judge James Wickersham, an American jurist renowned for his dedication to Alaskan history, fell victim to this sort of re-writing. In his book Old Yukon: Tales Trails and Trials, when he visited Dawson City in 1900, he was introduced to a gentlemanly bank clerk named Robert Service. Of course we know that Service wasn’t anywhere near Dawson City for another five years.
I have seen other memoirs written by men who claimed to have camped near Robert Service, or otherwise came in contact with him on the Trail of ‘98. These accounts are also wrong. Other stampeders in later years recalled encounters they had with Jack London. Only by comparing details and timelines can we be sure that their paths even crossed.
Similarly, I imagine that if all the people who later claimed that they witnessed the shooting of Soapy Smith were on the dock at the time it occurred, the dock would surely have collapsed into the harbour under the weight!
Not all accounts from the past are riddled with distortions of fact. John W. Nordstrom, who established a business that later became one of the largest retail chains in America, wrote a small autobiography of his life, that included his Klondike experience. I checked as many facts from his book of his time in the Yukon as I could, and every document I examined verified the details of his account.
Many books and articles written by people who visited the Yukon in the early days were turned into fictional accounts by the editors and publishers in order to sell more books. Arthur Thompson’s book Gold Seeking on the Dalton Trail was turned into a story for young boys, yet most of the names, places and events can be verified from other sources. Even the parts of the story that have been fictionalized, when compared with other historical documents, have been derived from verifiable events.
In this digital age, viewers often turn to Wikipedia to get their dose of historical fact. Despite the efforts of the likes of the Dawson Museum to place well-researched profiles of Klondike figures onto Wikipedia, the website generally cannot be relied upon for factual information. Kathy can attest to that fact. She corrected errors pertaining to George Black on the Wikipedia website, and someone has repeatedly restored the incorrect information. Citing a column I wrote about George Black, the webpage currently misquotes the content of the article!
When I prepare an article on an historical topic, how can I be sure that I get the facts right? Well, I can’t guarantee it, but I work very hard to do so. I will often spend hours checking facts related to something I say in my regular column. Often a kindly friend will point out a fractured date or an incorrect detail. It’s time-consuming work, but it is what makes history hunting so much fun.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org