Yukon’s army without a war

When the Klondike was discovered in 1896, the mounted police were overwhelmed by the influx of gold-seekers over the next two years. Of the tens of thousands rushing to the Klondike, 80 per cent were American.

When the Klondike was discovered in 1896, the mounted police were overwhelmed by the influx of gold-seekers over the next two years. Of the tens of thousands rushing to the Klondike, 80 per cent were American.

By January of 1898, the police force in the Yukon had been increased from the original 22 men who were stationed in the territory at the time of discovery, to 232. But that wasn’t enough.

Clifford Sifton, who was then Canada’s minister of the interior, stated: “We have before us the great danger of the authority of this government being over-ridden, being destroyed, and the government of that district being, theoretically, if not actually, taken out of our hands.”

Consequently, on March 21, 1898, the Laurier government established, by order-in-council, a field force drawn from Canada’s regular army. This new unit, known as the Yukon Field Force, was sent with two purposes: to maintain sovereignty in a remote region of Canada, and “to provide as much aid to the civil power as the authorities might request to retain law and order.”

Fort Selkirk was chosen as their headquarters because of its central location on the Yukon River. For a while, Selkirk was even considered as the future capital of the territory. The field force would be the most northerly force of soldiers located anywhere within the British empire.

The force, ultimately numbering more than 200 men, departed Ottawa by train to much fanfare May 6 under the command of Lt.-Colonel Thomas D.B. Evans. With them were five women, including four recruits of the newly formed Victorian Order of Nurses: Margaret Payson, Amy Scott, Rachel Hanna, Georgia Powell and Faith Fenton, a journalist writing for the Toronto Globe.

A minor crisis occurred in Wrangell, Alaska, prior to leaving for the “All-Canadian” route to the Klondike. Faith Fenton appeared in a dress shortened for trail conditions, and without mandatory bloomers and gaiters. Fearing that the exposed ankles would corrupt the morals of the men, Colonel Evans demanded this situation be rectified. With quick trip to a fabric store, Fenton’s hemline – and her reputation – were restored.

The field force arrived at Telegraph Creek June 7. It was the intention of the Canadian government to by-pass the complications of sending a Canadian military force through American territory via the Lynn Canal (Skagway and Dyea), or up the Yukon River.

The most stimulating part of the two years spent by the force in the Yukon was getting there. Having overcome logistical problems (finding enough packhorses to haul the supplies for the force) and 250 kilometres of wilderness trail, they established a temporary post on Teslin Lake named Camp Victoria, while an advance party proceeded to Fort Selkirk aboard the small steam vessel Anglian to establish the permanent garrison.

When the level of the Teslin River fell, and the Anglia could not return for the main party, by pre-arrangement, the remainder of the force proceeded on their own. On August 29, they left Camp Victoria, and arrived at Selkirk two weeks later, having navigated Teslin Lake, as well as the Teslin and Yukon Rivers. The flotilla consisted of several smaller boats, and four large barges, each capable of carrying 10-14 tonnes of supplies.

Among the supplies sent north were Lee-Enfield rifles, each with 300 rounds of ammunition, two maxim guns with 25,000 rounds, and two “seven-pound field pieces” with 200 rounds. The food supplies included 40,000 kilograms of tinned meat, 20,000 kilograms of hard tack biscuits, and 63,000 kilograms of flour.

At Selkirk, 50 men were sent forward to Dawson City, arriving October 1 on the steamer Gold Star, while the remainder of the soldiers set about establishing a complex of buildings around a quadrangle at the lower end of Fort Selkirk. The men kept busy moving the supplies a kilometre to their camp, constructing the buildings, and collecting enough firewood to keep them warm through the coming winter.

The men at Selkirk settled into a mundane routine of picket duty, gathering firewood and other necessary tasks during the short, cold winter days. It must have been tantalizing to hear reports of the gilded mecca now operating day and night to the north, close to the Arctic Circle. Another 15 men were soon to find out what it was like. They were sent over the frozen Yukon River to Dawson City just after Christmas, arriving January 2, 1899. The northern contingent of the field force now became known as the Yukon Garrison.

In Dawson, they found a city with the modern convenience of gas and electrical lighting and telephone. Amid the stump-filled dirt streets of Dawson, theatres and dance halls operated from 7 each evening until 8 or 9 in the morning. Saloons were operating around the clock, six days a week.

While the soldiers at Fort Selkirk were leading a dull existence, quite the opposite was true for the men posted in Dawson. In mid-October, they were awakened early one morning to attend to an emergency fire call. Despite their efforts, some 40 buildings were destroyed in the heart of the downtown section, and it happened again in the spring. The men of the field force were also assigned guard duty at the mounted police barracks, as well as at the banks. They also went out to the gold fields to escort shipments of gold into town.

“We have been sent out to the creeks,” wrote one of the enlisted men, “to help some poor fellows that were destitute. In lots of cases we have carried some poor fellows 12 and 15 miles to our own hospital and doctored and fed them and brought them back to health.” One less-than grateful American received such aid and in return stole $200 worth of mounted police provisions. That deed netted him seven years of hard labour.

From the outset, the American-backed Klondike Nugget newspaper editorialized against the sending of a military force to the Yukon in peacetime. Describing the force in one instance as “useless as a wart on a log,” the Nugget attacked the Liberal government for the expenditure of funds for such a detachment, even taking opportunities to supply negative information to the opposition in Ottawa.

As the population subsided, the need for the field force diminished, and in September of 1899, half of the force was sent home.

By this time, the rabble-rousing Nugget conceded that the departing soldiers had made a good impression on Dawson. Nine men were left to caretake the facilities in Fort Selkirk until May, 1900, when they rejoined the main garrison in Dawson. On June 27, all but one member of the force departed for Ottawa aboard the steamer Columbian.

The remaining soldier, Edward Lincoln, was detained in Dawson until he could give testimony at the infamous O’Brien murder trial the following year. Having done that, he left Dawson July 31, 1901, the last member of the Yukon Field Force to leave the territory.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at

msgates@northwestel.net

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