Peering into the past of a Klondike trailblazer

Patricia Cunning used both hands to carefully lift the small item out of its display case, an object similar to an axe but with its cutting edge perpendicular to the handle, and looked at the descriptive tag attached to it.

Patricia Cunning used both hands to carefully lift the small item out of its display case, an object similar to an axe but with its cutting edge perpendicular to the handle, and looked at the descriptive tag attached to it.

Its cursive handwriting was old and fading but still remarkably legible.

“Eskimo little axe – they made this using a small, old type of Hudson’s Bay axe. This, to them, was a very useful tool used for many purposes in days now past,” the executive director of the museum read out loud.

The woodworking tool was commonly used by coastal and inland First Nations people to build everything from bowls to canoes to totem poles.

It was signed by Jack Dempster, the legendary North-West Mounted Police member who, as a young corporal in 1911, led the expedition to find the Lost Patrol.

In Dec. 1910, four Mounties left Fort McPherson, N.W.T. to deliver mail to Dawson City, a distance of about 765 kilometres.

Without a guide they soon became lost and never made it to their destination. Their disappearance prompted Dempster and three other men to go find them on Feb. 28.

Their frozen bodies were found about 55 kilometres away from Fort McPherson. Dempster returned to Dawson City with the news in 11 days, setting a record for the fastest patrol of the route between the two communities.

He’s also remembered for his work making the route safer for travellers, building cabins, loading caches and setting markers along the trail.

Decades later, the Yukon Order of Pioneers lobbied to have Canada’s northernmost highway named after him for his accomplishments.

The axe-like object is part of a new exhibit in the Taylor and Drury Gallery at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History, which highlights some of the most important events in the territory’s history.

The construction of the Dempster Highway, completed in 1979, is among them.

About a dozen of Dempster’s possessions from his time in the Yukon, between 1897 and 1934, are on display courtesy of his daughter, Sheila Calvert Dempster.

Now in her mid-80s, Sheila said she donated the items to the museum because she didn’t want the collection to be broken up into pieces once she was gone.

There is an ulu, an all-purpose knife traditionally used by the Inuit, and an ice knife, most likely used for making igloos, Cunning explained.

It was covered in a mysterious pattern of concentric circles, the origin of which was unknown to her.

But she’d seen the circles before on something else. Over at another exhibit for the belongings of Bishop Isaac Stringer – known as the “bishop who ate his boots” – there was a knife with the same circles on it.

Other items include Dempster’s ceremonial sword and gloves, his red serge, a belt containing his initials, spurs for his boots, a crop and a stencil with his North-West Mounted Police number, 3193.

Traditional jewelery and beadwork will be rotated into the exhibit as time goes on, Cunning said, likely every six months.

Sheila was briefly in Whitehorse last week to see the exhibit and speak to museum-goers on Thursday evening.

Born in Mayo in the early 1930s, she lived there for two years before the family was moved to Dawson City and eventually to Vancouver.

Growing up, her father’s possessions were usually kept in a trunk, either at her house or her brother’s house, she said.

But Dempster was never one to take them out and show them to guests.

“He was an extremely modest man,” Sheila said.

“People would always come over wanting to write about him and he’d have nothing to do with it. ‘It’s all in the records,’ he’d say.”

She was just returning from her third trip up the Dempster Highway, which she completed with her cousin’s son from Wales, the country where her father was born.

All along the way, she met people who shared their own stories of the highway. At the Tombstone Interpretive Centre she even met someone who was at the opening ceremony for the highway in 1979, which she also attended.

Her father’s possessions found their way back to the Yukon after they were picked up by Con Lattin, a friend and director at the museum, who drove to Vancouver himself to get them.

“We wondered if Dempster had ever imagined that his stuff would be on display in a museum someday,” Cunning said, recalling the first time she opened the trunk to examine its contents with Lattin.

“Or that museum people would open the trunk and feel this amount of reverence and responsibility to take care of his story. It’s a powerful connection to a period of time that seems like it was a long time ago, but really, it wasn’t.

“He’s an important part of that era.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at