Bridges and oranges: the stories of gold rush children come to life

When asked if she became attached to any of the stories she unearthed while writing Children of the Klondike, Frances Backhouse admits she has definite favourites.

When asked if she became attached to any of the stories she unearthed while writing Children of the Klondike, Frances Backhouse admits she has definite favourites.

“Some stories endeared themselves to me,” says the writer and historian best known for her comprehensive book Women of the Klondike.

Backhouse had completed Women of the Klondike – now in its 15th printing – with short visits to the Whitehorse and Dawson archives. She was thrilled to spend three months in Dawson as Berton House writer-in-resident in winter 2008.

“Being here really expanded the depth of research I was able to do,” Backhouse says. Her research included regular visits to the Dawson City Museum, and conversations with “oldtimers,” like Dawson City historian John Gould, who had been born after the gold rush. She was also “thrilled to be able to watch freeze-up” and get a feel for a Klondike winter.

Children of the Klondike looks at the period from 1896, the discovery of gold at Rabbit Creek that sparked the Klondike Stampede, to 1908, a decade after the peak of the gold rush.

Backhouse found most of the information about children in newspapers and church records, as only a few letters and no children’s diaries were left behind.

It’s not surprising that Bessie Miller’s story stood out. When Dawson-born Miller was in her 80s, her granddaughter took her on a Yukon tour and secretly recorded their conversations.

Backhouse was able to hear these recordings during her Dawson writing residency. The level of detail in Miller’s storytelling made all the difference to Backhouse’s understanding of the relationship between the Lousetown prostitutes and Dawson children, says Backhouse.

Bessie Miller and her sister Dorothy were toddlers when they were brought up to Dawson by their gold-hungry parents, Louis and Mary Catherine, in 1899. At age nine or 10, they started sneaking across the bridge over the Klondike River to visit the prostitutes in Lousetown.

Most of these women either didn’t have children or had left their children behind in order to join the stampede.

“They loved having children around, so they really spoiled them and gave them presents, like fresh fruit to eat,” Backhouse explains.

“One time each girl was given a gold-nugget ring. Walking back home, they realized there was no way to explain these gifts, so they took the rings off and threw them away into the river.

“And I think what endeared me to Bessie the most was that you could hear in her voice, telling the story years later in her 80s, that the pain of throwing those rings away was still real for her.”

The stories of most First Nations children were also not recorded in detail during this time period.

Backhouse met several times with local history holders at the Tr’ondek Hwech’in offices in Dawson.

“I was able to gather a lot of general information about the time from them, though none of them were old enough to be kids in that time period,” she says.

There are two exceptions: Graphie Carmack and Daisy Mason. Daisy’s Tagish-Tlingit father, known as Skookum Jim or James Mason, was one of the men who discovered gold on Rabbit Creek. Graphie was the daughter of George Carmack, who signed the application for the discovery claim on Bonanza Creek.

Due to their fathers’ fame, Daisy’s and Graphie’s stories – and their photographs – have been circulated widely, but in fragments, says Backhouse. She worked carefully to bring those pieces together. “I believe I was able to tell their stories in more detail than has been brought together in one book before,” she adds.

With quotes from letters, memoirs and personal recordings, Children of the Klondike will take its place beside Women of the Klondike as an essential read for those interested in Klondike Gold Rush history.

Backhouse introduces the book to the North with a three-city tour this month, following in the footsteps of the original stampeders – she’ll be in Skagway, Whitehorse and Dawson City.

Catch her at Mac’s in Whitehorse for a book-signing on August 10 at 2 p.m., or, for those who are in Dawson next week, check out her slide show and talk at the Dawson City Museum on August 11 at 7 p.m., or her reading at the annual Authors on Eighth event at 3 p.m.

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