Fortymile, a place where rivers and people collide

FORTYMILE The townsite sits serenely at the junction of the Fortymile and the Yukon rivers. The original inhabitants called this spot Cheda Dek and…


The townsite sits serenely at the junction of the Fortymile and the Yukon rivers.

The original inhabitants called this spot Cheda Dek and today the area is quiet with little sign of the busy community of miners and adventures that once lived there.

For the First Nation peoples who long occupied the location as a traditional seasonal camp, the town of Fortymile represents the first real contact between the First Nations peoples and the expanding white world.

During the 1800s, there were no land claim settlements in the territory as Yukoners know them today.

There was no Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA), First Nation’s people’s culture was considered “pagan” and the churches mobilized to convert these “heathens” to the non-native religion.

Along with the systemic expropriation of the land, miners exploited the First Nation peoples taking wives and introducing many of the illness and deadly habits that plague aboriginal peoples today.

History records that the church and the government mobilized to protect First Nation peoples, but the result was the loss of First Nation rights and the destruction of First Nations government and their associated cultures.

There were decades of change and many nomadic First Nation peoples adapted to living in the bush cutting wood for the riverboats, trapping and mining.

In 1957, the road system expanded to Dawson City and the paddlewheelers travelled the river no more.

Many bush families were forced to move into the towns where many lacked the skills to survive within that society.

Unable to adapt, many were lost to the bottle.

Elijah Smith started the land claims process for Yukon First Nations, which the government ignored for decades.

When Pierre Trudeau repatriated the Canadian Charter of Rights, aboriginal rights were enshrined.

This allowed the Yukon’s First Nation peoples to force the Canadian government to come to the land claims table and start negotiations.

According to the UFA, the historic townsite of Fortymile is to be co-owned and co-managed by the Yukon government and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation.

The actual management is handled by the Yukon governments historic sites unit and Tr’ondek Hwech’in heritage unit.

The setup is very similar to the one used for Fort Selkirk.

“It is not settlement land, though it is surrounded by settlement lands,” said Michel Edwards of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in heritage unit, “The land is held in joint title fee simple two owner piece of property.

“It (the townsite) has importance as one of the negative things that has happened… that has to be remembered as part of out history and heritage.

“It was the site of the first real extended contact between the Han native people and whites.”

The names given by the non-native people to locations along the upper Yukon River were based upon the distance from Fort Reliance.

So Fortymile and Sixtymile towns were named for their distance from Fort Reliance.

The real significance of the Fortymile to all First Nations people post 1886 is that “it was the first mission school in the Yukon…the first place that any native people in the Yukon were taken to (was) the St. James Anglican Mission,” said Edwards.

First Nation history far predates contact at Fortymile.

“The reason why Han people were there in the first place was that it was an important fishing and hunting location,” said Edwards “It was the main intercept point for them for the Fortymile caribou herd, which at the time of contact was estimated numbered at 550,000 animals. Now there is about 10,000 animals.”

“That point (Fortymile townsite) used to be a major river crossing point for the Caribou…then hunters could easily in canoes get caribou.

“This herd’s range is slowly extending back into the Yukon, for a while they were just in Alaska.

“Also it was an important grayling fishery in the spring and a good spot to fish salmon too.”

White society led to year-round native habitation of the site, he added.

“There started to be a permanent Tr’ondek Hwech’in settlement there because there was a permanent non-native settlement there, which is exactly what happened in Dawson (City) also.

“The people didn’t live in one place but they did after contact.

“Use of the site is dated now back about 2,300 years.”

The migration of the river channel and flood plains in the Yukon River Valley makes finding earlier sites at this location difficult. Many Yukoners think that the history of the territory starts at the gold rush, but the territory has been occupied by First Nation people centuries before the recent arrival of non native peoples.

Artifacts at Fort Selkirk have been dated back 6,000 years, or more, because that site is higher and dryer.

Today the restoration of the townsite of Fortymile continues on a seasonal repair schedule.

The Yukon government considers the Fortymile to be one of the most important historic sites in the Yukon.

“It is the first town, first post office, first church, first mission school, first RCMP (NWMP) post…it is estimated that 600 to 800 people were living there,” said Edwards.

Ottawa sent the Northwest Mounted Police to Fortymile because the majority of the inhabitants were American.

A surviving image shows Jack McQuesten “opening a post office there, and the sign on the front of the post office said Michell, Alaska, Jack McQuesten postmaster,” said Edwards.

The Fortymile townsite was also the location of the Yukon’s first Mission School.

Since the histories of the two peoples are intertwined on this site, it is impossible to separate the histories post contact.

The break in tradition and oral histories by contact destroyed much of the oral histories carried by the Tr’ondek Hwech’in people.

Today there is a new life in the Fortymile. There are First Nations peoples once again leading tours and sharing the stories of their past.

Modern restoration methods proceed slowly limited by the funding available to the Yukon government.

Restoration is guided by the publication The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada.

The visual character of Dawson City was saved by the intervention of Parks Canada. The Fortymile townsite is being restored in similar fashion.

Each season the remaining buildings are stabilized and over time buildings are restored to their former glory.

The stabilization and restoration of the Fortymile though important to the Tr’ondek Hwech’in is not the primary goal of the Han peoples.

The training and employment of interpretive guides has reconnected lost generations of Tr’ondek Hwech’in to their history and past.

After decades of having their culture and lifestyle ridiculed, First Nation peoples are discovering value in their suppressed culture.

The archeological history in the Fortymile district has validated many of the oral histories carried in the elders of the Han people.

The caretakers on the Fortymile share the stories of their childhood growing up on the river.

There is a suppressed joy in recounting these events by the storytellers.

There is a validation of the value in a history and culture where non native people will travel long distances off the main path to listen to stories from this culture.

The Tr’ondek Hwech’in wants to exploit the tourism potential of the heritage sites that they want to share.

 “The majority of Tr’ondek Hwech’in heritage sites are not places that we want to share with the public,” said Edwards. “The ones that have a undeniable shared history between non natives and natives, Cheda Dek (Fortymile), Tombstone and Dawson City, there is economic potential there. One of the key things we see as important is having the caretakers at the site. For many years there were no Han on the site and now, all summer long, there are Han people there.”

For the young people who worked on the archeological dig on this site there was a connection back to the land that was lost.

“It has positive memories that brings them a closer connection to the land and their ancestors,” said Edwards. “When Tr’ondek Hwech’in youth who are on those digs find 2,000 year old side notch spear point that might be one of their relatives and that reminds them of their history and brings about a connection between people who grew up in a town and brings a connection to the land.”

An interpretive caretaker at Fortymile is important, said Edwards.

“A chance to have people there to talk not only about the gold rush and European history, a visitor there gets to meet a Tr’ondek Hwech’in citizen, an elder and listen to their stories.

“You get a real personal history of the area.”

The future of the Fortymile may see the Tr’ondek Hwech’in running day trips from Dawson City to the Forty Mile townsite.  Down by boat and back over the Top of the World Highway.

There will not be a Princess Wilderness Hotel located there, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in want to keep the site historically intact.

History is usually written by the victor, in the case of native non-native contact the non-native aspect won the battle at a huge cost to the indigenous peoples of the Yukon.  Yet all was not lost, driven to the negotiation table by Charter Rights, the territorial and federal governments has recognized First Nation rights.

To carry the analogy forward, the non-natives lost the war.

Today First Nation peoples are realizing their connection to the land and rebuilding their culture and lives in the North.

First Nation youth are the largest segment of our future society and as they realize and grow to believe in themselves and their culture we see changes in our lives and business culture.

First Nation elders are re-connecting to the land and the places of their people.

The revitalization of the Fortymile townsite is one example of these changes First Nation peoples are bringing to our society.

Healing old wounds and building fresh links to northern culture the Tr’ondek Hwech’in demonstrate their pride in their culture and their people.

Mark Prins is a Whitehorse-based writer.