ogilvie the man who mapped the north

Up until the late-1800s, little was known about the western Canadian north in the rest of the world.

Up until the late-1800s, little was known about the western Canadian north in the rest of the world.

Any maps of the remote territory came from Hudson Bay Company traders, who had entered the territory to buy furs and whose geographical renderings were far from accurate.

William Ogilvie was one of the men who would change that.

Ogilvie was born in Ottawa in 1849.

Ogilvie came to the Yukon in 1887, and spent two years surveying and mapping the territory.

“Most of Ogilvie’s explorations were carried on in two basswood canoes … each canoe carried two men and 1,400 pounds of goods. They transported Ogilvie and his heavy outfit over 2,500 miles along rivers.”

“While George Dawson and McConnell mapped the Yukon country and made scientific observations, Ogilvie spent most of his time talking to the miners in the Fortymile region,” wrote Ken Coates in Land of the Midnight Sun.

“Since he was an official representative of the Canadian government, the miners were anxious to know what Ottawa had in mind for the Yukon.”

Much to the miners’ delight, Ogilvie recommended that the Canadian government basically leave the Yukon alone. The government took his recommendation, partially to avoid the expense of establishing administration there.

Ogilvie’s surveys were also among the first to predict mineral wealth in the territory.

“Mr. Ogilvie reports that there are 100 claims on Bonanza Creek capable of yielding from $250,000 to $500,000, and thirty claims on Eldorado Creek that will no doubt yield an average of $1,000,000 each,” reported the New York Times in 1887.

“Over all this area good indications have been found, so it is safe to assert that the greatest wealth, if not the richest individual deposit, is yet to be discovered.”

Little did anybody suspect at the time, how right Ogilvie was.

Ogilvie returned to the territory in 1895 and while surveying the area, Ogilvie is said to have mapped the boundary line between Canada and Alaska by hacking the letter “C” for Canada, and “A” for Alaska into trees.

And, Ogilvie was in the Yukon in 1896, when a large gold find on Rabbit Creek began the Klondike Gold Rush.

Yukon officially became a territory in 1898, and Ogilvie was appointed its second commissioner. He held the position until 1901.

He cited ill-health as his reason for resigning. “The hidden translation could be deciphered to mean he was ‘sick and tired’ of overseeing a place replete with chicanery, dishonesty, fraud, deceit, lying, cheating and thieving, all protected under an umbrella of shady politics,” according to William Ogilvie: Dominion Land Surveyor Made Order out of Chaos. “He had to get out before he too was labelled.”

In the early 1900s, the St. John Daily Sun reported a heroic tale about Ogilvie finding his bride after a terrible accident on an Alaskan steamer.

“A wave upset the boat and Miss Richardson struggling in the water, would perhaps have been drowned if Ogilvie had not swam to her side and held her head above water until help came to them,” reported the newspaper in 1903.

“This was the beginning of a little romance, of which another chapter may now be written, for the couple were married a short time ago.”

Ogilvie died of septic poisoning in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in November 1912. The Ogilvie Mountains near Dawson City, the Ogilvie River, and Ogilvie Street in downtown Whitehorse were named in his honour.

His book, Early Days in the Yukon, was first published in 1913, and is still in print.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.