His Tagish name was Keish, meaning wolf, but to many Jim Mason became known as ‘Skookum’ because of his massive strength and his ability to carry a large quantity of supplies over the rough remote Yukon terrain.
It was the late-1800s and modest gold strikes in the Cassiar and Stewart River areas brought gold-seeking miners from the south to the region that would come to be known as the Yukon.
By 1885, more than 200 men were travelling over the Chilkoot Pass and needed help carrying their supplies. Two years later, another strike at Forty Mile attracted more than 500 miners to the area.
The miners and surveyors who came into the region hired local packers to carry their gear and provisions over the steep mountain passes, and Mason was known as one of the best.
In fact, it’s said that he once packed 156 pounds of bacon (more than double the regular load) over the Chilkoot Pass for government surveyor William Ogilvie in 1887.
“This might be considered a load anywhere on any roads, but over the stony moraine of a glacier, as the first half of the distance is, and then up a steep pass, climbing more than 3,000 feet in six or seven miles, some so steep that hands have to be used to assist one up, certainly is a stiff test of strength and endurance,” Ogilvie wrote in Early Days in the Yukon.
“After we crossed the summit and while building our boat I employed Jim in various capacities, and always found him reliable, truthful, and competent to do any work I gave him.”
Nearly a decade later, Mason with Tagish Charlie, Kate Carmack, George Carmack and Patsy Henderson, would head to the Klondike where a gold strike would make them rich and famous.
There were many differing stories of who actually discovered the nuggets on Bonanza Creek – Mason, George and Kate each claimed to be the original founder.
After interviewing each person, Ogilvie came to the conclusion that Mason had, indeed, found the gold. Harpers correspondent Tappan Adney confirmed Ogilvie’s conclusion in his first-person account of the gold rush, The Klondike Stampede.
“Skookum Jim, taking the pan, went to the ‘rim’ of the valley at the foot of a birch tree and filled it with dirt,” wrote Adney.
“Washing it in the creek he found a large showing of gold. Right ‘under the grass roots,’ Jim said, he found from ten cents to one dollar to the pan. In a little while, it is said, they filled a shotgun cartridge with coarse gold.”
George Carmack staked the Discovery Claim on Rabbit Creek, which came to be renamed Bonanza Creek, and Mason and Charlie each had a claim to the side.
The claim would make him a rich man. Mason built a large house for his wife and daughter in Carcross, but each spring he returned to the Klondike.
Mason and Charlie remained in the Yukon and continued prospecting and hunting and trapping. In 1903, their luck continued and they made another smaller gold discovery in the Kluane area, which ignited another minor gold rush to the area.
In 1904, Mason sold his Klondike claims for $65,000 and continued to live in Carcross until his death in July 1916.
In the years after gold was found in the Klondike, there are many stories about Mason, both good and bad. Some show him as a generous man who shared food and drink with people less fortunate than himself, and others show him as a man who drank too much and did silly things while inebriated.
In his will Mason left a substantial fortune in trust.
Today the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre in downtown Whitehorse bears his name, as does a scholarship for aboriginal achievement in mining.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.