the woman behind the cape

If great fortune and great sorrow are the hallmarks of a great story, then the life of Kate Carmack has to be one of the top tales in Yukon’s…

If great fortune and great sorrow are the hallmarks of a great story, then the life of Kate Carmack has to be one of the top tales in Yukon’s history.

She was born into a Tagish family, became a millionaire during the Klondike Gold Rush and then died a pauper in Carcross.

Because most of Carmack’s story has been passed orally, there are many conflicting accounts of her life. Here is one of those accounts.

A member of the Tagish people, Carmack’s original name was Shaaw Tlaa.

While she was young, she married a Tlingit man and bore a daughter, but both died during an influenza outbreak.

She then married George Carmack, a prospector from California, who was packing goods along the Chilkoot Pass with Kate’s brother, Skookum Jim and her cousin, Dawson Charlie.

Now your guess is as good as mine as to what actually happened on the fateful day — August 17, 1896 — when gold was discovered on Rabbit Creek by Kate, George and their relatives.

There are dozens of accounts with differing views on why the party was at the creek and who actually was the first person to spot the dull yellow metal.

Nonetheless, George, as the only white man in the group, registered the claims and gave one each to Jim and Charlie.

The claims yielded hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold and made all of their owners rich.

News of the major find was slow to reach the outside world, but soon after, in 1898, thousands flocked to the Klondike to stake their own claims.

And the Carmacks found a number of ways to spend and flaunt their newfound wealth.

According to one account, while on a trip to Seattle they threw money onto the street from the roof of their hotel and caused a riot in the streets.

“As the merry jingle of the coins resounded and the pieces bounded from the pavements into the streets, men dived from the walks and off passing streetcars, butcher boys and teamsters hurled themselves into the air from their seats, conductors and gripmen forgot all about their charges; policemen forgot to say, ‘Move On!’” reported the Seattle Post Intelligencer on September 28, 1899.

“The street became a struggling mass of humanity. Hats were busted and lost; faces were bruised and bleeding; coats were torn and linen soiled.”

As the story goes, Kate also left hatchet marks on mouldings and banisters throughout the hotel so she could find her way back to her room.

And George rode around town in a carriage with the words “George Carmack, Discoverer of the Gold in the Klondike” painted on the side.

Soon the marriage faltered — some accounts blame alcohol; others say Kate tired of living in a city.

Just one year later, in 1900, Kate and George parted ways. Kate claimed desertion and infidelity and demanded her half of the $1.5-million estate.

Meanwhile, George returned to Dawson and married a woman named Marguerite Laimee, the owner of a cigar store (which, in those days, was most likely a euphemism for a madam of a house of ill repute).

George claimed that he and Kate were never really married, and Kate never did get her share of the fortune.

She returned to Carcross and lived on a government pension until 1920 when an influenza epidemic swept through the territory. Because there is no date of birth on record, some accounts say Kate was 53, others say 63.

She was buried in an unmarked grave.

Today Kate’s memory is preserved in the form of a hand-sewn squirrel fur cape on display at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History.

Kate probably made this cape after returning from the United States in 1900, where she would have seen many like it in a similar style, which was popular at the time.

But she took that style and made it her own.

It’s striking and unique; it exemplifies the best mix of two cultures.

The cape’s pattern is distinctly European, but it is put together using traditional First Nations materials — black ground squirrel fur and intricate beadwork.

At the time squirrel pelts like these were commonly used in clothing and blankets because they are lightweight and very warm although it was a very labour-intensive process to sew the tiny furs together.

Squirrel pelts are also relatively thin, compared to caribou or moose hide, so traditional garments generally require a lot of maintenance and the fur would have to be replaced regularly.

Kate’s cape came into the museum’s collection in 1972. Years later, expert evaluation found that it had little damage, which probably means it mostly kept in storage and saved for special occasions.

And because of that special treatment it remains one of the greatest treasures in the museum’s collection.

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.