I receive frequent inquiries about people, places and events in the Yukon’s past. I try to answer as many as I can. Sometimes, I hit the historical mother lode.
Such was the case with a recent inquiry where family members were seeking information about an antecedent who had been in the Yukon over a century ago. His name: George Patton Mackenzie. While his name won’t roll off the tongues of many Yukoners the way Robert Service, George Carmack or Martha Black do (do you recognize them?), it immediately struck a familiar note: I came across his name when writing my latest book, From the Klondike to Berlin.
A quick check of old Dawson City newspapers revealed a treasure trove of material. My wife Kathy took up the challenge to gather these into one file.
George Patton Mackenzie was born in Malagash, N.S., in 1873 to parents J.R. and Jean Porteous Mackenzie. He was a distant relative of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the first European to cross North America from east to west.
Not much is known yet about his childhood, but it is stated in a regional history that he enlisted in the Northwest Mounted Police and was dispatched to the Klondike during the Gold Rush. We have yet to confirm this, but we do know that he trained to be a teacher and was principal of a school in Nova Scotia before he headed north.
Mackenzie worked at various Dawson City newspapers before he applied for and was awarded the job of principal of the new public school in Dawson. At first he struggled to find a classroom space for his students and contended with shortages of school supplies until the new public school was opened in the fall of 1901.
The summer of 1903, the school superintendent released several teachers after he reviewed their credentials and found many of them wanting, including, apparently, those of Mackenzie. But if you believe the newspaper accounts, Mackenzie had other fish to fry.
Like many others, he became involved in placer mining — in his case, on the discovery claim on Duncan Creek, in the Mayo district. When he attempted to file a claim transaction with the mining recorder, he was refused because he was a federal civil servant. He had already been thinking about it for some time, so he resigned his teaching position to pursue mining.
But before he would turn another shovel of gravel, he speedily left the Yukon in the fall of 1903 with the single-minded purpose of getting married. On Nov. 19, he tied the knot with Thora Bartrand in Seattle. Thora, though born in France, was of Danish extraction and had considerable operatic talent.
The following summer, Thora joined him on Duncan Creek. We know that at the end of the summer of 1904, after 10 weeks of mining, he, Thora, and his mining partners left for Dawson carrying $20,000 worth of gold. Today, that gold would be worth close to $2 million.
In April of 1907, he was appointed to a temporary position as a clerk in the gold commissioner’s office. That evolved into a long-term position, and in 1909, he was promoted to mining recorder. In 1912, following a change of government, he replaced F.X. Gosselin, who had been appointed by the previous administration, as the gold commissioner.
By this time, he and Thora were solidly established in the social life in Dawson. Thora’s singing talent was put on display at various charitable events and church socials. She was said to be charitable with her talent and her time. She was also a member of the I.O.D.E.
Meanwhile, George became involved in the curling fraternity, frequently winning or placing well in competitive events. He was eventually elected president of the curling club in November of 1911. After becoming gold commissioner, he was also made an honorary member of the Mayo branch of the Yukon Order of Pioneers. Later on, when automobiles became more common in Dawson, he bought one and joined the Good Roads Club.
Mackenzie presided over his duties as gold commissioner in a thorough and competent manner, which meant there was no controversy to speak of during his time in office. When war was declared in 1914, he remained at his post for the duration, but donated frequently and generously to the Yukon Patriotic Fund (all civil servants were expected to do so).
Near war’s end, during extreme austerity, the federal government made drastic cuts to the territorial budget and numerous positions were lost. As a result, George Black, the commissioner, was out of a job, and the responsibilities of his position were added to those of the gold commissioner (Mackenzie’s position), in a much diminished territory.
Now the senior official in the territory, Mackenzie was called upon to deal with many of the issues of the day. He gave speeches at important official functions, including the unveiling of a memorial plaque in the public school (for students felled by the war). Mackenzie also officiated at the unveiling of the cenotaph in Dawson City, back when it was still the capital of the Yukon in 1924.
He oversaw the planning and arrangements for the official visit of the governor-general in 1922, and attended the inauguration of wireless radio service in the north. More important, however, to Yukoners, may have been his efforts to keep medicinal alcohol flowing into the territory through the American port of Skagway, where prohibition was in effect.
In the autumn of 1924, he and Thora travelled to Ottawa for meetings. He was consequently promoted to head of the Northwest Territories and Yukon branch of the Department of the Interior in Ottawa. When they returned to Dawson in the spring of 1925, it was to pack up their personal belongings and wrap up his business affairs from 27 years in the territory.
He and Thora departed on the first steamer of the season. Within weeks, he was sailing from Quebec in charge of his first of six Arctic expeditions. During this period, police posts were supplied and expanded in the Canadian Arctic, scientific research was conducted and sovereignty was maintained.
But all of that came to an end in 1931. Stricken by the Great Depression, the government made Mackenzie redundant and he was retired from public service after 24 years. He retired to his home on O’Connor Street in Ottawa, where he remained until he died in 1954 at the age of 81. Thora lived another 12 years to the ripe age of 96.
At the time of his death, a newspaper summed up his contribution to development of the Arctic: “He did much to consolidate Canada’s position in the Eastern Arctic. Few Canadians had a sounder grasp of problems in both the Eastern and Western Arctic areas.”
Twelve hundred words don’t do George Patton Mackenzie justice.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org