I often wonder: does the Yukon have an identity crisis? Clearly most people outside the Yukon don’t know where it is, or what it is like. Many years ago, my wife, then director of the Dawson City Museum, showed me letters that were addressed to her at Dawson City, British Columbia, Alaska. Even the National Museum in Ottawa was confused about the geography suggesting that her inquiry about funding for the museum be directed to American authorities.
When I went to graduate school in New York State, the other students assumed that I came from the University of Connecticut, which is popularly referred to as “U Conn.” The geography of anything west of the Mississippi River seemed a little hazy to most of them. But this geographical confusion is nothing new.
In the early days of European colonization of the Yukon, there was no border to speak of. Britain and Russia had come to an agreement around 1825 that from the Arctic Ocean to the St. Elias Mountains, everything west of the 141st meridian belonged to Russia, and everything to the east, to Britain. That doesn’t take into account that the Yukon basin had already been occupied for thousands of years.
The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, the year that Canada became a nation. A short time later it was determined that the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post of Fort Yukon, located at the confluence of the Porcupine and Yukon Rivers, was on American soil. So, the trading post was moved up the Porcupine River to Rampart House, just metres on the Canadian side of the boundary.
Farther south, it was not known where the meridian crossed the Yukon River until Canadian surveyor William Ogilvie marked the spot during the winter of 1887/88. Meanwhile, trader Jack McQuesten, relying upon the vague knowledge of this vast region by government officials in Washington, D.C., applied for and was appointed to the position of postmaster at Mitchell, Alaska. Mitchell was actually the Canadian mining camp of Forty Mile, located well within Canadian soil. The ruse was maintained until as late as 1895.
Along the Alaskan panhandle, little attention was paid to the precise marking of the boundary between Canada and the U.S. until the Klondike gold rush made it necessary. Canada, Britain and the U.S. set up a commission that negotiated for three years to establish a boundary line. In 1898, the Canadian government set up Mounted Police posts on the White, Chilkoot and Chilkat Passes, marking the dividing line, but during the gold rush, many Yankees disregarded this fact, and stood by the American contention that U.S. sovereignty extended as far inland as Tagish Lake.
Even after the border was firmly established, there was a movement, known as the “Order of the Midnight Sun” whose aim was to invade and overthrow the government in the Yukon, and claim the region for our southern neighbours. It may have been a tempest in a teapot, but the Northwest Mounted Police took the threat seriously, beefing up the Whitehorse and Dawson City detachments with additional men and armaments.
In our family collection are a number of examples of postcards produced for sale in the Yukon that perpetuate the Americanization of Canadian geography. In one, for example, an American flag is seen flying over the old post office in Dawson City. Other scenes, obviously in the Yukon, are labeled as Alaskan views. It was done, no doubt as an enticement to American tourists who passed through the Yukon on their way to Alaska by boat in the early part of the 20th Century.
The confusion does not stop there. Some American historical works refer to the Alaskan gold rush, downplaying the Canadian stampede that started it all. They minimize the role of significant Canadians during the gold rush as well. One recent Alaskan history, for example attributes a description of Skagway to a “patrolman” from the Mounted Police. That patrolman was none other than Superintendent Sam Steele, “the Lion of the North,” one of the most prominent figures that emerged from the gold rush. Steele also gets poor treatment in the recent made-for-television Klondike mini-series, produced by Ridley Scott, where Steele is reduced to a nameless supporting figure.
When Pierre Berton was hired as a consultant for the production of the Klondike television series back in the 1960s, he pointed out some of the historical inconsistencies they were scripting for the program. So, they moved the setting from Dawson City to Skagway, in Alaska, so that they could turn the series into another western, but in a northern setting, with gunfights and sheriffs. For expediency, the series wasn’t filmed in the Yukon, or even in Alaska, for that matter – that would have been too expensive, which explains why the landscape is covered with pine trees, rather than white spruce or Douglas fir.
Even prominent Hollywood film stars like Victor Jory and Marjorie Rambeau masked their Canadian connections to the Klondike by Americanizing their references to the place. Rambeau, for instance, later referred to her northern venture in 1906 as “Dawson, Alaska,” in an interview with columnist Hedda Hopper. When the theatre company went bust in Dawson she said, the “governor” (a man she said was appointed by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt) persuaded her to stay over the winter.
But we shouldn’t point our fingers exclusively at Americans for diluting the Yukon image. During the 1960s, the Yukon had an ongoing feud with the city of Edmonton, who hijacked the gold rush story, and moved it to the Alberta capital for Klondike Days. The mayor of Edmonton at the time was dismissive of the unanimous protests of Yukoners, who established the Yukon Defence Force to protect the Klondike brand.
Edmonton finally changed the event to “K-Days,” as if this would somehow make things right with us northerners, but it is still commonly referred to as “Klondike Days.” In official online material, it is explained this way: “Although the Canadian gold rush centered more on areas to the north and west, Edmonton served as a vital station to assist travellers in moving to these regions.” Really?
If a taxi driver could explain to me, during a visit to Edmonton, that the stream of stampeders climbing the golden stairs during the gold rush took place near Edmonton in the Saskatchewan River valley, I am left wondering how many other Edmontonians have been misled into believing that the event happened around Edmonton, and not the far north.
Clearly, if people don’t know where we are, and launder the historical facts, we face an upstream battle to maintain ownership to our own identity. The Yukon is not in Edmonton, or Alaska, but right where it belongs, north of 60, in between these other two places.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. His next book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is due for release in September. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org