I have been exchanging e-mails and telephone calls with Kathy Larson in California about her husband’s grandfather, James A. McNeil. Her enthusiasm about her research is infectious. Aside from passing references, McNeil is not chronicled in any book that I have ever read about the gold rush.
James McNeil was a Maritimer, born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia in 1872. He only received six years of formal education, but by all accounts, he was a prolific reader and a good writer.
He went to work in the coal mines at age 15. This was dangerous work, so, a couple of years later, he moved on, across Canada, working his way on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. By 1891, he was in the Seattle area, coal mining again. In 1894, he was in Juneau, working at the big Treadwell mine on Douglas Island.
The following spring, he headed into the interior of the Yukon. Despite setbacks (he lost his outfit in the canyon on the Fortymile River), he ended up mining in the Sixtymile region, and worked for a while with an acquaintance from Antigonish, “Big” Alex McDonald. But in the spring of 1896, he and McDonald parted ways, and here is where his story becomes interesting.
McNeil described what happened to him in a story in his own words, published in Northwest Living Magazine in August of 1956, 60 years after gold was discovered on Rabbit (later Bonanza) Creek. In the spring of 1896, he came back to Forty Mile and was employed by Tom O’Brien to help open his store.
He remembered when George Carmack arrived in Forty Mile in August, 1896 to record his discovery and buy some grub. O’Brien asked him to mind the store while he went to investigate, so it was a week before McNeil would be able to head for the newly discovered goldfield. He went up Bonanza to stake the first open ground, which proved to be Number 65 Above Discovery.
Before he returned to Fortymile, McNeil staked a second claim, Claim Number 8 on Whipple Creek, a seemingly insignificant tributary of Bonanza, that was soon to be renamed Eldorado.
Unfortunately, Lady Luck did not favour McNeil. The rules of the day allowed title by staking of only one claim on any watershed, so he filed for the Bonanza Creek Claim, which proved to be barren. Charlie Lamb restaked the Eldorado claim, and it made him a fortune.
Had McNeil come a day later, Bonanza Creek would have been fully staked. He would have been forced to stake a claim on the unpromising Whipple Creek, and his story would have been different!
But Lady Luck had another cruel trick to play on McNeil. That winter, an Austrian immigrant named Antone Stander approached McNeil, who was back working in O’Brien’s store in Forty Mile. He offered McNeil a half interest in his claim Number 6 on Eldorado, but McNeil already owed trader Jack McQuesten $500 from a previous loan, and did not want to go any further into debt. So, he passed on the opportunity. Clarence Berry stepped in and formed a partnership with Stander, and it was the beginning of Berry’s great fortune in gold and oil.
Pride prevented McNeil from going back to his Antigonish friend Alex McDonald and asking for a lay on one of McDonald’s growing array of gold properties. Fortune passed him by one more time.
“My story is analogous with that of many other prospectors in that country.” McNeil later said. “It was chicken today and feathers tomorrow. But on the whole, I managed to get together enough chicken feed to keep my family in good health and cheer [his wife joined him in 1899, and they had a son and a daughter in the Klondike before they moved on] and to lay away enough to take care of myself without being a burden to anyone — inflation permitting.”
This is part of the story unearthed during a 47-year quest for the story of McNeil by Larson and her husband. In 1975, the Larsons visited relatives in Nova Scotia, where McNeil was remembered as “lively, a great dancer and a storyteller who fascinated people with his gold rush adventures.”
Larson was hooked and in the following years, she hunted for records, documents, newspapers and other sources, with which to piece together McNeil’s exploits. Her story is typical of many who embark on a quest to learn about their ancestors. According to Larson, “We have done countless hours of internet research, bought Ancestry.com memberships and researched at libraries from UC Berkeley, U of Washington, U of Alaska (Anchorage and Fairbanks), city and state libraries in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Dawson, plus talked with distant McNeil family members, museum curators, historians, and book authors.”
In addition to all this, McNeil left behind letters, journals and scrapbooks to add the personal touch. One document, an eight-page letter that detailed his life between 1888 and 1896 was prepared for someone who was going to write a book of Alaska pioneers. In one journal entry, McNeil refers to his wife and children being aboard the steamer Excelsior when it was shipwrecked in Wrangell Narrows in September of 1906. “All clothing and supplies lost — a hard winter on short rations,” wrote McNeil. Larson was able to find records that detailed the “why, when and where” of the incident and created a much more complete account of what happened.
What makes McNeil’s story even more interesting was that he was part of the early prospectors and miners who were in the Yukon before the gold rush. Although he never became famous himself, he knew and rubbed shoulders with some of the prominent early pioneers, like Jack McQuesten, Thomas W. O’Brien, “Big” Alex McDonald and Clarence Berry. His account of what was happening in the early days adds more flesh to the story of the days leading up to the great gold discovery, and what followed.
And while he didn’t become a Klondike King, he was able to leave the Yukon with a nest egg that would provide him some comfort in his later years, and a wealth of stories that would entertain friends and family for decades to come.
It is through the dedicated and determined genealogical digging by people such as Larson that we can create a more complete picture of events from the past, even adding a personal perspective to many of the events of the day. All of this is enhanced these days by increased accessibility to a wide range of institutions and databases on the internet.
If anybody reading this can throw any light on James A. McNeil, Kathy Larson would be interested in corresponding with you. Get in touch with me, and I will forward you on to her.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His new book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org