In his book Klondike, author Pierre Berton described a Sourdough reunion in Seattle several decades after the Klondike Gold Rush had ended. Mike Mahoney, the hero of Merrill Denison’s book Klondike Mike, stood up to recite Robert Service’s poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Mahoney stated that he witnessed the shooting in person.
Knowing this to be pure fabrication, Monte Snow, son of George T. Snow, one of the early Fortymile pioneers, stood up before the gathering and called him out on this sham. The assembled old-timers, according to Pierre Berton, “…shouted Snow down and then gave Mike Mahoney the greatest ovation of his career. They did not really want to hear the truth.”
Herein lies one of the dilemmas for a writer of history: Do you pull back the curtain to reveal the true nature of history, or do you follow the easier and more conventional path and simply repeat the often-told stories?
I have always tried to unearth the most factual accounting of events. In the Yukon at least, those stories are often more interesting than the ones that are made up. But it hasn’t always made me popular, and on more than one occasion, people became angry or upset with me when I have pointed out these historical mistellings. It is a burden I most willingly shoulder.
Many gold rush veterans wrote Robert Service into their memoirs or accounts of the Klondike failing to note that Service didn’t step foot in Dawson City until a decade after the original discovery.
Even Judge Wickersham, the highly respected Alaskan jurist remembers Service behind the counter in a bank in Skagway during the gold rush (he never worked in Skagway).
The same can be said of Jack London. Franklin Walker, Jack London biographer, visited Dawson several decades ago and talked to numerous old-time sourdoughs, many of whom recounted to him their meetings with London. Only one, he concluded, could legitimately claim that he met the future literary giant during his short time in Dawson City.
A memoir by Josephine Knowles in 2016 (title: Gold Rush in the Klondike: A Woman’s Journey in 1898-1899), tells of her meeting with Jack London, but it never happened: he had left the Yukon by another route before she even arrived in the Yukon.
In face of criticism for revealing the facts, I stand fast to the notion that we do not serve history well if we succumb to popular versions of history instead of historically accurate accounts.
One of my favourite research tools is the timeline. If I can chart someone’s movements through place and time, I stand a better chance of determining if they ever crossed paths with someone else.
In Edward Morgan’s book, God’s Loaded Dice, he states that he frequently saw Jack London and Swiftwater Bill Gates together in bars in Dawson City. By comparing the timelines I constructed for both London and Swiftwater Bill, I knew that was not possible: Gates left Dawson a month before London arrived. Similarly, Mont Hawthorn’s colourful, but inaccurate, account of Jack Dalton shooting Dan McGinnis in Haines, Alaska, in 1892 was put to rest when I consulted the court transcripts for Dalton’s murder trial.
More than a decade ago my wife Kathy came across an article in the Dawson Daily News for February 19, 1931, titled “Two Thousand Mile Errand of Mercy by Black.”
The article described Yukon Member of Parliament and Speaker of the House of Commons George Black leaving his post in Ottawa to travel by train to Edmonton in order to defend a former wartime comrade against a charge of murder. According to the article, Black got the man, named Mike Zarkovitch, acquitted of the charge, and freed from custody.
This story could still be found in the Canadian Press biography of Black in circulation in the 1950s. The story was too good to be passed over. Kathy and I searched for records of the trial. None existed in the Yukon, and a query to a judge in Alberta went unanswered. We tried finding reference to the murder in records at the Glenbow Archive in Calgary, working back from 1931 for several years without finding any mention of the case.
We travelled to the National Archives in Ottawa, and there I confirmed the military records of a Mike Zarkovitch from Edmonton, Alberta. Considering that to be a hot lead, I traveled to the Alberta Provincial Archives in Edmonton to see if I could find any reference to the Zarkovitch trial. Sure enough, an archivist brought out the court transcripts for me to examine, but this was not the case that George Black was involved in.
By that time, I had been pursuing this historical strand for 15 months, only to arrive at a dead end. Fortunately, Kathy’s inquiry to the Law Society of Alberta resulted in an apologetic letter stating that the only records they had of George Black was the paperwork related to his admission to the Alberta bar in May, 1922.
Spurred on by this information, I referred to an online database containing copies of Alberta newspapers. I thought I would check the newspapers for the days after Black was admitted as a lawyer, and there, in both the Edmonton Journal, and the Edmonton Bulletin, I found coverage of the trial. The name of the accused was Wuksanovich, not Zarkovitch. I contacted the archivist in Edmonton who had helped me search the trial records for the Zarkovitch case, and gave him this new name. The reply was almost immediate: would I like a copy of the court records for the Wuksanovich murder trial?
As it turned out, the original story got important details wrong: first, the name of the accused, second, the outcome of the trial. The trial took place not in 1931, when the story appeared in the Dawson newspaper, but nine years earlier.
Despite a plea for mercy by Black for a fellow veteran who served Canada during World War I, Wuksonovich was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison. The true accounting of the trial was finally revealed!.
The path for truth and accuracy in historical research is not always a simple straight path. In fact, it would probably have been easier to accept the original story from the newspaper as gospel and save myself a lot of work. But in the end, uncovering the actual account of the trial left me with a real sense of satisfaction that truth had won out over fiction.
And that is what I try to do every time I write a story about Yukon history.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org