The History of the Klondike Gold Rush
The Klondike Gold Rush is one of the most significant events in Alaskan and Yukon history and an important milestone in both American and Canadian culture. Taking place during the late 1890’s, the Klondike Gold Rush saw as many as 100,000 people migrate to the Klondike region of northwestern Canada in search of gold. While few people remained following the gold rush’s end, the mass migration to the region established Alaska and Yukon as important regions in North America.
The Klondike Gold Rush has been immortalized in books, movies, and other cultural works over the past century, and it helped kick-start the careers of notable writers such as Jack London and Robert W. Service. This is a brief history of the Klondike Gold Rush.
The History of the Klondike Gold Rush
Before the Klondike Gold Rush, both Alaska and the territory that became known as Yukon were largely uninhabited. When the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, most of the territory’s interior was unexplored and unsettled, the Russians having preferred to colonize its coasts due to their greater accessibility. In the decades between the Alaska Purchase and the Klondike Gold Rush, Sitka, the capital of Alaska and located in its Panhandle, was the only city in the territory with significant American settlement. Some Americans ridiculed the Alaska Purchase as “Seward’s Folly” due to the fact that it was remote and seen as lacking economic resources.
During most of the 19th century, Yukon was part of the North-Western Territory, a vast region that also encompassed large parts of the modern Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. The region was administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which also managed neighboring Rupert’s Land, which encompassed Nunavut and the remainder of Saskatchewan and Alberta, as well as Manitoba and large parts of Ontario and Quebec. It is unknown when the Hudson’s Bay Company began exercising sovereignty over the North-Western Territory, but following the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1715, in which France yielded control of the Hudson Bay’s coasts to Britain, the British were the only European power with access to that part of North America.
The Hudson’s Bay Company developed a network of trading posts throughout the North-Western Territory to barter with locals for furs and fish, and also conducted expeditions into the Alaskan Interior and the territory’s Arctic coasts. However, large-scale settlement was off the table due to the region’s distant location, inclement weather, and perceived lack of significant resources. Following Canadian confederation in 1867, the Hudson’s Bay Company transferred control of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory to Canada in 1870, who subsequently merged both into a single territory, the North-Western Territories.
Indigenous peoples in Yukon and Alaska had used copper nuggets to trade and barter for hundreds of years, and while many tribes knew that there was gold in the region, they did not bother to exploit them because they did not see gold as valuable. Russian and Hudson’s Bay Company explorers were also aware of rumors of gold in both regions, but did not follow up on them due to the fact that fur trading was more lucrative because of the expense and logistics of mining.
In the decades following the Alaska Purchase, American explorers began penetrating into the heartland of Alaska and the North-West Territories to conduct expeditions. These explorers met with tribes such as the Tagish and Tlingit and opened trade routes throughout the area. In 1883, prospector Ed Schieffelin uncovered gold deposits along the Yukon River in Alaska as well as nearby Fortymile River. These deposits attracted some initial migrants, primarily focused on the city of Circle, founded in 1893. Circle was at one point known as the “Paris of Alaska” due to its swelling population—at one point reaching 1,200—and for featuring such amenities as libraries, opera houses, and saloons. Following the Klondike Gold Rush, Circle became a ghost town as its inhabitants packed up in search of easier-to-find gold in Yukon.
On August 16, 1896, American prospector George Carmack was traveling along the Klondike River with his Tagish wife Kate, her brother Skookum Jim, and their nephew Dawson Charlie. Following up on a suggestion from Canadian prospector Robert Henderson, they discovered gold along Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike. While it is generally accepted that both Carmack and Jim were responsible for finding the gold, Carmack was listed as the official discoverer due to fears that the authorities would not recognize a claim made by an indigenous Canadian.
Carmack and his family registered four claims with the local police, causing word to spread rapidly across the region. Additional gold was discovered along Eldorado Creek, a tributary of Bonanza Creek, inspiring a rush of claims. Word of the Klondike gold spread to Circle, where many residents packed up and relocated during the winter in order to stake claims. The outside world was largely ignorant of the discovery at this point; while Canadian officials had sent a message to Ottawa about the gold rush, the information was ignored. Additionally, winter weather prevented ships from leaving the area, with the first ones not exiting the Klondike region until June of 1897.
The Klondike Gold Rush began in earnest in July of 1897, when the first boats carrying gold reached Seattle and San Francisco. Word spread rapidly and as many as 100,000 people attempted to reach the Klondike between 1897 and 1898; the rush was so large that it attracted the attention of journalists and photographers as well.
The stampede was in part a product of the poor economy of the U.S. at the time. Having been battered by the Panics of 1893 and 1896, many Americans were unemployed, and the Klondike Gold Rush promised wealth and financial security. The American frontier in the West had also been closed around this time, and many individuals who missed out on settling the West saw the Klondike Gold Rush as their second chance to make their fortunes. Additionally, the use of the gold standard had caused gold dollars to rapidly rise in value compared to paper currency, creating a massive demand for gold that the Klondike could potentially fulfill. A final factor is that the Klondike Gold Rush coincided with the growth of journalism as a major industry, and newspapers promoted stories from the Klondike in order to sell copies.
Seattle and San Francisco became leading centers of the Klondike Gold Rush due to their proximity to Yukon and Alaska. Klondike-branded clothing, medicine, and equipment became common in both of these cities. The majority of Klondike prospectors were Americans, though Canadians and other nationalities were also present. Many West Coast firms saw mass resignations of staff as they headed to the Klondike gold fields. One notable example of this was William D. Wood, the mayor of Seattle, who created a company to help transport prospectors to Yukon. Jack London, who would later become a famous writer, went to the Klondike to mine gold but ended up working for other prospectors instead.
Traveling to Yukon was difficult during the Klondike Gold Rush due to its geographical isolation, harsh climate, mountainous terrain, and lack of infrastructure. The most popular route was via the Alaskan port cities of Skagway and Dyea; prospectors would sail to these cities and then walk north via the Chilkoot Pass. This route eventually became known as the Inland Passage and forms a vital corridor for the Alaska Marine Highway, a ferry service that serves southern Alaska as well as British Columbia and Washington state. Dyea would eventually become a ghost town after the opening of the White Pass and Yukon Railway in 1899, which had its southern terminus in Skagway; Dyea was also disadvantaged by having a shallower port than Skagway. A number of prospectors also migrated to Yukon via the Yukon River, sailing to St. Michael on the western coast of Alaska, though this route was closed off during the winter due to the river freezing over. Canadian prospectors traveled via an all-Canada route from Edmonton, which serves as the capital of modern-day Alberta.
Fearing starvation among migrants due to poor growing conditions and a lack of infrastructure in the region, the Canadian government passed a law requiring Klondike prospectors to bring a year’s worth of food with them before they could enter the territory. When added to the equipment that migrants brought for mining and living, the average load per prospector weighed over a ton, requiring most to bring their supplies with them in stages. At the time, the U.S. and Canada were embroiled in a dispute over Alaska’s borders, with Canada claiming the port city of Skagway in hopes of establishing an all-Canada route linking Klondike to the sea. Both countries sent military and police forces to the region to enforce their claims and maintain order. In 1898, Canada separated the Klondike region from the North-West Territories, organizing it into the separate territory of Yukon, in order to provide a local government that could better manage the growing population. The Alaska boundary dispute was settled in 1903, creating the modern border between Alaska and Canada.
Most migrants did not reach the Klondike region until 1898, by which point most of the best claims had already been seized by earlier arrivals. While much of the Klondike’s gold was located in creeks, a significant amount of it was also in hilltops, requiring exploratory digging. Distribution of gold in the region was also uneven, leading to greater uncertainty about how much gold was contained in each claim. Due to the impossibility of bringing heavy mining equipment into Yukon, most gold was extracted via the inefficient process of surface digging. The Canadian government also levied heavy taxes on gold, which made mining even more expensive.
As high-quality mining claims dried up and the cost of mining increased during the Gold Rush, many poorer prospectors became destitute. Many of these failed prospectors would either sell their equipment at a loss and return home or take jobs working for other prospectors. While manual labor jobs had extremely high wages compared to other parts of the U.S. and Canada, Yukon’s high cost of living prevented many workers from building up savings.
The center of Yukon gold mining was Dawson City, which exploded to a population of 30,000 during the Klondike Gold Rush. The region was heavily patrolled by the North-West Mounted Police (which would later become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), which kept murder and prostitution rates low, a common problem in boom towns. In contrast, the American port of Skagway became legendary for its lawlessness and corruption, a problem that persisted until 1899. Food shortages were also common in Yukon due to the high cost of transporting them to the region.
Despite the sheer expense of Yukon living during this period, lavish lifestyles and conspicuous consumption became common; Dawson City became famous for its saloons, dance halls, and gambling dens. Due to Yukon’s remote location, communication with the rest of the world was limited, leading to mail and news coming to the region with a significant delay. While a large percentage of early Klondike settlers were men, the region also attracted a significant number of women, who came to work as dancers or prostitutes or to court the attention of rich prospectors. In 1899, Dawson City was finally connected to Skagway via the White Pass and Yukon Railway and via telegraphy lines, which made communication with the rest of the world nearly instantaneous and also made traveling in and out of the region much faster.
The Klondike Gold Rush began to end in 1898, as many ruined prospectors left the region after being unable to make money with their mining claims. Manual labor wages also began to fall around this time due to a glut of unemployed miners, inspiring a new wave of residents to leave. The Spanish-American War of 1898 also harmed the Klondike Gold Rush, as many newspapers ceased covering the Klondike in favor of the war, which was far more fascinating to the American public. Another factor in the Gold Rush’s end was the gentrification of Dawson City, which turned off many prospectors who were accustomed to wild ways of living and upset by new laws and social codes governing their behavior. The Klondike Gold Rush was finally killed off by the discovery of gold in Nome and Fairbanks in neighboring Alaska, which saw many Yukon residents pull up stakes and head to Alaska in hopes to make money more easily.
Yukon was left devastated by the end of the Klondike Gold Rush. Due to the outflow of migrants, Dawson City’s population fell to 2,000 people by 1912 and 500 by 1972. Indigenous peoples saw mass die-offs due to the introduction of smallpox and other diseases to which they had no immunity, and environmental damage caused by surface mining significantly harmed native ways of life. Only a handful of Klondike migrants became rich, and of those that did, many eventually lost their fortunes due to alcoholism, excessive spending, poor investment decisions, and other reasons. While George Carmack, one of the original discoverers of Klondike gold, lived in relative prosperity for the rest of his life, Skookum Jim continued to prospect until he died in 1916, while Dawson Charlie eventually died in an alcohol-related accident.
Despite the ruinous aftermath of the Klondike Gold Rush, its effects can still be felt throughout the region. Alaska became settled by Americans in large numbers for the first time, with cities such as Skagway, Juneau, and Fairbanks becoming central hubs of commerce and trade. The Yukon economy saw a revival later in the 20th century after infrastructure improvements allowed the extraction of gold deposits that could not be reached during the initial Gold Rush; to this day, gold mining is a central plank of the Yukon economy.
The history of the Klondike Gold Rush also attracts considerable amounts of tourism to the region. The Gold Rush has been the focus of numerous books, movies, and songs, and writers such as Jack London and Robert W. Service became famous after writing stories and poems set during the period. Discovery Day, the anniversary of the original gold discovery, is celebrated as a public holiday in Yukon on the third Monday of August.
While the Klondike Gold Rush has come and gone, its economic and cultural effects persist to this day. The Klondike Gold Rush opened Alaska and Yukon up to large-scale settlement for the first time in their histories, as people flocked there hoping to make their fortunes. Many of the settlements founded during the Klondike Gold Rush remain important commercial hubs, and Klondike tourism still attracts many visitors to the region. For Americans and Canadians, the Klondike Gold Rush retains important cultural significance as one of the last frontiers in North America.