The History of Yukon
Yukon is one of Canada’s three territories, its smallest in terms of size and population, but occupies an outsized role in both Canada’s history as well as that of the United States. Located north of the province of British Columbia and straddling the U.S. state of Alaska, Yukon rose to prominence during the Klondike Gold Rush, in which tens of thousands of Americans and Canadians migrated to the region with the hopes of becoming rich.
While the Klondike Gold Rush faded almost as soon as it began, Yukon remains an important hub for mining and commercial activity in Canada. Read on to learn about the history of Yukon.
The History of Yukon
Yukon is named after the Yukon River, which flows through much of the territory and extends from northern British Columbia to the Bering Sea in western Alaska. The name Yukon is a contraction of the Gwich’in phrase “chųų gąįį han,” which means “white water river,” a reference to how glacial runoff in the Yukon River often gives it a pale color.
Prior to European settlement, Yukon was inhabited by a number of indigenous tribes, and the region is noted for how it avoided glaciation during the last Ice Age. In the year 800, the eruption of Mount Churchill in neighboring Alaska covered Yukon in a layer of ash which is still visible to this day. Indigenous folklore in the area mentions the eruption as a major event due to the devastation it caused to animal life in Yukon, and it is believed that the Navajo and other tribes in the southwestern U.S. migrated to that region from Yukon as a result. Indigenous peoples in Yukon had extensive trading networks with the Tlingit and other tribes on the Pacific coast.
Due to its remote location, Yukon was one of the last regions of North America to be explored and colonized by Europeans. Starting in 1670, the region was organized into the North-Western Territory, a large territory that also encompassed parts of the modern Northwest Territories and Nunavut as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. While it is not known exactly when the British began exercising sovereignty over the North-Western Territory, Britain was the only European power with access to the region following the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, in which France ceded control of the Hudson Bay’s coasts.
The North-Western Territory was named in relation to where it was located relative to Rupert’s Land, a vast colony that included all or part of modern-day Nunavut, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec, as well as parts of the U.S. states of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Both territories were administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which controlled the fur trade in northern Canada.
In the 19th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company began establishing trading posts along the Yukon River, most notably Fort Yukon in modern-day Alaska as well as Lapierre House in Yukon. Despite Fort Yukon being located in Alaska, the Hudson’s Bay Company continued to operate there until expelled by Americans in 1869. Other notable trading posts established during this time include Fort Frances and Fort Selkirk. In 1852, Fort Selkirk was attacked by Tlingit forces from the south, who were upset over Hudson’s Bay Company trading activities in the region; the fort was abandoned and not rebuilt until 1889.
In 1867, the British colonies of Canada (later separated into Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick united to form the Dominion of Canada, which began pressuring Britain to give it control over Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory. This process was completed in 1870, when the Hudson’s Bay Company ceded control of both territories to Canada, which subsequently merged them into a single territory, the North-West Territories.
Hudson’s Bay Company traders in the North-West Territories had heard rumors of gold in Yukon, but had not followed up on them due to the fur trade being far more lucrative; gold mining required an influx of men and infrastructure that the company had no ability to provide. In 1874, Fort Reliance was established near what would later become Dawson City, and while some gold was found in the area, there was not enough to profit from. In 1885 and 1886, gold was discovered along the Stewart and Fortymile Rivers, which inspired a small wave of settlers to move to the region.
In 1896, prospectors George Carmack and Skookum Jim discovered gold in large quantities along Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Yukon River. This marked the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush, which saw as many as 100,000 Americans and Canadians migrate to the region in search of riches. To deal with the sudden influx of settlers, the Canadian government organized Yukon as a separate territory in 1898 with its capital at Dawson City, the center of the Gold Rush. The Klondike Gold Rush ended in 1899, causing many of those same migrants to leave. During this time, Yukon was connected to the Alaskan port city of Skagway via the White Pass and Yukon Railway, allowing easier transportation in and out of the area.
Following the end of the Klondike Gold Rush, Yukon’s population declined dramatically, falling to barely 4,100 by 1921. This was despite the expansion of mining in the area, including silver, gold, and copper. There was a brief economic upturn in the 1930’s due to rising gold prices, but this did not last. Yukon would see a new wave of development in the 1940’s due to the Alaska Highway, which connected Alaska to the continental U.S. and ran through southern Yukon. Despite hopes of an economic revival in Dawson City, the Alaska Highway was ultimately routed through Whitehorse instead, causing that city to grow at Dawson City’s expense; Yukon’s capital would be moved to Whitehorse in 1953.
Road construction continued throughout the latter half of the 20th century, with highways such as the Klondike Highway and Top of the World Highway connecting many rural communities in Yukon. Mining in Yukon also saw a revival with the opening of new gold mines as well as the world’s largest open-pit zinc and lead mine in Faro. In 1979, Yukon was granted responsible government by the Canadian federal government, giving Yukon residents a greater voice in managing their own affairs.
Today, Yukon remains a hub of mining and resource extraction in Canada, with mining firms attracting many workers to the region. Tourism is also a significant part of the Yukon economy, with many visitors attracted to Klondike Gold Rush history and the region’s gorgeous vistas. Yukon is also noted as a hub of First Nations culture, with indigenous Canadians comprising roughly 20 percent of the territory’s population.
While small in population and size, Yukon remains a significant part of Canada’s economy and culture. Through the Klondike Gold Rush, it has also played an outsized role in shaping American culture and history. Migrants and tourists continue to flock to Yukon for opportunities in the mining industry as well as interest in its largely untamed landscape and unique cultural history.