The history of Alaska and the neighboring Canadian territory of Yukon is intimately tied to the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. After the discovery of gold in Yukon, thousands of miners from across the U.S. and Canada migrated north in hopes of becoming rich. The gold rush inspired the creation of numerous cities and villages across both Alaska and Yukon, with perhaps the most important being Dawson City, where the gold rush began.
While Dawson City is a small city of barely 1,000 people today, it remains an important location in Canadian and American history. Read on to learn about the history of Dawson City, Canada.
The History of Dawson City, Canada
For much of history, the area surrounding Dawson City was largely uninhabited due to its remoteness and perceived lack of resources. In prehistoric times, the Dawson City area was used by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, a First Nations band, for agriculture cultivation. These indigenous people built Tr’ochëk, a fishing camp located at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, just across from modern Dawson City. Tr’ochëk was also used as a moose-hunting base and has since been recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada.
When Europeans began colonizing North America, what is now Yukon was originally explored by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which controlled Rupert’s Land, a vast territory to the east that is now part of the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, as well as the U.S. states of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The Hudson’s Bay Company established many trading posts in Yukon, but did not formally assert control over the region until 1859, when it was incorporated as the North-Western Territory.
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, which reorganized both into a single territory known as the North-West Territories. Settlement in Yukon and the Dawson City area remained scant until 1896, when gold was discovered nearby, inspiring thousands of miners to move to the region.
Dawson City was founded in 1897 and was named after George M. Dawson, a Canadian explorer who had mapped the Yukon area ten years before. Within a year, Dawson City’s population had increased to 40,000. The sudden influx of settlers led the Canadian government to establish Yukon as a separate territory in 1898, allowing a more local government to easily meet the needs of newcomers. Dawson City served as the capital of Yukon until 1952.
The Klondike Gold Rush ended in 1899, causing a massive drop in Dawson City’s population. Dawson City was formally incorporated in 1902, by which point the population had fallen to less than 5,000. The city suffered another blow during the 1940’s when the Alaska Highway, a highway connecting Fairbanks, Alaska to Canada and the U.S., did not go through Dawson City as planned, but bypassed it 300 miles south. With the economy ailing and the population continuing to drop, the Yukon territorial government moved the capital to Whitehorse, a much larger city located along the Alaska Highway, in 1952.
At its nadir in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Dawson City’s population shrunk as low as 600. However, since then, the city has undergone an economic revival. Modern technology such as placer mining has made gold mining in the Dawson City area profitable again, and the city also profits from tourists who are interested in the history of the Klondike Gold Rush. This has been aided by transportation improvements; in the 1950’s, Dawson City was linked to Fairbanks via the Taylor and Top of the World Highways, and in 1955, the Klondike Highway connected Dawson City with Whitehorse and the Alaska Panhandle city of Skagway.
In 1978, Dawson City became famous again for the Dawson Film Find. During a routine excavation, a construction crew found a stock of over 500 silent-era films buried in permafrost. These films, produced between 1903 and 1929, included many movies that had been thought permanently lost; the extreme cold of the permafrost had preserved them from degradation and wear. The films were printed on highly flammable nitrate film stock and had to be removed via the Canadian military, where they were taken to Library and Archives Canada and the U.S. Library of Congress for categorization and storage.
Dawson City is perhaps best known as the setting of many short stories and novels by American writer Jack London; The Call of the Wild, his most famous work, takes place there. London lived in Dawson City from 1897 to 1898. Dawson City was also home to famed British-Canadian poet Robert W. Service, best known for his poems “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”
While Dawson City is no longer the dominant city in the Yukon and Alaska regions, it remains an important hub of mining and tourism in the far north. Tourists flock to Dawson City to learn about the history of the Klondike Gold Rush and to take in the scenic views that the city provides. If you’re planning on visiting Alaska, a side trip to Dawson City is highly recommended due to the city’s unique history.