Gold Rush History

The Klondike Gold Rush was an attempt by an estimated 100,000 people to travel to the Klondike region of the Yukon in north-western Canada between 1897 and 1899 in the hope of successfully prospecting for gold.

Gold was discovered in large quantities in the Klondike on 16 August 1896 and, when news of the finds reached Seattle and San Francisco in July 1897, it triggered a “stampede” of would-be prospectors to the gold creeks. The journey to the Klondike was arduous and involved travelling long distances and crossing difficult mountain passes, frequently while carrying heavy loads. Some miners discovered very rich deposits of gold and became immensely wealthy. However, the majority arrived after the best of the gold fields had been claimed and only around 4,000 miners ultimately struck gold. The Klondike Gold Rush ended in 1899, after gold was discovered in Nome, prompting an exodus from the Klondike. The Klondike Gold Rush was immortalized by the photographs of the prospectors ascending the Chilkoot Pass, by books like The Call of the Wild, and films such as The Gold Rush.

Prospectors had begun to mine gold in the Yukon from the 1880s onwards. When the rich deposits of gold were initially discovered along the Klondike River in 1896, it was met with great local excitement. The remoteness of the region and the extreme winter climate prevented news from reaching the outside world until the following year. The initial Klondike stampede was triggered by the arrival of over US$1,139,000 (equivalent to US$1,000 million in 2010 terms) in gold at the north-western American ports in July 1897.

Newspaper reports of the gold and the successful miners fuelled a nation-wide hysteria: many left their jobs and set off for the Klondike, hoping to make a fortune as miners. These would-be prospectors were joined by businessmen, outfitters, writers and photographers. Reaching the gold fields was challenging. The majority of prospectors landed at the ports of Dyea and Skagway in South-east Alaska. They could then take either the Chilkoot or the White Pass trails to the Yukon River and, from there, sail down-stream to the Klondike in self-made boats. Each prospector was required to bring a year’s supply of food with them by the Canadian authorities and many had to carry this ton of supplies in stages over the passes. The advent of winter and thereby freezing of rivers meant that most prospectors did not arrive in the goldfields until summer 1898. Only between 30,000 and 40,000 of the stampeders successfully arrived in the Klondike.

It was not easy to mine for gold in the Klondike as the gold was distributed in an uneven, mostly unpredictable manner and the permafrost made digging and working the ore difficult and costly. Prospectors could lodge mining claims relatively easily under Canadian law, but most of the best gold creeks had been staked out by early 1898, leaving little good land for the main wave of stampeders. Some miners bought and sold claims, building up huge investments. Boom towns sprang up along the routes, especially the Dyea and Skagway route, to accommodate the influx of prospectors. Dawson City was founded in the Klondike at the heart of the gold creeks. From a population of 500 in 1896, by spring 1898, the hastily constructed wooden town housed around 30,000 people. Poorly built, isolated and located on a mud flat, Dawson City had poor sanitary standards and suffered from epidemics and fires. The wealthiest prospectors lived a life of conspicuous consumption, gambling and drinking heavily in the town’s saloons and dancing halls, despite the high prices of almost everything. The Native Hän people, who had lived along the Klondike before the discovery of gold, suffered extensively during the rush, being moved into a reserve to make way for the stampeders; many of the Hän died as a result.

Some prospectors, unable to make a living in the Klondike, started to return home from the summer of 1898. The newspapers began to turn against the Klondike and the hysteria that had encouraged so many to travel there slowly waned. Dawson City was rebuilt following a serious fire in April 1899, becoming more sedate and conservative. When news arrived in the summer of 1899 that gold had been discovered in Nome in west Alaska, many prospectors left the Klondike for the new goldfields, marking the end of the Klondike Gold Rush. The boom towns in the Klondike declined and the population of Dawson City fell away. Heavier equipment was brought in to mine the remaining gold reserves but, despite this, production diminished after 1903. Nonetheless, an estimated total of 1,250,000 pounds (570,000 kg) of gold had been taken from the Klondike area by 2005. Today the Klondike Gold Rush continues to draw tourists to the region and is remembered in novels, poems, photographs and films.

Discovery

On August 16, 1896, an American prospector named George Carmack, his Tagish wife Kate Carmack, her brother Skookum Jim and their nephew Dawson Charlie were travelling south of the Klondike River.

Following a suggestion from Robert Henderson, another prospector, they began looking for gold on Bonanza Creek, then called Rabbit Creek, one of the Klondike’s tributaries. It is not clear who actually discovered the gold: Carmack later claimed he found it, while Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie argued that Jim did. In any event, gold was present along the river in huge quantities.
Photograph of Skookum Jim, one of the discoverers, 1898
Carmack measured out four claims, strips of ground that could later be legally mined by the owner, along the river, including two for himself—one as his normal claim, the second as a reward for having discovered the gold—and one each for Jim and Charlie. Jim later stated that Carmack’s extra claim was really his own and had only been staked in Carmack’s name because the group felt that others would be reluctant to recognize a claim made by an Indian. The claims were registered next day at the police post at the mouth of the Fortymile River and news spread rapidly from there to other mining camps in the Yukon River valley.

By the end of August, all of Bonanza Creek had been claimed by miners. A prospector then advanced up into one of the creeks feeding into Bonanza, later to be named Eldorado Creek. He discovered new sources of gold there, which would prove to be even richer than those on Bonanza. Claims began to be sold between miners and speculators for considerable sums. Just before Christmas, word of the gold finds finally reached Circle City, the nearest large settlement in Alaska. Despite the winter, many prospectors immediately left for the Yukon by dog-sled, eager to reach the region before the best claims were taken.

The outside world was still largely unaware of the news and although Canadian officials had managed to send a message to their superiors in Ottawa about the gold finds and the rapidly increasing influx of prospectors, the government did not give the matter much attention, apparently due to administrative delays. The ice prevented river traffic over the winter and it was not until June 1897 that the first boats left the area, carrying the freshly mined gold and the full story of the discoveries.