The Klondike Gold Rush

  By Decebel
  Category: 19th Century

The Klondike Gold Rush is one of the most interesting episodes in the history of the American West and, certainly, the most important in the history of the far North-West. Although it involved the American West in that most adventurers and would-be prospectors had to pass through it, the Klondike proper is a part of Canada.

The on-line exhibit “The Klondike Gold Rush”, sponsored by the University of Washington, focuses on the voyage of the “stampeders” through the American West and almost completely ignores the actual gold-fields themselves. This is by design, since its full title is “The Klondike Gold Rush: The Perilous Journey North”; however, this makes the exhibit feel incomplete. The exhibit’s main themes are the mentality of the people rushing to the gold fields, the outfitting and various modes of transportation needed by the prospectors, and, finally, the hardships encountered along the way. The exhibit accomplishes this by showing various photographs and ads from the period and providing some background information. Personal accounts from the gold rush participants are limited. This is probably another weakness of the exhibit, as a wealth of first hand accounts are available, for example the first-hand testimony of the author, Jack London.

Another aspect that is omitted is the fact that this was a relatively well-ordered gold rush, compared to other ones. In order to provide a good analysis of the exhibit, we will first examine the background of the actual historical events that surrounded the gold rush. We shall then look at the exhibit’s themes and see how they fit in with history. Next, we shall demonstrate the exhibit’s shortcomings and extrapolate on how addressing them would alter the exhibit and our view of the American West.

Essential to an understanding of this exhibit is an examination of the Klondike Gold Rush, including the geographical setting, the events that led up to it, the various itineraries taken by prospectors, and a description of the Klondike in the years when the gold rush was at its peak, that is, 1896-1898. The Klondike is a region which lies mostly in Canada’s Yukon province, east of the Alaska border. It lies around the Klondike River, a small river that enters the Yukon River from the east at Dawson, which is the main city in the area. The region lies just south of the 60th parallel, which makes its climate very harsh in the winter. It can be reached from Skagway, Alaska, via the Chilkoot Trail, the White pass, the Copper River Trail or the Teslin trails crossing the Rocky Mountains, which are fairly high in that area. Another possible route to the Klondike is by steamer via the Yukon river, but it froze in the winter, immoblizing many prospectors.

Gold was first discovered in the Yukon in August 1896 by an Indian guide, Skookum Jim, although the discovery was credited to two of his white companions, George and Kate Carmack. Although the few local residents immediately joined in the rush, the news of the discovery did not get out until the following year because the winter had blocked all communication with the outside world. Some successful prospectors reached Seattle in July 1897 with great amounts of money for that time. This started a frenzy around the world. An estimated 100,000 people participated in the gold rush and about 30,000 made it to Dawson City in 1898. By 1901, when the first census was taken, the population had declined to 9,000. Most participants were from poor backgrounds and came from around the world. The Klondike Gold rush was one of the most well ordered in history, owing to the North West Mounted Police under the command of Sam Steele. Among other measures, they required each prospector to bring along a year's worth of food and supplies. This, most likely, limited the number of lives that would have, otherwise, been lost when reckless would-be prospectors would arrive unprepared in the unforgiving climate. By the time the bulk of the prospectors got to Dawson, most good plots had already been claimed, but many people made a living (and some a fortune) by providing services to the prospectors, who actually made money in this enterprise.

By 1904, the rush had virtually died down, although gold is still mined in the area to this day. At the height of the rush, Dawson and Skagway, Alaska (the main port for prospectors) were rich enough to attract many celebrities and artists, such as the famous ballerina, Anna Pavlova. Other celebrities to have participated in the rush include the novelist, Jack London, who has left some good accounts of his experiences in the Yukon. In general, the Klondike gold rush was an experience which was difficult for the ones involved, and which only made a small minority of its participants rich, but it could, however, have been much worse for many of the unsuccessful would-be prospectors.