More than any other single event, the Klondike gold rush changed the way we lived, pushing us into a world with foreign concepts of government, economics and social behaviour.
From the mid-19th century on, gold-hungry prospectors worked their way north and west seeking the next great strike. Moving from the American west to California to the British Columbia interior to the Alaskan panhandle, they eventually reached the Yukon interior. By the early 1880s, would-be miners were working seasonally in the Yukon River basin. Traders began catering to the miners as well as the fur trade. The miners could now overwinter and put in longer work seasons. Experienced miners could usually pan enough gold dust to keep them going for another year while seeking the big strike.
In 1887, a major gold find on the Fortymile River drew hundreds of miners. A log cabin town sprang up at the confluence of the Fortymile and Yukon rivers, housing approximately 600 people by 1895. The Northwest Mounted Police sent a detachment north to assert Canadian sovereignty and government presence. Missionaries travelled to the area to minister to the First Nations people and advocate on their behalf.
Although there were new opportunities for First Nations people, there were also negative effects. The miners introduced the aboriginal people to alcohol, including a toxic home-brewed hootch. Many became ill due to diseases spread by the newcomers. Some aboriginal women formed common-law alliances with miners.
A family at Forty Mile, ca. 1899.
Yukon Archives #2563, University of Washington coll.
Klondike Gold Rush
Nothing could have prepared the Yukon’s First Nations people, and especially the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, for the cataclysmic changes of the Klondike Gold Rush. After major gold discoveries on Bonanza Creek in August 1896, over 30,000 people headed north, following rumours of gold for the taking. By 1898, over 10,000 people occupied the Klondike valley and the new settlement of Dawson City at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. The host of tents, cabins and caches quickly spilled across the Klondike River to our traditional campsite at Tr’ochëk, the heart of our traditional territory. We were displaced from our shelters and a major source of our livelihood. Our fish traps were destroyed and farther upriver, placer mining transformed the moose pastures into gravel wastelands.
[To learn more about the history of Forty Mile and Tr’ochëk, visit the website Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Sites.
The village of Tr’ochëk was displaced by Klondike City, shown here in 1898. E.A. Hegg photographer
Yukon Archives #2159, Vancouver Public Library coll.
Forty Mile Family