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Yukon History , Klondike Gold Rush and Lore of the Yukon

Updated on February 9, 2017
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis believes it is so important to educate our children on Early American History, for it is what shaped our country.

Welcome to the Yukon

Yukon Welcome Sign
Yukon Welcome Sign | Source

The Yukon

One of the most beautiful places on earth is also one of the most treacherous and unforgiving.

On the westernmost part of Canada are the territories of Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The Yukon is the smallest territory, named after the Yukon River. This sparsely populated territory is full of lakes created by the melted snows from the perennial snow on the mountains. The climate is arctic and subarctic, with very dry and long cold winters. The summers are short, but have long hours of sunshine, being so close to the North Pole.

Map of the Yukon

Map of the Yukon created by Earl Andrew
Map of the Yukon created by Earl Andrew | Source

Mount Logan in Kluane National Park and Reserve

Mount Logan
Mount Logan | Source

Vast Wilderness

The Yukon Territory was not a very welcoming land for those who wanted to seek their fortune. It was a vast wilderness full of constant danger and unknown hazards for any who were not familiar with the stark land and freezing temperatures.

In 1898, the Yukon became its own territory when it was separated from the Northwest Territories. In March of 2002, the Yukon Act dropped 'Territory' from the name to make Yukon the official term.

Mount Logan is the highest mountain in Canada, at 19,551 feet, and the second highest in North America. It is in the Kluane National Park and Reserve in southwestern Yukon. The mountain is still growing due to tectonic uplifting.

The Yukon was named after the Yukon River. The name came from the Gwich'in, an Alaskan Native tribe that live above the Arctic Circle. The word Yukon means wide, or long, river. And at 1,980 miles, it is long indeed. It was the major source of transportation during the Gold Rush era.

The S/S Excelsior Leaves San Francisco on July 28, 1897, for the Klondike

The S/S Excelsior, July 28, 1897
The S/S Excelsior, July 28, 1897 | Source

Klondikers Buying Miner's Licenses at the Custom House in Victoria, BC, on February 12, 1898

"Klondikers" buying their license
"Klondikers" buying their license | Source

SS Islander Leaving Vancouver, Bound for Skagway, 1897

SS Islander, 1897
SS Islander, 1897 | Source

Klondike Gold Rush

The Yukon Gold Rush is often referred to as the Klondike Gold Rush. San Francisco, California saw the beginning of the great Klondike Gold Rush on July 15, 1897. When the ships Excelsior and the Portland docked in Seattle, Washington on July 17 carrying the earliest prospectors and their gold estimated at $1,139,000 (which was equivalent to $1,000 million in 2010), the fever hit hard. This was during the economic panic of the 1890s, so people left their way of life and headed for the Yukon.

Little did the would-be prospectors know what was ahead of them. Once they reached the drop off point at towns like Dyea and Skagway, the routes to the Klondike were only for the "men with grit". The journey was extremely difficult due to the unforgiving land and the cold temperatures. Mountains and glaciers lay ahead of the hopeful prospectors, some who had their wives and children with them. Foot routes to the Klondike were nothing but mud and slush from melting ice caused by the traffic. Pack animals became bogged down and most of them were unable to go on, many died.

Not only did the prospectors have all their tools and personal items to pack and transport, but, they had to take with them a one year supply of food before entering the Yukon Territory, a rule set down by the Canadian authorities.

Whether traveling overland or by water routes, the journey was filled with hazards and catastrophes. Boom towns sprang up rapidly. Some routes to the Klondike were closed due to the weather, making it impossible to travel. Many people were stranded in towns, unable to go forward or return to their homes. Skagway became the largest of these towns and was overrun by the lawless. Scams, gun fighting and prostitution was rampant.

When winter hit and food became scarce, costs rose to unheard of prices. Scurvy became a critical issue, along with dysentery, malaria and an epidemic of typhoid. Even with all this going on, the determined and hardy carried on -- some did strike gold and became filthy rich, spending thousands of dollars a night in the saloons for whiskey, card games and entertainment.

Prospectors Ascending the Chilkoot Pass, 1898

Prospectors ascending the Chilkoot Pass
Prospectors ascending the Chilkoot Pass | Source

What was Left Behind

When the gold rush had reached its peak and declined, the impact on the land, the rivers and the Native peoples was devastating. The rivers had become contaminated. Salmon fishing and hunting that the Natives originally had in abundance was nearly gone. The environmental damage largely destroyed what the Natives had known for generations. Their population had declined drastically from polluted water and smallpox.

Some of the prospectors who did strike it rich returned home, wasted away their new found wealth and eventually died in poverty.

Lore of the Land

The lore of the Yukon goes way back, prior to the European contact, back to the First Peoples of Canada and the Alaskan Natives.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, gold seekers got caught up in rumors of gold to be had by anyone tough enough to withstand the weather and lonely land. It was not for the weak or wary that this land was waiting for. Tales of treachery, death and ghostly hauntings linger on the mists that drift down from the high snow-capped mountains and lurk throughout the valleys. This was a wild and untamed land during the Klondike Gold days. There was a lot more than extreme weather to make a man's blood run cold.

With the long, bitter cold winter nights and the extra long sunny days of a very short summer, the lonely prospector's mind back in the early days of the gold rush could imagine some pretty queer sights and spend some terrifying times in wild and abandoned dreams.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;"

— Robert W. Service from Cremation of Sam McGee

Lore of theSnow White Hare

There is one tale about a prospector, who while wandering through the Yukon with his dogs became mired down in the muskeg, which is boggy land with water underneath the surface of the semi-frozen ground just above the permafrost.

It was a treacherous place and the more he and his dogs struggled the more lost they became. After finally finding a firm spot on a small hill he cooked up some soup for him and his dogs. After eating he fell into a restless and fitful sleep. He dreamed of a fierce native warrior standing over him with a spear and a threatening look. The warrior told the prospector he had invaded sacred grounds and must leave at once or be killed. The prospector told the warrior he was lost and begged for the warrior to show him the way out. The warrior, who was the protector of the sacred grounds, summoned a guide for the frightened man then vanished.

When he awoke, the prospector saw the glowing figure of a beautiful native woman at the bottom of the hill and chills ran through him. The woman beckoned and the dogs ran to her. Seeing the dogs happy, the fear faded from the prospector and he packed up his gear then made his way down the dark hill with treacherous muskeg all around it.

The woman smiled at him, raised her arms and became a snow white hare. Following the glowing hare, he and his dogs were led east. For several hours they proceeded until the prospector felt solid ground beneath his feet and he knew where he was. The hare once again became the glowing woman who smiled sweetly at him then vanished with the first rays of the sun.

Claim Jumpers

Not all tales, however, have a happy ending. This is a land with a history of death and strange happenings. Whiskey-drinking, gun-slinging men full of greed and little consideration for the rights of others flocked to the land of gold to take what they wanted -- these were the claim-jumpers and it mattered not how many they killed to claim the gold. Many an innocent prospector searching for his own fortune lost his life to these dastardly outlaws, to the freezing weather, starvation, scurvy and other misfortunes.

Prospectors who were lucky sat around campfires relating tales of treacherous deeds, wary of what was out there in the dark, and warning others.

Would you do it ?

If you lived back during the Gold Rush, would you leave all you know and prospect for gold in the Yukon?

See results

Floating Coffins

With a heavy run-off of snow-melt and ice breaking in the spring of 1898, the shores of Lake Bennett overflowed into the cemetery and a few thousand coffins were uncovered and floated down the Yukon River. These keepers of the earth-bound dead were scattered throughout the woods along the shores, releasing angry, lonesome and confused spirits into the wilderness. On long winter nights the pine trees whisper the secrets of the departed, restless souls, as lonely prospectors shivered in their tents under the covers, praying for the sun to rise.

The unseen and restless spirits seem to linger only in the echoes of the tormented past and the lore of the Yukon.

The Yukon River, as Seen From the Midnight Dome in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada. Taken in August, 2012

Yukon River
Yukon River | Source

This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain:

"Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane --

Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore;

Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core;

Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat,

Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat.

Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones;

Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons ...

— Robert W. Service

Robert W. Service

Robert William Service was considered to be "the Bard of the Yukon". When I was a young mother, one of my favorite times was in the evening after the babies were asleep and my husband would read to me from "The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses," by this great poet and author who put so much passion in his writing.

Service had a special gift of passionate writing that pulled me right into the Yukon and the legends as if I knew the characters and the land. I so enjoyed that book.

This is how I learned about the Yukon and the legends that abound there. "The Law Of The Yukon" is my favorite poem in the book.

North to Alaska ~

© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns


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