Klondike gold rush Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

News that gold had been discovered in and around the Klondike River caused a stampede northward through Alaska of those hungry for wealth.

Discovery of gold in the Klondike region of the Yukon River basin came at a time when Americans were very much in need of good economic news, as the country was suffering through a depression that had started in 1893. Wheat prices had bottomed out in 1894, causing eastern immigrants to the West to head back east with signs reading “In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted” painted on their wagons. Furthermore, the United States had yet to establish a gold standard for currency. Coinage was based on both gold and silver at a set ratio. Gold was not to become the official standard until 1900, but in the meantime, the federal government was running short of gold to back the partial standard.Alaska;Klondike gold rushGold rush;KlondikeCanada;Klondike gold rush

The Rush Is On

Miners climb the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike gold rush.

(Canadian National Archives)

The hysteria started when two ships landed on the West Coast: the Excelsior at San Francisco on July 16, 1897, and the Portland at Seattle on July 17, 1897. Eighty miners were aboard these ships. They were from various walks of life and various places. Many of them had been searching for gold in the Yukon for years. What they all had in common was gold, packed in suitcases, boxes, jam jars, and an array of containers. They were all men who had gone into the Yukon with no money and were coming out millionaires.

When the local papers printed the news, people headed in droves north to the Yukon to get rich. Many of them had only vague notions of where the Yukon was. Most of them had no idea how difficult the journey would be or how challenging it would be to get the gold out of the frozen tundra. Still, before the “stampede” was over, 100,000 people had headed to Alaska from the United States and other places. By 1929, $175 million worth of gold had been taken out of the Yukon. However, as in most gold rushes in the West, most of the easy gold vanished early, and most of the profit went to a select few: those who discovered the gold, those who got there early, or those who got lucky. Some estimate that businesses that supplied the miners as they traveled to the Yukon and while they mined for gold made more money than most of the miners. Still, people came by the thousands, risking all they had and even dying along the road, all in a desperate attempt to get rich. Of the 100,000 who set out for the gold fields, only 30,000 actually got there. The “stampede” itself lasted only two years.

Legend and Reality

The gold that was discovered in the Klondike region had been washed down the mountain by the two-thousand-mile Yukon River over a period of thousands of years. Because gold has a specific gravity nineteen times that of water, it did not make it to the sea. Instead it settled in sandbars and beaches along tributaries of the Yukon River. Long before the United States bought Alaska from the Russians, there had been rumors that gold could be found there. The natives of the region had brought specimens of gold to the Russians, but the Russians could never find large quantities of it. Further, they were concerned about announcing it to the world for fear that a rush would hurt the fur trade in the region.

The big break came after the United States purchased Alaska, when the Dyea-Chilkoot Pass was opened to American prospectors through negotiations with native Alaskans. This led to the discovery of gold on August 17, 1896, on what was then called Rabbit Creek but would later be renamed Bonanza Creek. Accounts vary as to who actually discovered the gold, but all agree that the three men there at the moment were George Washington Carmack, Tagish Charley, and Skookum Jim Mason. In one account, Carmack panned for the gold beside their camp, a mile or so from the point at which Rabbit Creek empties into the Klondike, a tributary of the Yukon River. In another he was sound asleep as Skookum Jim Mason washed a pan after cleaning a moose they had killed and discovered gold in the creek. What no one disputes is that their accounts of gold on the Klondike caused a stampede to the Dawson Creek area of the Yukon River Valley. At first, it was a local stampede, but when the Excelsior and the Portland docked in San Francisco and Seattle almost a year later, it became worldwide.

Much of the legend surrounding the Klondike gold strike grows out of the difficulty that miners faced in getting to the gold fields and in extracting the ore from the ground. The easy route was expensive: Miners traveled by sea to the mouth of the Yukon River at Saint Michael, then down the river to Dawson City. The cheaper route, and the one that most took, was a treacherous overland trek through Canada and up and over either the Chilkoot or the White Pass. The trails up these passes were forbidding and steep. The Chilkoot trail was too steep for pack horses, forcing miners to carry their belongings in bits and pieces. Many left their belongings on the trail or gave up all together. The White Pass was so steep and slick that three thousand pack animals died trying to cross it, causing it to be nicknamed“dead horse trail.” Those who made it over the passes still had to travel five hundred miles by boat (often making their own boats) to get to Dawson City.

When prospectors got to Dawson City, their work was only beginning. They had to extract the ore from beneath the permafrost layer of earth, building fires to thaw the ground as they went. Furthermore, by the time the bulk of miners had arrived, most of the accessible gold was gone, having been extracted by locals. The Klondike strike, like so many other strikes, enriched a handful of people, created an enormous number of legends and stories, and broke the hearts of thousands.

Further Reading
  • Deans, Nora L. Klondike Trail: North to the Yukon. Anchorage: Alaska Natural History Association, 2007. An account of the path to Klondike gold.
  • Evans, Barbara A., ed. Klondike Gold Rush Anthology, 1897-1997. Seattle: Klondike Gold Rush Centennial Committee of Washington State, 1997. A collection of writings on the Klondike gold rush published on the hundred-year anniversary.
  • Haskell, William B. Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold-Fields, 1896-1898: A Thrilling Narrative of Life in the Gold Mines and Camps. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1998. A firsthand account of life during the peak of the gold rush by a miner.
  • Haugan, Jevne. “Klondike Gold: One Thousand Miles from Anywhere.” Maritime Life and Traditions 33, no. 1 (Winter, 2006): 62-73. Though this article focuses primarily on the ships and bodies of water that were associated with the gold strike, it contains very good information about the event itself. Further, it provides details not found in other publications.
  • Johnson, Julie, and Nora L. Deans. Klondike Gold Rush National History Park. Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Natural History Association, 2007. An account of the park, with substantial history of the gold rush and early settlers.
  • Morgan, Murray. One Man’s Gold Rush: A Klondike Album. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967. Murray’s book features the photographs of Eric A. Hegg. Journeyman photographer Hegg went north to Alaska not to find gold but to chronicle the “stampeders.” His photographs provide a compelling record of what happened in the Klondike gold rush.

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