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Klondike gold rush

The Klondike gold rush (also known as the Yukon gold rush) was a period of huge migration as prospectors flooded into the Klondike region of Yukon, Canada, between 1896 and 1899. It is estimated that 100,000 people set out for the Klondike region in the hope of finding their fortunes; only 30,000 would eventually make it to become prospectors, and only a few hundred of these made any money.

The Klondike gold rush is one of three of the most infamous gold rushes in history, alongside the California gold rush, and Australian gold rush.

What was the gold rush?

Knowledge of gold existing in the Klondike region had been around for some years, but it was not highly valued by the indigenous people. As rumours grew of gold in the Yukon territory, prospectors began searching for evidence of gold.

Skookum Jim Mason, one of the four people to begin the Klondike gold rush.

Skookum Jim – One of the men to find the first claims of the Klondike gold rush. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the Public Domain.

On August 16th, 1896, a small group made a significant gold discovery that would begin the Klondike gold rush. American prospector George Carmack, his indigenous Tagish wife Kate Carmack, her brother ‘Skookum’ Jim Mason (pictured above) and their nephew Dawson Charlie, found significant deposits of gold in Rabbit Creek. The area would go on to be renamed ‘Bonanza Creek’ and became famed across America as prospectors made their claims. Carmack officially registered four claims at the nearest police post, two for himself, and one each for Jim and Dawson. News spread quickly in the local area, and by the end of August all of Bonanza Creek had been claimed.

When was the gold rush in Canada?

Although the gold rush began locally in 1896, it took time for news to make its way out of the isolated Canadian area. News of the discovery of gold in the Klondike area reached Seattle and San Francisco in 1887, triggering a stampede of people attempting the journey north.

Only two routes were used regularly, and neither made for an easy journey. The Chilkoot Pass was a steep climb through the snowy mountains, while the White Pass became notorious for mud slides and became known as ‘Dead Horse Trail’ – due to the number of pack animals abandoned by their owners when they became stuck.

Prospectors travelling up Chilkoot Pass, one of the two popular routes used to reach the Yukon territory.

Prospectors travelling across the Chilkoot Pass. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the Public Domain.

The influx of people in 1897 were known as the ‘Stampeders’, and images like the ones above – showing lines of people attempting to climb the Chilkoot Pass – came to personify the idea of the gold rush. Making the journey even more perilous, the Canadian government required anyone travelling to the Yukon to bring a year’s food supply – weighing around a tonne – along with other equipment and supplies. This was intended to reduce the risk of mass famine upon arrival, but had little effect in the end. The steep climb of Chilkoot meant animals could not be used, and people were forced to travel by foot, hauling the heavy supplies over multiple journeys.

Both routes came with great hardship; hypothermia and avalanche risks were high, and murders and suicides were common amongst the vulnerable travellers. Many abandoned the journey half-way, and turned back while they could. For those that did make it, finding gold was unlikely, and the short summers meant they were often trapped by the time they arrived. Disease was rampant due to unsanitary conditions and the amount of people in a small space.

Mining in the Klondike was difficult; gold was distributed unevenly, and making predictions of where deposits could be found was almost impossible. The cold temperatures of Canada meant the ground was covered with permafrost; making the ground difficult to dig into, and the rivers incredibly dangerous to pan in. The days were short, and without sunlight mining couldn’t take place.

The rush was no doubt spurred by the high demand for gold at the time. The news of the Klondike discovery came at the end of a number of recessions and bank failures. America during that time used the gold standard, and gold shortages had been deflating the Dollar value. Mass resignations of staff became commonplace as men and women left to travel north; in Seattle this included twelve of the city’s policemen, a significant portion of streetcar drivers, and even the mayor!

Dawson City was founded at a confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, and became the centre of the gold rush. The population in 1896 was just 500, but two years later had increased to 30,000. The town grew around the gold rush, with entertainment and stores designed to serve the richest and poorest of the prospectors. Unlike the locations of the Californian gold rush, Dawson City and the gold sites were mostly law abiding; the Canadian government provided 288 North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) by 1898, and crime was relatively low.

By 1898 new arrivals found there was little money to be made, many deposits had already been mined, and the rest had been claimed by locals and early arrivals. Wages fell due to the number of people there, and many left empty-handed, having lost money just from travelling to the area.

The Klondike gold rush ended effectively in 1899 when gold was discovered in nearby Nome, Alaska. With low amounts of gold left to find, prospectors left in droves in pursuit of the new gold rush; 8,000 left Dawson in the space of a week. Today, Dawson City does still exist but even now has a population of only 1,375 and still relies on gold mining as a source of economic income.

An aerial photo of Dawson City today, once the centre of the Klondike gold rush.

An aerial photo of Dawson City and the Yukon River in 2007. Image courtesy of Dawsonesque under the Creative Commons Licence.

The effects of the Klondike gold rush to the landscape were significant. The native Hän people had been forced onto a reserve, but suffered from the introduction of new diseases like Smallpox. The ecosystem was devastated by the mining efforts, and the Hän hunting and fishing grounds were destroyed. By 1904 they needed support from the NWMP to prevent famine.

Gold mines in Canada

Gold is still mined in Canada today, and figures from Natural Resources Canada put production at 176 tonnes in 2017. Ontario and Quebec make up the bulk of this production as can be seen in the table below; interestingly Yukon has fallen to 6th place accounting for only 1.8% of Canada’s gold production, a far cry from the days of the Klondike gold rush.

Chart showing the gold production figures for Canada.