The current fraying of American and Canadian relations makes this July 14 all the more historically significant. This day marks the 120th anniversary of the Steamship Excelsior’s arrival in San Francisco harbor carrying a half million dollars in gold, setting off the last great gold rush in history.
In the uncharted wilderness of the Canadian Yukon, the Klondike gold fields became the highly unlikely site of one of the most lucrative gold rushes in history and also one of its most famous. The San Francisco Examiner played an important role in the Klondike “stampede.” Its front-page headline soon after Excelsior’s arrival demanded that the people of the world “turn their eyes to the land of gold.” And they did: Between 1897 and 1900, about 100,000 people from the United States and all over the world attempted the arduous 2,500-mile overland journey to the Klondike.
San Francisco and Seattle — two key hubs in the race to the Klondike — emerged from the rush richer and known throughout the world. The Klondike Gold Rush played an enormous role in the development of the Canadian North but also the American West. It’s a great example of how interconnected their development and history really is. Its legacy is still with us today.
Although it is hotly debated among historians, it was arguably an American from Port Costa California — George Washington Carmack — who first discovered gold on what was then known as Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River. He crossed the International Boundary sometime in the 1880s and eventually married a Tagish Indian named Kate Carmack (Shaaw Tláa, her Tagish name).
As the story goes, Carmack was salmon fishing with his brothers-in-law, Sookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, when they made the fateful decision to pan for gold on a nearby creek. When George pulled his pan out of the water, it contained a whopping $12 in fine gold nuggets, an unusual and enormous sum. It was August 16, 1896, and George and Kate became some of the richest people in the North. He immediately stuffed the gold in an empty shotgun cartridge and made a mad dash to the nearest Canadian outpost, Forty Mile, to register his claim. Yet it would be another 11 months before news would reach the “outside” and the Examiner would announce the discovery to the wider world.
As San Francisco and Seattle established themselves as springboards for American immigration to the Klondike, Canadian policymakers began to worry about a U.S. takeover. The career of the first Commissioner of the Yukon Territories, Major James Morrow Walsh, is a great example of the intersections of U.S. and Canadian history.
Walsh first made his name as “Sitting Bull’s Boss.” Following George Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn, the Sioux Indians headed north of the 49th Parallel into the Cyprus Hills in today’s Saskatchewan. Walsh acting in his capacity as the head of the Northwest Mounted Police (the precursor of the Royal Mounted Police — known to the world today as the “Mounties”) was a key intermediately between Sitting Bull and the U.S. government that demanded his extradition. Walsh was nearly perfectly situated to play the Canadian/American go-between during the Gold Rush; he was familiar with the American government and the aboriginal peoples of the west.
Although the notion of war between the U.S. and Canada usually provokes laughter today, in February 1898, Walsh was so concerned that the U.S. was going to forcibly take the Klondike that he wrote to Wilfred Laurier, the Canadian Prime minister, requesting that two Maxim machine guns be placed at the top of the White Pass, a critical juncture in the Canadian route to the gold fields. As more Americans arrived that April, he requested another two for Dawson City — a sprawling boom town city that was dubbed in the press, “the San Francisco of the North.”
Although the Klondike Gold Rush was a proverbial flash in the pan, (it petered out around 1900) it left an important legacy. It spurred development in the wider north. Fairbanks Alaska came into being in 1901 as miners left the Klondike for Nome Alaska, the site of another “offshoot” Gold Rush.
As the result of the scramble to the North, the United States, Canada and Great Britain peacefully negotiated the circuitous Alaska panhandle boundary in what is known as the Alaska Boundary Dispute, laying the foundation of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the United Kingdom that exists to this day.
There are still reverberations of the Gold Rush in contemporary U.S. politics. One hardworking and exceptionally entrepreneurially minded German immigrant from New York went on to become, perhaps atypically, a Klondike success. He made decent wages, co-owning and operating the Arctic Restaurant and Hotel. He also, according to one source, owned a claim on Hunker Creek in the Klondike.
Unlike many of the miners in frantic search for riches who went home empty-handed, this immigrant, Friedrich Trump — the grandfather of the 45th president of the United States — made a small fortune in the hotel business. He then eventually returned to New York a wealthy man. With his earnings, he built what would become a vast real estate empire.
There’s a great quote: “The first generation builds the business, the second makes it great, and the third wrecks it.” As Donald Trump prepares to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement (the “worst trade deal in history”) and puts forward a legislative agenda that bans targeted immigrant populations, he should consider that his families’ successes are deeply rooted in trade and immigration with Canada. The complex and multifaceted legacy of the Klondike Gold Rush is very much worth remembering and celebrating this July.
Christopher Petrakos hails from Chicago and teaches British history at the University of Toronto Mississauga. His current book project examines Canadian and American relations during the Klondike Gold Rush. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.