From the discoverers of the gold to the thieves who tried to steal it, the Klondike Gold Rush enticed thousands of people to Skagway, Dawson, and the gold fields beyond. Select a name below to learn more about the characters that made the Klondike Gold Rush one of history's most exciting adventures.
Keish- Skookum Jim Mason (James Mason)
Keish, also known as Skookum Jim, in the Klondike Gold Fields
Photo courtesy of the Candy Waugaman Collection
Keish, born in 1855 in Tagish, would also later become known as Skookum Jim Mason. Keish was born near Lake Bennett to the Dakl' aweidi Clan. His family was tightly linked to the trade between coastal Tlingit people and the inland Tagish. His father was a Tlingit man from the Crow clan and his mother was Tagish from the Wolf clan. These strong family ties seemed to influence Keish because as a young man he worked in Dyea as a packer on the Chilkoot Trail. It is on the Chilkoot Trail where Keish got the nickname Skookum Jim, for being able to haul huge loads of more than 100 pounds. It was also on the trail that he met George Carmack, who would become a friend and partner. Carmack would eventually start a family with Keish's sister, Shaaw Tlaa (Kate Carmack). These two men, along with Keish's cousin, began prospecting together in 1888. In 1887, Keish assisted Captain William Moore with a survey over another low lying passage that later competed with the Chilkoot Trail as a major route to the Klondike, known as the White Pass.
In the early 1890s, Keish left the area and his friends to head north to Forty Mile, along the Yukon River and began prospecting on his own. He returned some years later and reconnected with his sister and friend George. Soon after his return in August of 1896, the family group of four discovered gold on Rabbit (Bonanza) Creek. Together Keish, George Carmack, Kate Carmack, and Dawson (Tagish) Charlie worked what would become known as Discovery Claim and collectively earned nearly one million dollars.
After the strike of good fortune, Keish built a home for his wife and daughter in Carcross, Yukon Territory where he spent the winters trapping and hunting. In the summer, he would return to the Klondike Fields and continue searching for gold. In later years, Keish built a home for his sister in Carcross, and developed a Trust that went to his people. For this reason the Tagish people and people of the Yukon consider Keish to be a generous man of historic significance.
George Carmack filed the first claim that started the Klondike Gold Rush, now referred to as Discovery Claim.
Photo courtesy of University of Washington Libraries
George Washington Carmack
George Washington Carmack is said to have started it all on August 17, 1896, when, as legend goes, he discovered gold in the cold waters of the Klondike River near Dawson City, Yukon. There is some controversy as to who was the first person to discover the gold. Carmack was traveling in a party including his wife Kate Carmack, her brother, Skookum Jim, and Dawson Charlie. Numerous versions of the discovery story are told, however in the end the first claim to be filed for Bonanza Creek was under Carmack's name.
George Carmack was born September 24, 1860 in Port Costa, California. After his 21st birthday, George enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and sailed to Sitka on board the U.S.S. Wachusett in February 1882. By 1885 George was stricken with gold fever and headed north to Juneau to outfit for a summer of prospecting and eventually taking the Chilkoot Pass into the Yukon. George, by 1887, could speak both Chilkat Tlingit and Tagish dialects, and married a Tagish chief's daughter, named Shaaw Tlaa (Kate), and later had a daughter named Graphie Gracie. In August of 1896, George had staked a claim on the richest creek in the Yukon. In July of 1899, George and Kate departed for California, and by 1900 would sever his commitment to Kate and marry another woman. George worked several more gold claims and dealt in real estate in his later years. He died at age 62 in 1922.
Portrait of Kate Carmack
Photo courtesy of the Yukon Archives, James Albert Johnson, 82/341, #41
Born Shaaw Tlaa, this Carcross-Tagish woman of the Dakl'aweidi clan in Southern Yukon, was the sister of Skookum Jim. After her first husband and daughter died of influenza, she was asked to marry her late sister's husband, George Washington Carmack, who would refer to her as 'Kate'. Kate would follow her husband around Tagish, Dyea and Fortymile, operating trading posts and mining claims. She bore a daughter in January 1893, named Graphie Gracie. Kate would be a member of the original party consisting of her husband, her brother and her nephew, finding gold in Rabbit Creek near the Yukon River and setting off the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1899. Kate was never awarded any of the original claim. She would travel with her husband to the lower 48, only to be deserted by George in 1900 and left with no money. Kate and her daughter returned to her family in Carcross in 1901; however Kate's only daughter was sent for by George in 1909. Kate died poor and alone at the age of 63 due to influenza outbreak in 1920.
Portrait of Jack London from between 1916-1946 taken by Arnold Genthe
Photo courtesy of Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942. Arnold Genthe Collection (Library of Congress). Negatives and transparencies
Jack London was 21 and unknown when he sailed for the Klondike from San Francisco on July 25, 1897. In his words he "had let career go hang, and was on the adventure-path again in quest of fortune."
He landed on the Dyea beach on August 7. He and his companions used a boat to haul their goods six miles up the Taiya River. From there, London packed over the Chilkoot Pass. He described the agonies and dangers of this effort in his novels Smoke Bellew and A Daughter of the Snows.
By August 31, he was over the pass. After building two boats, London and his partners set sail from Lake Lindeman on September 8. By October 9, London reached the mouth of the Stewart River, 80 miles upstream from Dawson, where he spent the winter.
That spring, ill with scurvy, he left for the "Outside" via St. Michael. He stoked coal on a steamship for passage home. London mined no gold, but his Yukon novels and short stories made him a fortune.
Martin Itjen posing with his animatronic bear and original Skagway Street Car.
Photo courtesy of the George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, Rasmuson Foundation, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
Martin Itjen arrived in Skagway, Alaska in 1898, on his way to the Klondike gold fields. When the local newspaper boasted headlines of gold discovery in the far north Yukon, Martin set off for his journey from his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. He ventured to the shores of Skagway, learning along the way of requirements set by the Canadian Mounted Police to carry 2,000 lbs. of food and provisions over the coastal mountain range and continue another 600 miles north to Dawson City. Skagway was a boom town with a rapidly flourishing economy. Upon his arrival there, Martin decided to postpone his plans to continue to the goldfields and took a job with the White Pass Yukon Route Railroad as a track layer.
Over the next few years, Martin tried his hand at several other endeavors. He served as the town's first undertaker, worked as a carpenter, and delivered coal. In 1902, Martin and his wife Lucille, opened the Bay View House, which was a hotel room built onto a scow. It was an original structure, near the Moore's wharf where lodgers could rest for $.25 a night.
During the 1910s through the 1930s, tourism began streaming into the Alaskan coast. More and more tourists replaced gold seekers, making the journey to see the natural beauty. Martin greeted the town's visitors down by the marina offering a guided town tour complete with his personal accounts of the Days of '98. His love of the automobile and the tourist industry evolved together to form the Skagway Streetcar Company. He developed a narrated tour that kept stories of the Grand Adventures of the Gold Rush alive. He published a booklet to accompany the tour complete with Itjen original poetry:
If you're going to the Klondike
I'll tell you what to do,
Be sure you take a ton of grub,
Or better yet, take two.
For you'll find that you'll be hungry,
Morning, noon and night,
And you'll soon have what the people
Call a Klondike appetite.
Business went very well for Martin as he shared the lore of Skagway with his wit and humor. He built four streetcars over the course of his life, each a little different than the other. On the exterior of one of his vehicles, he attached a small mechanical bear he had created himself. When Martin took a right hand turn, the bear would signal by lifting his right paw, same to the left. A life-size mannequin of con man, Soapy Smith, stood on the back of one of the streetcars with a large cigar in his mouth. Martin rerouted the vehicle exhaust to come up through Soapy's body and out the cigar. Martin used these novelties added excitement to his tours, which cost .50 cents and lasted 2 hours.
In 1935, Martin embarked on a well-documented road tour in one of his street cars along the west coast. He met famed actress Mae West in Hollywood and gained national media attention. He showcased his street cars and shared stories of his gold rush adventures in Skagway. Upon his return Martin continued operating the Skagway Streetcar tours and a year later began early restoration of Jeff. Smith's Parlor Museum. The museum was a celebrated stop on the streetcar tour and preserved gold rush era memorabilia that is still in existence today. Martin Itjen is remembered as the premier leader of Skagway tourism and remained a tireless Gold Rush promoter until his death in 1942.
Wilkie, Rab and The Skookum Jim Friendship Centre. Skookum Jim: Native and Non-Native Stories and Views About His Life and Times And the Klondike Gold Rush. March 1992 Yukon Tourism Heritage Branch.
Johnson, James Albert. George Carmack: Man of Mystery Who Set Off the Klondike Gold Rush. Epicenter Press. Canada 2001.
Murphy, Claire Rudolf and Haigh, Jane G. Gold Rush Women. Seattle, WA Alaska Northwest Books. 1997