Cultural Impact of the Klondike Gold Rush
OverviewLearn about the immediate and lasting impacts of the stampede to the remote goldfields.
Objective(s)Given an introduction to the Klondike Gold Rush, students will participate in a Bubble Map Gallery Walk on the cultural impacts of the historic event on the United States, Canada, people of the First Nations, and the interactions between them.
BackgroundSecretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867. Immediately it was unpopular and the public derided the decision as Seward’s Folly. The opinion was that Alaska was too far away, not connected, and already stripped of resources by Russia.
Historian Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer summarized the minority opinion of some American newspaper editors who opposed the purchase: Already, so it was said, we were burdened with territory we had no population to fill. The Indians within the present boundaries of the republic strained our power to govern aboriginal peoples. Could it be that we would now, with open eyes, seek to add to our difficulties by increasing the number of such peoples under our national care? The purchase price was small; the annual charges for administration, civil and military, would be yet greater, and continuing. The territory included in the proposed cession was not contiguous to the national domain. It lay away at an inconvenient and a dangerous distance. The treaty had been secretly prepared, and signed and foisted upon the country at one o'clock in the morning. It was a dark deed done in the night… The New York World said that it was a ‘sucked orange.’ It contained nothing of value but furbearing animals, and these had been hunted until they were nearly extinct. Except for the Aleutian Islands and a narrow strip of land extending along the southern coast the country would be not worth taking as a gift… Unless gold were found in the country much time would elapse before it would be blessed with Hoe printing presses, Methodist chapels and a metropolitan police. It was ‘a frozen wilderness.’ Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, A History of the United States since the Civil War (1917)1:541
On August 16, 1896 George Carmack, “Skookum” Jim Mason, Tagish Charlie, and Kate Carmack found gold on Rabbit Creek (renamed Bonanza), a small tributary of the Klondike River. By July of 1897, news of the strike had hit the lower 48 states and the stampede was on. With a depressed economy, the west fully settled, and extravagant tales of riches in the Klondike, people needed very little convincing to make the romantic journey. Over 100,000 people are estimated to have started the journey to Dawson City and the Klondike goldfields.The progression of gold strikes in and around Alaska is largely responsible for the eventual settling of Alaska and the Yukon Territory.
The flood of stampeders forced the United States and Canada to deal with lingering border issues. In an effort to avoid famine in Dawson City and reap customs duties, Canada sent a contingent of North West Mounted Police to the summit of the Chilkoot Pass. The Mounties required each man to carry enough food for one year. This location was directly in the middle of the disputed international boundary, but established the Canadian presence and eventually became the accepted border.
The quickest way over the coastal mountains of Alaska and into the Yukon was the Chilkoot Trail. Used as a trading route with the Stick Indians of the interior, the Chilkoot Pass was heavily guarded by the Tlingits. The stampede to the Klondike broke open the trail and over 20,000 people are estimated to have climbed the Chilkoot Trail in 1897-98.
The impact of the gold rush on the Native peoples of the region was considerable. The Tlingit and the Koyukon peoples prospered in the short term from their work as guides, packers and from selling food and supplies to the prospectors. In the longer term, however, especially the Han people living in the Klondike region suffered from the environmental damage of the gold mining on the rivers and forests, as well as from the creation of Dawson City. Their population had already begun to decline after the discovery of gold along Fortymile River in the 1880s but dropped catastrophically after their move to the reserve, a result of contaminated water supply and smallpox. The Han found only few ways to benefit economically from the gold rush and their fishing and hunting grounds were largely destroyed; by 1904 they needed aid from the North West Mounted Police to prevent famine.
Anticipatory Set – Pair Share – Students work with a partner to brainstorm the cultural impacts of the Klondike Gold Rush on US and Canada, then share briefly with the class as a whole. Transition to cultural impacts on First Nations / Native Americans.
Step 2 – Input – Bubble Map Gallery Walk–Facilitate class discussion on cultural impacts. Gather major themes and break out into groups for each theme. Students will create a Bubble Map further exploring their topics and participate in a Gallery Walk to view and study all Bubble Maps.
Guided Practice – Reflection – Read to students Chilkoot Pass by Rich Forbes. Discuss with the class the impact of the poem.
Chilkoot Pass – Rich Forbes
We walk in single file along
An ancient sacred trail
Where Indians and miners trod;
Their spirits still prevail.
Modern boots in rhythm with
The skin wrapped feet long past,
Thump like drums at distant fire;
Dancing images that last.
Discarded soles, like miner’s dreams,
Lay scattered in the rocks
We hear their groans from heavy load;
Sweat dripping from their locks.
Flowers grow where warriors crept
Guarding sacred tribal land
Bow strings whisper in the wind;
Arrows slipping from the hand.
We see the vision of lost gold
Sparkling in the streams we cross
Shadowy panners, squatting low;
Hear the splash of slag they toss.
Today we hike to honor those Who walked this trail before, And leave no sign that we were here; Dancing spirits and lost ore.
Independent Practice – Writing Prompt – Students will select what they feel to be the three most important cultural impacts of the Klondike Gold Rush and further explore how these impacts are seen today.