Early Chilkoot Expeditions

Before the 1880s the Chilkoot Trail was closely guarded by the Tlingit people. As more Euroamericans came to Southeast Alaska, prospectors began eyeing the trail as a quick, easy route to the Yukon River. Here are just some of the early expeditions that crossed the Chilkoot and helped lead to it becoming a critical gold rush route.

Commander Beardslee Sends an Expedition

During the winter of 1880, Lt. McClellan, operating on behalf of Commander Beardslee negotiated with the Tlingits to allow a number of miners to cross the Chilkoot. These miners, headed to the Yukon to prospect, hired many of the locals to help carry gear. Commander Beardslee used his diplomatic skills to help settle internal disagreement among the Tlingit groups that had broken down their united blockade of the trail. He also made the firepower of his Gatling gun known to the groups. As a result of this expedition, more prospectors began to cross the Chilkoot.

Schwatka Expedition

In 1883 Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka and six men conducted an expedition into Alaska studying the terrain, the relationship with the Alaska natives, and possibilities of military force in the area (if needed). After sailing north up the Inside Passage with stops in Pyramid Harbor and the Haines Mission, the Schwatka expedition arrived in Dyea. The expedition hired several First Nations people and began their trek up the valley. Their third camp was established at the location of what later became Canyon City. As they moved up the trail Schwatka observed:
The pretty waterfalls on the sides of the mountains still continued and the glaciers of the summits became more numerous and strongly marked, and descended nearer to the bed of the stream.

The night before crossing the pass, Schwatka recorded his impressions of the steep crossing:
All around us was snow or the clear blue ice of the glacier fronts, while directly northward, and seemingly impassable, there loomed up for nearly four thousand feet the precipitous pass through the mountains, a blank mass of steep white, which we were to essay on the morrow.
Lt. Schwatka, his men, and the First Nations packers crossed Chilkoot Pass June 11, 1883. Schwatka named the pass “Perrier Pass” after Col. J. Perrier of the French Geographical Society. This name, as well as many others named by Schwatka, did not stick. However, Lake Lindeman, named by Schwatka for another geologist, did.

Oglivie Expedition

As more people came to southeast Alaska and the Yukon the lack of solid border became an issue for the United States and Great Britain (then controlling Canada). A number of expeditions went to survey the potential border.

William Ogilvie was sent up Lynn Canal to the Chilkoot Trail. As his expedition landed in Dyea they found a Tlingit village of about 140 people and three white settlers running a trading post. The expedition hired about 120 Tlingits to act as packers for the trek over the Chilkoot.

Ogilvie estimated the height of the pass to be 3502 ft above sea level. During the hike from the pass to Lake Lindeman problems arose with some of the Tagish packers. He recruited George Washington Carmack, a white member of the expedition, to help solve the dispute. George Carmack had sway with the Tagish because he was married to Shaaw Tláa (Kate Carmack), sister of Keish (Skookum Jim Mason), both respected in the Tagish community. Another member of the Ogilvie expection was Captain William Moore. Rather than crossing the Chilkoot, Keish guided him over the next valley to the east. Oglivie named this route the White Pass after Thomas White, the Canadian Minister of the Interior. As a result of this expedition, the White Pass Trail came to be known to the explorers and sparked the imagination of Capt. Moore.

Funston Expedition

In 1893, Frederick Funston was sent by the Secretary of Agriculture to gather botanical specimens along the Yukon River, record weather observations, and make other scientific notes. Funston and his group crossed the Chilkoot Trail mid-April 1893. They also hired Tlingit and Tagish people as packers to help them move supplies up the pass. Standing at the bottom of the pass Funston described:
From here to the summit is only half a mile, but the angle of the slope is about forty-five degrees, and as we looked up that long trough of glistening ice and hard crusted snow, as steep as the roof of a house, there was not one of us that did not dread the remainer of the day's work.

Upon his return to the lower 48 Funston published an account of his trip in Scribner’s Magazine in 1896. As a result, when the stampede began, many had already heard of the Chilkoot Trail as a route to the Yukon River.

Last updated: September 27, 2019

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