Golden Places
The History of Alaska-Yukon Mining
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Frontier Legends

Gold-rush legends include several distinct categories. Of leading interest to gold-era participants were rumors and fakeries which became established as truth and which acted as lures to action.

Lost Mine

As mysterious gold mine maps and lost mine stories had been common on every western mining frontier, an earlier appearance of an Alaska lost mine legend is not surprising.

The Lost Rocker mine of southeast Alaska met all the requirements described as characteristic by historian Robert DeArmond: "general overall vagueness as to both time and place; contradicting details in the many tellings of the story, both verbally and in print; and, above all, the complete unfindability of the lost gold deposit." [1]

Where was it? Well, finding it was the problem posed to prospectors. It was bothersome except to those who insisted that the Lost Rocker was the very same deposit that Richard Harris and Joseph Juneau discovered in 1880 and which led to the development of Juneau. The earliest publication of the story, dating from 1888, gave the same general details offered in later published versions. In 1867, 1874, or some other time Fred Culver and another man or two were prospecting the mainland shore north of the Stikine River, using either a rowboat or a canoe for transport. They went ashore each time they noted a stream and panned for color. At one stream they ascended to its source and made the wonderful find of bunches of gold nuggets. Quickly they constructed a crude rocker and mined furiously for two weeks with great success. Unfortunately, Indians attacked, wounded Culver, and killed his partners. Culver grabbed the sack of gold, dashed for the coast, and escaped the pursuing Indians.

At sea the Hudson's Bay Company steamer Otter encountered Culver's drifting boat and carried the almost lifeless man to Victoria. Culver revived, showed the $1,500 in gold that he had mined, and told his adventurous story. Later Culver and others sailed north in the schooner Louisa Downes and searched the Taku Harbor vicinity for the gold stream. They failed because 1) Culver recognized no landmarks and soon died; 2) Culver held out on his party and, after revealing the location to Mike Powers, he died.

It is not clear how much of the story has a basis in fact, but details were pervasive enough to inspire a number of prospectors over the years. As late as 1903, Juneau promoters formed the Lost Rocker Prospecting and Mining Company to search for the gold stream. Occasionally it has been reported that prospectors located the elusive stream, but such accounts have been as vague in geographic detail as the original story.

Legends as Interpretations

Another form of legend bears more on the post-gold rush interpretation of events. What did it mean to participants? Was the experience as later perceived different from what it had been in reality?

Some participants and historians have promulgated the delightful or heroic adventure legend. This notion is well expressed by historian Pierre Berton: "The Klondike experience taught all these men that they were capable of a kind of achievement they had never dreamed possible. It was this, perhaps, more than anything else, that set them apart from their fellows. In the years that followed, they tended to run their lives as if they had scaled a perpetual Chilkoot, secure in the knowledge that any obstacle, real or imagined, can be conquered by a determined man." [2]

Certainly some of the stampeders expressed just the sentiment Berton describes. Fred Walker, an Englishman who was lured to the North in quest of adventure and stopped only fleetingly in Alaska before moving on to other parts of the world, looked back on his journey there as one of "the high spots" of a varied career. Another favorable commentator, Johnny Walker, a veteran of the stampedes, had fond memories of his early experiences: "I'm an old man now, but in those days of my youth I lived, ate, and slept adventure. I made fortunes and spent them, lived like a prince, and like an Indian." [3]

Another man, Charles Angel, who after suffering severe hardship on the trail and climax of a near disaster at sea, watched from shipboard the land of so many golden dreams and shattered hopes recede, declared: "True, I had found no gold. But I was no poorer than when I arrived; I enjoyed the best of health; and surely no more soul-satisfying adventures could have befallen me. No, I had no regrets." [4]

For those who shared their views, the Alaskan adventure was well summed up in the verse of an anonymous poet:

A million dollar gold bond
Could never, never buy,
My memories of the Northland—
I'll keep them 'till I die.
I'll treasure them like a miser,
His hoard of gleaming gold—
My memories are my treasure,
And never may be sold. [5]

Berton took his positive adventure thesis a step further into unreality by arguing that "in all the written memoirs there is scarcely one note of regret, except the general report that it ended too soon." It would be more accurate to say that most published narratives expressed a positive tone, although several stampeders like Arthur Dietz and J.D. Winchester published gloomy conclusions. Dietz suffered plenty on a glacier crossing and came near dying. He blamed the greed of merchants for printing wild, exaggerated stories of golden wealth waiting for stampeders and bitterly regretted that he had joined the rush. J.D. Winchester, who had known only frustration and illness in the Koyukuk country, left eagerly without any memories he wished to cherish.

Publishers preferred narratives that expressed pleasant sentiments. Disappointed individuals were less inclined to write and offer their memoirs for publication. Unpublished diaries and narratives often reveal evidence of frustration.

Despite Berton's exaggerations it is clear that the stampedes created an atmosphere that encouraged participants to be optimistic and to feel good about their quest. Psychologically, as Adney observed, the northern promise came as a "New Year's Eve celebration of purge and promise as the worn out 19th century indulged a last binge." The promise was a glittering one that enhanced prospects for the masses. For once the "Robber Barons" would have some competition in the money-making game; little folks would finally be able to gather wealth. [6]


But we must test the Berton thesis further by investigating the men who did not leave happy memoirs. It is easy to understand that there were troubled men wishing to gamble who still felt undecided as they boarded a ship bound for the North. One newspaper story (recounted in Chapter 3) described a dockside scene that was probably not singular. A.C. Bryan's baggage was aboard Excelsior when he changed his mind. Despite the festive mood and air of respect tinged with envy emanating from the vast throng at the dock Bryan's misgivings overwhelmed him. He had been the first passenger to board so the recovery of his baggage from the hold pained the cargo handlers, but he had them recovered and disembarked as the dockside crowd watched. He did not give eager newsmen any reason for his change of plans. [7]

No one knows how many stampeders quit after confronting the travails of the passes. Packing load after load was excruciating labor. J.A. Costello believed that '49ers and other earlier argonauts knew no such labor: "They fought Indians, suffered thirst and all that, but they never labored like the goldseekers are doing in this good year of 1897." He respected those who pressed on, as he did, but did not deride the quitters: "Many men are falling by the wayside. Many are turning back; many more will not make it. Men without horses are selling outfits at Seattle prices and less. They will drop back at home as if by night, and will have nothing to say more of the Klondike." [8]

In evaluating the legends of the gold rush, meaningful statistics should be examined. Thousands of the stampeders did not reach Dawson or any other gold camp before turning back. Most of those who did reach their destination did not succeed in finding gold. Many left before the 1898-99 winter. Many more left after one winter. Those who returned home with nothing to show for their expenditures and discomforts were not likely to be in the most cheery state of mind. Did those whose wives made sacrifices in support of a speculative mining venture boast of the wonderful adventure they had enjoyed? Did those who remained in the north a second year without finding good prospects write home claiming that the adventure was worthwhile despite its costs? Not likely. Later, of course, men who had put their northern experiences well behind them and had since earned money in other ways could adopt a sentimental view. And this perhaps explains the legend of the happy adventure.

Many examples of disenchantment could be cited. Joe Houk's unpublished letters show plenty of reasons for discouragement. He made a tough passage of the White Pass, lost his provisions to thieves, ran out of money paying tolls and customs, and worked like a slave to reach Dawson June 30, 1898, three months and six days after reaching Skagway. At Dawson he found that "the woods, mountains, and streets are crowded. As to the gold there are a few claims which are good but out of the most of them they got just about enough gold to pay expenses. Most of the people who came are selling their outfits." Houk was ready to sell out and leave but stayed only because selling his outfit would not give him any more money than his fare back. Might as well stay to eat the provisions and buy a claim, he figured. So he bought a one-half interest in a claim on Mosquito Creek.

Prospects for a fortune were hard. Houk heard of long-time prospectors who dug to bedrock on a claim they had chosen "scientifically," finding nothing. When the veterans heard about green horns striking gold where no one with sense would even think of looking, they quit in disgust. By July 10, Houk had enough of the hard, fruitless work and sold his provisions. He had reached a solemn conclusion: "This is an awful country. Men sleep any where in the woods like so many wild beasts . . . It is a great country to make the young old and the old dead." [9]

Character Building

Another related legend focused on the character building aspects of the gold rush. Many stampeders were willing to believe that the hard path to the Klondike necessarily developed strength of character. Stronger folks emerged from the testing process. One rusher, A.A. Hill, even resented the completion of the White Pass railroad in 1899 because travel by rail "gives neither education, experience, or character." Hill described the difference in modes of travel from one year to the next almost like the change from the age of romance to one of burlesque. "The struggle," he argued, "brought out the best in men as well as the worse. It tempered character as the forge tempers the finest steel, or shattered it as if it were glass." [10]

Hamlin Garland, who followed stampeders up the harsh Ashcroft Trail, differed strongly from Hill. As he watched the travails of travelers and was sickened by the sufferings of their pack animals he lost any kind feelings towards his companions. He concluded that they did not represent heroic pioneers in any sense. They were not even strong men but weaklings driven by an insane purpose—"mechanisms drawn by some great magnet," victims of greed and foolishness. [11]

Wilson Mizner, the famed bon vivant of Dawson and Nome, and a legend himself, took strenuous issue with Jack London's stories depicting the surpassing courage of prospectors in overcoming obstacles. "The truth is," Mizner argued, "that most of the fellows up there were the worst sissies on earth. I was in court when 200 of them were robbed of their claims by a crooked judge and a set of thieving politicians. Did they string up the judge as the '49ers would have done? No. They just sat there crying in their beards. Then they slunk back to their cabins and had to be treated with smelling salts." Mizner, of course, was referring to the Spoiler's plot in Nome that almost succeeded in depriving rightful prospectors of their claims. [12]

Legendary Individuals

Some consideration should be given the individuals who gained fame for their real or imaginary exploits, those who became legends. Soapy Smith and Swiftwater Bill Gates lead the field and were deserving of their notoriety. Others competed as best they could and there were some spurious entries, particularly as time passed, like "Klondike Kate" Rockwell and others.

Men and women who were raised to eminence as legends achieved it through their own efforts or those of someone else. It was harder to be a celebrity earlier than it has become in our age of advanced communication. It may seem unfortunate that some lesser characters became better known than such leading actors as Jack Dalton and John J. Healy, but some men did not relish notoriety.

The making of legends began in the North but intensified when the ship docked in Seattle or San Francisco. A noticeable expectancy attended such dockings. The press and the public shared in a legend-making conspiracy, greedy for good stories featuring lavish spending and personal eccentricities. The whole world cheered when a miner pursued a lovely girl with romantic intentions and the cheers grew louder if she proved to be an unfeeling gold-digger. Who could blame writers for embellishing such stories— or even inventing them?

Spending Habits

Were miners big spenders? Many accept the truth of this popular legend. To give one example: Jimmie McNamee struck a Tacoma newsman as the stuff of legends and his exploits were also exploited by papers in Chicago and elsewhere. Jimmie, "a Klonkike millionaire," boarded a schooner at St. Michael for the voyage home and quickly turned the head of young Lillie Anderson, a nursemaid to the captain's wife and baby. As Jimmie showered the bedazzled girl with gold nuggets and declarations of love, second mate Gust Easterberg became furious. Gust loved Lillie too. After Jimmie announced his engagement to Lillie, Gust tried to run the schooner onto the rocks.

The dangerous voyage ended in Tacoma. Jimmie "engaged an army of dress makers and milliners to robe the girl . . . then loaded her with gold." Jimmie commanded three fine suits from a tailor and a watch and gold nugget chain from a jeweler, then established himself in saloons where no one else was permitted to buy a drink. Continuing a spending pattern Jimmie started on the steamboat from Circle to St. Michael when he spent $9,000 on booze, he spent $1,000 daily in the Tacoma saloon. [13]

After a flurry of newspaper notices, Jimmie disappeared from notice before attaining elevation to the status of a personal legend. Though he did contribute to the general legend of the free-spending miner, he was only a flash in the pan as a celebrated man.

During the gold rush many observers complained about the free spending. Jack Carr, the mail carrier, told newsmen that the Dawson miners fell to the temptations offered in the town's saloons and dance halls with distressing frequency. Sporty fellows paid one to five dollars for a dance and 75 cents a drink. "They have hardly enough to purchase a supply of grub for the winter, and as a result of their drinking and dancing live in a terrible condition," Carr said. "They are on a spree for about half the time, and on the other days in the week are too much played out to work." [14]

Another San Francisco report made the same month indicated that returning miners "are finding great difficulty in retaining what they have wrested from the frozen placers." A number of Yukoners got together for a carouse in the tenderloin district where whiskey seemed cheap at ten cents a glass. Prudent men who deposited their pokes in the saloon safe were later told that the contents had been robbed. The next day, nursing bad hangovers, they brawled over the question of guilt until police intervened. Some parties figured that the five dollars for a bottle wine imbibed freely at a convivial banquet clouded the miners memory of where they had left their pokes. [15]

Contradictory statements came from other parties, including a San Francisco hotelier whose guests included 12 lucky Klondikers who lived most sedately. All they want is peace from the hoard of information-seekers, he reported, "and a chance to break-in their new clothes." Unlike the early California miners, his guests spend their time reading and writing letters. "Why, all these men together," claimed the hotel men, "do not spend the money that one of the old-time miners could scatter around town after a good clean-up." They may be "dazed" with their good fortune but "they are holding on to their dust, and will, in the majority of cases, settle down to lives of quiet ease." [16]

Charles E. Stillman, a Comstock veteran, returned from the Klondike in '97 with $18,000 and a very favorable opinion of norther miners. They are "another race of men" from those who splurged in the "gilded palaces of Virginia City and lived in the hot days of Bodie, Tombstone, Anaconda, and Creede." Stillman saw some drinking and gambling at Circle and Dawson but nothing like the earlier camps. "Klondike miners are not the typical, picturesque miners the world has been hearing about for half a century." What made them restrained were the "awful hardships" that kept hard cases out of the north and the hard work which induced them to hang on to their money. [17]

We do not have any comparative statistics on sprees but can conclude that, regardless of the majority of lifestyles, the legend of the wastrel, bonanza-drunk miner survived. It did not take too many newsworthy incidents of spending to keep a cherished stereotype alive.

Living Up to Expectation

More successful miners resembled W.M. Stanley than high fliers like Swiftwater Bill Gates. Stanley, a Seattle bookseller burdened with gray hair, lameness, poverty, seven children, and a wife, gambled desperately to chance the Klondike in 1897. He struck it rich, more by accident of timing than through skill, although earlier he had been a successful Rocky Mountain prospector. Seattle folks expected a man who brought back $112,000 in gold, while retaining claim investments said to be worth millions, to show some style. Stanley responded responsibly. As a good family man of mature years he disdained saloons so discovered other means of securing approval as a "Klondike King." "The old miner has been making things interesting for his family and friends . . . spending money with a lavish hand," the Seattle Times noted with approval. Stanley hired a hack for several hours daily, loaded in his splendidly dressed family and drove up and down the streets. "They have attracted a good deal of attention in this way, and nearly everyone recognized Mr. and Mrs. Stanley." With this daily showing of the new silk dresses worn by wife and daughters and new furniture for the home, Stanley met the demands of his advanced social standing in a quiet way. [18]

But Stanley, perhaps because of his bookselling experiences, also revealed literary ambitions. His gratifying story must be told; misconceptions concerning the north and inaccurate maps must be corrected. Although Stanley lacked confidence in his ability as a writer, a way was found. J.M. Evans, a literary free-lancer would compose the epic under the miner's direction and arrange for publication. Among the interesting things to be revealed Stanley gave priority to the northern climate. "Strangely enough, the snow depths of up to two-and-a-half feet are formed in an unorthodox fashion: Its precipitation can hardly be noticed. Snow comes down as frost never in flakes. Sometimes it almost seems to be coming up from the ground, and not coming down from the sky." Health considerations were also important: "the coldest weather is the most healthy. There is no disease peculiar to the country . . . One seldom has a headache owing to the ordinary arrangement of the system." [19]

A Little Bragging

Certain risks attend becoming a legend. All publicity seekers were likely to encounter ridicule. Modest, sober men preferred anonymity and, of course, most returning Klondikers found better use for their money than in boozing, gambling, and squandering on showgirls. Arguably lavish spenders had more fun than the serious fellows who invested in other mining properties, many of which swallowed up investor's wealth.

One Wyoming man, who may not have been telling the truth in a letter home, nonetheless expressed a universal longing: "I am worth $75,000 and . . . I will start back to buy the town. Some people will want to kiss me when I get back who wanted to kick me when I left." The record does not show that a Klondiker ever bought Casper, Wyoming, and other evidence indicates that this man was trying too hard to be a legend: "You have heard of the golden calf," he wrote. "Well, I have something that beats that; I have a golden dog. A dog of mine died and I used his hide as a sack for my dust. I have him as full of gold as he was of meat. I sometimes lay my head on his body and dream of what I will do with my 'dough' when I get back to the States." [20]

Protests against lies disguised as legends surface sometimes. Writing in 1949 J.C. Kline damned Mike Mahoney, who had made a career lecturing and reciting Robert Service's poems, for insisting that he had seen Dan McGrew shot, carried a piano over the Chilkoot, and other exaggerations. "It is high time to defrost these self-styled Arctic heroes." Poor Mahoney, who really was a hardy man on the Klondike trail, was embarrassed after a public recitation when a journalist read a letter from Robert Service. Service affirmed that (the person of) Dan McGrew and incidents in the poem were entirely fictitious. Merrill Denison, Mike's biographer, explained how public pressure forced Mike to describe his presence at the famous shooting. After telling the story for years, he came to believe it, so it was painful when his debunker confronted him. But, strangely enough, members of the audience jumped up to confirm that they, too, had witnessed the shooting. Denison seemed to think that Mahoney's backers, besotted from too many recitation of "Dan McGrew" had themselves become true believers. But, more likely, they only wished to spare Mahoney and themselves further embarrassment. [21]

Most of the legendary figures did not qualify as heroes. But, collectively, the reputation of Canada's Northwest Mounted Police soared from the earliest days of the stampede. Canadians were proud of them and Americans, who formed the largest part of Klondikers, contrasted the perils of Skagway's rogues and Alaska's unpoliced trails to the stern orderliness maintained on the other side of the border.

There were, however, some dissenting voices. The Reverend Hall Young expressed respect "for that heroic body of men," yet insisted that the Yukon's officers "insolence and rank dishonesty, and disrespect for the rights of man" exceeded anything experienced in the United States. Hall specifically included police officials in his accusations. He condemned the laggard mail distribution system contrived by the Mounties to exact bribes. For an ounce of gold, prompt attention was insured. When Hall offered an officer $5 he was rewarded with letters. He believed that the patience of American miners in avoiding a riot was a high tribute to their characters. Wilson Mizner would read indefensive, craven weakness where Hall found strong character. Mizner and Hall also differed on their interpretation of Nome's travails under the McKenzie-Noyes ring of Spoilers: "Their graft was promptly detected" and stolen gold was restored. In Dawson, Land Commissioner Wade was removed for corruption, then returned a short time later as crown attorney. [22]

Some American miners became more patriotic after departing Dawson for Circle. Fortymile, Rampart and elsewhere, cursing the severity and/or corruption of Mounties without documenting specific charges.

Clarence L. Andrews, deputy collector of customs at Skagway during the Klondike stampede, made sport of the paranoia of the Canadian police. In 1901 he noted a "commotion among the NWMP. They think they have information that an armed force has been organized in this place to capture the Klondike. They challenge every one who approaches their posts." Some Americans were being restricted illegally, Andrews believed.

Miners Meeting

Another leading legend of the pre-Klondike era emphasized the sterling qualities of the pioneers and the effectiveness of the miners meeting as a democratic method of keeping order. This sentiment among those who saw themselves as somewhat superior to the vulgar hoards of Klondike stampeders is understandable and contains some truth. Communities were small, Alaska did not then draw many drifters eager to prey on the hard working and affluent.

Yet some pioneers viewed their neighbors with little indulgence. In 1891 John Healy reported that a handful of Dyea white men called for the lynching of an Indian who wounded another Indian while drunk on whiskey. Yet the whiskey had been illicitly sold by the same whites who winked at a store robbery by one of their number. Healy was no puritanical greenhorn. In Montana he had been a legendary whiskey dealer, Indian fighter, sheriff, and entrepreneurial jack-of-all-trades—including mining, townsite promotion, and newspaper publishing—thus giving weight to his appraisal: "I have been many years in official harness, and have had some experience with criminals, but I must say that this part of Alaska can furnish more petty, trifling criminals, and shoddy men than any other portion of the U.S.—taking the population into consideration." [23]

With this background it is not surprising that Healy was instrumental in calling the Northwest Mounted Police to Fortymile and end the reign of the miners meeting. This famous incident angered the American miners, but Healy was sick of law by miners meeting.

Bishop William Bompass also petitioned Ottawa for the Mounties after concluding that the town of Fortymile was within Canada even if most of the Fortymile River diggings were on the Alaska side of the boundary.

Healy's reason for writing to Ottawa in 1893 was, apparently, his anger over a decision of the miners meeting against him. The case concerned a white girl who worked for Healy's wife and was of a convivial temperament. To punish her for keeping late hours, Healy locked her out one night. She appealed to the miners who, perhaps because they resented Healy and the no-credit policy of his North American Trading and Transportation Company, ordered him to pay the girl a year's wages and her passage to the states.

Regardless of the motivation of Healy, the coming of Canadian authority and, much later, American authority, was inevitable. Miner's meetings worked well enough at times, but unbridled praise of them by pioneers is a reflection of sentiment and nostalgia.


Legends of the gold rush retain an interest and a value in expressing what people like best to remember of the events. Legends are also valuable because they come to form a part of the literature. They become a segment of the cultural richness of the past, one that sustains memories and supports and inspires other kinds of popular literature.

Notes: Chapter 6

1. Robert DeArmond, Founding of Juneau (Juneau: Gastineau Channel Centennial Association, 1967), 25.

2. Pierre Berton, Klondike Fever (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 235.

3. Johnny Walker, as told to Louis Whittaker "Bonanza Days," (Alaska Sportsman, November 1943), 12.

4. Charles W. Angel, "And Going Home We Lost the Rudder!," (Alaska Sportsman, September 1943), 29.

5. James Wickersham, Old Yukon (Washington: Washington Law Book Co., 1938) 24.

6. Edwin Tappan Adney, Klondike Stampede of 1897-98 (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1900), 68.

7. San Francisco Chronicle, July 29, 1897.

8. Seattle Times, August 19, 1897.

9. Houk papers, UAF.

10. A.A. Hill, "The Klondike," Munsey's Magazine, (v. 20, No. 5, February 1899), 704. Quoted in Richard J. Friesen, Chilkoot: A Literary Review (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1977), 41-42.

11. Hamlin Garland, Trail of the Gold-Seekers (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1899), 217, 237, 241.

12. Quoted in John Perry, Jack London: An American Myth (Chicago: Nelson & Hall, 1981), 62.

13. Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1897.

14. Seattle Daily Times, July 27, 1897.

15. San Francisco Chronicle, July 30, 1897.

16. San Francisco Chronicle, July 21, 1897.

17. Unidentified clip (1897) in Alfred Brooks scrapbook, UAF.

18. Seattle Times, September 10, 1897.

19. Ibid.

20. San Francisco Chronicle, June 6, 1898.

21. J.C. Kline, "Debunking Gold Rush Heroes," (Seattle Times, January 9, 1949), 3.

22. Hall Young, Hall Young of Alaska, (New York: Revell, 1927), 364-67, 371.

23. Healy to Potter, March 24, 1891, ASA, RG 505, Letterbook.

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Last Updated: 01-Oct-2008