Snapshots of Canada’s Past: History is more than just words on a screen or from a textbook; this series is a thematic look back at Canadian history through visual imagery.
If you were alive during the 1890s and heard about the discovery of gold in the Klondike region of the Yukon, would you drop everything and head up north? From 1896 to 1899, roughly 100,000 individuals from Canada and the United States did exactly that. It wasn’t easy though. Check out the pictures below to see the step-by-step process for becoming a Klondiker.
America was suffering from a recession at the time the news about the discovery of gold in the Yukon came out. The news didn’t make its way down to the US until 1897, but when it did people left in droves.
Step One: Obtain a miner’s license. Not anyone could dig for gold. You needed to have a permit. This picture shows a long line-up of hopeful prospectors waiting to buy a licence from a Custom House in Victoria, British Columbia.
Step Two: Round up a year’s supply of food, (required by the North West Mounted Police to prevent starvation), and then get on a ship destined for the ports of Dyea or Skagway in Southeast Alaska. The Excelcior left San Francisco for the Klondike on July 28, 1897 and was the first steamer to carry American passengers (350 in total with 800 tonnes of supplies) to the Klondike after news of the discovery of gold broke.
Step Three: Carry all of your supplies, thereby forcing you to travel in stages due to the weight.
Step Four: Take either the Chilkoot or the White Pass trails to the Yukon River and then sail down to the Klondike region. The Chilkoot Pass took Klondikers over the border into Canada. Most of those travelling were not skilled miners and were ill-prepared for the challenges that lay ahead.
Step Five: Establish your lodgings. (Tent camp, Dawson City, etc).
You could spend your days mining. Or you could get a job as a mail carrier and get to spend your days with dogs. Sled dogs were the best way to ensure speedy mail services.
Step Six: Finally, start looking for gold. Given the climate, mountainous terrain, and equipment requirements the journey took over a year.
From a 1897 guidebook for gold seekers, a map of the Klondike region and gold bearing creeks.
Fun Fact: The real way to make money during the Gold Rush was to open up a business in a boom town like Dawson City, whose population grew from 500 to 30,000 in the space of two years.
Men weren’t the only ones interested in making a profit up in the Yukon. Some, like these women, came to work in the entertainment industry. Others came and worked in mines or in various businesses above ground.
Of the roughly 30,000 who made it to Dawson City, only between 15,000 to 20,000 actually became prospectors. By the time most arrived (1898), the gold-ridden creeks had all been claimed by Yukon miners and those who came in 1897.
So how exactly does one dig for gold when the ground is frozen solid? Heat up the ground, of course! There were two ways to do this: 1. Have a fire burn all night to soften the ground. This would thaw only about 14 inches of soil, so you would have to repeat this over and over until you struck gold. 2. Use a machine to blast hot steam to thaw the frozen gravel.
The simplest (and slowest) way to pan for gold.
A faster way to pan for gold. The rocker box shakes dirt and gravity separates gold from the soil and water.
In a Dawson City grocery store, a prospector pays for his items with a bag of gold dust.
The rush came to an end in 1899 when news about the discovery of gold up in Nome, Alaska came out, Klondikers, who had given up on the Yukon but not on their dreams of gold yet, headed north to continue their hunt.
The Klondike Gold Rush came to an end in 1899 when gold was discovered up in Nome, Alaska. Those who had not given up already left the Yukon in droves. During the three-year rush, only 25% (around 4,000) found some form of gold, but only a few hundred became wealthy. As such, most Klondikers left disappointed and more poor than they started.
Berton, Pierre. Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush 1896–1899. Toronto: Anchor Canada. (2001).
Porsild, Charlene. Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men, and Community in the Klondike. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. (1998).
Alaska Digital Archive
Library and Archives Canada
National Park Service, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
University Library Washington
Yukon Archives, E.A. Hegg collection