What Was the Yukon Gold Rush?

John Markley

The Yukon Gold Rush, also known as the Klondike Gold Rush, was a wave of immigration to the Yukon in northwestern Canada set off by the discovery of gold in 1896. Between 1896 and 1899, more than 40,000 people would arrive in the Yukon seeking their fortune. It resulted in the creation of the Yukon Territory as a separate entity from the Northwest Territories, and the construction of the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad. The gold rush also spurred other mining efforts in the region and helped establish the reputation of the North-West Mounted Police, the forerunners of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Raw, unrefined gold flakes can be weighed and sold for money.
Raw, unrefined gold flakes can be weighed and sold for money.

The events leading to the Yukon Gold Rush were set in motion in August of 1896. Skookum Jim Mason, along with his cousin Dawson Charlie, brother-in-law George Carmack, and sister Kate Carmack, found gold in Rabbit Creek, later renamed Bonanza Creek, which flows into the Klondike River. This discovery quickly drew in gold prospectors in the region, who began searching for gold and staking claims along the Klondike and its tributaries. Due to the region's geographic isolation and severe weather, however, news did not reach the outside world until the following year.

Many people immigrated to northwest Canada during the Yukon Gold Rush.
Many people immigrated to northwest Canada during the Yukon Gold Rush.

In July of 1897, groups of successful gold prospectors from the Yukon arrived by ship in San Francisco and Seattle, bearing news of the discovery. The news spread quickly, and the poor state of the American economy in the aftermath of the Panic of 1896 had made many people desperate. The Yukon Gold Rush began as hordes of fortune seekers from around the world, estimated to number more than 100,000, set off for the Yukon.

The most common means of reaching the Yukon during the Yukon Gold Rush was to journey by ship to small port towns in Alaska, such as Skagway and Dyea, and then travel east along passes through the Coastal Mountains to Lake Bennett. From Lake Bennett, gold seekers would then take a boat down the Yukon River until they reached Dawson, a town that had rapidly grown to serve as the prospectors' base of operations. The climate and geography of the region, along with shortages of supplies caused by the huge influx of travelers, made this a difficult, exhausting, and potentially dangerous journey. Others attempted to reach the Yukon from the east by traveling over land across Canada. These journeys were also dangerous, extremely long, and more likely to end when the travelers gave up and turned back or died on the trail than with a safe arrival in the Yukon.

Of the more than 100,000 people to set off for the Yukon during the Yukon Gold Rush, fewer than half reached their goal. Most gave up and went home before they completed the grueling journey to Dawson, and some lost their lives to hunger, cold, or accidents. Around 40,000 people eventually reached Dawson and its surrounding area. Despite the massive influx of people, many of them desperate, the North-West Mounted Police and a local militia force were successful in keeping the region peaceful during the gold rush, winning widespread respect.

Few of the prospective gold prospectors became wealthy. The most lucrative areas to look for gold were quickly claimed, leaving most searching for gold in less promising areas or working as wage laborers, paid in gold dust, for those who held better claims. In addition, the sudden explosion in demand for food and other goods caused by the new arrivals combined with the swelling of the local gold supply meant a rapid rise in prices. This made much of the wealth found by prospectors illusory, because quantities of gold that would have constituted impressive profits or wages under normal circumstances were necessary to afford even basic necessities.

The Yukon Gold Rush came to an end in 1899, when the discovery of gold in Nome, Alaska, drew attention away from the area around the Klondike River. Only a few thousand of the people who came found gold, and still fewer found enough to become rich. Some of the greatest fortunes made during the gold rush were made not by finding gold, but by selling provisions or providing services such as transportation to the prospectors. Ultimately, this entrepreneurship would be more important to the region's economic future than the gold.

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