The discovery of Klondike gold in 1896 began a stampede of more than 100,000 prospectors. The Klondike Gold Rush caused a global movement of people that was unprecedented at the time. Although it lasted just a few short years, the gold rush left a rich historic legacy with stories of triumph, defeat, bravery, and the peculiar madness of gold fever.
While the story of the Klondike Gold Rush and “the men who moil for gold” (Robert Service, a British-Canadian poet and writer, often called "the Bard of the Yukon"), has been covered extensively in history books and pop culture, lesser known are the inspiring stories of several women who either travelled to, or were residents of, the Yukon at that time.
“The story of the Klondike is an epic journey,” says Patricia Cunning, Executive Director of the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse. “For most of the people who came to the Klondike – even those who didn’t make it all the way to Dawson City – it was a defining moment in their lives. While it was adventurous and exciting, it was also dangerous, difficult, and emotionally taxing. The money wasn’t just made in the gold field, and the women were well positioned to mine the miners – and not just at the dance hall.”
SHAAW TLÁA a.k.a. KATE CARMACK
From the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, Kate Carmack became the first woman of the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1896, Kate, along with her brother Skookum Jim, Charlie Dawson, and her husband George Carmack discovered gold at Bonanza Creek. Their fortunes were made and the stampede to the Klondike was set in motion.
MARTHA LOUISE MUNGER BLACK
Martha Black was a female pioneer who dared to go it alone. At the height of the stampede, she left her husband behind, hiked the Chilkoot Trail (whilst pregnant!) and built a log cabin in Dawson City. Ever full of pluck and style, she would eventually become only the second woman to be elected to the House of Commons of Canada, and was a lifelong ambassador for the Yukon.
KATHLEEN ROCKWELL a.k.a. KLONDIKE KATE
It wasn’t easy for a woman to get to the Klondike, let alone conquer it. Yet Kate, undeterred by rapids or rules, disguised herself as a man and leapt to a male-only scow’s deck to reach Dawson City. Once there, she quickly became known as the best entertainer in town. But it was her qualities of charm, kindness and sincerity that won her the title of “Queen of the Klondike.”
In the early years of the territory, few women came to the Klondike, and only a small percentage of these women were Black. In 1901, there were only 99 Black people in the whole of the Yukon. Lucile Hunter was 19 years old and pregnant when she and her husband Charles made the trip to the Klondike in 1897. They travelled via the Stikine Trail, one of the most difficult routes to the Yukon. After Charles died in 1939, Lucile and her grandson continued to operate gold claims in Dawson and silver claims near Mayo.
Credited with being the first white woman to travel over the Chilkoot Pass, Emilie Tremblay literally had to hike up her heavy skirts and follow the trail to go down in Yukon history. Emilie spent her time keeping house, baptizing newborns, and helping the wounded. She was godmother to 25 children, and offered shelter to widows, missionaries, and travellers.
Arriving as a prospector selling hot-water bottles to fellow stampeders along the way, Belinda quickly set about blazing trails through the heart of the Klondike. Using her business savvy to build roadhouses and cabins, she also became a stakeholder in the Yukon’s largest gold mine. Perhaps her biggest claim to fame was bringing a touch of class to Dawson City by launching the luxury Fair View Hotel.
It’s important to note that the global influx of gold-seekers deeply impacted the land and the local First Nations people, who had been there for thousands of years. This time in history was not always positive and the impacts of development and colonialism are still felt today. Despite the mixed experiences, the Gold Rush made a dramatic contribution to shaping the culture and society of the Yukon today.