Dateline: March 3, 1998
To read some of the Canadian and American history books on the Klondike gold rush, it's unfortunate that the role of women has been so neglected.
Until recent years many of these authors have been men who focused mainly on male interests in what has been perceived as a male-dominated event.
With a few exceptions, the way they tell it, most Klondike women were either
dance-hall girls, prostitutes or nuns. In between, however, lies a world of
diaries and memoirs guaranteed to raise eyebrows.
While there were many thousands of men in the Klondike during the height of the gold rush, there were hundreds of women who worked just as hard, shared the same primitive living and working conditions, and who adapted to and
coped with the same hardships. They all hiked the Chilkoot Trail. They all
cooked frozen food over fires made from frozen wood in sub-zero
temperatures, and they all bedded down in wool blankets or animal hides with
only a layer of spruce boughs between them and the frozen ground.
The lives of Klondike women were, in fact, more difficult and complicated than those of their male counterparts, because of what we now consider to be 'old-fashioned' social customs of the late Victorian era, customs that
dictated repressive ideas of 'appropriate' female behaviour.
Men who doubt this should be made to hike the Chilkoot Trail in high-heeled
boots, corsets, bloomers, ankle-length skirts, and blouses and jackets with
leg-o-mutton sleeves. And don't forget your bonnets, guys.
Sometimes there was the added burden of children to control and care for during the trip - without the aid of disposable diapers. On the trail and in camps women were still expected to perform traditional domestic duties such
as cooking, cleaning, nursing, mending and doing laundry without complaint.
More than a few women discarded their impractical female apparel and put on
men's clothes for the trip, an act considered to be immoral. Other women
dressed and acted like men because they thought they'd be safer on the trails.
Women who went to the Klondike unchaperoned were often treated with
contempt. They were the targets of abuse and ridicule by both men and
'respectable' women--those who were fortunate enough to be accompanied by
husbands, or who thought they were superior because of their social standing
in southern communities.
In the late 1800s, white women were expected to be 'ladies'. But just as
the hardships of the Klondike separated the men from the boys, it also
separated the women from the pampered ladies of Victorian white society.
There were women in the Klondike long before the gold rush.
Native women were experts at snaring rabbits and ground squirrels which
were used for food and clothing. They knew when and where to look for
edible plants and berries. They knew also which plants, saps and tree
resins had medicinal properties. They soaked, smoked and prepared animal
skins to clothe their families. And they cut and dried fish and meat so
that there was food during long winter months when game was scarce.
Indian women had important bush skills that made many of them valuable
partners for early white trappers, traders and explorers who may not
otherwise have survived in the uncharted Yukon wilderness. They had
important leadership roles as guides and interpreters which, in turn, helped
to establish new trade relations with aboriginal people throughout the North.
When these early trading posts grew into frontier communities, however,
racial tension increased with the arrival of missionaries. For the most
part these clergy saw native people only as savages waiting to be
'civilized'. They frowned on mixed marriages and imposed Victorian codes of
moral and social conduct.
These Indian 'country wives' who were taken to white communities were
expected to give up their traditional clothing for uncomfortable and
impractical corsets, dresses and bonnets. They were made to speak English
or French and to adopt European habits. In doing so, they lost touch with
their own culture. Very often their children of mixed blood were shunned by
both Indian and white societies.
In his book "Gold at Fortymile Creek", Yukon author Michael Gates describes
a dance held about 1895 in the mining community of Circle. It was attended
by both white and native women.
"Though some men would dance with members of either group, the women would
not dance together in the same sets...
"In one case, for instance, the proprietor of a Circle dance hall had a
common-law wife, a White woman who chose to distance herself from the Native
women who attended the dances. Realizing that a sizable number of his
customers were men with Native wives and that her attitude was bad for
business, he knocked her down.
"In another instance, a White woman in Circle made a fuss over Native women
attending one of the community dances. The men of the community told her
that they were not going to exclude these women and that she could stay home
if she so desired. Regardless of the perceived social differences between
Whites and Natives, relationships with the latter were a commonplace,
integral part of the social fabric of pre-Klondike society."
One of the first white women to come to the Yukon before the gold rush was
Emilie Fortin, a 21-year-old French Canadian who arrived in the mining
community of Forty Mile in 1894. The year before she had met and married
Pierre-Nolasque 'Jack' Tremblay, a prospector who had spent seven years
searching for gold in Alaska and the Yukon.
Her new home on Miller Creek was a one-room log cabin that Jack had shared
with other miners. Its lone window was made of empty bottles. A log pole
in the middle of the cabin supported the roof. The base of the pole, and
the floor around it, was encrusted with years and layers of dried tobacco spit.
While many women would have turned away in disgust, Emilie took up the
challenge and gave the cabin a thorough cleaning with the help of a shovel
and her husband. She was the only woman on the creek and she spoke only
French, but she endured. She taught herself English, learned to appreciate
beans for breakfast, lunch and supper and planted a vegetable garden on the
sod roof to improve their bland diet. No doubt she also planted a spittoon
on the cabin floor.
When the big gold strike was eventually made on Bonanza Creek in 1896, the
stampede was on. Women were just as eager to go to the Klondike for the
same reasons as men--to improve their lot in life. The motives of the women
who traveled the gold rush trails were as varied as the roles they performed
when they got there.
One of the first across the Chilkoot trail in 1897 was Belinda Mulroney, a
coal miner's daughter from Scranton, Pa., who had already developed a sharp
business sense. Years earlier she had earned several thousand dollars
operating a sandwich stand at the Chicago World's Fair. She put her savings
into an ice cream parlour in San Francisco, but lost everything when it was
destroyed by fire.
Mulroney then took a job as a stewardess for the Pacific Coast Steamship
Company. As she traveled the West Coast, she traded hats and dresses with
native women in exchange for furs, which she re-sold to ship's passengers at
She had saved $5,000 when news of the gold discovery in the Klondike
reached California. Mulroney spent it all on bolts of fabric and hot water
bottles. She and her goods went over the Chilkoot Trail to Dawson City,
where she sold everything for $30,000.
While other merchants built in the town site, Mulroney opened a lunch
counter 14 miles away in the gold fields. She fed the miners well and added
a bunkhouse, a popular move because it allowed miners to spend more time on
their claims. With gold dust and nuggets pouring in, she then built the
elegant Fairview Hotel--complete with cut-glass chandeliers and brass
bedsteads which she had packed over the Chilkoot Trail.
Mulroney was later dubbed 'the richest woman in the Klondike', but she lost
her hard-earned fortune with the help of an embezzling husband and the First
Elmer J. White was a Skagway newspaperman who gained fame by writing gold
rush tales under the pseudonym of 'Stroller' White. In 1898 he advertised
for paper-sellers and one of the first to respond was "a little bit of a
gray-haired woman with blues eyes and an appealing smile.
"She gave her age as 76 and the same figure would do for her weight, give
or take a pound or two. She said her name was Barbara."
The woman claimed to be a widow who had been living with one of her married
daughters in Butte, Ma. After visiting a friend in Seattle, she impulsively
bought a ticket to Skagway instead of going home to Butte.
"All my life I've wondered what it would be like to go out among complete
strangers and make my own way," Stroller quoted her as saying. "I always
wanted to try it, and never had the chance. When the chance came I took it.
And here I am!
"And there she was, all 76 pounds of her, with her possessions in a worn
carpetbag, only a few dollars left in her purse, and the necessity of
earning money to live on. Would the Stroller give her a chance to sell
papers? Of course he would, and he did, although he had some qualms about
it. Privately, the Stroller decided that he would give Barbara a week and
then he would write to her daughter in Butte and arrange for her passage home."
It never happened. Barbara sold papers like a pro and the first money she
earned went for a place to live. She paid two dollars for a piano box and
made it her home on a vacant lot. She soon out-sold all the other
paper-sellers in Skagway. Stroller became her banker. As winter
approached, he became concerned for her survival and suggested she could
well afford a trip back home, to which she agreed.
"She had $1,350 which she had saved in just five months. Of this total,
$1,200 was exchanged for a bank draft which was mailed to her daughter in
Butte. A ticket was purchased to Seattle, and she had something over $100
left for her fare from Seattle to Butte and for incidental expenses.
"Three or four weeks later a letter arrived from Barbara's daughter, saying
that Barbara had arrived safely home and expressing appreciation for the
treatment she had received. Later on, Barbara wrote to inquire whether her
job would be open in the spring and to request that her piano box home not
be disturbed as she hoped to return."
As far as anyone knows, she never did, but at the ripe old age of 76, she
had turned a dream into a reality.
Grace Bartsch left her family and friends in Hood River, WA., in order to
accompany her husband Chris on a journey from Seattle to Dawson City, via
Skagway and the White Pass. It was an arduous journey for any woman in
1900--let alone on horseback, helping to drive a herd of 500 sheep, 50
cattle and a goat named 'Nanny'. To cap it off, the couple had only been
married for two months.
On May 8th the group safely reached the head of Lake Laberge. Although it
was still partially frozen, the ice was slowly turning to mush in the warmth
of the spring sun. The cattle had been split up into small herds to
minimize the risk of going through the ice. In her diary, Bartsch wrote:
"The sun kept up its heat and the ice grew softer and softer, until we sank
five or six inches with every step, the sheep going in too and were fast
becoming exhausted, and the long fleece was heavy with water. The situation
was becoming extreme; the sun was still high and hot at five o'clock so
Chris decided it best to turn for the shore, feed the sheep by allowing them
to graze and wait for the outfit to come along.
"We were three miles out on the lake and when we reached the shore, we had
traveled 20 miles. What a relief it was to get off that ice; I shall never
"Poor Bill's feet were very tired and sore, and his heels were badly
blistered. He gave them a bath in the cold lake water; washed his socks,
which were mostly holes, and put them on a log to dry...
"About ten o'clock we were attacked by a ravenous throng. It was not
wolves, it was one of Bill's flocks of mosquitoes. Their songs in our ears
was a regular war cry, for they were hungry and blood-thirsty, and came at
us in desperation. Their swords were long and keen, but we found that they
could not penetrate the robe, so we drew our heads under. We preferred
smothering to being eaten alive."
The next morning, Bartsch noticed her mosquito veil, mitts and handkerchief
missing. So were Bill's socks.
"Nanny had gone scavenging and had eaten these things, and there remained
only one small corner of the veil. I tried to be angry with her, but she
looked at me so innocently, and when I scolded her she just came closer and
seemed to say, 'Forgive and forget, we have other things to think about, you
know I was hungry.'
"So I put my pride down in my boots, instead of my veil and mitts. But I
never will understand why or how Nanny could eat Bill's socks, although they
had been dipped in the lake and aired for at least part of the night."
While the sheep were being rounded up, Bill went searching for his missing
socks. "He, of course, did not find them and although I felt sorry for him
with his sore feet, I did not tell him where they were. I even joined in
the search, while Nanny deliberately winked at me."
Suddenly they were all jolted back to reality by the distant sounds of
panic and crashing ice. Traveling behind them, several heavily-loaded,
horse-drawn outfits had gone through the ice of Lake Laberge. As Chris and
his men ran in a vain attempt to help, Bartsch watched the scene through
"All at once there seemed to be many outfits in sight, struggling against
almost certain calamity of some sort. The ice by now was too weak to bear
the smallest kind of an outfit and team after team I saw go through until my
eyes were tired and my heart was sick.
"The faithful horses would be trudging along with their loads when suddenly
they would be through into the water. I could see them struggle, trying to
get a foothold, but each time the hollow, pencilled ice would crash into the
water and the poor animals were helpless. If they could not be disconnected
from their loads, loads and all would soon disappear...
"By evening the lake was dotted with cargoes of crated eggs, butter, canned
milk and other canned goods; flour, bacon and even poultry. The horse power
was gone and in many cases the sleighs too were under the ice and there was
no way of transporting them further.
"Oh man! What a venturesome creature you are. What will you not do for
the dollar, or is it the lure of the unknown which calls you on and on, and
makes you take such speculating risks? What has called me here, to sit
alone on this mountain and witness such tragedies as these?"
The Bartsch cattle and sheep drive laboured on to the Yukon River, where
the animals were herded onto large scows for the 500-mile river trip to
Dawson City. There were numerous other delays and mishaps along the way.
One steer went berserk, was shot and completed the journey as dressed beef.
They arrived in Dawson at noon on May 24th, and were as thrilled to be there as the Dawson residents were hungry for fresh beef and mutton. The cattle and sheep brought top prices, but nowhere near the exorbitant prices of 1898. "Nanny was the last one to go," Bartsch wrote, "and brought her weight in gold, which was ninety-eight dollars."
Martha Munger Purdy and her husband Will left their wealthy society life in Chicago for the Klondike in 1898. They got as far as Seattle when Will was diverted to San Francisco on business where he changed his mind. He suggested they go to Hawaii instead.
"I wrote to Will that I had made up my mind to go to the Klondyke as originally planned, that I would never go back to him, so undependable he
had proven, that I never wanted to hear from or see him again. He went his
way. I went mine," she later wrote in her autobiography.
Purdy sailed to Skagway with her brother, who literally "pushed and pulled" her over the Chilkoot Trail. Her account of the trek typifies the emerging modern woman casting off the shackles of Victorian deportment:
"As the day advanced the trail became steeper, the air warmer, and footholds without support impossible. I shed my sealskin jacket. I cursed
my hot, high buckram collar, my tight heavily boned corsets, my long corduroy skirt, my full bloomers, which I had to hitch up with every step."
Imagine Purdy's shock when she discovered that she was two months pregnant with her third child when she hiked the Chilkoot. A hospital delivery with a doctor was too expensive. She gave birth - assisted by two prospectors - in
her brother's log cabin across the Klondike River from Dawson. Ironically, the cabin was just above the brothels of 'Klondike City', a long way from her upper class Chicago background.
If she hadn't been living with her brother, Purdy's situation would have been scandalous. She rejected the notion of returning to her wealthy
parents. She went on to manage a sawmill, and had staked a claim on Excelsior Creek which later proved rich and made her financially independent.
Purdy got a divorce and in 1904 she married Dawson City lawyer George Black who became Commissioner of the Yukon in 1912. Black later served four terms as Member of Parliament for the Yukon. When illness forced him to retire from politics, she ran in his place in the 1935 election and won. At age 69, Martha Purdy Black became the second female MP to serve in the House of Commons.
While the names of Martha Black and Belinda Mulroney are legend in the Yukon, there are many lesser known women who struggled just as hard without gaining fame or recognition. Hundreds of women's names are listed in the Dawson Mining Recorder Ledgers. While some are known to have worked their claims, others were content to hold title to the property and reap the benefits produced by hired hands.
By 1899, Mulroney owned or had part interest in at least 10 valuable claims. Interviewed by The Dawson Daily News in September of that year, Mulroney quipped: "I like mining and have only hired a foreman because it looks better to have it said that a man is running the mine, but the truth is that I look after the management myself."
In 1898 The Klondike Nugget published an article stating that only "four good women" lived in Dawson. This prompted an irate response from resident Franklin Arnold who took it upon himself to defend the honour of "250 wives with husbands...fifty mothers and fathers with young daughters...and numerous brothers in care of cherished sisters."
Arnold unwittingly neglected to include hundreds more independent women who lived and worked in Dawson without the 'moral influence' or gratuitous protection of male guardians - cooks, housekeepers, female roadhouse
operators, women journalists, dance-hall girls and even the prostitutes.
The last word here goes to Flora Shaw (Lady Lugard), who, at age 45, joined the stampede in 1898 as part of her job--colonial editor of the London Times. Years before, Shaw had visited gold rush camps in South Africa and Australia. After traveling from London to Dawson City and experiencing the Klondike gold rush for herself, she returned to London.
In an address to the Royal Colonial Institute in London, Shaw noted that "the question of whether women that men respected could be brought into that country was one of perpetual discussion." By respectable women, Shaw meant
Shaw, in fact, encouraged women to go to the Klondike to aid in the development of the Yukon. She capped her argument with a strong declaration of the role of women in such a venture, stating that "...in the expansion of the Empire, as in other movements, man wins the battle, but woman holds the field."
© 1997-2009 Ken Spotswood:
This article is part of a media kit developed for the Yukon Anniversaries Commission.
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