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Women of the Klondike

by Ken Spotswood

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 a profit.

      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 World War.

      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 forget it...

      "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 binoculars:

      "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 wives.

      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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