No ‘Flash in the Pan’: How the Klondike helped to define a nation

Chris Petrakos
Friday, July 14, 2017 - 11:46am
Blake Eligh

Just over a century ago, a steamship sailed into San Francisco’s harbour carrying news that would change Canada forever—there was gold in Canada’s far north.

On the 120th anniversary of the news, U of T Mississauga assistant professor Chris Petrakos, of the Department of Historical Studies, looks back on the Klondike gold rush and its impact on Canadian, British and American relations.

“When gold was discovered in the Yukon in August 1896, the area was nearly impossible to get to and equally impossible to get out of, so it took almost 11 months for word of the discovery to reach the wider world,” Petrakos says. News of northern riches first broke in an article published in the San Francisco Examiner on July 14, 1897. “It kicked off a stampede, creating an influx of Americans into the Klondike and causing all sorts of problems for the Canadian government at the time,” Petrakos says. “The discovery marked a crucial development in North American state building and was a key event in the development of Canadian national identity.”

“Seattle and San Franciso were the big springboards to the Klondike,” Petrakos says. Between 1897 and 1900, about 100,000 people set out for Dawson City, hoping to strike it rich. Less than half that number actually made it to Dawsone City. Americans arrived by steam ships that ferried hopefuls to Alaska, where travellers faced an arduous 700- to 2,000-mile journey over land to Dawson City and potential fortune. The inland ‘All-Canadian” routes through Alberta and British Columbia proved even more treacherous.

People arrived by the boatload—from all over the British Commonwealth, North America and the world—so the drawing of national boundaries became of paramount importance. “The gold rush also happened at a crucial point in American history, at the beginning of the Spanish-American war, just as America was laying the foundation for its empire that would last through the 20th century,” he says. “The Canadians understood that America was a rising imperial power.”

Once the news broke, protecting Canadian interests became paramount. Surveyor William Olgilvy was sent to Great Britain to drum up investor support. “In Canada, Interior minister Clifford Sifton’s overriding concern was to ensure the Klondike gold fields remained in British-Canadian hands, rather than American hands,” Petrakos says. Early letters from Yukon Territory commissioner James Morrow Walsh fretted over the large number of Americans. “He talks about a ‘filibustering element of Americans’ that were looking to overthrow British Canadian authority in the Yukon and establish an American outpost,” Petrakos says. “His letters are frantic—he writes about storing munitions to ensure that Americans don’t take over.”

Front page of San Francisco examiner 1897While Petrakos dismisses Walsh’s worries as a little bit hysterical, he says it’s important to remember that the gold rush took place along the Alaska and the Yukon, a dispute that wasn’t settled until 1903. “This happened along a contested border that Americans had very easy access to,” he says. “When borders are being drawn, these focusing events are important in a nation’s history,” Petrakos says. “Particularly in the development of Canadian and American nationalism.

“As Canada and Great Britain jockeyed with the United States for power, the Yukon border became a place of imperial contestation. The gold rush was essential to the development of Canada as a nation,” he says.

Petrakos can’t resist injecting a tidbit of present-day events into his findings. The great-grandfather of United States president Donald Trump was lured north by the gold rush. “As miners climbed through White Pass with other gold miners and their horses, many horses tumbled into the gully below and perished. Friedrich Trump saw an opportunity and opened the Arctic Restaurant and Hotel in Bennett, B.C., which specialized in fresh-slaughtered, quick-frozen horse,” Petrakos says. “I like the irony that a president, who won an election on a platform of closed borders, comes from a family that made their fortune as the result of relatively open borders.”

Watch Chris Petrakos' talk "We the North" with Cafe Scientifique