The very mention of the Klondike Gold Rush conjures images of snowy mountain tops, babbling brooks, burly unshaven men. and robust women– the kind you don’t take home to mother.
There is no denying that prostitution played a role in Yukon. On the infamous Paradise Alley alone, there were seventy small cabins, each housing a different call-girl. Many of these women had fallen prey to charismatic pimps who persuaded them across the Chilkoot Pass. In the end, they were little more than white slaves.
If not plying the oldest profession to a bountiful and captive clientele, what might attract a woman to the Klondike Gold Rush?
Some wanted to escape the confines of Victorian expectations. In the Klondike, a woman could dress like a man and do the work of a man without judgment. At home, only financially destitute women sought employment. They were funneled into mindless factory jobs that required little skill. Even then, they were expected to give their position up to the first suitable male candidate that came along. A woman’s place was, after all, in the home.
In his book The Klondike Quest, Pierre Berton tells the story of one woman’s tenacity. She kneaded dough for bread but it refused to rise in the cold temperatures. The woman carried the dough on her back, next to her skin, so her body heat would cause the dough to rise. She then baked the bread and sold it for a handsome profit to fund her journey.
“What I wanted was not shelter and safety, but liberty and opportunity.” Martha Black (Second woman named to Canada’s House of Commons)
There would have been no Klondike Gold Rush if not for Yukon woman, Shaa Tlaa, also known as Kate Carmack. The discovery of gold is widely credited to the men in her family: George Carmack (husband), Skookum Jim (brother), and Dawson Charlie (nephew). According to author Fred N. Atwood, it may have been Kate who found the first nugget. While salmon fishing at Rabbit Creek during the summer of 1896, gold was discovered by “…while Carmack was resting, his wife in wandering around, found a bit of bedrock exposed and, taking a pan of dirt, washed it and found that she had some four dollars in coarse gold.”– The Alaska-Yukon Gold Book.
Actresses like Klondike Kate and Mae Field entertained in theatres, saloons, and dance halls; they were embraced by polite society. Their income, at roughly $200 per month, exceeded the earnings of Sam Steele and his Mounties. While not engaged in prostitution, their creative entrepreneurial spirit did lead them into mischief. Klondike Kate dressed as a boy and hopped on a scow pulling away from the dock so she could avoid being turned away at a Mounty checkpoint.
Over the course of 52 days, Grace Bartsch and her husband, Chris, drove a herd of 500 sheep, 50 cattle and one goat to Dawson City. Her diary gives an account of the difficult journey made partly on horseback and partly by train.
Dr. Lydia Clements left her successful practice and her dentist husband in Brooklin, to pursue what she thought would be a fruitful medical practice in Dawson. She was the only member of her party to completed the expedition and, quite possibly, the first woman from the eastern USA to cross the Chilkoot Pass. She opened a medical practise in Dawson and staked several mining claims. She travelled home many times but always returned to the Yukon, refusing to be defeated a succession of financial losses.
Belinda Mulroney was legendary in her ability to turn a profit. She made her way to Dawson City carrying items for sale: silk undergarments, cloth, and hot water bottles. Her profits allowed for the purchase of a restaurant that, in turn, generated sufficient funds for the building a two story hotel. Visitors to the hotel offered her valuable information about mining opportunities. Inside of a year, she owned five mines, either outright or in partnership. Her profits here allowed her to establish the luxurious Grand Fork Hotel. She was also invited to manage the struggling Gold Run Mining Company which she did, successfully bringing it into the black inside of 18 months.
Flora Shaw, a newspaper editor, travelled from London to Dawson City to report on the Klondike Gold Rush. In the end, she supported the notion that women could play a role in developing the Yukon. She said that “in the expansion of the Empire, as in other movements, man wins the battle, but woman holds the field.”