Gwen Tuinman



gold rush

Women of the Klondike Gold Rush

University of Washington Libraries. Special Collections Division

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.

paradise alley
Women plying their trade in the prostitute district of Dawson just behind Front Street known as Paradise Alley, Yukon Territory, ca. 1900 — University of Washington Libraries. Special Collections Division

Entrepreneurial Spirit

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.

Kate Carmack 1898 (Yukon Archives)
Kate Carmack 1898 (Yukon Archives)

“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.

A group of actresses crossing the Dyea River (Image Credit Getty/Hulton AP)
A group of actresses crossing the Dyea River (Image Credit Getty/Hulton AP)

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.

Dr. Lydia Clements --Print Collection portrait file. Belinda Mulrooney 1898 photo credit: Wikipedia
(Left) Dr. Lydia Clements –Print Collection portrait file.
(Right) Belinda Mulroney 1898
photo credit: Wikipedia

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.”

(Photo at top of post: Woman arriving in the streets of Dawson with a dog team carrying her luggage, Yukon Territory, 1898 — University of Washington Libraries. Special Collections Division)

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Klondike Gold Rush: Buyer Beware

University of Washington Libraries. Special Collections Division
University of Washington Libraries. Special Collections Division

Something intoxicating happened on  a July morning in 1897.  A steamship known as The Excelsior unloaded its first batch of successful Yukon prospectors onto a San Francisco dock. They dragged baggage behind them, loaded to the gills with gold.  Gold dust. Gold nuggets. Gold bars. Word spread quickly and when the ship prepared for its return trip to the Klondike,  agents were overwhelmed by a demand for tickets that exceeded the ship’s capacity by over ten times.

Is it any wonder that a whisper of prosperity in a far away place could start a two year stampede to parts unknown? The late 1890’s brought with it a period of economic depression that swept the whole of North America. Gold was scarce. Many people struggled to attain the necessities of life. The Klondike and the dream of gold offered an escape from their despair.

The Excelsior leaves San Francisco for Klondike July 28, 1897
The Excelcior leaves San Francisco for Klondike July 28, 1897, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division

Spreading rumours of gold drove throngs of men and women abandoned their homes, surrendered their jobs, and left behind their families. They rushed to port cities like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Victoria, in hopes of gaining passage on some vessel headed to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory. Memento photographs were fashionable parting gifts for loved ones. Prospectors posed, individually or with travel mates, in front of painted backgrounds featuring Yukon scenes. They dressed in newly acquired mackinaws and held props like rifles, snowshoes or  fiddles. Subjects reclined on bearskins and fake snow. One can’t help but wonder how reality matched the fantasy of their adventure.

The first perils of the journey began here at home. Many of these tenderfoots fell prey to unscrupulous businesses and empty promises. One promoter promised a reindeer mail delivery service similar to the pony express.

Shows Klondikers waiting to be checked by customs and the North West Mounted Police at the Canada - United States boundry line -- University of Washington Libraries. Special Collections Division
Shows Klondikers waiting to be checked by customs and the North West Mounted Police at the Canada – United States boundary line — University of Washington Libraries. Special Collections Division

Suave salesmen oiled the dreams with products to guarantee success for the soon-t0-be-rich. Pierre Berton’s The Klondike Quest lists “coffee lozenges, evaporated eggs, desiccated onions, beef blocks, peanut meal, saccharine and pemmican; and on the less practical devices: mechanical gold pans, nugget-in-the-slot machines, patented gold rockers, collapsible beds, knockdown boats, portable cabins, scurvy cures, even x-ray machines designed to detect the presence of the golden treasure hidden in the dross.” Manufactured goods — soup cans and glasses — were stamped with “Klondike” and flew off the shelves. These items must have littered the Chilkoot Pass, Skagway and White Pass as people cast items off to lighten their loads.

Roughly one hundred thousand people from  North America and overseas ventured to the Klondike. The high volume of people and goods streaming through, caused  the port towns to balloon to near impossible capacity. City infrastructures were pushed to the limit. On the wharfs, people waited with ten foot stacks of supplies. Prospectors needed sufficient supplies to cover their needs for one year. They boarded ships of questionable construct to transport them and their wares — dangerously overloaded.  Men often slept ten to a cabin in rough hewn bunks.  Some who ventured to sleep on the deck were swept overboard during storms. Even animals, dogs and horses, suffered injury in their crates and died en route. A few ships had to return to port shortly after departure, to redistribute the weight of their cargo lest they sink.


For many, the dream became a nightmare before they reached their destination. How many would have set out for the Klondike if they were fully informed of the challenges that awaited beyond the end of the dock?

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