June/July 2009

George, Charley and Jim

The unlikely friendship behind the Klondike Gold Rush

By R. Bergen

The latest bout of gold fever had already broken when the New York Times reporter stepped onto the steamship Roanoke as it arrived in Seattle, loaded with miners and gold from the Klondike. By August 1898, the good claims on Bonanza and Eldorado creeks near Dawson City had long since been taken, the fastest money already made and the extravagant stories told. “Klondikers disappointed, few returning adventurers bring back gold dust on the Roanoke,” the story in the Times declared.

At the bottom of the article was the nugget of a story, not enough to claim the front page. Among the catalogue of returning heroes and their spoils were the names of Stick Jim and Tagish Charley. They, along with George Carmack, “the discoverer of the Klondike,” stepped off the steamer with $35,000 each. The common number was the only hint that the lives and stories of these three men were bound together not only by gold but blood.

Close encounters

When George Carmack met the Tagish men Keish and Káa Goox in 1886, the 25-year old was just scraping by. The sweetheart he’d left the year before in California had thrown him over for another. Limited work prospects in Juneau, Alaska, meant he couldn’t survive, let alone save up for a season of prospecting. So Carmack headed up Taiya Inlet to Dyea, the gateway to the Chilkoot Pass, to hunt and fish and maybe find a job for the summer as a guide.

Keish (also known as Stick or Skookum Jim) and his nephew Káa Goox (or Tagish Charley) had come to the village to trade their furs after a winter of hunting and trapping. In the summer, they packed supplies over the pass for ambitious prospectors in search of the next big strike.

Keish had earned the Chinook tag “Skookum” for his legendary strength — he could scramble up the boulders of the pass with 150 pounds of supplies. All three spent the summer making the 100-kilometre round-trip to the first waterway leading to the Yukon River, earning ten dollars for every 100 pounds they hauled.

Why the men became friends isn’t clear. Carmack’s job as a packer — a trade almost exclusive to natives — set him apart from his “sourdough” peers. The two Tagish men may have connected with Carmack because they were outsiders themselves. Not all natives in the area wanted to give up their claim to the traditional trading route that more and more non-natives were using each year. As packers for the foreigners, Keish and Káa Goox were eroding that claim. Carmack did not speak Tagish. With one another, they spoke a mix of English and a Chinook dialect that was the language of trade. Nevertheless, they hit it off, and when the season was over, Keish and Káa Goox invited Carmack to spend the winter with them in their village near Carcross, Yukon.

All in the family

Despite being far removed from home, Carmack faithfully corresponded with his sister in California, although he was not always faithful to the truth. He did not mention that he, by Tagish standards, had married one of Keish’s sisters. When she died soon after of influenza he married her younger sister, as was the custom. Shaaw Tláa became Mrs. Kate Carmack and lived and worked beside her common-law husband in his prospecting and trading ventures along the Yukon River. News of his daughter Graphie’s birth did not reach home either.

Not all prospectors had such even-handed relations with the First Nations. The most infamous and unfortunate bigot was Robert Henderson. In the days leading up to their big strike, Carmack, Keish and Káa Goox crossed paths with him twice. He, in fact, was the one who suggested they prospect where they did. He also managed to insult the Tagish men on both occasions. One such racial slight was only a couple of days old when the three washed a coveted “five-dollar pan” on Rabbit Creek. There they staked the first claims along the waterway they rechristened Bonanza Creek. The news of their strike in 1896 travelled around the world and set the “last great gold rush” in motion. Though Henderson was prospecting a few miles away, none of the men could be roused to tell him.

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