Talking Points about “Klondike” for our summer visitors

There’s all sorts of misinformation about the Klondike Gold Rush out there. One of the most obvious is that a lot of Americans, other than the ones who live in the big state next door to us, still think the Klondike is in Alaska. Granted that the vast majority of the stampeders came from the lower 48 states, that’s still an error that ought not to have persisted all this time.

This year, thanks to the Discovery Channel’s winter screening of its six hour Klondike mini-series, there is a whole host of new delusions that will need to be dispelled. These are far more significant than “what do you do with the ice-bridge in the summer?” and “what time do the Northern Lights come on?”

I’ll start with that last one though, since the mini-series did have Bill Haskell marveling at the dancing lights during a dark night in … wait for it … July. Visitors will have to be informed that they need to come back between late September and April if they want to see the Aurora.

If they do come back during the winter they should expect to find it snowing, not raining, as shown by Discovery’s writers. While the mini-series showed lots of ice, there was hardly any snow. Nor was they any sense that frozen ground in unlikely to respond to a shovel or that sluicing requires running water rather than frozen streams.

The local First Nation at the time of the Gold Rush was the Hän, and the political term under which they style themselves these days is Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, which takes in both the Han and members of several Gwich’in groups who relocated here and blended in during the 20th Century. They were not Tlingit, not did they ever stage a bloody raid on the local NWMP jail cell to free prisoners who had been run down in the woods by Mounties riding horses (???) after they were falsely accused of a murder committed by one of the several fictional characters invented for this (based on a true story) drama.

The nameless Superintendent of this detachment (which was already here when the gold seekers arrived, by the way) had a name – Sam Steele – and he’s a famous figure in Yukon and Canadian history. Early on someone in the series tells a newcomer that there is no law in Dawson City, and it’s only later that the Mounties ride (because they’re MOUNTIES, I guess) into town, having apparently created their own road along the way.

Various characters in the series seem to think they’re in an American town. Perhaps it’s Skagway, since – oh look! – there’s Soapy Smith, who never came to the Klondike at all because he was busy bilking newcomers with his gang back at tidewater.

Father Judge is another character who suffers a dislocation. In the series he’s a gun toting Jesuit woodsman who arrives along with everyone else via Skagway and Lake Bennett. In reality, he was already in Alaska well before the gold discovery and had already settled in at Forty Mile (to the north of Dawson, not the south, as said in the script). He relocated to Dawson, where he built a hospital and a church in the North End, in the shadow of the Moosehide Slide. He did not open up a storefront chapel/clinic in the town’s business district.

There was undoubtedly anti-Semitism in Gold Rush Dawson, but the scene in which Haskell’s’ school chum and travelling companion is refused service in a store did not happen because that person, Byron Epstein, did not exist in reality. Haskell travelled with Joe Meeker, who teamed up with him while the two were travelling across the United States, gaining the rough-hewn practical education in mining and geology that served them so well in the Klondike. They would have been in their late 20s when they arrived, not the fresh out of school lads portrayed by Richard Madden in the series.

I hope I’ve provided you with enough material to do your duty this summer. To borrow a phrase from Burton Cummings, “break it to them gently”; it’s not their fault they’ve been misinformed.

After 32 years teaching in rural Yukon schools, Dan Davidson retired from that profession but continues writing about life in Dawson City.

About The Author

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top