The History of Jews During the Gold Rush

Once upon a time there were quite a few Jews in the Klondike. They arrived with the other gold rush stampeders. There were enough of them that they established their own graveyard.

But the Jewish presence in Dawson City nearly vanished after the end of World War I.

Dr. Brent Slobodin researched and wrote the exhibition on display in the courtroom of the Dawson City Museum called “The Jewish Presence in the Klondike During the Gold Rush”. He said he found only one person of Jewish ancestry currently living in town while pursuing this project.

The core of the display is three portable panels, dense with photographs, pictures and text, exploring a number of themes related to the Jewish influence in Dawson. There is also a thin, ring-bound book with some short articles and interviews, and a video component.

Slobodin learned that most Jewish stampeders arrived too late to cash in on a gold claim, but in good time they became heavily invested in commerce.

“From the beginning of the Gold Rush, Jews were involved primarily in the supply of goods and transportation to the gold fields,” reads the sub-heading under a section called “Supplying the Gold Rush.”

They sold groceries, shoes and all manner of goods. They also provided services. Photos and descriptions of various businessmen, and copies of newspaper advertising from the period flesh out this general statement.

The video component of the display features four short presentations: CBC’s coverage of the 1998 project that rehabilitated the cemetery, and three additional pieces on how it was found, restored and rededicated under the supervision of the Jewish Historical Society of Yukon.

There were ceremonies in both Whitehorse and Dawson at the time to celebrate the event.

Years passed, and in 2014, according to a PowerPoint presentation that explains the background to the display, the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon “decided that it was time to determine and document what sort of commerce, employment, and other activities the Jews of Dawson were involved in during the Gold Rush, and the significant impact of those people on North American society.”

Slobodin’s task, which he says was a pleasurable one, was to find out as much as possible about key members of the community. The graveyard had offered up a single grave marker, that of Solomon Packer, but four others were known.

The three panels highlight the activities of a dozen or so people (mostly men and one woman) and reveal something of what they did when they moved on, as was the case with 90 per cent of the 30,000 folk who arrived here between 1898 and 1902.

Perhaps the best known name would be that of Sid Grauman, a failed miner who left Dawson in 1900 and went on to found movie theatres in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The latter one became the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the starting point of the tradition of stars leaving hand and foot prints in the cement of the sidewalk outside the building.

Many others followed the lure of the next gold rush, and ended up in Fairbanks, where they made a name for themselves in the business community and established the most northerly Jewish synagogue.

The display is at the museum for the summer, after which it will be travelling around, in a bid to both inform audiences and perhaps turn up additional information.

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