Pioneers of Forty Mile

Susan and Michael Gibson work off each other as they talk. With the ease of long familiarity, they lead off each others’ anecdotes and remind each other of important points.

My 10-minute interview turns into an hour-long conversation.

“We kind of ping-pong ideas a lot,” Michael says.

It’s a quality that has helped and inspired the two North Pole, Alaska residents on their projects.

Susan’s project—a book of biographies of Klondikers in the Forty Mile area— started as a favour for her husband.

Michael is working on his second book, which will chronicle the history of two Forty Mile families. His first book, Echo of a Family Secret, told the story of a murder in his own family’s history.

Susan meant to help him out with a bit of background research and ended up with a collection of over 1,000 mini-biographies, which she will be publishing as a book of her own.

“It started out with saying, ‘these people worked with Frank Purdy—you go and research them and give me the information I need.’ So I did,” Susan says.

“And then, well, this other guy was Johansen’s best friend, so then you go and find him. From there, I thought, well, I have no idea how many of these people he would’ve run across.”

Susan started researching all the people in the area—figuring that, after all, it’s a pretty empty area now; how many people could there possibly have been?

“Well, I was wrong. There were a lot,” she says with a laugh.

She spent her three days in Dawson City this summer poring over records in the Klondike History Library, trying to track down a few of her hundreds of subjects.

“I’ve been stuck in Jack Wade Creek in 1900 for months,” she says.

“But the byproduct of doing the research is really learning the history of the area. I mean, I’d had some knowledge of it, but in doing that research it really brings you down to the nitty gritty of what was really happening on an individual level.”

The Fortymile River in northern Yukon and Alaska was a home base for early miners, and, as the Gibsons figured out, a fallback area for later ones. Though most of the Gibsons’ subjects settled in the American portion, borders were negligible to those early prospectors.

“They’re in and out, all of ’em. Crossing borders all the time,” Michael says.

“Every one of them made a big impact in Dawson and in Forty Mile. It’s quite a group of people.”

Michael’s research complements that of his wife, but is more specific. He is following two Forty Mile families, the Johansens and the Purdys, who came over in the Rush and stayed to settle down.

The Gibsons know a few of their subjects personally. Michael grew up with the descendants of one of the rare ’98ers who came over the White Pass and whose family stayed in the North.

One of those descendants, Agnes Purdy, is still alive and waiting for Michael’s book.

“She was like my second mother, growing up. When I wasn’t at home, I was at their house,” Michael says of his childhood in Fairbanks, Alaska, where Purdy still lives.

He plans to have his book out by the summer of 2013.

“I would love to get this published before Agnes dies, and she’s made that a priority herself,” he says.

“There weren’t too many ’98ers left when I was a boy, but there were a few, and I got to know them. And it’s really a rich history,” Michael says.

“It’s a very special generation of men and women that we are losing rapidly.”

Susan’s book won’t be published for a few years after Michael’s; every time she thinks she’s nearly done the research, she says, she finds another area of history to explore.

Susan’s final product will likely end up in volumes.

Both of their books are meant in part to help stave off that loss of history.

“It’s endemic in our culture, you know—no one wants to think about the past,” he continues.

“They’re too busy worrying about the present and the future.”

Living in the midst of this history, as those in Dawson do, it’s hard sometimes to imagine that it’s slipping away. But with the impending closure of Dredge #4, as well as a similar situation with the Jack Wade Creek dredge in the Forty Mile area, the Gibsons are part of an effort to keep the past intact.

The researchers have been working on these projects for almost two years. The two run a small farm in North Pole, growing their own produce, and the summer months don’t always lend themselves well to indoor research.

With the peculiar Northern time restrictions these projects are a tremendous undertaking, but to Susan, the research is the reward.

“The adrenaline just starts flowing—it’s that ‘ah, I got it!’ moment,” she says.

“I’m fond of saying of the people I’m researching that there were people there from all over the world, and all walks of life. Everybody had a story and everybody’s story was different—and fascinating. Just fascinating.”

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