Woman who helped discover the Klondike
North of 60 Mining News – June 30, 2023
Last updated 6/29/2023 at 1:17pm
For over a century, the men of the Discovery enjoyed the reputation, renown, and riches; now, Kate Carmack will be remembered too.
Tales of the original Klondike discoverers that opened the floodgates for tens of thousands of stampeders to make their way North in search of gold often forget a First Woman of the Yukon that supported them through the challenging times of the early 20th century. A person of quiet stoicism and dutiful integrity, this figure weathered a time where the fairer sex saw anything but fair treatment; she was Shaaw Tláa – a Tagish First Nation woman who was a member of the party that discovered gold in the Klondike in 1896 – or as history recalls her, Kate Carmack.
Even now, many of the historical retellings are thus:
"On August 16, 1896, three Yukon "Sourdoughs": George Carmack, Dawson Charlie, and Skookum Jim found gold on Rabbit Creek (now Bonanza Creek), a tributary of the Klondike River..." –dawsoncity.ca
"On August 16, 1896, George Washington Carmack and two Indian friends in the Yukon pried a nugget from the bed of Rabbit Creek, a tributary of Canada's Klondike River, and set in motion one of the most frenzied and fabled gold rushes in history..." –historynet.com
"Gold was discovered in mid-August 1896 by George Carmack, an American prospector, Keish (aka Skookum Jim Mason) and Káa Goox (aka Dawson Charlie) - Tagish First Nation members into whose family Carmack had married..." –thecanadianencyclopedia.ca
"In August 1896, Skookum Jim and his family found gold near the Klondike River in Canada's Yukon Territory. Their discovery sparked one of the most frantic gold rushes in history..." –nps.gov
"On August 16, 1896, Carmack, along with Jim Mason and Tagish Charlie, later Dawson Charlie (Kaa Goox), both Tagish First Nation members – discovered Yukon gold on Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza Creek), a Klondike River tributary that ran through both Alaskan and Yukon Territory..." -history.com
There are, however, some historical accounts of the origins of the Klondike Gold Rush that do take her presence into account, with some even crediting her as the person who made the actual discovery. But a significant question remains – would her name have been present more often if she had been a man?
Nevertheless, this story is not one of women's rights, but rather, to highlight the presence of an incredible individual that shared a part in one of history's craziest gold rushes.
Women of the Rush
Few women braved the cold, wet climate and unknown fates of the Yukon wilderness in the late 1890s – it was a world dominated by men. Yet brave women who possessed self-reliance and determination saw the rush to the Klondike as a golden opportunity.
Setting off for the wilds of the frontier, some came with high spirits and gumption to eagerly embrace the adventure, while many others came from desperation to support themselves and their families.
While most saw fit to remain comfortable as housewives and caretakers, others looked confidently at fulfilling their dreams beyond that station, and each brought with them a vision to make their own decisions and choices without regard from men.
But much like the men of the Klondike Gold Rush, everyone who endured the journey North hoped to improve their fortunes if they could.
Seeking such fortune, these women faced obstacles and seized opportunities in their newly found independence – for who had such time to consider womenfolk and their status when gold was to be found?
The journey north required skills to survive the Northern wilderness, either on foot or by horse, or even shipwright to navigate the Yukon River all the way to Dawson City. Dangerous rapids, tricky sandbars, biting mosquitoes, and inclement weather that often battered the adventurers with blinding snowstorms and icy driving rains, followed then by floods and avalanches.
Most stampeders, male or female, were not physically conditioned to the strenuous life that was required. Therefore, there we two winning strategies that worked for all, regardless of gender.
Providing goods and services.
And "mining" the miners often left many better off than those that struck actual gold.
In the end, gold rush women found value in the human drama of meeting basic challenges of life – staying warm, getting enough to eat, resting, and staying alive.
They captured the natural beauty – glaciers, streams, flowers, picturesque rocks and mountain peaks in their photographs and journals. While many others faced extraordinary circumstances with skills required for the perilous journey.
These pioneering women found the courage to recognize their mistakes and accept their failures, to stretch their limits, and face the unknown. Some became heroes in a great adventure and others simply survived. Even for those who got rich in the North, the real gold was their life experiences that remained the most exciting aspect of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Born near Bennett Lake, Yukon in 1857, Kate Carmack lived near Caribou Crossing (now called Carcross) with her parents and seven siblings.
Her father, Kaachgaawáa, was the head of the Tlingit crow clan, while her mother, Gus'dutéen, was a member of the Tagish wolf clan. Her name in Tlingit means "gumboot mother" (gumboots, for American readers, are another name for rubber or rain boots).
As a young woman, she married her first cousin, Kult'ús, but in the early 1880s, he and their infant daughter died of influenza in Alaska, at which time she returned to her village.
It was around this time, in 1887, that her brother Keish (Skookum Jim Mason) and nephew K̲áa Goox̱ (Dawson Charlie) started a packing, hunting, and prospecting partnership with George Washington Carmack, an American.
George Carmack had actually been married to Shaaw Tláa's older sister, but when she died not long after their marriage, Shaaw Tláa took her place within the year at the encouragement of her mother. Becoming Carmack's common-law wife, no official record was made of the marriage, an oversight Kate would live to regret.
For six years starting in 1889, the couple lived in the Fortymile region. Carmack prospected, trapped, and traded, while Shaaw Tláa, to help provide for her family, sewed and sold winter apparel to miners, hunted, fished, and gathered food, all skills she learned from her Tagish and Tlingit relatives.
A few years later, the two would have a daughter, Aagé as her Tagish name, and Graphie Grace Carmack for her English name, born in 1893, in Fort Selkirk.
While the Klondike gold discovery has been recounted in numerous fashions, the story afterward was not a happy-ever-after for the Carmack's who gained new-found wealth and fame from the find.
In the summer of 1898, George and Kate left the Klondike for the "outside." Traveling to Seattle to celebrate their riches, with the couple even planning to buy a ship to sail to Paris with their millions. While there, they were the center of attention.
George rode around town in a carriage bearing the immodest sign, "Geo. Carmack, Discoverer of Gold in the Klondike," while tossing coins to crowds.
Life away from the rest of her family and the land she knew best was hard on Kate. Her misery was self-destructive, and when she was arrested for making a public disturbance, the Seattle Times was quick to print the story.
"Mrs. George W. Carmack, the Indian wife of the discoverer of the Klondike, who is probably the richest Indian woman in the world, was fined $3.60 by Judge Cann this morning for drunkenness."
George had become as unhappy with Kate as she was to be away from her home. Instead of letting her return to the North, he sent Kate and Graphie to live with his sister, Rose.
George returned to Dawson and set about enjoying his "discoverer" status, becoming the life of the party as well as falling in love. Soon after, he wrote to Rose and asked her to send Kate back to her clan, informing them that he intended to marry someone else.
Refusing to be tossed aside, and after consulting with friends, Kate decided to make a legal appeal for her share of the couple's $1.5 million worth of gold discoveries. So, she sued for divorce on the grounds of desertion and adultery, however, unfortunately for Kate, since no marriage papers had been filed, the court did not recognize its existence.
To make matters worse, after George left her, Kate and Graphie would return to Carcross only to have George lure their daughter to Seattle when she turned 16. This would prove a devastating loss for Kate as she held firmly to the Tagish belief that children belong with their mother's clan.
Shaaw Tláa lived the remainder of her life in a cabin Keish had built for her, living off a government pension and selling needlework to tourists. Never again seeing her daughter, she died on March 29, 1920, in the global influenza pandemic.
In the end, her role in the discovery was largely overlooked over the century. While the rest of the Klondike Discoverers would later be inducted in the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame in 1999, Shaaw Tláa herself was not inducted until 2019, twenty years later.
She was buried in the Carcross cemetery at the age of 63. Her gravestone can still be found there.
Shaaw Tláa recognized
While delayed, Shaaw Tláa Kate Carmack was inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame in 2019.
Although it came two decades after the rest of the Klondike discovery group she was with were inducted, the selection board of the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame are recognizing her role and importance.
"If you go into the history of the reporting of the Gold Rush, of course you find it heavily centered on the men who were involved," said Jon Baird, chair of the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame. "We've now placed [Kate Carmack] – due to new information that's come to our attention, anyway – we've placed her at the scene of the crime, and we want to give her due recognition."
That new information came to light in "Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold," a 2016 book by U.S. writer Deb Vanasse.
In the classic discovery story, George, Skookum Jim, and Dawson Charlie find gold at Bonanza Creek after getting a tip from prospector Robert Henderson.
Vanasse's research told her that Kate was there when that first nugget was actually pulled from the creek, and so deserves equal credit.
"One of the main reasons I wanted to do the book was to really set the record straight," Vanasse said. "I think of Kate, in terms of mining, the way we look at all the support people who surround mining, even today – the engineers, the people who help with the processes – it's not just who found the particular mineral that's being brought from the ground, it's all the people who make that happen. And that's the role she played.
Baird agreed, saying that even though no claim was ever staked in Kate Carmack's name, she was "instrumental" in the Klondike discovery. She supported the prospecting party by sewing and selling mukluks and mittens, and her traditional knowledge and skills helped the group to live off the land.
"George Carmack was really just a part-time prospector who drifted up from California, got really sick, and Kate saved his life, if you will, by nursing him," Baird said. "In the fullness of time, there will be more and more women who are inducted."
With some justice being given to her legacy in the form of recognition for her significance in one of history's largest gold rushes, perhaps her soul can rest easier knowing the part she played was not in vain.