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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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William Cronon

Dreaming the Klondike

On the morning of our cruise from Tracy Arm to Juneau, I lectured on the history of the Klondike Gold Rush. My goal was to prepare people for their encounter with Skagway and their ride on the Yukon and White Pass Railroad, along the route that so many would-be miners followed in 1897-98. I've always regarded this as one of the most dramatic instances of a remarkable phenomenon -- the gold rush -- that happened repeatedly in the history of the American West during the second half of the nineteenth century. Think about it: word reaches the outside world that someone has discovered gold in some remote corner of the continent, and suddenly thousands of people decide to drop everything they're doing, make a perilous journey to a place they've never even heard of before, to do something for which they don't have the least preparation or understanding, all in the hope of striking it rich and making a fortune.

On its face, the story of the Klondike Gold Rush has much in common with the California rush of 1849, the Pike's Peak and Virginia City rushes of the late 1850's, the fictitious rush on the Fraser River of 1858, the Idaho and Montana rushes of the 1860's, and the Black Hills and Tombstone rushes of the 1870's. In 1896, a Nova Scotian named Robert Henderson found gold on a tributary of the Yukon River and told an American named George Washington Carmack about his discovery. Carmack went to the spot with a pair of friends and on August 16, 1896 found a thumb-sized piece of gold sticking out from a slab of rock. They began panning and quickly realized that they were working an extraordinarily rich site. Carmack soon filed a claim and later declared, "I felt as if I had just dealt myself a royal flush in the game of life, and the whole world was a jackpot." Virtually every miner in the area rushed to the site and worked through the winter. Then, in the summer of 1897, two steamboats arrived in San Francisco and Seattle, disembarking prospectors carrying extraordinarily heavy luggage filled with nuggets of gold in fruit jars and jelly tumblers. The news flashed across the country, and tens of thousands of people, most of them young men between the ages of 15 and 40, instantly began making preparations to head north to the Yukon. The rush was on.

In one sense, this was a perfectly normal event: as I've already said, it happened repeatedly over the course of the nineteenth century. But in the context of the Harriman Expedition Retraced, the juxtaposition of this gold rush history with the profoundly moving time we spent with our Tlingit hosts at Cape Fox and Ketchikan makes the Klondike seem much odder. Tlingits and other Alaskan Natives have been living here in southeastern Alaska from time immemorial, and never once in their history prior to the nineteenth century had anything remotely resembling a gold rush taken place here. What they have always valued in this land is the bounty it yields to sustain them, the deep spiritual relationships they share with all the other creatures who live here too, and the rich cultural traditions and histories that make this place their home.

The Klondikers who came to southeastern Alaska in 1897-98 in search of gold brought very different traditions and cultural assumptions. For them, this rare yellow metal called gold was all that really mattered in the landscape through which they traveled. Because gold had long been a token of wealth, because it could be fashioned so easily into precious jewelry, and -- not least -- because it was the foundation of the entire money supply of a capitalist market economy, its abstract "value" was immense. This was, of course, a cultural choice, and not all cultures have made the same judgment that everything they care about can be expressed in golden equivalents. But because gold played just this role for so many Americans in 1898, Tlingits and other Alaskan and Canadian Natives suddenly found their lands invaded. Indeed, golden wealth in some form or another must surely have been at least a little on Edward Harriman's mind, whatever scientific and artistic purposes may also have inspired him, as he organized his expedition to the Alaskan coast just after the Klondikers made this same journey.

Sixty thousand people departed from Seattle alone to sail north to the frontier towns of Dyea and Skagway on Lynn Canal, at the northern end of the Inside Passage. Although Americans often overlook this fact, the gold fields were actually in Canada, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police refused to let any Americans make the journey down the Yukon unless they brought with them a ton of supplies to provide food for an entire year. Transporting such a heavy load of provisions up to the famous Chilkoot and White Passes above Skagway was nothing short of a nightmare. Thousands of horses died along the trail, and prospectors without horses were forced to make dozens of journeys carrying their heavy loads piecemeal to the international border. Once across, they proceeded to Lake Bennett, where they assembled crude flat-bottomed boats and waited for the spring thaw so they could float themselves and their supplies to Dawson City, the center of the Klondike district. When they arrived, most discovered that the really valuable claims were already gone. Most never found gold at all. Although the Klondike was one of the richest gold strikes in the history of the world, it was also one of the most short-lived. By the time Harriman Expedition plied these waters, the peak of the frenzy was already passing.

In my lecture, I tried to make this strange moment in Alaskan history come alive with the amazing photographs that were taken to show the hardships of the trail, the labor of the miners, and the life of Skagway and Dawson. No gold rush of the nineteenth century has more powerful visual images associated with it, because skilled photographers and the popular press covered virtually every aspect of the journey north. As I projected these images, I also read from the poetry of Robert Service, who will forever remain the bard of the Klondike. His "Law of the Yukon" remains to this day an astonishing description of the dreams and dilemmas we continue to face as we contemplate the future of this beautiful northern landscape:

I am the land that listens, I am the land that broods;
Steeped in eternal beauty, crystalline waters and woods.
Long have I waited lonely, shunned as a thing accurst,
Monstrous, moody, pathetic, the last of the lands and the first;
Visioning camp-fires at twilight, sad with a longing forlorn,
Feeling my womb o'er pregnant with the seed of cities unborn.

Wild and wide are my borders, stern as death is my sway,
And I wait for the men who will win me--and I will not be won in a day;
And I will not be won by weaklings, subtle, suave and mild,
But by men with the hearts of vikings, and the simple faith of a child;
Desperate, strong and resistless, unthrottled by fear or defeat,
Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat.

Lofty I stand from each sister land, patient and wearily wise,
With the weight of a world of sadness in my quiet, passionless eyes;
Dreaming alone of a people, dreaming alone of a day,
When men shall not rape my riches,-and curse me and go away;
Making a bawd of my bounty, fouling the hand that gave---
Till I rise in my wrath and I sweep on their path and I stamp them into a grave.


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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