Long before anyone came in search of gold and long before the world heard the words "Klondike Gold Rush," the Yukon was the home of an Athapaskan people. Tr’ondëk, meaning hammerstone water, was the original name for the river we now call the Klondike. The river got its name from the fact that the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in used to hammer stakes into the riverbed and weave branches between them to create weirs that guided fish into carefully set basket traps. Hwëch’in means people, so the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in are the “People of the Hammerstone river”.
They lived a nomadic lifestyle, following the rhythm of the seasons and travelling to where food was most abundant in a particular time of year. They had a permanent settlement at the mouth of the Tr’ondëk or Klondike River although they did not live there year round. This area was an important summer fishing ground for them.
While this area is famous for gold rushes, it was actually the fur trade that first opened the north to non-native settlement.
In 1848, Robert Campbell established Fort Selkirk for the Hudson Bay Company at the historic First Nation trading centre at the junction of the Yukon and Pelly Rivers. The supply route was long and difficult, so trade goods were always scarce here.
The Yukon drainage was well prospected by 1896 and it was only a matter of time before the large concentration of gold in Bonanza Creek would be found. There is great debate among historians over who actually discovered gold in the Klondike, and who really deserves credit for starting the Klondike gold rush. It is generally agreed that the major characters in the story are Robert Henderson, George Carmack, his wife Kate who was a member of the Tagish First Nation, her brother Skookum Jim, and their nephew Dawson Charlie.
Who was the first person to actually lay eyes on the gold in Bonanza Creek? We will probably never know for certain but William Ogilvie made it his business to research the topic and talked with many of those involved. Both Jim and George claimed to have been the one, while some maintain that Kate Carmack found gold while washing dishes in the creek. Ogilvie states that Skookum Jim found the first gold nuggets but that George, Jim and Charlie were travelling together and shared in the discovery.
In any case George Carmack staked the Discovery Claim on Bonanza, with Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie having a claim on either side. And with that claim, the rush was on.
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