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Children of the Klondike

Reviewed: July 15, 2010
By: Frances Backhouse
Publisher: Whitecap Books
243 pages, $19.95

Fifteen years ago Frances Backhouse produced Women of the Klondike, one of the first in what has become a small shelf of books about Klondike women. As she told me when she was staying at Berton House two years ago, it was at the time that she became aware of what she and several writers since have called a void in the local history: the absence of much writing about children.

As she notes in the preface to this new book, “The women who followed the golden trail to the Yukon were a diverse lot, ranging from dancehall girls to doctors, entrepreneurs to missionaries, and housewives to wealthy tourists. Many of them were also mothers, and through their stories I was introduced to their children.”

There are conflicting versions as to who was the first of the white children born in the Klondike, but Backhouse has taken a very safe and proper tack here and begins with the children of the men who found the gold on Rabbit Creek. Neither Graphie Gracie Carmack nor Daisy Mason seem to have benefited much from the wealth their fathers found. Both daughters had strained relationships with their fathers, George Carmack and Skookum Jim; both found themselves neither fish nor fowl in the complex world of race relations; both left the Yukon and both had unhappy marriages. Daisy is buried in Carcross, but Gracie’s grave is in the USA.

Backhouse maintains a fairly even balance between the races as she threads her way through the lives of her subjects. One chapter deals with the lives of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in before, during and just after the Gold Rush. Whether it is appropriate in a history book to use the name of the current political designation for the local first nation is something I’m not quite sure of. Until the influx of Gwech'in from the Dempster area, the local natives were mostly Hän, and the group that was still called the Dawson Indian Band as late as 1986 went through several name changes before settling on the present term in the 1990s.

Another chapter deals with the children and families of the stampeders who were left behind when their fathers rushed to the Yukon. Some of these followed their parents later and became just as infected with “Klondicitis” as their fathers were.

Backhouse demonstrates clearly that a number of children were part of the 1898 Gold Rush along with the adults who took part, starting with nine year old Emilie Craig, who all the Mounties thought was a boy until she told them otherwise.

As transportation improved and more wives joined their husbands the population began to grow and Backhouse records the 1901 census as showing 6,695 people in Dawson proper, including 441 children aged 14 or younger. There were another 808, including 51 children, in the outlying communities of South Dawson, West Dawson, Klondike City and Moosehide.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the social and physical lives of the children, including some accounts of their sports and recreation, but also the story of those who died from typhoid fever between 1898 and 1904.

Children change a frontier community and chapter 8 deals with founding of schools, churches and other instruments of civilization. It also establishes that dog mushing, even by children, has long been an established practice here.

Chapter 9 returns to social life, giving details of games, sports such as skating, and parties that were given for children.

Children were also to be found among the entertainers that strutted the boards of Dawson’s various theatres and dancehalls. Some of the most popular singers and actors were children and could coax a tear and a tossed coin from the most hard bitten miner.

In her final chapter Backhouse discusses the experiences of Klondike children who travelled Outside, how they reacted to the sights of the larger and less isolated world and how people reacted to them when they moved. Even today the words Klondike and Yukon have a certain cachet, an exotic allure that attaches to them. The book ends with accounts of trips to Dawson by two former Klondike children who felt pulled to return here after having been away for 60 and 70 years. As one of them wrote in a letter, “I have never got the ‘Yukon’ out of my system.”

Whitecap has released both books this past March in a lovely matched set. If you missed Women the first time around, it’s worth adding to your collection along with Children.

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