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
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.