Yukon Gold Rush: Who Was First?

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The Yukon Gold Rush brought people to Canada’s North from all over the world.

Robert Henderson was a prospector who claimed to point out to the Indigenous man Skookum Jim, his daughter, his nephew, and an American named George Carmack, where the gold was in the Klondike river and creek beds.

All of these five people, in the end, would each lay claim as being the one who was first to find where the gold lay in the creek beds, starting the Yukon gold rush.

Yukon gold rush or gold rush Alaska was over almost as fast as it started.

It would last three years, it had begun in the summer of 1896, and it would last only until 1899.

The few that made any money would often lose it all at Yukon gold casinos.

The influx of gold-hungry prospectors consisting of most Americans would lead to Dawson City’s creation.

It would also result from the Yukon federally being recognized as a Territory, and many other cities, towns, and villages.

Henderson, in the end, would be the one recognized by the government of Canada as the one who officially discovered gold, which started the Yukon gold rush.

Some believe Henderson received recognition as Canadian, and Carmack was an American citizen, giving Canadian credit as the gold rush in Canada.

The mining industry in Canada, specifically the Yukon, went from individual labour intensive to working together with companies to gain capital for the expenditures for hydraulic mining equipment and high-powered hoses, resulting in high costs for little profits, devastating the ecosystems amongst the creek and riverbeds.

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Going to Alaska in Search of Gold

Heavy machinery to find gold would replace a once labour-intensive job that destroyed the ecosystem, leading to massive job loss quickly and insensitively.

These big corporations and mining companies only cared about profits no matter how much land and water supplies they destroyed.

At the same time, the First Nations peoples were going through their atrocities due to the Yukon gold rush or gold-rush Alaska.

First Nations people societies were devastated by the influx of people hungry for gold, resulting in losing about ninety percent of their population due to diseases like influenza and measles; their women were abused by the settlers and introduced First Nations in Canada to the harmful drug alcohol.

Alcohol would have detrimental effects on First Nations’ overall body and mental health. As well, it would lead to destructive behaviours towards themselves and others.

They would have their land stolen by these profit-driven companies and these gold-hungry prospectors.

Those three short gold rush years resulted in Indigenous peoples losing approximately ninety percent of their entire population.

The significant life loss in so little time resulted from prospectors bringing with them and spreading to the unfamiliar immune systems of the Indigenous populous were diseases like measles and influenza.

Gold was discovered on August 17, 1896, where the Yukon and Klondike rivers meet at the mouth, running off the nearby mountains in the western part of the Yukon territory.

Within a year, there were somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30,000 prospectors, most of whom were from the United States searching for gold, creating new towns such as Dyea and Skagway.

These towns were several hundred miles away.

The First Nations

First Nations definition – any of the indigenous peoples of Canada officially recognized as an administrative unit by the federal government or functioning as such without official status.

The term is generally understood to exclude the Inuit and Metis.

Who was first in the Yukon to discover gold during the famous gold rush that brought people from around the world to Canada’s North.

It also led to Dawson City’s creation (1896) and the Yukon Territory (1898). But unfortunately, many of these prospectors would succumb to avalanches, hypothermia, and malnutrition on their journeys searching for gold.

By 1899 the Yukon gold rush was short-lived, and those searchers moved north up to Alaska, leaving behind the destruction of the ecosystem caused by their heavy machinery ripping up the grounds and riverbeds.

Robert Henderson never claimed to be the first to find the gold that kickstarted the Yukon gold rush, but he claims him to be the one who pointed out the region that bared the gold to Carmack in summer 1896.

The series of affidavits taken by William Ogilvie shortly after the Yukon gold rush discovery would show that neither confirms nor denies that Henderson’s advice was what led up to the gold rush. Jim and Tagish Charly and Carmack lived as they always have done.

They did a combination of logging, fishing, and prospects as part of their typical day. They were always working, and now with the massive increase in population in the area, it only made them more business.

Kate Carmack (First Nations name “Shaw Tláa) (1862-1920) is Skookum Jim’s sister.

She would live with George Carmack sometime shortly after 1888, and they would have a daughter named Graphic together.

Although finding gold stressed their relationship, and George would leave her and Graphic in 1900, he would marry a prostitute from Dawson.

Graphic as an adult would marry her dad’s z new wife’s brother.

Kate returned to living with her First Nation family, where she would live near her brother until his death.

She died as a result of the influenza epidemic of the 1920s.

Skookum Jim (First Nations name “Keish”) was an affiliate of the Tagish First Nations part of the wolf clan.

Dawson Charlie was his nephew, and he was born sometime around 1855.

He lived by the town known today as Carcross.

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Possible Prospectors 

When Skookum Jim was young, he worked as a packer, moving the supplies and equipment of early prospectors over the mountain trails from the coastline to the Yukon River’s waters.

While working as a packer, he met Carmack, and they quickly became friends along with Dawson Charlie. Unfortunately, Skookum Jim passed away in 1916.

The gold rush was not the first time gold had been known in the Yukon Territory.

The first time Yukon gold was found was a bit earlier than 1896.

To go back a bit further to the first recorded time, the search for gold in the Yukon Territory would begin decades before the Yukon gold rush.

Yukon gold was first discovered in 1874, which brought in just a small number of prospectors.

Those prospectors included Al Mayo, Arthur Harper, and Jack McQuesten.

The three men became traders as they could not support themselves as prospectors.

However, these men promoted, encouraged, and then provided the growing prospecting group that matured slowly before starting the gold rush.

At first, it was a slow burn, then a progressively increasing river of optimistic prospectors who would go through the Yukon basin, prompted by the good rumours of gold in the Yukon in one of the four rivers which consisted off: The Sixty Mile River (1891), Forty-mile River (1886), the Stewart River (1885), and finally Birch Creek, close to Circle City, Alaska (1892).

There were about 1,600 prospectors by 1896 searching for gold nuggets in what is known today as the Yukon Territory.

An American known as Joseph Ladue lived in the Yukon since 1882.

He was an owner and operator of a trading post on the Yukon River, just above the widest part of the Klondike.

As other people made accusations for finding gold, Ladue was speedy to capitalize on finding gold on Bonanza Creek.

He would divide 65 hectares of moose and swampy pasture at the tip of the Klondike River. He would name it Dawson City, and he would become very wealthy from cutting trees down and selling the lumber and subdividing and selling the lots to have prospectors build on them.

Yukon Gold Rush: Who Was First?

The Yukon gold rush brought people from all over the globe to Canada’s North.

The massive influx of prospectors was an impressive expedition during which many challenges would be met, with many obstacles to overcome the Yukon gold rush.

In the beginning, there was a terrifying journey north along the Pacific coast from cities near the ocean such as Victoria, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle.

They would travel to the coastal Alaskan harbours of Dyea, Haines, and Skagway.

Dyea was the beginning of the most recognizable gold trail of them all.

Haines was found close to the start of the Dalton Trail. Skagway was a lawless place, a town run by the outlaw Soapy Smith and his gang of thieves, found at the White Pass Trail.

Dawson City found itself expanding exponentially in no time, and the city was located at the widest part of the Klondike River.

The stampeders arrived late in the Klondike, looking to be a part of the Yukon gold rush, but they were too late to leave because of the shorter summers.

So each individual had no choice but to build their shelter if they wanted a chance of surviving the brutally cold arctic-like winters.

Then what followed after that is about seven months of darkness as the sun does not come up at all during this time of year, the cold.

They are met with complete isolation, devastating to mental health and diseases like influenza and measles.

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Finding Gold and Poverty

People who were lucky and could find gold could build a healthy, happy family and life.

The majority of the successful prospectors lived lavishly.

However, most prospectors found themselves starving and leading miserable, poor, disappointing lives.

Hitting pay dirt was far and in-between through looking for gold in frozen gravel in the bottom of valleys.

While only a small number of miners became wealthy, most prospectors left empty-handed.

The newcomers had no choice but to work along the edges of the creek beds that had already been dug up and sifted through.

There was almost always nothing left to find but rocks and dirt.

During the Klondike boom height, the population was about 30,000 or more, then dramatically fell to only a couple hundred within a decade.

Gold mining is still, to this day, an economic pillar for the region.

The amount of gold recovered in the Klondike from 1897 to 1899 was equally given to the participants in the Yukon gold rush.

They found about $29 million worth of gold but had invested far more in machinery and hired many humans.

And had to pay for normal living accommodations.

They were paying for food, water and other goods and services.

They devastated the ecosystem and lost money.

It was a loss for the prospectors, a loss for the First Nations people in Canada populations, and detrimental for the environment.

Finding Devastation 

The prospectors also disrespected the Han people of the Yukon valley, and their women were often raped, and the introduction of alcohol destroyed their societal well-being.

It would take about 100 years to regain the land and be recognized as the original landowners.

Most people saw the gold rush as devastating and detrimental to most people, especially the environment.

However, the Yukon Territory’s economy benefited greatly.

It may have been going through a depression and high unemployment rates, but the prospectors’ spending showed a massive rise in economic dollars during the gold rush.

Parliament officially formed the Yukon Territory on June 13, 1898.

This was a result of the rapid development of the Yukon gold rush.

Unfortunately, the Yukon gold rush left behind the needed infostructure, governance, and support for the Yukon Territory foundation.

If not for the Yukon gold rush, this territory would have been a long, arduous road before it had the proper foundation to be named a territory.

Overall, the prospectors would lose money compared to how much gold they could recover.

They also destroyed the ecosystem with heavy machinery ripping up the earth.

They also took jobs away from independent contractors and made them work for big corporations and companies, but most would be left jobless.

Prospectors Displaced First Nations

The prospectors would also displace the First Nations people.

Many of their women were abused and raped, and introducing alcohol destroyed society and ripped families apart.

The prospectors’ disease killed about 90 percent of their population.

Robert Henderson was a prospector credited with being the person responsible for starting the Klondike gold rush.

He would claim to point out where the gold was in the streams and riverbeds to the Indigenous man Skookum Jim and his daughter, nephew, and an American named George Carmack.

All these people, in the end, would claim to be the first to find the gold, which began the Klondike gold rush.

But, just as fast as it started, the Yukon gold rush was over. It only would last three speedy, short, cold, and dark years from 1896 to 1899.

The heavy increase in the population of gold-hungry prospectors consisting of most Americans would lead to Dawson City and many other cities and towns.

Perhaps more importantly, it led to the creation of the Yukon Territory.


[1] Cruikshank, Julie. 1992. “Images of Society in Klondike Gold Rush Narratives: Skookum Jim and the Discovery of Gold.” Ethnohistory 39 (1): 20–41. doi:10.2307/482563.

[2]  Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Klondike gold rush.” Encyclopedia Britannica, April 21, 2017,

[3] Gates, Michael, “Klondike Gold Rush.” In the Canadian Encyclopedia. Historical Canada. Article published July 19, 2009; Last Edited March 04, 2015.

[4] Gates, Michael, “Klondike Gold Rush.” In the Canadian Encyclopedia. Historical Canada. Article published July 19, 2009; Last Edited March 04, 2015.

[5] Holliday, J. S. “Gold Rushes.” Eric Foner and John Arthur Garraty edited the Reader’s Companion to American History. Houghton Mifflin, 2014.

[6] Pope, Jarvis William Henry. Great Gold Rush. Toronto, Alberta: Outlook Verlag, 1913., 149-157.

[7] Young, Samuel Hall. The Klondike Clan: A Tale of the Great Stampede: By S. Hall Young. New York; Chicago; Toronto; London; Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company, [c1916]. American Fiction, 1774-1920 (accessed February 14, 2021), 328-345.



Dean Mathers


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