When George Carmack, an American prospector, died in Vancouver in 1922, he was known as the man who discovered the first nugget that started the Klondike gold rush.
But did he really?
New research by a U.S. writer indicates Mr. Carmack unfairly took credit in an attempt to steal the prestige away from a Canadian and to help erase links to the native family he abandoned after striking it rich.
The question of who actually discovered gold at Bonanza Creek in 1896 has long been in dispute, with some giving at least a bit of the credit to the two Yukon aboriginal men, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, who were with Mr. Carmack that day.
They both filed single claims on Bonanza Creek – but Mr. Carmack got two.
“Carmack took credit for the find, staking the discovery claim – the first claim on the creek – which entitled him to a second claim,” states the Yukon government’s archives website.
Some unofficial accounts say Mr. Carmack’s wife, Shaaw Tlaa, who was also known as Kate, may have been the one who first saw a glint of gold while she was washing dishes in the creek. But she never staked a claim and remained very much in the background.
Today, most historians describe Mr. Carmack as a co-discoverer – but they acknowledge the question of who actually reached down into the waters of Bonanza Creek and pulled out the dime-sized nugget that started a mad rush to the Klondike, remains unanswered.
“Of course, we will never know for sure the events surrounding the discovery as everybody later wanted to claim a hand in it,” Yukon historian and author Michael Gates recently wrote in the Yukon News.
When Mr. Carmack came to B.C. on a speaking engagement in 1922, however, the Vancouver chapter of the Yukon Order of Pioneers sought to put all doubt to rest, passing a resolution that gave him sole credit. The all-male club was made up of men who had all worked in the Yukon before settling in Vancouver and they spoke with great authority.
“They proclaimed him the discoverer, and he died like three days later in a Vancouver hospital,” said Deb Vanasse, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska.
She said the proclamation was surprising, because it meant Canadians had chosen an American over a Canadian in the dispute over which country should get credit for starting the Klondike gold rush.
Ms. Vanasse, who is working on a book about the life of Kate Carmack, hopes her research will correct the record and put the argument to rest once and for all.
“There really is no doubt because I’ve looked at so many different sources and sorted them out by reliability. I’m really quite sure,” she said in a recent interview.
“From my research, the evidence all points to Kate’s brother, Skookum Jim (Keish), having discovered gold at Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza),” she said in an e-mail. “In an unpublished source, I found that George Carmack himself even said this, telling youngsters back in California that Jim found the gold, in the same way Jim told the story, that he happened upon it in a stream, right after shooting a moose.”
“The idea that Carmack made the discovery came about because he filed the discovery claim,” she wrote. “He told Jim that Indians weren’t allowed to file discovery claims (this was not true; Carmack rather honestly [came] by his nickname Lying George).”
Ms. Vanasse said Mr. Carmack took Kate and their daughter, Graphie Grace, with him when he left the Yukon, loaded with gold, on a steamer to Seattle. But he later abandoned her, married a prostitute and kept custody of Graphie against her mother’s wishes.
Kate returned home, and all she ever got from his fortune, estimated by some to be worth $2-million in 1867, was $500.
Ms. Vanasse said Mr. Carmack actively portrayed himself as the discoverer, even going so far as to disavow that he had native family and saying Dawson Charlie and Skookum Jim worked for him.
The three men made fortunes, she said, but Mr. Carmack’s was eventually “frittered away” by his second wife. Dawson Charlie, who owned a hotel in Carcross, had spent most of his by the time he died, falling off a bridge drunk, on Christmas Day, 1908.
“In the end, the financial legacy that remains is Skookum Jim’s, because he formed a trust for the Indian people of the Yukon,” said Ms. Vanasse. “He’s the only one whose money is sort of still out there doing good today.”