The Klondike of Phil Lind’s painstakingly amassed collection is a place where men nearly froze in week upon week of -40 weather, where Indigenous prospectors were pushed out of their territory by white settlers, and where law-and-order Canadians attempted to co-exist with more unruly Americans.
Mr. Lind’s trove of documents, photographs and other ephemera from the Gold Rush age will soon give historians an unprecedented look at the people who lived through an era that has long held a legendary place in North America’s imagination.
Mr. Lind, a UBC graduate and vice-president at Rogers Communications, has donated the collection started by his father to his alma mater. It marks a $2.5-million gift.
“The Klondike Gold Rush was a particular story in which colonialism, capitalism, hope and violence came together in the late 19th century with long-lasting local, regional and transnational effects,” said Dr. Laura Ishiguro, a professor of Canadian history at UBC, and one of the only researchers who has seen the full acquisition.
“Although the North can sometimes garner comparatively little attention, this event has held a particular place in the national imagination ever since. This invaluable collection underscores the particular significance of the Klondike and will offer many new insights into the event and its wider context, as well as the ways it has – and hasn’t – been remembered since.”
The collection stems from a family passion. Mr. Lind, a long-time UBC donor, has been amassing artifacts and rare documents related to the period for the last 40 years.
His grandfather, Johnny Lind, was one of the earliest known prospectors in the Klondike in the late 1890s. After moving back to London, Ont., once his claims dried up, he started a cement company, but kept the lore of the Gold Rush alive in the family.
“He imbued in his children the sense of adventure and hardship that they went through in the Klondike,” Phil Lind said. “My father and uncle have always taken their kids up there. We’ve all crossed the Chilkoot Trail, which is hard. It’s not easy to climb up that mountain and takes days. All of us know our grandfather’s story about doing that and about the Yukon.”
Mr. Lind says his father started a modest collection of Gold Rush-era memorabilia, but he has “amped it up considerably.” It now contains thousands of photos and about 2,000 rare books, along with maps, posters and unpublished diaries of men who lived through the Gold Rush.
“I’m a UBC grad and I love the West Coast,” said Mr. Lind of his decision to house the collection at his alma mater. “And this is a B.C. and West Coast story – there’s no question about it. There were mostly Americans up there, so they mostly left from Portland, San Francisco and Seattle, but the Canadians all left from Victoria or Vancouver. Canadian Pacific and other carriers would carry the men up from Vancouver to a place called Dyea, close to Skagway [Alaska]. Then they had to cross B.C. to get into the Yukon.”
Mr. Lind hopes the collection, which is being digitized by UBC Library and will eventually be made available to the public, will help spark more interest in the story of the Klondike.
“The story is genuinely interesting,” he said. “But beyond that, it has a lot of deep, deep meaning.”
Among the intriguing ideas found within the documents is the suggestion that the Russians may have discovered the Klondike’s gold before the Americans did.
“There are maps showing that the Americans bought [the land] from the Russians in 1867,” Mr. Lind noted.
He said the documents help to illuminate the on-the-ground of reality of the men living there, as well as some of the differences between the American and Canadian cohorts of prospectors.
“The difference in conduct between the Canadians up at Dawson and the Americans at Skagway-Dyea is really interesting. The Americans were totally ‘Wild West.’ There was complete law and order on the Canadian side and really rough, tough stuff on the American side. It’s interesting, looking at it today, when you compare the two societies, American versus Canadian.”
The documents also reference the relationship between the Gold Rush pioneers and the Indigenous peoples of the Yukon, he said.
“The history of the thing is terrible. At least in Canada, the Indigenous people were allowed to stake a claim, but generally speaking they were pushed off wherever the white settlers were going to have a settlement. There were First Nations people in Dawson, and they had to move two or three miles down the road.”
Mr. Lind is working on a book about his grandfather and the Gold Rush, which he says will go into detail about what he calls the “terrific power imbalance” that shaped this contact-era dynamic.
Dr. Ishiguro notes that in the later 20th century there were a number of “rich and significant” studies about the Gold Rush and its history, but that it has been some years since historians have paid sustained attention to the subject.
“For me, the best part about the collection is that it can spark new questions well beyond what might have been imagined by the people who produced, collected and cared for these materials for so long,” she said.
“My hope is that it captures people’s imaginations and produces questions that challenge the mythology of the Klondike.”
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