On August 16, 1896, George Carmack and his two Indian friends, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, struck gold on a little stream deep in the interior of the Yukon. Test samples showed so much color that they realized immediately that they had made the big strike. At the time, the trio couldn't even begin to imagine how big it would turn out to be.
The news of the rich gold strike spread speedily throughout the several hundred prospectors who happened to be on the Yukon River at that moment. They rushed to the site. After only a few weeks the entire watercourse and its tributaries had been claimed. Bonanza Creek, as the location of the strike came to be named, flowed into the Klondike River. At the place where the
Klondike River flowed into the mighty Yukon River, a little community quickly arose which went by the name of Dawson City.
The news of the find at Bonanza Creek didn't reach the outside world during the first winter. But when the two steamers Excelsior and Portland arrived in San Francisco in the middle of July 1897 and the bearded, filthy goldminers came down the landing planks carrying valises packed with gold, the Gold Rush news broke and spread across the whole world!
In Seattle the businessmen quickly perceived that they didn't need to journey up to the gold fields in order to get rich. The most profitable business in their situation was selling supplies to the prospective goldminers who, in addition, needed lodging and transportation. It is calculated that the businessmen in Seattle sold $25 million worth of equipment to the
goldminers during the first six months of the rush alone. It would take three years before the gold fields up in the Klondike returned that much money.
The Rough Road Up
One could scarcely choose a more inaccessible place for gold to be found than in the Canadian Yukon. The most important routes to reach the gold fields were from the two landing spots, Skagway and Dyea, at the end of the Lynn Canal Fjord in Alaska. From Skagway one could reach the waterways in the north via an almost impassable trail called White Pass. Along that route
there was a section called, significantly, "Dead Horse Valley". No less than 3,000 beasts of burden are estimated to have been sacrificed along this section. The greatest number of the gold prospectors never made it through the pass in the winter of 1897-98 but were forced to stay over in Skagway. This practically lawless community was ruled for a long time by the legendary
bandit, Soapy Smith. Shooting and stealing, often ending in death, were commonplace.
From the other landing spot, Dyea, was a trail over the famous Chilkoot Pass. It was a steeply rising mountain slope which placed heavy demands on the travelers. A gold prospector had to get himself up the slope as many as 40 times in order to pack along all the necessary equipment. Since the Canadian authorities were concerned that famine would break out up at the gold
fields, they established regulations that every gold prospector had to have enough provisions with him to get along for one year.
A resident of Munsala, Finland, Karl Johan Nyby, who climbed over the Chilkoot Pass in March of 1898, described the experience in a letter home: You've never seen such a sight. There was a narrow path we had to walk, one after the other, and there were probably 20,000 men. Sometimes we had to stand still a whole hour waiting with 50 or 100 pounds On our backs in order to
get into the line so we could get going. Thus it went day after day until we got everything to the top...
If Nyby and his traveling companions had taken a few days more, it would have turned out very badly for them. Only a few days after they had passed over Chilkoot, a snow avalanche took more than 70 people's lives.
There were also other routes to the gold fields. Those who had the money could ride the river steamers up the Yukon River. But if they didn't get started early enough in the year, it could happen that the steamer was iced in and they had to spend the whole winter on board waiting for open water.
The Canadian authorities tried to lure the travelers to take the Edmonton route in the Province of Alberta. "What they offered was a highway which in only a few weeks would get the goldminers to the Klondike. Unfortunately, the Canadian route actually took two years, that is to say for the few dozen who made it to the Klondike. Of the approximately 2,000 who
attempted to take that route, around 500 lost their lives.
The prospectors also tried to take a number of other routes but with equally poor results. Great rivers of goldminers got themselves over Chilkoot and White Passes. They were the ones who made it to the gold fields.
A Pensala Resident Murdered
For safety reasons nearly everyone chose to make the trip in groups of two or three men. In that way they could take turns guarding the equipment. But they had to choose the right traveling companions. K. J. Pått from Pensala was one of the many who never reached the gold fields. He and one other traveling companion were murdered in their sleep one night by a third
traveling companion who should have been on guard. Pått had carried his savings on him. Apparently it was this which tempted the murderer, who was caught red-handed as he was about to hide the bodies.
On the other side of the passes, the lakes awaited: Lake Lindeman and Lake Bennett. Most of the travelers who arrived at the lakes in the winter chose to stop over. At the lakes they constructed boats and rafts, with which they could get down the Yukon River. At this point the handy Ostrobothnians could show what they were good at. Two citizens of Vörå, Mickel Omars and
Jakob Peth, constructed several boats early in the spring which they could sell to other less dexterous goldminers.
When spring and the ice breakup arrived in 1898, there were more than 7,000 vessels which were launched into the water. It was a remarkable sight when the whole armada of every imaginable type of floating object started to move northward. Farther down along the river there were several dangerous rapids which had to be passed and which demanded their sacrifices both in the
form of vessels and human life.
For those approximately 5,000 gold prospectors who arrived in Dawson the summer of 1898 and those 30,000 who came the next year, the encounter with "Gold Country" ended up as a big disappointment. All the watercourses in the area which contained gold were already completely claimed. There were many who chose in that situation to turn around and seek their route
back to civilization. Others stayed there and took jobs at someone else's claim, in construction, or on one of the river steamers which trafficked the Yukon River.
Several Ostrobothnians chose to support themselves as hunters. It was a profitable business hunting and selling game, especially during the winter, but it could of course also be pretty adventurous. Wilhelm Thill, born in Hirvlax, who visited the Klondike at the beginning of the century, was once forced to sleep in a sleeping bag under the open sky next to the trail when
the mercury showed minus 50 degrees. Fishermen constructed simple huts, too, with pounded earth floors and roofs of turf. They had to manage to winter over in such primitive huts.
Those working the claims didn't have it easy either. In order to get down to the layers in the ground where the gold was located they had to dig a shaft down to the bedrock, which could lay up to 30 meters deep. During the summer only a thin layer of the earth's crust thawed out. The rest of the ground was frozen the year round. It was a matter of thawing out the earth
with bonfires or hot stones. It wasn't until a later date when the goldminers were able to send steam into the gravel that the work was made a little easier.
Down at bedrock they began to dig passages in different directions. The earth which was dug out was dumped in big piles. It was only in spring, when there was running water available, that they knew what a claim was worth. They took the gold out by washing the sand in long chutes or in specially constructed rockers. The gold, which is very heavy metal, was left in the
chute while the sand disappeared with the water. They could also use mercury in the process, but that was not a completely safe method.
During the summer the goldminers went out on prospecting trips. They washed for gold at the water's edge of the Yukon River's innumerable tributaries. Mosquitoes during the short summer months were an unbearable torment.
Reindeer to the Rescue
Starvation threatened the goldminers of the Klondike in the winter of 1897-98. The reason was that the water level in the Yukon River had been low the whole summer and the river steamers had difficulty getting up to Dawson. The situation wasn't improved by the fact that the last two stern-wheelers which arrived had no food but had whisky and bar equipment for cargo.
When news of the threatening famine reached the Outside, it led to one of the most remarkable relief expeditions in the history of the world. They hit on the idea of sending Lapps from Finnmark in northernmost Norway with a whole herd of reindeer. There were 74 Lapps, 10 Finns, 25 Norwegians, together with 538 reindeer, in the expedition which left Bosekop in February
1898. They were carried in a cargo ship which had been leased and refitted in great haste. The route had to go directly across the North Atlantic since quarantine regulations prevented the ship from entering any English harbor. It was a dreadful crossing where animals and people were jammed into narrow spaces. Among other things they ran into a terrific storm which lasted for several
On February 27, they finally arrived in New York. There the whole expedition was transferred to railroad cars, whereupon the trip continued across the whole North American continent. Once in Seattle problems began to crop up. Information had come from the gold fields that the famine was not as great as they had believed. A more acute problem was that the reindeer lichen
they had carried from Norway was almost gone. The reindeer were therefore let out in one of Seattle's parks where they could eat grass. The feed didn't suit the reindeer's stomachs at all.
From Seattle the expedition continued by boat to the port city of Haines, Alaska. At that point the reindeer had begun to die. By dint of great effort they got the remainder of the weakened animals up to a highland where there was appropriate grazing for them. It was fall before the journey northward could continue. They reached Dawson in January of 1899, that is to say
nearly one year too late. The herd was then down to scarcely 100 animals.
In the Lapps' contract with the American authorities, it was agreed that they would stay in Alaska several years in order to teach the Eskimos to raise tame reindeer. In Alaska there is a wild reindeer, the Caribou, which before the white man's arrival had been the Eskimos most important source of protein. The breed of wild reindeer had been heavily decimated through
predation, and the native people were threatened with starvation. Thus they would now introduce the Nordic domestic reindeer into Alaska.
The Lapps, the Finns, and the Norwegians were placed at mission stations along the Bering Sea. For Jafet Lindeberg, one of the Norwegians in the expedition, it was a big disappointment. He had accompanied the rescue mission with the thought in mind that he would get to the gold fields. But he wouldn't need to be disappointed as it turned out. Right after the arrival at the mission
station, they heard the rumor that a gold strike had been made in the neighborhood! Lindeberg then immediately broke his contract with the American authorities and hurried to the gold fields. There he bumped into two Swedes who were out on the same errand as he.
The two Swedes were a missionary by the name of John Brynteson and an adventurer by the name of Erik Lindblom. The trio formed a partnership, bought a little boat, and sailed off along the coastline. When they came to the mouth of a river, they decided to go up it. The river's convoluted course made the trio give it the name of the Snake River. At one of the river's
tributaries, Anvil Creek, they made a gold strike which would become one of the richest in Alaska's history. Before the rumor about the new strike got out, the trio managed to make a number of claims for themselves and for a long list of countrymen at the mission stations.
When the news spread, other goldminers quickly began to rush to the spot. At the place where the Snake River runs out into the Bering Sea, the community of Nome quickly grew up. Those newly arrived were very unhappy that foreigners had appropriated the most valuable claims. The dissatisfaction went so far that a plan was developed to drive out the Swedes, Norwegians,
Finns and Lapps from their claims. On July 10, 1899, the goldminers gathered for a public meeting with the intention of passing a resolution that the foreigners' claims were unlawful and that the area of Anvil Creek would be open to claims again. The most enterprising had prepared themselves by setting up large bonfires on the beach. These would be lit as soon as the resolution was
On the mountain above the beach, their accomplices waited for the fires to be lit as a signal that the way was clear to take over the Scandinavians' claims. But then something completely unexpected happened. Some men from the military troop which was stationed in Nome marched into the meeting place, and young Lieutenant Spaulding declared the meeting over.
An extremely tense atmosphere continued to prevail and some form of explosion appeared unavoidable. But then something else completely unexpected occurred. By pure coincidence someone discovered that the sandy beach below Nome was absolutely full of gold!
Källström described the Rush
"There has never before been a more remarkable city on our earth. When you approach it from the sea it resembles a white stripe 30 miles long... Closer up you see that the white stripe consists of tents in the middle of which there is a cluster of hastily thrown up wooden houses."
Thus, Viktor Källström came to Nome during the city's most hectic days in the beginning of the summer of 1900. The summer before they had panned a couple of million dollars' worth of gold on the golden beaches below Nome. Now masses of people were pouring in, and it is estimated that around 25,000 persons were located in Nome and its surroundings.
Källström himself made several trips in the coming years to the new gold fields rumored to be farther to the north. Several of the trips he undertook with Otto Forsback as companion, also from Bonäs. The two Nykarleby residents were also ordinary laborers on others' claims, and they wintered over a couple of years in Nome. Later Källström was drawn to areas around Fairbanks for
the new gold rush there.
The thing that makes Källström unique in this connection is that he has left behind many interesting descriptions of life at the gold fields. He published his workmostly in the emigrant newspaper Finska Amerikanen, but also in a number of American newspapers.
Källström lived out his last years in Poulsbo, WA, outside Seattle and became one of the last remaining eyewitnesses to Nome's Gold Rush.
The Great Gold Conspiracy
In the excitement that developed in connection with gold being discovered on Nome's beaches, the other goldminers quickly forgot their dissatisfaction with the Scandinavians' claims. But in other directions, namely some high political quarters, plans to appropriate the gold field at Anvil Creek were forged.
In July of 1900 an unscrupulous politician named Alexander McKenzie arrived in Nome. The winter before, he had attempted to get the American Congress to pass a law which would have made the Scandinavians' claims unlawful. Despite the fact that McKenzie had political contacts at the highest levels, he wasn't successful in forcing the proposed bill through. Now, he arrived
instead in the company of Nome's newly-appointed judge, Arthur H. Noyes. That the judge was McKenzie's henchman would soon become apparent. One of the first legal proceedings the new judge enacted was to declare a row of the most valuable claims at Anvil Creek to be unlawful. Simultaneously, a company in which McKenzie was the major shareholder was appointed as the trustee/manager of the
property. The Scandinavians were not even notified that heir claims were the subject of a court action. They knew nothing about the decision when McKenzie's men turned up, chased them off, and commandeered all their assets, including that gold which already had been extracted.
The following step in the conspiracy was that Judge Arthur Noyes denied the Scandinavians the right to take the case to a higher court. The plan apparently depended upon delaying the affair so that the plaintiffs would not manage to get help from the outside, before Nome was isolated by winter. McKenzie would then have time to take out no end of gold and sell shares in
his company to such persons who didn't know the truth of the situation.
But the plan fell apart. The Scandinavians' lawyer turned to a higher court authority in San Francisco, where they received justice immediately.
The next step in the conspiracy was taken when Judge Noyes stated that he wasn't subject to the new court. But that was the end of the Scandinavians' patience. They took back their claims by force of arms, McKenzie was arrested and sentenced to one year's imprisonment, and Judge Noyes was removed from his position.
The great gold conspiracy, as such, never became the subject of any trial. That would have meant too many ramifications in high political circles. The result in anycase was that the Scandinavians got to keep their valuable claims.
Several Other Rushes
The rush to Nome was followed in 1902 by a new rush to the districts around Fairbanks along the Tanana River. A Finlander there by the name of Gus Juntilla came to play an important role in the complicated court proceedings concerning valuable claims at Dome Creek. The opponent was none other than Fairbanks' founder, the influential banker, E. T. Barnette.
The rush to Fairbanks was followed some years later by a new rush to the Kuskokwim River, where Herman Reeth, born in Korsholm, was one of the earliest pioneers. A little bit west of the Kuskokwim River, at a place which came to be called Iditarod, another gold rush broke out in 1910.
At that point the extraction of gold in Alaska had reached a new level. Now it was bigger companies who depended on mechanical extraction. The companies brought in gigantic dredgers which turned whole long valleys upside down in the hunt for the golden metal.
The Finlanders were there early at all stages of Alaska's Gold Rush. As early as the first winter of 1896-97, there were some twenty Finlanders in the district around Dawson. They were followed by many more; how many it is nearly impossible to chart. Clearly it may be concluded that among the goldminers there was a strikingly large number of Ostrobothnians. These appear
to have come for the most part from the area between Pedersöre and Maxmo.
Characteristic of most of these goldminers was the fact that they seldom left any written descriptions behind. The only one, actually the exception, is the earlier-mentioned Viktor Källström record which summed it up as follows:
"And I have seen a lot of gold in Alaska, although it happened to be tolerably thin on my claims. I have seen gold lying like a gold blanket at the edge of the washing flume, thick layers of gold the bottom of the sluice boxes, and I was there when it took two men to carry the gold from one week's work at Anvil Creek. Them were the days."