Klondike Christmas: A Rags-to-Riches Story

JamesClementsMiners who had worked the gold fields across the American West began making their way to the far-flung regions of the Alaskan and Yukon territories in the 1880’s in search of riches and adventure.  Gold was discovered along the Klondike River, but in amounts so small that claims weren’t worth making – at least not yet.

Expeditions were planned to set out in early spring of 1896 following the formation of several gold mining and development companies.  In February the Bonanza-Eldorado Company was capitalized to the tune of $200,000,000, setting its sights on dominating the Klondike gold fields with its introduction of revolutionary mining methods.

Newspapers referred to the region as either the Klondike or the Alaskan Gold Fields.  Technically, the Klondike region was Canadian (Yukon) territory, although borders had been disputed since Secretary of State William H. Seward arranged the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

On August 16, 1896 American prospector George Carmack, along with his wife Kate, a Canadian Indian (Tagish), and her brothers James Mason (also known as Skookum Jim) and Káa Goox (known as Dawson Charlie), were exploring the area south of the Klondike River.  The area had been explored for several years after the Tigit and Tagish tribes agreed to allow prospectors access to search for suspected gold deposits.

Carmack’s group received a tip from another prospector, leading them to explore one of the Klondike’s tributaries, Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza Creek, for obvious reasons).  Jim Mason had been given the nickname Skookum, which meant “strong, big and reliable”.  He was an expert hunter and trapper who assisted earlier surveying expeditions – he knew his way around the territory.

It’s unclear who actually discovered the gold along Bonanza Creek, but four claims were filed the following day under George Carmack’s name – two claims for himself and one each for his brother-in-laws Jim and Charlie.  Word spread among the mining camps scattered throughout the Yukon River valley as miners converged on Bonanza Creek.  By month’s end the entire creek had been claimed.

Another stream feeding the creek soon yielded another cache of gold, even richer than Bonanza and on it went as word spread to the continental United States — gold fever was on again. The men who set out leaving their families were called “Klondike husbands”.  James Clements, a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad, set out for the Klondike in early 1896 after scraping together $125 for his family before departing.

By the time Clements reached Alaska he had not one cent to his name, however.  He tried explaining to the captain of the boat headed for Dawson City that he couldn’t afford the $150 ticket.  He begged the captain to take him anyway.  A stranger overheard his pleas and offered to lend him the money.  From his arrival in April until September James still had nothing to show for his efforts – until he struck it rich.  He tried unsuccessfully to find the stranger who had kindly lent him boat fare.  He was even more determined to pay back his debt after learning his benefactor had been far less than successful.  He left $150 in nuggets at the Circle City (Alaska) post office as a Christmas gift.

Christmas of 1896 was spent in a hut after working from six in the morning until eight at night preparing dinner for the miners gathered around a roaring fire.  The gifts were special that year as James spread the wealth by filling four boxes with dirt known to be “rich”.  They thawed the dirt by the fire, melted ice to wash the nuggets and then some of them took turns pounding it.  There was a contest to see who could get the most gold out of his pan, while others stood around and guessed how much would be extracted.

Indeed, the dirt was “rich” – four boxes, or about twelve shovelfuls, panned out a little more than $5,000.  The luckiest guesser walked away with a prize of $200.  They feasted on roast caribou, bear steak, fool hen (Canadian grouse) and moose.  After washing two lard pail covers used for plates the miners sat around the fire and told stories.  With thoughts of home, James retreated to a corner of the room, laid on the bed and wept.

One year later James Clement and his family spent a decidedly different Christmas together in a small New York City hotel.  Theirs was a unique Christmas – perhaps the most unique in all of New York.  While some trees in the city were festooned with gold tinsel, the Clements tree was adorned with gold nuggets.  Although claiming he wasn’t seeking notoriety, Clements boasted there was about $70,000 in gold surrounding or hanging on their hotel room tree.

The hanging nuggets were estimated to have been worth $40,000, the rest scattered around the base of the tree in large nuggets and twenty-dollar gold pieces.  Clements was carrying gold stones in his pocket – one about the size of a hen’s egg was thought to be worth $500.  Mrs. Clements was wearing a bracelet of gold lumps.  Still, the New York Times article stated this “exceeding modest and quiet young couple . . . were by no means eager to display their suddenly acquired wealth to strangers.”1

Clements would return to the Klondike the following spring to collect the gold dug out of his claims since departing.  After paying expenses and the men who were working on shares as his employees, he expected to net between $300,000 and $400,000 — somewhere between eight to eleven million in 2015 dollars.  From penniless to massive wealth – what a difference one year made in the life of James Clements.  Is it any wonder they still search for treasure in the land called “America’s Last Frontier”?

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

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© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.

Footnotes:

  1. New York Times, 26 Dec 1897, p. 15

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