The Roanoke is loaded with gold. Bags, cans, boxes, and crates cram its lower deck, jammed with a whopping ten tons of gold panned and sluiced by lucky devils in the northern wilderness. Only a year ago, no one had heard of the patch of low mountains and dense northern spruce now known as the Klondike. But these days, like an incantation of magic, the very word Klondike invokes prosperity, the vindication of the American dream and the triumph of the individual in its most measurable manifestation: wealth.
Nine days after departing the dreary and once sleepy port of St. Michael near the muddy mouth of the Yukon River, the Roanoke chugs toward the dock of the North American Transport Company in Seattle, a city that enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the Klondike and its magic, the city having built the magic and the magic having built the city. Four hundred fifty-eight passengers crowd her decks, eager for land. Since passing the Finger Islands, gateway from the Bering Sea to the Pacific Ocean, they’ve endured rough, open waters. On an approach to Seattle that’s blessedly calm, you can now and again catch a whiff of the sickness that leveled the travelers, wealthy and common alike, when a howling August storm heaved and tossed the steamship. Two decades hence, such a storm will undo the vessel, but for now, the worst has been emptied stomachs.
Sunshine seeps past clouds to light the throng gathered on the docks to welcome the boat and its gold, women in cinched-waist dresses and high, narrow hats; men in suits and suspenders, bowlers and derbys and straw tops. Everyone wants to see who’s gotten rich in the Klondike and who has returned empty-handed. In the Gilded Age of Horatio Alder and unbridled capitalism, Americans are extolled to industry, thrift, and temperance. No one can quite reconcile the idea of gold so easy and plentiful that you need none of these virtues to claim it. The idea is as unsettling as it is enticing, and on this day in 1898, there is no small amount of envy as the Roanoke steams for shore, especially when it comes to the scruffy common folk on her decks, the nouveaux made riches by gold.
A particular challenge to American precepts on money, virtue, and class is the lone native woman on board the Roanoke, first called Shaaw Tlaa, now called Kate Carmack. Her distinction - her claim to fame, as it were, though to her such a concept is utterly foreign – is that she is the richest Indian woman in the world. Since the sixteenth century colony for which the Roanoke is named, hers is the first big collision between Indians and wealth. She knows nothing of the indigenous people who’ve gone before her and failed, Indians like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and Quanah Parker who’ve only recently been consigned to a scrubbed-out existence on lands no one else wants.
Forget the city of eighty thousand – the crowd gathered on just this one dock exceeds twice again the entire population of Kate’s Tagish Indian band, of whom she knows each by name. Like all indigenous people of Alaska and the Yukon, the Tagish travel in yearly rounds, following caribou, gathering berries, and harvesting salmon to cache for long subarctic winters. Due to a fluke of self-interest by their Tlingit neighbors, they are among the last native people on the continent to confront the object-driven culture of the West. Theirs is the final frontier, some might say, though Frederick Turner in 1892 famously declared the American frontier closed, and at any rate, when your ideas about land don’t include boundaries, the whole idea of a frontier becomes pointless. Adapting is among the actions that have traditionally sustained Kate’s band, but there’s a tipping point between adaptation and assimilation that they’ve yet to test.
The Tagish are a people of action, their language centered on verbs, their integrity tied to how well they protect, relate, negotiate, behave, and adapt. In the form of luck, destiny comes to them; they do not seek it out. In Kate’s essence, her yaahei, which is Shaaw Tlaa and not Kate, it is the journey that matters, not the end. The route is always a circle, the wayfinding easy when you pay close attention, behaving in prescribed ways that honor defined relationships.
In contrast, nineteenth century Americans are a people of objects, their language driven by nouns. Their habit is intrusion, for in their way of thinking, destiny requires pursuit; it is no coincidence that in their language, the words destiny and destination are so closely related. They travel in lines, point to point, toward tangible goals. They explore, they assert, they acquire, they profit. Among their most thrilling and coveted prizes is gold, of which Kate has quite a lot.
Her voyage began nineteen days ago, when she boarded the sternwheeler Cudahy to depart Dawson City, a boom town at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers. Before the big strike, this confluence was summer salmon fishing grounds the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, now displaced. Despite their fortune in gold, Kate has until now occupied with her husband and daughter a small, tidy cabin built of hand-hewn logs at No. 1 Bonanza, a claim that by one estimate will yield 2.5 million dollars in gold. There she has sewn fur mittens and baked bread to sell to neighboring miners, though she draws the line at taking in laundry.
Two weeks before Kate began her journey, a huge white tent went up across the river from Dawson, belonging to a woman who couldn’t be more different than Kate. In this four-hundred-pound tent, New York heiress Mary E. Hitchcock can host seventy-five dinner guests, serving them tinned oysters and asparagus and lobsters and ice cream made from the freezer she has brought to the wilderness. She can entertain her new friends with her gramophone and her movie projector and her portable bowling alley, not to mention her flock of pigeons, her parrot, her canaries, and a Great Dane.
Penned between practicing on her zither and mandolin, Mary Hitchcock kept a detailed journal of the same voyage Kate is about to complete, though in reverse, traveling by steamer and sternwheeler through the Pacific to the Bering Sea and up the Yukon River to Dawson. Steaming from the mainland toward the mouth of the Yukon with traveling companion Edith Van Buren, grand-niece of President Martin Van Buren, Mary Hitchcock was struck by the profound silence as their ship navigated a field of ice floes. A stretch of wet, windy days at the dreary Alaskan port of St. Michael tried her patience as they waited for the water in the Yukon to rise to a level that could accommodate their sternwheeler. It vexed her to learn that she would not, as promised, be among the first passengers to put off in Dawson that year.
Once they finally got on the river, Mary disembarked whenever the boat stopped, which was often, sternwheelers having large appetites for wood. Fighting off gnats and mosquitoes and horseflies, she gathered wild roses, mulberries, currants, and raspberries, as well as groundsel, which delighted the canaries. Where she could, she photographed Indians who turned out along the river, though she refused to descend into a traditional community house to photograph their dancing, for fear of the vermin, and she writes with some indignation of a group of Indian women who covered their heads with shawls, demanding a sitting fee. Though she misperceived the tundra as prairie with great potential for agricultural development, she admired the mountains and rapids and gorges on the approach to Dawson.
This is the country the Kate has left behind, though unlike Mary Hitchcock, she is unable to record her impressions of it, because she cannot read or write. In the age of Yellow Journalism, American reporters are already poised to speak on her behalf. In order to find her way around, she will purportedly leave hatchet marks in the fancy woodwork of the Seattle Hotel. Random photos of Indian women will circulate, claiming to feature her image. With her husband, she will toss gold coins from the top floor of the hotel, causing mayhem among pedestrians who scramble for easy money.
Onboard with Kate is Portus B. Weare, owner of the Roanoke, who partnered with an old frontier crony to run boats – first one, then two of them - along the Yukon River five whole years before the Klondike opened up. This year alone, sixty new boats and barges are engaged in various stages of service to the gold fields, plowing across the North Pacific and up and down the Yukon at such an alarming rate that it’s a wonder they don’t collide. But Weare’s North American Transport Company was there early, giving the Alaska Commercial Company a run for its money.
Sternwheelers from the two rivals now race, quite literally, to and from the Klondike. Named after one of Weare’s cronies who made a fortune in Chicago meatpacking, the sternwheeler John Cudahy delivered Kate to the Roanoke, setting a new record as it zipped in six days from Dawson City to St. Michael. Weare is still beaming, though his mood darkens when he’s reminded of two gold heists that have plagued this voyage, one a theft from Kate’s brother Keish, known as Jim, and the culprits still at large. The papers will be all over that, and it won’t be good for business.
Discounting this loss, Jim, Kate, their nephew Kaa Goox, also called Charlie, and Kate’s husband George still have a quarter million dollars of gold stashed in the hull of the Roanoke, and this only a portion of the fortune they’ve wrestled from the frozen earth. Son of a California farmer, George Carmack claims credit for discovering the gold that set off the Klondike madness. So do the Indians.
As the Roanoke was about to depart for Seattle, the four of them posed for a photo. Though he should be at the peak of his game, Carmack looks roughest of the bunch, his suit coat rumpled and his tie loose at the collar. He’s not yet forty, but he suffers from rheumatism, which Kate doctors with traditional medicines, coltsfoot and devil’s club. A drifter who tried his hand at shepherding, which he hated, and the military, from which he went AWOL at the age of 22, Carmack showed up in the Yukon at a fortuitous time, when a marriage alliance with a white man seemed a wise move for the Tagish. Though George Carmack now claims the gold as his destiny, in truth he wandered the north for a dozen years with no real destination in mind. After all that time, Kate’s husband has finally written to his sister to tell her he’s married. His wife, he tells her, is Irish.
Interviewed in a Roanoke stateroom, Lyin’ George, as his fellow prospectors dubbed him, complained he’d never seen the “true story” of the Klondike discovery in print. He found the mother lode on his thirty-sixth birthday, he claimed, along the banks of a creek that has since been renamed Bonanza, gold nuggets lying around for the taking. Before he’s through, Carmack will invoke many versions of this “true story.” Next year, he’ll take Kate and Charlie and Jim to the big expedition in Paris, he brags. But when he writes the final story of his life, he’ll omit Kate completely. It will be as if she never existed.
In the photo, Kate appears beautiful by any standard, posing assuredly behind a crate of gold, dressed in a dark frock with lace collar and sleeves, a shawl draped over her shoulders. While not the height of fashion, her flat-topped hat is graced with a length of fancy ribbon. On her wrist she wears a metal bracelet, and on her fingers, several rings. With a slight smile, she stands out among dozens of stern-faced men. At her husband’s feet sits their five-year-old daughter, who can’t recall a life without gold. Wearing a heavy dress and a lace-collared cape, Graphie Grace scowls, perhaps having already spied the high-topped button boots she’ll demand her father purchase right off another child’s feet to replace the Indian moccasins made by her mother.
In this photo, no one touches Carmack, but a fellow miner rests his hand on the shoulder of Kate’s brother Keish. Known also as Skookum, or “Strong” Jim, he strikes a handsome, confident pose in his three-piece suit, his derby hat tipped stylishly to the side, one hand in his pocket, the other on his hip, displaying a gold ring. Son of a clan leader, Jim is acclaimed for his prowess and strength. In a single load, he once packed 165 pounds of bacon over the Chilkoot Trail, dubbed the meanest thirty-three miles in history. Another time he went hand to claw with a grizzly. Jim befriended Carmack even before they became brothers-in-law, a relationship that to the Tagish is deeply infused with obligations. Even though one of Carmack’s stretchers involved Indians not being allowed to file Discovery claims, Jim has stuck by George, digging gold out of Bonanza Creek. Although somewhere between Dawson City and St. Michael, a thief substituted lead shot for $7000 of his gold, Jim appears nonplussed. Two years before striking it rich in the Klondike, an encounter with the fleeting Wealth Woman of Tagish legend bestowed Jim with luck, or so he hopes.
Standing so close to Jim that their arms overlap is Kaa Goox, known as Dawson Charlie. Among the Tagish, uncles take special responsibility for their nephews, rearing them almost as fathers would. Like his uncle, Charlie sports a smart three-piece suit, but he’s young and slight and his hands clasped at his waist betray his unease, as if he alone knows what’s ahead.
In truth, Seattle is a hardly the best place to make your first acquaintance with urban America in the waning years of the nineteenth century. Swindlers and speculators are everywhere. You can buy everything imaginable – and then some - for use in the arctic: compasses, mercury, patented Blizzard Resister Suits, Klondike underwear, Klondike hosiery, Klondike gloves. You can purchase frost extraction devices and insect-proof masks – pound for pound, the Klondike is rumored to be almost as heavy with mosquitoes as it is with gold. Would-be millionaires can equip themselves with automated gold pans and steam-powered sleds, crystallized eggs (some turn out to be nothing but cornmeal), scurvy cures, collapsible boats, Klondike bicycles, and slot machines that operate on gold nuggets instead of coins – all of it, save perhaps the scurvy cure, utterly worthless upon arrival in the North. Yet already sixty million dollars has been spent in the race for gold.
The Klondike feeds the longings of an adolescent nation in the throes of nineteenth-century capitalism. Industrialism has funneled wealth to the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan in quantities unimaginable to the average American. There are only two classes, declares Populist Jerry Simpson: the robbers and the robbed. Following the Panic of 1893, factories closed, unemployment skyrocketed, and foreclosures were rampant. Depositors stormed banks, demanding their money in gold. At first the US Treasury drew on reserves to satisfy them, but the nation’s burgeoning deficit and European distrust of the American dollar created such a downward spiral in confidence that by early in 1895, the US government was about to run out of gold, which would cause the nation to default on its debt.
Only by brokering a deal in which the US Treasury sold bonds in exchange for gold from a syndicate led by banker JP Morgan was President Cleveland able to avert a full-blown financial crisis. Morgan of course made a hefty profit on the transaction, though the exact amount was never disclosed. Still the recession deepened, the Panic of 1893 becoming the depression of 1896. Cleveland’s reputation was ruined. Populist Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan ran on the silver platform, eschewing the gold standard as the tool used by greedy bankers to manipulate the money supply. “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” Bryan cried.
Six weeks before this famous speech, Carmack or one of the Tagish – depending on whose version you believe – discovered the nuggets that precipitated a flood of gold into worldwide markets, renewing confidence and setting off a boom in transportation and industry to accommodate the would-be millionaires rushing north, effectively stalling the furor over gold versus silver and ending the recession. Thanks to an enthusiastic advertising campaign launched by Erastus Brainerd, a former journalist who on the printed page rivals P.T. Barnum for showmanship, nearly all the traffic in the Seattle harbor now points north.
Nearly all the traffic, that is, except for the Roanoke, about to deliver Kate to the throng. Can wealth be her destiny? Everything in the nineteenth century American soul screams against it. But for Kate Carmack nee Shaaw Tlaa, destiny is hardly the point. You act as you must, trusting in the combined sum of your actions to keep you whole. You hope against odds that out of the mad rush for gold will come another sort of triumph, not of wealth but of spirit.