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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Intrepid Women of the Klondike

     When we learn about the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98, the names we usually hear are male – those Klondike “kings” who struck it rich. But many women also caught the “gold fever” that ignited the frenzied stampede northward in search of treasure, a fever that spread quickly thanks to an economic depression. They came from all walks of life, some with husbands but many alone. Their reasons for venturing into the unknown were as varied as those of the men, ranging from desperation for money to feed themselves and their families to a desire for adventure.

     About 1500 women crossed over the White Pass or the Chilkoot Trail in their quest to reach Dawson City and the Klondike River region. Here are four of them.

  Mollie Walsh Bartlett

      Mollie Walsh left her home in Butte, Montana to join the Klondike Gold Rush in the fall of 1897. On the boat north, she met a Presbyterian preacher who began building a church upon his arrival in Skagway. Mollie raised money and helped build the structure, then became active in the congregation.

     In March 1898, Mollie bought restaurant supplies and had them packed up the White Pass Trail to Log Cabin, in Canadian territory. There she set up a successful grub tent and roadhouse, where she served freight packers and gold stampeders. She became known as the “Angel of White Pass Trail.” Many men became enamored with Mollie, and she had her share of suitors.

      She moved to Dawson in June, opened a restaurant and became involved with Mike Bartlett, a pack train driver with a drinking problem. They were married in December. The next summer, she left the Klondike with enough money to make a home in Seattle, Washington, with her newborn son. Her husband went to seek gold in Nome, Alaska.

     When Mike joined her in Seattle, their marriage deteriorated and she left him. In 1902, Mike shot her in the back outside her home. He was acquitted of the murder charge by reason of insanity and sentenced to an asylum. The court called it a "crime of passion," as they often did in those times. After his release he hung himself, leaving their two-year-old son orphaned.

   Kate Rockwell

     Kathleen Eloise Rockwell lived in New York City working as a chorus girl and performing in vaudeville houses. She moved to Spokane, Washington, following a job opportunity with a variety theater where she lived on dance and drink tips. When Kate heard of the Klondike Gold Rush, she and a friend immediately left for the Yukon.

     After arriving in Skagway in 1899, she continued northward, with stops at Lake Bennett, Whitehorse and other settlements along the way where she tap-danced to support herself. In Dawson, she was offered a job with the Savoy Theatrical Company, the largest theater troupe in the Klondike. Her risqué “Flame Dance” was very popular, and she earned as much as $750 a night performing for newly rich, but lonely, miners. She became known as “Klondike Kate, the Belle of the Yukon.”      

      Kate amassed a significant fortune. Working with her lover, Alexander Pantages, she sold bottles of watered-down champagne to inebriated miners, thus adding to her riches. Dawson’s prosperity began to wane in 1902, and Pantages convinced Kate to leave for the West Coast of the U.S. There he used much of her money to buy theaters in the Pacific Northwest and persuaded her to take her show on the road to earn more money to support his pursuit. She returned from one such tour to find he had married another woman.

       To support herself, she again took her act on tour, performing in saloons and theaters up and down the West Coast.  This life took its toll on her and she retired from the stage, nearly broke. She traded her house in Seattle for a homestead claim of 320 acres near Brothers, Oregon. She stayed at her claim for the requisite seven years, making improvements to the land and outbuildings then sold the land and moved to Bend, where she built a lodging house.

      She had a short-lived marriage to a cowboy followed by a happier one that lasted thirteen years to a miner who died in Alaska. Two years later, in 1948, she married again—this time to a longtime friend and accountant Bill Van Duren. They retired to Sweet Home, Oregon, where Rockwell died in her sleep in 1957 at age 84.

  Lucille Hunter

     In 1897, nineteen-year-old Lucille Hunter left Michigan with her husband, Charles, for the Klondike. They were among the few African Americans who joined the gold rush.  After leaving with a group of stampeders from Wrangell, Alaska, they followed the Stikine River through the coastal range and then overland to Dawson. This was considered one of the most difficult routes to the gold fields.

     Lucille was pregnant at the time. She and Charles stopped at Teslin Lake, where she gave birth to a daughter. The indigenous Tagish community apparently had not seen black people before and were at a loss for what to call them. They referred to the Hunters as “just another kind of white person.”

     Most of the others in their group stayed at Teslin Lake for the winter, but the Hunters decided to go on alone by dogsled over hundreds of miles of snow in temperatures that dipped as low as 60 degrees below zero. They and their infant daughter arrived in Dawson just after Christmas in 1897, well ahead of most of the stampeders. This allowed them to stake three claims along Bonanza Creek, where they lived in primitive conditions, digging gold and raising their daughter.

      A few years later, Charles also staked some silver claims near Mayo. The couple mined gold and silver until his death in 1939. Lucille continued to operate the mining claims and raised her grandson, since her daughter had died earlier. When construction began on the Alaska Highway in 1942, Lucille and her grandson moved to Whitehorse. She set up a laundry business and her grandson made the deliveries around town. 

     In later years, she lost her sight but kept up with current events by listening to her radio. She died in 1972 at age 93.

  Martha Black

      Martha Purdy and her husband Will left Chicago and their wealthy society life for the Klondike in 1898. Her brother George accompanied them, but they left their sons with Martha’s mother in Kansas. When they reached Seattle, Will was called on business to San Francisco.  While there he changed his mind and suggested they go to Hawaii instead. Her biography, My Ninety Years, states: "I wrote to Will that I had made up my mind to go to the Klondyke (sic) as originally planned, that I would never go back to him, so undependable he had proven, that I never wanted to hear from or see him again. He went his way. I went mine."

     Martha persuaded her brother to accompany her on the trip north. They arrived in Skagway in July and joined a party that set out on the Chilkoot trail. A fashionable woman, she found her clothes ill-suited for the climb. "As the day advanced the trail became steeper, the air warmer, and footholds without support impossible. I shed my sealskin jacket. I cursed my hot, high buckram collar, my tight heavily boned corsets, my long corduroy skirt, my full bloomers, which I had to hitch up with every step."

     As she was traversing the trail, Martha discovered she was pregnant. The party stopped at Excelsior Creek, where she and George staked placer claims, which they planned to work the following spring, then went on to Dawson. Single and pregnant, she was shunned by Dawson society. The town was overrun with stampeders and there were few accommodations available. George rented a cabin across the Klondike River, in a less reputable area near the brothels. She gave birth to a son in the tiny cabin.

     While she was still in Dawson, her father arrived and convinced his reluctant daughter to return home with him on the condition that she would return if her claim, left in George’s care, panned out $10,000 worth of gold or more. In June 1900, she received word that her claims had surpassed that level of production. She returned to Dawson, where she established and managed a successful sawmill and mining camp financed by her family. This and her original claim made her financially independent and she was finally welcomed into the local social scene. In 1904, her divorce from Will was finalized and she married Dawson City lawyer George Black.

      George became Commissioner of the Yukon in 1912 and later served four terms in the Canadian Parliament. When he resigned for health reasons, Martha ran in his place in the 1935 election and won. At age 69, she became the second female Member of Parliament to serve in the House of Commons. She was known as the First Lady of the Yukon.

      “What I wanted was not shelter and safety, but liberty and opportunity,” she wrote in her autobiography. On October 31, 1957, Martha died in Whitehorse at the age of 94.


     I often include real-life historical figures in my novels. Although I didn’t include any of these women specifically, they and several other women of the Klondike provided the inspiration for Katie, Millie and Grace in The Claim. Intrepid female trailblazers of our past, like Mollie, Kate, Lucille and Martha, paved the way for the courageous female leaders of our present and our future.  


  1. Wow, these women were gritty! Amazing stuff, Ann and thanks for sharing

    1. Thanks. There are so many awe-inspiring stories of women in the Klondike that it was had to choose who to include.

  2. Fabulous post. Each and every one of these women would make a wonderful heroine for a book on their own.

    1. I agree. Martha Black's autobiography was fascinating.

  3. What can I say? A stunning post and so rich with history. Thank you. Doris

  4. Thank you. Researching THE CLAIM led me down so many interesting paths. This post reflects one of them. I wish I had half the grit of these women.

  5. This was fascinating, Ann. It's amazing how so many had more difficult lives because of their lousy husbands and lovers. But these women had enough backbone to carve out lives for themselves while having babies and being the breadwinners. Good for them!

    1. Thank you. I love stories of strong women, whether real or fictional.

  6. I love your post. I agree, research is fascinating and addictive. The first book I wrote had a connection with the Yukon gold rush. I remember going to the library and taking out an armload of books about the Klondike. Fascinating reading. The book went through two reads at Harlequin but was eventually rejected. I was so green back then about writing techniques. I don't even know where that story is, now. So glad you got your gold rush book published. To this day I'm still in awe of the women who climbed the Chillikoot Pass.

    1. I don't know how they did it, especially in the women's apparel of the day.

  7. I can't help but wonder what the heck strong women are thinking when they become involved with weak men. Poor Mollie, to have made such a choice. She was so obviously a good and strong women who thought of others.
    Such an interesting post about such courageous women. They are so inspirational to all of us. I would never attempt the things these women accomplished. They are wonderful examples of what women of courage and determination can do.
    All the best to you...

  8. Thank you. I find strong women through history very inspiring, and I enjoy writing about strong women and about women who find/develop their strength.