Search This Blog

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Starvation Winter in the Klondike

     The Klondike Gold Rush began in 1896 with the discovery of gold along Rabbit Creek in the Klondike Valley. George Washington Carmack, nicknamed Lying George by his acquaintances, announced the strike in August at a saloon in Forty Mile, a town on the border of the Alaska and Yukon territories. Word spread quickly among the miners and settlers in the area, and soon many people deserted the major Yukon River communities of Circle City and Forty Mile to stake claims upstream. Rabbit Creek was soon renamed Bonanza Creek. A new town, Dawson, sprang up at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers in the Yukon Territory.  

     News of the Klondike strike was slow to reach the outside world. In July 1897, ships loaded with Klondike gold and rich miners arrived in Seattle and San Francisco. This triggered the northward stampede. More than 1000 people beat the hoards of stampeders and reached Dawson before winter. Many were disappointed to learn that most of the promising sites had already been claimed by residents of the area. 

Panning for Gold (Vancouver Public Library)

     The last steamship of the season unloaded its cargo at Dawson on September 30, 1897. The Northwest Mounted Police soon determined there would not be enough food for everyone during the upcoming winter. Inspector Charles Constantine posted a notice that read: "I, having carefully looked over the present distressing situation regarding the supply of food for the winter, find that the stock on hand is not sufficient to meet the wants of the people and can see but one way out of the difficulty, and that is an immediate move down-river, of all those who are now unsupplied, to Fort Yukon, where there is a large stock of provisions."

      Several hundred people heeded the warning and left for Fort Yukon, Alaska by the end of October.  But more kept coming. The Canadian government was reluctant to accept responsibility for the tens of thousands of stampeders in the Skagway and Dyea area, poised to cross the border via the White Pass and Chilkoot Trails. This led the Mounties to require that each person carry nearly a ton of designated supplies.

Chilkoot Pass (National Park Service)

     Those who were progressing along the routes as winter set in began to hear tales of harsh conditions in Dawson, including rumors of starvation. Many of them camped at smaller communities along the trails. But for people who stayed in Dawson the winter months were difficult. Even the Northwest Mounted Police at Fort Cudahy, who had some stockpiles available and could pay the escalating prices for provisions, were forced to reduce their basic flour ration. In Dawson itself, there were no eggs.  Miners and trappers who had been living in the North knew what to expect and had accumulated adequate supplies to survive the winter. But most of the large population of stampeders, who had rushed to Dawson in the late summer and fall of 1897, were not prepared for the ferocious cold and living in a gold-based economy with no gold – and little money.

Dawson City during the Gold Rush

     As the days grew short, the temperatures plummeted and food supplies dwindled. Dawson slowed nearly to a standstill. Hotels were full. Many residents spent the majority of each day in bed, conserving their energy and heat. Men without homes or sleeping rooms took shelter wherever they could find it. One such refuge was Bill McPhee’s Pioneer Saloon, packed with unfortunate souls who slept on benches and tables.

     Both of the trading companies that serviced Dawson tried to control steeply rising prices, but a black market sprang up. Flour, the most basic staple, was in such limited supply that a rancid 50-pound sack could command a payment of anywhere from $35 to $100. Tinned vegetables had gone off the market early in the season, and shriveled potatoes sold for a dollar a pound.

Bowery Street in Dawson, 1898 (Canadian Archive)

     By the time spring break-up of the Yukon came and the steamer Mae West delivered a load of provisions on June 8, saloons had been serving what amounted to whiskey-flavored water for quite some time. Everyone celebrated the arrival of food and spirits – and the end of the winter.

      In my novel, The Claim, I have included the “Starvation Winter” as the backdrop for several scenes. Here is a brief excerpt:

     Erik stared at the lifeless town. After the arduous journey over frozen snow, along treacherous rivers of ice, jagged with bergs of all sizes jutting from the surfaces, he had been looking forward to the hustle and bustle of Dawson.

     No people could be seen on the eerily quiet streets. Many windows were shuttered. Except for the acrid smoke wafting above the chimneys, the place resembled a frigid ghost town. 

     “Vad happened?” Filip’s breath froze as he spoke.

     “Don’t know.” Erik’s scarf muffled his words.

     He and Filip pulled the sled up the icy deserted street. The restaurants were closed. The hotels were full. The opera house was a burned-out shell.

     “Let’s go over to Fort Herchmer,” Erik said.

     They proceeded at a snail’s pace to avoid searing their lungs with the bitterly cold air. The ravens squawked at them as they passed.

     When they stepped inside the NWMP offices, they took a few minutes to soak in the warmth.

     “If you’re wanting food, we can’t help you,” the officer greeted them.

     Erik unwrapped his scarf. “We brought our own. But what’s going on here?”

     The bearded man’s expression softened. “Too many people, too few provisions.”

     Now that the warmth had begun penetrating Erik’s mittens, he removed them. Filip was already blowing on his hands. 

     Sergeant Ibsen came through the side door. “Stryker?”

     “Good to see you again.” Erik shook his outstretched hand.

     “That’s Bentnor,” Ibsen gestured toward his cohort. Erik nodded to him.

     “Guess there won’t be much of a market for my spirits, then.” He sighed. “We would have been better off staying home.”

     Ibsen grinned. “On the contrary. There’s plenty of gold. You’ll be able to command a premium price.”

     Bentnor fed a shovelful of coal into the burner.

     “We need to find two people.” Erik said. “Sam McGee was working at Jimmy Kerry’s saloon last I knew.”

     Ibsen rubbed his chin. “Don’t think I know him.” He looked to the other officer, who was shaking his head. “If he’s not there, try Bill McPhee’s. There are a lot of men staying there.”

     “The other is a…” Erik was almost thankful for the warmth rising in his neck. “A showgirl.” He couldn’t bring himself to call Miss Garrick’s friend a “whore,” even though she was. “Last fall she was at the Little Paris.” 

     People came from all walks of life to seek their fortunes in the Klondike. Those who did not strike gold had to find other ways to support themselves, return home, or move on. In 1899, word reached Dawson that gold had been discovered in Nome, Alaska. More than 8000 people left Dawson that summer to chase new dreams of easy riches.

Ann Markim


 Amazon print or digital


  1. Vivis excerpt, Ann! I could feel the cold and you painted a compelling picture of conditions and hunger.
    What a sad story - another aspect of the Gold Rushes that I find fascinating and so very human

    1. Thanks, Lindsay. It must have been so heartbreaking for those who made the harrowing trip to the Klondike with so much hope and optimism.

  2. Wonderfully-written excerpt. And what privations must those poor people have gone through. There was so little support for people venturing off the beaten path back then. Something we take for granted, even if help may take time to get to us. I adds to the courage it must have taken to strike out on your own.

  3. I think one of the reasons I find gold rushes so fascinating are the many reasons people are tempted to seek their fortunes and the courage (or in some cases desperation or recklessness) it took to leave their familiar circumstances.

  4. I so loved reading your post, Ann, especially since it brings back memories from the 80s. I was cooking breakfast for my four little boys when a plot literally dropped into my frying eggs . I went to the library and brought home an armload of books about the Yukon gold rush, especially Pierre Berton's books because he'd lived in the Yukon. When I finished writing my book, I submitted it to Harlequin. It went through two reads, but I was so green about the publishing business that I didn't know how close I'd been to getting a contract. I'm sure happy for you, Ann, that your story is published. I look forward to reading it. Congratulations.

  5. Thanks so much. Sometimes, it's surprising how easily a plot appears in the course of everyday life. So much fun when that happens.

  6. It's so unfortunate that greed led to the desperation of people who went unprepared in their search for glorious gold.

    I think there is a poem about Sam Magee and the cold of the winter there. In the poem, when he died, his body was put in a cabin and it was set on fire to "warm him up." I could be wrong. Did that poem inspire you for one of your characters in THE CLAIM?

    I can't imagine spending the intense Canadian winter sleeping on a saloon table with barely any food. Such foolishness. But I have to say that was a most exciting and interesting time in history.

    All the very best to you, Ann. I wish you great success with THE CLAIM.

  7. I have read the poem, but I wasn't thinking about it when I wrote THE CLAIM. Maybe it was in the back of my mind when I was writing and subconsciously influenced the story.:)

  8. Loved the excerpt. I cannot imagine what those people went through, but the lure of riches is strong.

    Thank you for the added history. I truly love that kind of information. Doris