About the Author

Jennifer Duncan

Jennifer Duncan is a fifth generation Torontonian. Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Fire, Matrix, CV2, and Blood & Aphorisms, and she is currently completing her first novel. Sanctuary and Other Stories won the David McKeen Prize for best Creative Writing thesis at Concordia University in 1998. The book was also shortlisted in 2000 for both the Toronto Book Awards and the Upper Canada Brewing Short Fiction Award.

Books by this Author
Frontier Spirit

Frontier Spirit

The Brave Women of the Klondike
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“I long to speak out the intense inspiration that comes to me from the lives of strong women.” -- Ruth Benedict

“Any woman venturesome enough to join the Klondike Gold Rush was likely to be a handful, not at all content with being regarded as a fragile thing, all sighs and sweetness. Influenced by the feminist spirit of the times, she was ready to assert her rights as a human being equal if not superior to any male.” -- Richard O’Connor

They say it is no place for a woman. They say many a man has turned back, defeated by the trail to the Klondike goldfields, its creeks to be forded, its waist-deep swamps to be waded through, its steep, treacherous mountains to be scaled. But there she is, a woman, African-American, 19 years old, and nine months pregnant, on the Stikine River Trail in the autumn of 1897. And she is not turning back.

After 150 miles, she goes into labour in a First Nations village. The Tagish people have seen many newcomers come pouring over the mountains, but never someone like her. “Another kind of white,” they call her.

She asks them what they call this lake. They say, “Teslin.” She tells them: “This is what I’ll call my daughter. For the lake where she was born. For you who have always lived here.”

Lucille Hunter was one of many brave women who stampeded to the Gold Rush. Pausing briefly in Teslin to give birth, Lucille did not wait out the winter as most stampeders did but mushed on for weeks through frigid temperatures with her husband, Charles, their newborn daughter, and their dog team, finally reaching Dawson City on the brink of the new year. Her courage and stamina enabled the family to stake a Bonanza Creek claim before the spring hordes arrived by boat.

Lucille’s strength only grew in this wild land. As a widow during the Depression, she would walk 140 miles between her silver mine in Mayo and her three gold mines in Dawson, running these operations single-handedly. After the Second World War, she ran a laundry in Whitehorse, where she died at 94, in 1972.

Like Lucille Hunter, many of the women of the Gold Rush are fascinating characters, with unusual claims to fame.

There were the wives of the first Klondike Kings, like “Bride of the Klondike” Ethel Berry, who spent her honeymoon crossing the Chilkoot Pass during the Gold Trickle, and whose arrival in Seattle in 1897 with $100,000 worth of gold in her bedroll fed the media frenzy that sparked the rush to the goldfields. With her sister Tot Bush, Ethel helped with cooking and panning on the claims that would innovate hydraulic mining methods in the Yukon, and she collected for herself $70,000 of gold nuggets, ending up a wealthy Beverly Hills widow.

There were eccentrics, like Royalist-socialist-feminist activist and poet Marie Joussaye Fotheringham from Belleville, Ontario. Marie had helped organize the Working Girls’ Union and had published a volume of her verse before arriving in Dawson, marrying an ex-RCMP officer, snapping up over 30 claims, and being sentenced to two months’ hard labour for stealing diamonds from another woman.

There were wealthy tourists Mary Hitchcock and Edith van Buren, who brought up an ice cream machine, a magic lantern, a zither, a mandolin, a bowling alley, a score of live pigeons, two canaries, a parrot, and two Great Dane dogs on their 1897 trip to Dawson.

There were notorious prostitutes like Mae Fields. Mae famously put a gun to her head after being abandoned by her husband. Thwarted by an onlooker, she still made the headlines for the attempt. Mae supplemented her income as an Orpheum dance hall girl with keeping a house of ill repute, for which she was finally put on trial in 1908.

The lives of women like Lucille Hunter, Ethel Berry, and Mae Fields have largely been sluiced from the popular mythology of the Gold Rush, and mining the nuggets that remain in the riffles is a painstaking task. Because what scanty material exists about these women has already been explored in previous works, I have chosen to focus on the women who have left the most full and interesting accounts of their lives. I wondered: What kind of woman was drawn to the Gold Rush? What were these women’s lives like before and after the Gold Rush? How significant a part did the Gold Rush play in the broader continuum of these women’s lives?

I discovered that the women who struggled so hard to get to the Klondike did so because they were already extraordinary in their courage, independence, and craving for adventure. These were women who strove to escape the confines of Victorian propriety and the prison of the domestic sphere. The frontier gave them the greatest opportunity for this emancipation. Whether out on the creeks or in town, these women were able to prove themselves by taking on challenges that weren’t offered “Outside.” They were also privileged to take part in a sensational historic event. Their time in and around Dawson City remained a pivotal point in their lives.

Shaaw Tláa, known as Kate Carmack, was damaged by the Gold Rush, and her life is a mark of the destruction such rapid colonization wrought on the First Nations communities of the Yukon. For Belinda Mulrooney and Klondike Kate Rockwell, the Gold Rush brought fame and fortune but broke their hearts. Anna DeGraf failed in the quest that sent her to the goldfields, but she succeeded in living a far more exciting life than had she stayed away. For Émilie Tremblay, Nellie Cashman, Martha Black, and Faith Fenton, the Gold Rush led to lives of marked happiness and distinction.

Wherever the Gold Rush took them, all of these women remained under the famous Spell of the Yukon, that mysterious allure stronger than gold or any other kind of fever. I was first drawn to their stories because I had fallen under the same spell, and this enchantment is the key to understanding fully who these women were and what the Klondike gave them.

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