Yukon Nuggets

  • Photo1: Martha Louise Black O.B.E. on her 85th birthday Photo by Rolf Hougen 1951.

  • Photo2: The Hon. George Black, P.C., M.P. Photo by Rolf Hougen 1949.

1965 Historical Photos

Martha Louise Black O.B.E.  1866 – 1957

The Hon. George Black, P.C., M.P.
1873 – 1965

Daughter of a wealthy and socially prominent family in Chicago, Martha Louise Black emerged from an approved private school to become engaged to suitor Will Purdy, the son of a railroad owner and embarked on an approved marriage.  With servants to care for her two little boys, she soon wearied of the social round and in 1898 talked her brother and his partners into including her in their plans to join the rush to the Klondike in 1898.

When her husband backed out because it was too dangerous and moved to Honolulu, Martha insisted on going north, and trekked up over the Trail, determined to keep up with the men.  She never saw Will Purdy again.  From Dyea they struggled over the Chilkoot Pass, into Lindeman, on to Bennett and built their boat for the river trip to Dawson City.  Martha named an unknown creek “Excelsior” and staked claims there with her brother, which later yielded enough gold to lure her back to the Yukon.

In a log cabin across the Klondyke River above Lousetown, Martha Purdy gave birth to her third son, Lyman, a final gift from her husband, and was taken home by her father the following spring.  This time river steamers and the new White Pass train from Bennett to Skagway provided easy traveling.  Bored with her comfortable life at the family ranch, she wanted not comfort and safety, but liberty and opportunity, and she talked her father into returning to Dawson where the family set up two mills leaving Martha as manager when they returned to the States.

Consulting a lawyer on mill business, she was impressed by young George Black, from an old United Empire Loyalist family in New Brunswick.  He had obtained his admittance to the Bar at the age of 24, reading law in the family’s office, while conducting two small businesses on his own.  He organized the trip west to the Klondike by selling space to friends in a colonist railway car from Fredericton to Vancouver and made their way up over the White Pass then down river to Dawson.  En route, he had staked the Discovery Claim at Livingston Creek in 1898, and an impressive mountain nearby has been named for him.

An outdoor man and a sportsman, George Black won her boys over on hunting expeditions and they were married in August, 1904.  The country was in the throes of a bitter election campaign in which George Black was actively engaged, supported in his political career by his hostess/wife.  He served three terms on Yukon Council before their move to Vancouver in 1909 where he carried on his law profession.  Meanwhile Martha spent her summers collecting wild flowers for display in CPR hotel, a hobby which later earned her Fellowship in the Royal Geographic Society in Britain.

George worked from Vancouver in support of Conservative candidates in the federal election of 1911 when the federal Laurier government went down to defeat on the Reciprocity issue.  The following year the Conservatives appointed him Commissioner of the Yukon Territory and they took up residence in the impressive Government House in Dawson, where Martha began four years of being the charming chatelaine.  That ended August 4, 1914 with the declaration of war.  George sent in his resignation and organized the Yukon Infantry Company of volunteers, which he headed with rank of Captain.

With 275 members, they left Dawson on the S.S. CASCA in October 1916 for training at Victoria, B.C. and Martha went along with “her boys” managing to talk the authorities at Halifax later into permitting her to make the dangerous trip across the Atlantic – the only woman on board for the eight day voyage on the S.S. CANADA through stormy waters.  After more training, George and Lyman went off to France and into battle, leaving Martha to look after Dawson boys on leave in London.  It was a proud mother who attended the investiture of her 19-year-old son at Buckingham Palace when he received the Military Cross from King George Fifth.

Martha kept busy administering the Yukon Comfort Fund and visiting boys in hospital, as well as giving 400 illustrated lectures about the Yukon, traveling on trains in blackouts, lugging boxes of heavy lantern slides.  In August 1918 George was wounded at the Battle of Amiens and hospitalized in London….shrapnel in the left leg and machine gun bullet in the right.

After the Armistic he was ordered to the Rhine with the Army of Occupation;  Lyman was in command of the armoured cars for the official entry into Mons.  In the spring of 1919 Martha was sent to France by the Overseas Club to visit soldiers’ cemeteries and war-stricken villages with a view to observe rehabilitation schemes.  Later she represented Yukon at a garden party at Buckingham Palace given by King George and Queen Mary.

Captain Black’s work was finished with the Army of Occupation and they returned to Canada, with no home, no job, no money, in their 50s.  The Commissioner’s position had been abolished and Government House at Dawson was closed.  George opened a law office in Vancouver and Martha recuperated with her gardening at their small cottage on the north shore of Burrard Inlet.  When the federal election was called in 1921 George was offered the Yukon nomination for the Conservative Party, went north alone and fought the hardest political battle of his life.  Retrieving the seat for the Conservatives, the Blacks returned to Ottawa, returning to Dawson during parliamentary recess.



George Black won 4 successive federal elections, carrying through amendments to the Yukon Act giving Yukoners rights to jury trial and civil actions; drafted and sponsored the Yukon Quartz Mining Act and advised the Liberal government of the day on Yukon affairs.  In 1930 he was elected Speaker of the House of Commons, which made Martha official hostess for the House at functions of national importance.  She enjoyed those special events and was acknowledged as the perfect hostess.



But in January, 1953, George resigned as Speaker of the House of Commons and was hospitalized for treatment.  It was a critical time for the Conservative Government.  George was not well enough to face a Yukon election campaign and it was decided that Martha should run in his place, as an Independent Conservative – political pinch-hitter for George.

The Conservative Party was defeated nationally but Martha won the Yukon seat by 134 votes.  At the age of 70, she took her place in the House alone, February 6th, 1936, saddened by the death of King George 5th.

George recovered after treatment for his illness and recuperated at home in Dawson, returning to his seat in the House of Commons once again.  When Whitehorse replaced Dawson as the Yukon’s legislative capitol, the Blacks moved south into a home on the bank of the Yukon River in 1944.  Martha became part of the city’s social life and a valued member of such groups as the I.O.D.E.  She was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1948 and George made the New Year’s Honours List as a Member of the Privy Council.

Martha Louise died at the age of 91, in Whitehorse, October 31, 1957 and was buried from the Old Log Church in the Masonic plot of the Whitehorse cemetery downtown.  A national news story began “All Canada looked to the Yukon with a bow when Martha Black died.”

The Hon. George Black remarried at 84 years of age, his old friend Sadie King, who disposed of the Black residence and contents, and moved him to her Vancouver home.  He died at 92 in August, 1965, when a Vancouver daily paper headed the news: “Brave Heart of the Yukon finally lets go.”  He was buried in the large military cemetery there.

Story by Flo Whyard, C.M. 2005