1896 Yukon Nuggets
Who found the Gold?
August 16th, 1896 was a sunny Sunday. Too hot in fact for the three men who trudged through the bush down the valley of a small stream that flowed into the Klondike River.
A white man, George Carmack, his brother-in-law, Skookum Jim and his cousin, Dawson Charlie, were heading back to their fish camp on the point where the Klondike River flows into the Yukon.
They had just visited Robert Henderson on the other side of the divide that separates creeks that flow either into the Indian River or the Klondike. Henderson advised them to prospect the little creek everyone knew as Rabbit Creek, since they were heading that way. Halfway down the valley on that hot Sunday, the three men stopped to rest. These are undisputed facts.
The rest of the story is not so clear cut. Nor, perhaps, is it that important since 110 years have passed. Still, in the history of the Yukon, no greater event ever occurred. What happened next was then - and remains today - in dispute. Noted Yukon historian, the late Pierre Berton, says we will never know the truth.
Truth of what you ask? The truth about who really found the first gold nugget in Rabbit Creek. There can be not doubt that the three found the gold that sparled the largest mass movement of humanity in North American history.
In later years, Skookum Jim told the story to former Yukon Commissioner, William Ogilvie, who recorded the statement in his diary. Jim said that, tired from a hard day of plodding through the underbrush, Carmack lay under a tree trying to sleep. Jim said that he was busy cleaning a dish pan at the little creek. Charlie was sitting on the bank.
What ended up in Skookum Jim's wash pan would set the western world into a frenzy. It was gold. Huge nuggets lying in flaky slabs. Chunks lying in the mud.
Jim says he yelled at Carmack and Charlie. The three looked in stunned disbelief. With a shovel, they scooped the muddy ground. More chunks of gold. The three, said Jim, began to whoop, yell and dance around each other like mad men.
George Carmack, in his published memoirs, wrote a different account of the discovery. His version is that he was walking well ahead of Jim and Charlie when he spotted bare bedrock that looked like a good spot for gold.
Carmack wrote: "Throwing off my pack, I walked down to the rim, and as soon as I reached it I stopped and looked down. My heart skipped a beat. I reached down and picked up a nugget about the size of a dime. I put it between my teeth and bit at it like a newsboy who had found a quarter in the street."
George says he then called to Jim and Charlie to bring the pan and shovel:
"I took the shovel and dug up some loose bedrock. In turning over some flat pieces, I could see the raw gold laying thick between the flaky slabs, like cheese sandwiches. Putting some broken bedrock into the pan I washed it down and got about a quarter of an ounce in that pan, mostly coarse gold."
The next morning, Monday, August 17, 1896, Skookum Jim, Tagish Charlie and George Carmack staked four claims. With a pencil, Carmack wrote on a stake;
"To whom it may concern. I do, on this day, locate and claim, by right of discovery, five hundred feet running up the stream from this notice. Located this 17th day of August 1896. Signed George Carmack."
At the same time, he marked off a second claim for himself because Canadian law then allowed the discoverer of gold on a creek to stake a second claim. They also staked claim No. 1 above Discovery for Jim and claim No. 2 below Discovery for Charlie.
Compromise eventually resolved the dispute over who found the first nugget. Carmack would file the discovery claim and assign a half-interest in it to Jim. Each man would therefore have his own claim, while Jim and George would share the discovery claim.
Not that it mattered. Between them, the three owned the richest 2000 feet of gold claims in the world, on a creek everyone now calls Bonanza.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.