Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold

In Latest Novel by Deb Vanasse

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Known as the richest Indian woman in America, Kate Carmack played a pivotal role in the rush for Klondike gold. She was vilified. She was romanticized. Her story is heroic and tragic.

As a young widow who lost her husband and baby to an epidemic, Shaaw Tláa was given in marriage by her isolated Athabascan tribe to prospector George Carmack, who renamed her Kate.

Following a decade of wandering the northern wilderness with her husband, Kate became legendary and controversial. Although George Carmack was credited with discovering the nugget that sparked the Klondike Gold Rush, legends persist that Kate herself actually triggered the the biggest gold stampede in American history. Kate met the key figures in Klondike history, made headlines, and was abandoned at a California ranch, where she fought for her wealth, her reputation, and her survival.

Through a fortuitous combination of correspondence, legal proceedings, ethnographic study, and the generosity of Kate’s Tagish-Tlingit relatives, Vanasse is able to finally tell the most complete version of Kate Carmack’s life, and the story of the Klondike from a perspective that has long been ignored.

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Chilkoot Trail

MYSTERIES OF B.C.: Discovery casts doubt on Klondike gold claim

MARK HUME |VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail |Dec. 22 2013

When George Carmack, an American prospector, died in Vancouver in 1922, he was known as the man who discovered the first nugget that started the Klondike gold rush.

But did he really?

New research by a U.S. writer indicates Mr. Carmack unfairly took credit in an attempt to steal the prestige away from a Canadian and to help erase links to the native family he abandoned after striking it rich.

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Anchorage Daily Dispatch

Vanasse with Kate's portrait in ADN

Writer hopes to set record straight about Kate Carmack, Native wife of the ‘discoverer’ of the Klondike

Mike Dunham |January 3, 2014

A thumbnail-sized nugget started the Klondike Gold Rush and changed the history of the North. It was the first glimmer of a trove worth millions of dollars, the lure that drew tens of thousands of stampeders into the country.

But who found it?

Anchorage writer Deb Vanasse hopes to set the record straight in her work-in-progress, “Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold.”

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Kate's grave marker

Kate Carmack eventually returned to the Yukon where she died in 1920.

Restoring the Tagish role in the Klondike gold rush

Dec 31, 2013

An author from Anchorage, Alaska is getting set to release a new biography that restores the reputation of some of the key Yukon players in the Klondike Gold Rush.

It documents the life of Kate Carmack, a member of the Tagish First Nation in the Yukon, who was born Shaaw Tlaa and became, at one point, the richest First Nations woman in the world.
“In the end, she got $500, a gold necklace and a gold watch,” Vanasse says.

READ MORE…

Listen to CBC interview


First research-based popular account of the Klondike told from the perspective of those who were there first, the indigenous people of Alaska and the Yukon.

“A good deal of what has been celebrated in connection with the gold rush to date has been bound up with prevailing themes of national identity, e.g., the frontier spirit, rugged individualism, and so on—at the expense of minority peoples’ identities and histories.” ~Ethnographer Thomas Thornton

•Kate’s brother-in-law was a tragic figure in the history of the famed Chilkoot Trail.
•“Indian fighter” and trader John Healy, who promoted marriage with the Indians as a means of gain, was an associate of Kate’s husband
•Kate’s husband both protected and shortchanged his Tagish relatives before he disowned them.
•During perhaps the most difficult period of her life, Kate earned the respect of her husband’s friends and neighbors in California
•Years after the Klondike stampede, Kate’s brother Jim enticed George Carmack back to the Yukon with what appears to have been an elaborate hoax
•Stories told by George Carmack to neighbors in California affirm that it was Kate’s brother Jim who discovered gold at Bonanza Creek
•The only tangible wealth that remains of the fortune amassed from the initial discovery in the Klondike is in a trust established by Kate’s brother Jim to benefit the Yukon Indians
Pochahontas Perplex: the Indian vilified and romanticized
Cultural conflicting ideas about alliances, justice, and wealth.
The complex relationships with the missionaries.
Conflicting cultural narratives framing the gold discovery and resulting white-Indian clashes.
Illuminates the cultural and economic tensions along the frontier and Kate’s role in the struggles over a coveted Tlingit monopoly that culminated in a war that opened access to the North.

Skookum Jim Friendship Centre logo

A portion of the proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre, a non-profit in Whitehorse, Yukon, committed to bettering the spiritual, emotional, mental & physical well being of First Nations peoples, fostering the way of friendship & understanding between people.

“The only tangible wealth that remains of the fortune amassed from the initial discovery in the Klondike is in a trust established by Kate’s brother Jim to benefit the Yukon Indians,” Vanasse says. “I think it only fitting to donate part of the proceeds back to support Kate’s people.”

Excerpt Copyright 2014, Deb Vanasse

From Chapter Ten

Good Gold, Lotsa Gold

 

In addition to wealth, one of the key outcomes of what became known as “Discovery Day” in the Klondike—August 17, 1896—was a mosaic of stories that frame the event, dramas in which Kate plays various roles, from supporting actress to chief protagonist, depending on the cultural context.

In the prevailing versions of the rush to gold in the Klondike, the heroes are rugged, independent, and irascible frontiersmen; women, if mentioned at all, serve to underscore the tension between adventure and domesticity, while the men explored and asserted themselves in the Frozen North. Where they could, they acquired and they profited, the ultimate goal being to retreat from the wilderness to a comfortable existence improved by wealth.

Outside the Native community, most tales of the Klondike discovery feature George Carmack as the central figure, though in some, he’s aided by Kate, in the role of “Indian princess.” In one classically Victorian rendering, Kate keeps the gold a tantalizing secret but then eventually reveals it out of fear of losing her husband:

 

Still always uppermost in his [George’s] mind was the quest for the gold that he felt sure was not far away. Kate saw that this would sooner or later take her loved one from her, for with her young child she could not follow on all of the hard trips in search for the bits of metal that were her only rival in her husband’s thoughts. Why should she not tell him where the creeks were that ran for miles over golden pebbles?  That would make him happy and then, [once] he had all of it that he desired, he would stay contented at home with her and cease those tiresome wanderings for the metal whose lack made him so unhappy . . . She could not see him unhappy, and one day an excursion was planned that would lead them to the place where the mosses trailed over golden sands and the waters of the rippling creek looked like Chablis as they took alternately the color of the moss and gold on which they ran.[i]

 

In yet another version, the innocent play of Indian children becomes the providential clue that leads Kate’s husband to the gold. As the story goes, George Carmack, weakened and sickly, is rescued by “Skookum Charley.” While the “Eskimo” women tend to him in their “igloo,” their children play a game with rocks taken from a nearby stream. From the metallic ring of one of these rocks striking a steel pick, George recognizes that the quartz must contain gold. He traces the rocks back to their source, and the rush to the Klondike is on.[ii]

Spread by newswire to papers throughout North America, the most outlandish of these discovery stories reads like a classic fairy tale. In it, Kate promises to show George where he can find gold on the condition that he pledge his love for her. Ostensibly told in Kate’s own words—a curious mix of fake Indian-speak, romantic cliché, and terms Kate could not have known—the narrative reveals much about nineteenth-century American attitudes toward Natives, women, and wealth:

 

One night at dance in frozen country I first see white George. He talk to me and press my hand. He tell me how he walk about all over big, frozen country many, many months, and he tell me how he never find so much as one little piece of great gold which make white man’s heart glad.

            Then he press my hand some more and love came into my heart and I remember some things I hear my brother Skookum Jim and my brother Tagish Charlie say. I think of what they tell me of a place where gold is as thick as the sand when one digs on the shore of the Meiozikaka, and I say: ‘Whiteman, meet me by the river at midnight and I tell you something to make your heart glad and love will come to you for Tagish Kate.’

            White George he shake his head to show me he no believe Tagish Kate, but all same he came to river at midnight. I took him out in my canoe, away out in middle of river where no red man can hear and I whisper in white George’s ear: “I know spot where gold is thick like sand.”

            I tell paleface George he love me, me show him gold. He shake his head and say he no believe Tagish Kate.

            Then I tell him how my brothers, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley, have found place where they get heap much gold, and I tell him how they go and bring me back necklace all made out of little gold stones. When I see paleface George’s eye grow bright by light of moon and when he press my hand with his big strong hands I take one, two, three gold stones from under my dress and show them to him. George look at them and his eyes grow big. He swear he love Tagish Kate. I ask him if he make Tagish Kate his squaw. He says yes, yes, many, many times. He take me in his arms; he kiss me and say he love me. Tagish Kate believes and is happy, very, very happy. Then comes wedding and plenty much to eat.

            Now is September and in frozen country we must wait, wait for summer before we can go and find gold. Then me tell my brothers, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, that my white chief George know where gold is. They very mad, but me, no care. Me love paleface George, my chief.

            Then when summer came we make peace with Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, and one day all start together to place where gold is. Long, long time to get there. One day we came to Rabbit creek and George he lay down and sleep. While he sleep I fill pan with sand and put it beside him. He wake up and see pan and wash out dirt and in it is gold all same like three dollars. George glad. He find heap much gold and love Tagish Kate and buy me heap nice clothes.[iii]

 

In the age of yellow journalism, this was hardly the first fabricated story to make news, but it does complicate the matter of determining what part Kate actually played in the discovery that set off the rush to the Klondike. To add to the difficulty, there is not from George Carmack himself a single clear and consistent explanation of the events that led up to his scratching a Discovery claim into the trunk of a birch tree near what became known as Bonanza Creek.[iv]

Instead, what passes for George’s own account of the Klondike discovery is a heavily embellished tale that reveals more about the American sense of destiny, achievement, fortune, and individualism than anything else. The author of this oft-quoted publication was not George Carmack but George T. Snow, a first-rate theatrical man who took on the project of gathering the accounts of early prospectors on behalf of the Yukon Order of Pioneers, a group that he himself had founded. Born in Boston in 1847, he took the stage name of George Snow after he ran away from home. Following two solo prospecting trips into the Yukon in 1888 and 1892, Snow returned with his wife and two children, who had the distinction of being the first white family to cross over the Chilkoot Pass. At Forty Mile, he opened a theater, complete with San Francisco “music-hall girls” and a stage set with Chippendale chairs, plush curtains, and pier glass.[v]

In order to fashion what eventually came to stand as George Carmack’s version of how gold was found in the Klondike, Snow worked from George’s handwritten notes, which end with an account of the winter of 1895-96, short of the actual discovery event in August of 1896. From there, Snow made good use of his theatrical inclinations to complete the story. Nowhere is Kate mentioned­—not in George’s handwritten account, nor in Snow’s colorful rendition—though a great number of firsthand sources place Kate at the Klondike River during the summer of 1896, alongside her husband as she’d been for the previous decade.[vi]

As a preface to the discovery, Snow positions George Carmack on the banks of the Yukon River at Fort Selkirk in May of 1896. “The sky above the eastern rim of the Palisades was glowing with a soft light, presaging the birth of a new day,” Snow writes, in a style Carmack himself never used. “Over the Palisades the morning star was drowsily blinking and falling to sleep, as I gazed with wonder and awe on God’s miracle of dissolving night into day . . . As I watched the flaming banners thrust farther their streamers of scintillating fire above the mountains, I felt my blood begin to tingle with new life and strength. I had a premonition that something unusual was going to take place in my life.”[vii]

Right then and there, Snow writes, George flips a coin, a silver dollar, the only “cheechaco” money he has. Heads, and he’ll venture upriver; tails, he’ll go down. Through the coin toss, Lady Luck directs him downriver, past the Klondike to Forty Mile. On the night of his arrival, he dreams that he’s watching grayling shoot the rapids. All at once, the small fish scatter, and two huge king salmon stop directly in front of where George is sitting. Instead of scales, the salmon are covered in gold nuggets, and for eyes they have $20 gold pieces.

This means he’ll make money catching fish to sell to the miners, George decides, and so he heads back up the mighty Yukon to the Klondike River, where the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in keep their fish camp. As he poles his boat close to shore, a yellow-breasted bird lands at his feet. Lifting the tiny creature in his hands—the bird shows no fear—George determines it’s yet another sign of luck.

In Snow’s account, Jim and Charlie then happen upon George and his fish traps at the mouth of the Klondike. Seven years have passed since they’ve seen one another, Snow writes—seven years of bad luck for Jim, foretold by George when Jim’s wife dropped a mirror on a rock and broke it.[viii] For the benefit of readers, Snow recounts a new version of how George and Jim first met, a rendition that characterizes Jim as the stereotypical “mighty Indian”:

 

It was a very warm day and the Sun was blazing; a light North-West wind began to filter across the [Chilkoot] summit, cooling the heat waves in its course; the scintillations of the ice crystals on the surrounding glaciers, the towering giants of embattled rocks, thrusting up their hoary heads toward the dome of Heaven, gave one a feeling of intense awe . . . Suddenly Skookum Jim rose and stood looking toward the hills, with steady eyes. His head was bare and his shirt was unbuttoned at the throat, exposing his great chest and neck of bronze. There was something in his attitude which suggested the silent strength of the North.[ix]

 

Reunited at the Klondike River, Snow writes, Jim, George, and Charlie are soon greeted by Bob Henderson, who tells them about the color he’s found at nearby Gold Bottom Creek. “I don’t want any Damn Siwashes staking on that creek,” Henderson says, according to Snow. This of course doesn’t sit well with Jim and Charlie.[x]

Never mind, George tells them, we’ll find our own creek. And so they set off. Though the terrain is unfamiliar, George takes the lead. As he pans for gold in a stream, he quotes from Shakespeare, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Explaining to his companions that he’s making “Boston man’s medicine,” he directs them to spit in his gold pan for luck. As he swishes the waters, a streak of bright yellow gold appears.[xi]

But true hero that he is, George has high standards—he won’t settle for any old gold. He insists they keep looking, but the going is tough. “Climbing up the steep side of a mountain without a trail and with a pack on your back, struggling over fallen trees, floundering thru Devil Clubs and interlaced underbrush, is heart breaking work and exacts the uttermost toil of your body,” writes Snow on Carmack’s behalf. “Well: a weakling has no business to play in that kind of game.”[xii]

At last, George’s strength, fortitude, skill, and endurance converge in the discovery foretold by the aggregated good-luck omens. From a high bank, he recognizes the promise of gold in the creek below:

 

Throwing off my pack, I walked down to the rim, as soon as I reached it, I stopped and looked down, my heart skipped a beat. I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand to wipe away a misty film that enveloped the pupils, then I reached down and picked up a nugget about the size of a dime, then I put it between my teeth and bit at it like a schoolboy who had found a quarter in the garbage can.[xiii]

 

A first-class theatrical spectacle follows as George celebrates with Jim and Charlie. “We did a war dance around that gold-pan, it was a combination war dance; composed of the Scotch hornpipe, Indian fox trot, syncopated Irish jig, and a sort of a Siwash Hula-Hula.”[xiv] The reveries then fade to a reflective interlude around the campfire, where “ . . . the two Indians sitting with their blankets over their shoulders, their lean, bronze features lit up by the gleaming camp fire, began to chant a wild weird song of praise to the Great Spirit.”[xv] After Jim and Charlie fall asleep, Snow depicts Carmack recapping the American vision of wealth and happiness, his musings punctuated for effect by celestial wonders:

 

.

 

 

For Kate and the indigenous people of the North, the discovery that would threaten their way of life was, quite literally, an altogether different story, one that was grounded in the same actions that defined their everyday existence. As those who knew Kate would tell it, gold was found in the Klondike that day because her brother Keish, known as Jim, acted on his family obligations and went looking for his sister, whom he hadn’t seen in two years. The extent to which fortune was found—and lost—by Jim and his family, including Kate, was determined by a series of encounters between Jim and his spirit helper, a frog, that was connected to an elusive figure called Wealth Woman, who pointed the way for Jim—not George Carmack—to discover gold in the rust-colored waters of what was then called Rabbit Creek.

Post-discovery, outsiders would portray Kate’s brother much as Snow had, as a stereotypical Indian who wanted nothing more than to be white. It’s true that in nearly every photo that survives him, whether the backdrop is a rustic cabin or a pile of dirty tailings from a mine or a San Francisco photo studio, Jim appears dapper in his three-piece suit, a gold watch chain dangling from his vest pocket. But fashion aside, Jim’s heart was in the Yukon, with his people. Those who knew him recall a man who was dutiful, reliable, truthful, and capable.[xvii] Though admired, he was humble,[xviii] and he enjoyed a good joke, even if it was on himself…[xix]

[i] “The Romance of Indian Kate Who Showed the Gold of the Klondike to George Carmack,” San Francisco Call, Volume 87, Number 143, October 21, 1900.

[ii] From a letter in the San Francisco Chronicle by W.J. Burke of Eagle City, Alaska, printed Feb, 8, 1926.

[iii] “Tagish Kate.” The Semi-Weekly Nugget, Dawson, YT, November 11, 1900.

[iv] The closest to a firsthand account would have been in a letter he wrote to his sister. Unfortunately, while much of George’s correspondence has survived him, this particular letter has been lost.

[v] Gates, Michael, Gold at Fortymile, 80.

[vi] George W. Carmack papers. Early in 1900, George Carmack testified under oath in a deposition that he and Kate had lived and traveled together in the Yukon from 1886 to 1898, when they left for Seattle.

[vii] George T Snow, attributed to George W. Carmack, “My Experiences in the Yukon,” draft obtained from the University of Washington Archives.

[viii] The accounts of the little yellow-breasted bird and the broken mirror are in an early version of Snow’s compilation; they do not appear in later versions, including the account published by Marguerite Carmack in 1931.

[ix] Snow for Carmack, page 4 of Draft #3. Snow numbers only Draft #4, in which he reverts to a third person point of view; #3 is my numbering for the one that precedes it.

[x] Snow for Carmack, page 7 of Draft #3.

[xi] Ibid, 8.

[xii] Snow for Carmack, page 13 of Draft #3

[xiii] Ibid, 14.Snow for Carmack, page 14 of Draft #3

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ogilvie, 134

[xviii] Johnnie Johns, “Skookum Jim’s Later Life,” Yukon Territorial Archives, 88/58 SR Tape 11-3, 11-4, accessed June 19, 2014, www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/klondike/archives/oralhistoryorinterview/3286en.html.

[xix] “Johnnie Johns recalls Skookum Jim,” The Yukon News, Dec. 5, 1973.