A Day Late and a Dollar Short: The Yukon Gold Rush (August 16, 1896)

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The artic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see,

Was the night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.

My brother’s recitation of The Cremation of Sam McGee was the first time I ever heard epic poetry delivered—as opposed to read—and I was spellbound. (That he followed it up with Charlie and the Fishing Weir, which he has never done in my presence since, was icing on the cake.) I loved the poem and went on to read most of Robert Service’s work, but I didn’t really understand the importance of the Yukon Gold Rush until I started teaching the American West.

It turns out that gold rush had profound political implications in America. Prospectors struck gold on August 16, 1896 on Bonanza Creek in the Yukon Territory of Canada. It is likely that it was, in fact, a Tagish Indian man, Skookum Jim, who found the gold, but he gave his American brother-in-law George Carmack (married to Jim’s sister Kate) credit for the discovery since Carmack would be far better able to protect his mining claim than a native man. By the following summer, 30,000 to 40,000 men had rushed to the Yukon to try their fortunes there.

The route to the gold fields was treacherous. The most famous obstacle was Chilkoot Pass— 1500 steps cut into ice up which prospectors had to carry their gear and the year’s supply of food the Canadian authorities required to prevent starvation, a total weight of about a ton—but the cold and unforgiving mountains were no picnic, either. In the end, few miners made fortunes and many more lost their lives. The biggest winners in the Klondike Fever were the writers who saw romance in the chill dream: Jack London, whose most famous novel, The Call of the Wild, showed how love and loyalty trumped gold; and Robert Service, whose poems explored the humor, sentimentality, loyalty, and cruelty of life in the Yukon.

But like its 1849 California predecessor, this gold rush had profound implications for American politics. The nation had entered a devastating depression in 1893— farming had begun to crash even earlier, in 1890—and by 1896, the nation was torn between the have and the have-nots. Their division centered around the issue of money. The haves—financiers, creditors, established businessmen—insisted that the security of the nation depended on a gold standard. Looser money would create inflation, decreasing the value of their holdings and unsettling the business community so that it would not help fuel a recovery. The have-nots—workers, farmers, entrepreneurs—wanted the government to coin silver as well as gold to expand the currency. More money would make it easier for them to borrow to develop new businesses to rebuild prosperity. More money might also create inflation, enabling them to pay back loans in cheaper dollars.

Both sides believed the other was setting out to destroy the country and, in the apocalyptic years of the mid-1890s, they often backed their convictions with violence. In the election of 1896, Republican “Gold Bugs” backed big-business representative William McKinley, while Democratic “Silverites” backed Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan. The election was one of history’s most vicious. When Bryan complained about Republicans’ rhetoric (one man accused him of trying to create “a red welter of lawlessness as fantastic and as vicious as the dream of a European communist”), Republicans retorted: “This is a fight for the country and the flag.”

McKinley won in 1896, but his victory did not quiet his enemies’ demand for an expanded currency. What did that was the Yukon Gold Rush. Enough gold poured into America to give both sides what they wanted. Gold bugs got a gold standard; Silverites got an expanded currency. The economy, which had already begun to recover anyway, got a needed boost. The Yukon Gold Rush pulled the fangs of the currency issue, giving Americans one less division to overcome before they could unite for reform during the Progressive Era.

Not that that helped Sam McGee….

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, were the cotton blooms and grows.

Why he left his home in the South to roam round the Pole, God only knows.

He was always cold but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;

Though he’d often say in his homely way that he’d sooner live in hell….

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