Scots of the Yukon
Scots of the Yukon
by James A. McQuiston FSAScot
I originally prepared this information for a presentation at the proposed Tampa, Florida meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and was afterwards invited to share some of my research with the Society through their Fellow’s Noticeboard. Much of this research was already carried out during 2007 when I wrote a book on the only man ever to be called Father of Alaska or Father of the Yukon. The actual book title is Captain Jack: Father of the Yukon, available on Amazon and elsewhere.
Captain Jack was a member of my own family, a Scots family originating on the Isle of Skye with one Uisdean (or Hugh) Macdonald, Chief of Sleat. The sons of Uisdean are listed in the Black Book of Clanranald as Mac Uisdean, which, over time, became McQuiston, as well as a handful of other spellings.
From my research it appears that Uisdean was born at Dingwall Castle about 1436; ruled the Macdonalds of Skye after his brother John gave up the Lord of the Isles title; died at Paisley Abbey in 1498; and was buried at Clachan Shannda on the island of North Uist. Of course, much happened between his birth and death, but this tale is not of Uisdean but rather of one of his descendants who made quite a name for himself, along with quite a fortune, in the wilds of the Yukon.
What I learned while researching Captain Jack is that men of Scottish descent drove the Yukon River Gold Rush, one of the most romantic periods in North American history.
In 2007, while traveling to Dawson City, Yukon, and on into Alaska, I was struck by the great number of significant mentions made of Scottish names. I discovered that the twenty-five years preceding the Klondike Gold Rush saw Scots involved in many aspects of Yukon River life through gold mining and the fur trade, and also through transportation improvements and community building.
Many of these Scots have had their accomplishments buried with the passage of time, and through the overshadowing of Klondike-mania.
This discovery has led me to the conclusion that Scots played the most significant role in the exploration of the Yukon River Valley. In support of this conclusion I present three important proofs – they being authors, landmarks, and discoveries.
Let’s begin with four famous Yukon Gold Rush authors.
The confluence of the Yukon River and the Klondike River was ground zero in a phenomenon that has seen millions of dollars in gold being discovered, even today. Facing the juncture of these two famous rivers stands a large stone with a brass plaque mounted to it – a plaque dedicated to the only man to ever be called “Father of the Yukon” or “Father of Alaska.” Even the Native American tribes in this area referred to him as “Injun Papa.”
His name was Leroy Napoleon McQuesten, known by family and friends as Captain Jack.
Captain Jack McQuesten wrote one of the earliest accounts of life along the Yukon River during its period of discovery and settlement. His book is entitled Recollections, and the original hand-written pages are held by the Yukon Archives in Whitehorse, Canada.
McQuesten’s name appears in a book by Duncan Bruce, entitled The Mark of the Scots, in which Jack is referred to as the Father of Alaska. His story has been told in a two separate issues of Highlander magazine, and he has even been immortalized as the inspiration for the whiskey known as Yukon Jack®.
During my stay in Dawson I met with many, if not most living Yukon historians. These modern-day authors arranged for the meeting because they knew that Jack’s story needed to be written. Our group met in the shadows of the gold-mining cabin of American author Jack London. Nearby, stood the home of the great Yukon poet, Robert Service, and the home of the premier Yukon historian, Pierre Berton. There could be no way for me to be more immersed in the history of the Great White North except perhaps to have been a gold-miner there, during that famous era.
Captain Jack spent twenty-five years along the Yukon pursuing the theory that – “When everyone else is digging for gold, be the one selling the shovels.”
He grubstaked the vast majority of the miners of that era, including the man who made the famous Klondike discovery. He skippered every early steamboat on the Yukon River, and recorded the very first weather records of the Yukon for Edward Nelson of the Smithsonian Institution –records that appeared in an early issue of National Geographic Magazine.
Jack obtained over 200 bird and animal specimens for the Smithsonian and established Fort Nelson in honor of this explorer. In just one of his many mentions of Jack, Nelson writes, “To Mr. L. N. McQuesten I am under obligations for many specimens from the Upper Yukon.”
Captain Jack was well-thought of by nearly everyone he met, including Jack London, who got many of his tales of the North directly from McQuesten.
London mentions the McQuesten name in four novels and four short stories, including his very first novel ever, called A Daughter Of The Snows, as well in his best selling novel of all time, entitled Burning Daylight, and in Call Of The Wild, the book that made him world famous.
In Burning Daylight, London speaks of Jack McQuesten as one of the most significant men in the Yukon. He also states, in another essay he wrote, entitled Gold Hunters of the North, that: “In 1898 the writer met Jack McQuestion at Minook on the Lower Yukon. The old pioneer, though grizzled, was hale and hearty, and as optimistic as when he first journeyed into the land along the path of the Circle. And no man more beloved is there in all the North. There will be great sadness there when his soul goes questing on over the Last Divide – ‘farther north,’ perhaps – who can tell?”
Jack London is most credited with bringing the story of Yukon life to the general public. Most scholars of this man believe his true father to be William Chaney. Chaney is, of course, a well-known Scottish name. This particular Chaney was an astrologer who impregnated London’s mother and then asked her to abort the child. She refused and he disavowed any connection to Jack London, who later took the surname of his stepfather, John London. Like London, Jack McQuesten’s father was also named John. And like William Chaney, Jack McQuesten descended from William McQuesten who immigrated to America from Scotland.
This pair of Jacks had much in common. It has been said that they left the Yukon together on the same freighter. They moved to within ten miles of each other, and London attended writing classes at the University of California at Berkeley, located only a mile and a half from Jack McQuesten’s home.
Evidence shows that London received inspiration and actual stories from McQuesten over a period of years. He did not publish any Yukon stories until he had moved close to McQuesten in California. London even based at least two short stories directly on the persona of Captain Jack.
Some of London’s tales are slightly adjusted retellings of stories that Captain Jack had already written in his own diary of his days along the big river. For instance, in Call Of The Wild London tells how the hero-dog Buck kills a bear that had been ravaged by insects. This same story was considered one of Jack McQuesten’s favorite tales, only in his true-to-life version the bear was put out of its misery by his own partners Mickey O’Brien and Joe Ladue. This is only one example of the memories of Jack McQuesten becoming the stories of Jack London.
If it was London’s intent to write tales of life on the Yukon River, he could find no man more qualified to help him than the gold rush millionaire, Captain Jack McQuesten.
While in the Yukon, Jack London carved his name in the gold-mining cabin where he was staying. He wrote on a log in the back of the cabin, “Jack London, Miner, Author, Jan. 27, 1898.” In the 1940’s, Jack MacKenzie (the last man to deliver mail by dogsled in the Yukon) carved the signature out of the wall. Later, Dick North facilitated moving part of the cabin to Dawson City and became the director of the Jack London Museum, there.
I was lucky enough to meet Mr. North before he passed away, and listened to many of his tales of the Yukon, including stories of Jack London and Jack McQuesten.
Another very significant author of Yukon life was the poet Robert Service. Service was born of a Scottish family. His father was a banker from Kilwinning, Scotland, who had been transferred to England. At age five, the poet was sent back to Scotland to live with his paternal grandfather. He attended Glasgow's Hillhead Highschool and afterwards joined the Commercial Bank of Scotland , which would later become theRoyal Bank of Scotland. Eventually, he left for North America, and after much travel, he found himself living in Dawson City, Yukon, and becoming known as the “Bard of the Yukon.” Two of his most famous poems are about Scotsmen, they being "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation Of Sam McGee."
It has been noted that Service would have had a tough time earning a living through writing poetry, while living amongst a group of hard-nosed miners in the middle of nowhere. In fact, before heading to the Yukon, Service again entered the banking business through employment with the Canadian Bank of Commerce, which had branches in Whitehorse and Dawson, Yukon. The Canadian bank had, as its agent in Scotland, the Bank of Scotland, which is said to be the oldest bank in Scotland. The Canadian Bank of Commerce was founded by the Scots-blooded William McMaster, whose family had come to America from Scotland by way of a stop in Northern Ireland. McMaster’s first wife was a Henderson and his second, a Fraser.
Only a few short years before Captain Jack McQuesten headed to the Yukon, the Canadian Bank of Commerce came under the control of the Merchant’s Bank of Canada – a bank founded by Sir Hugh Allan, born at Saltcoats, Ayrshire. Allan’s wife was Jean Crawford, his first cousin was the Scotsman Sir Alexander Galt, one of the premier fathers of the Canadian Confederation, and his first cousin, one generation removed, was the poet Robbie Burns. Allan’s bank had close ties with the Royal Bank of Scotland, showing that there was a definite Scottish force behind the financing of the Yukon Gold Rush, including at least some connections to both the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland, along with several influential Scottish families. Robert Service, having been employed by both banks, seems to have been the perfect “front man” to keep an eye on Scottish-led banking interests in the gold fields, while outwardly carrying on his “occupation” as a poet.
Finally, Pierre Berton, in his lifetime, was named the most famous man in Canada. He was born in Dawson City and spent his life writing books and producing documentaries on Canadian history, especially the Yukon Gold Rush. Berton’s mother had already become famous for her book I Married The Klondike. She moved to Dawson as a schoolteacher, where she married Pierre’s father. Her maiden name was Thompson and she, too, was Scottish.
All four of these important Yukon authors had Scottish blood in their veins. Jack McQuesten’s book Recollections, along with Jack London’s books and short stories, Robert Service’s poems, and Pierre Berton’s histories, together make up some of the best information of that era and region available, even today.
In more modern times, three great storytellers of the Yukon are dear friends of mine, and all have Scottish blood in their veins. Ed Jones, along with his wife Star, are two of the most sought-after researchers and historians of the Yukon, having lived for 25 years on an island in the middle of the Yukon River, near Dawson. They have been associated with the area for 50 years while writing several significant reports for both the Alaskan and Yukon governments. Ed is of Scots-blood and actually spoke Gaelic as a child. Next is Rod Perry, the premier historian of the Iditarod dog sled races. Rod filed the very first news release on this famous race many years ago and has written a two-volume set of the history of the race, Trailblazers, which is now being made into a documentary. Rod is of Scots blood as is our next modern author, Cass Wright, an avid dog musher and author of many Scottish clan histories, who fed me stories of Captain Jack that he had heard, first-hand, in saloons along the Yukon. I join with these three great Scots-blooded authors in keeping the Scottish influence, in the recording of Yukon River history, alive.
Now, let’s take a look at some landmarks.
Though located nearly 4,000 miles from Scotland, the Yukon River Valley became an exciting adventure for many men of Scottish descent. Rivers, mountains, airports, mineral belts and towns in the Yukon, in Alaska, and in nearby territories, still carry Scottish names.
There are rivers by the names of Stewart, Fraser, and Mackenzie. There are mountains with the names McKinley and Ogilvie, and a glacier called Muir. There were outposts like Fort Douglas, Fort McPherson and Fort Selkirk, and towns named Ogilvie, McGrath and Harper.
The McQuesten name, which began on the Isle of Skye, carries on in landmarks along the Yukon at McQuesten River and McQuesten Lake, and in the community of McQuesten, home to McQuesten Lodge. In Faro, Mayo and Whitehorse you’ll find roads named McQuesten. Then there are the McQuesten Airfield, the McQuesten Flats, and the McQuesten Mineral Belt, which is a geological area in the Yukon gold fields, still a top producer of gold.
Arthur Harper was a partner of Captain Jack and his family had moved from Scotland to America by way of Ulster. Harper’s son Walter was the first known man to stand on the summit of Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. In 1896, a gold prospector named the peak in support of presidential candidate William McKinley, who became the American president the following year. The Native name for this mountain is Denali and, in 2015, this became the official name of the mountain.
What most people don’t realize is that before it became known as Mount McKinley this summit was named Densmore’s Mountain, after Frank Densmore, who had walked sixty-five miles of the mountain’s slopes. The Densmore name comes from Dundemore in Fife, Scotland. So this highest mountain in North America actually has gone by two names of Scottish origin, Densmore and McKinley.
In addition, the Native names for both the Yukon and Klondike rivers were first recorded by Scots. Even the word “Iditarod,” voted the most-recognizable word in Alaska, describes an area first made famous by James Beaton, whose father immigrated to America also from the Isle of Skye.
Two more Scots, William Ogilvie and John McGrath, were employed to establish the true boundary between Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. Jack McQuesten established towns, forts and trading posts along the border and was considered the expert on this border, as reported by the U.S. Labor Department. Jack provided supplies and information to both the Canadian and U.S. survey teams who finally made the border official.
Ogilvie, working for Canada, left behind the Canadian town of Ogilvie, and the Ogilvie Mountains. John McGrath, working for the United States, left behind the Alaskan town of McGrath, and the McGrath Gold District. Ogilvie credits another Scot, George Davidson, with establishing accurate surveying points along the Alaskan shoreline as a member of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey – points that Ogilvie then used to begin his own surveys to establish the Alaskan/Canadian border. It was for William Ogilvie that Captain Jack first wrote his book Recollections.
The Canadian side of the border extends as far west as it does through the efforts of Sir John Macdonald, the Scottish-born first Prime Minister of Canada. This was significant in that it kept the richness of the Klondike River and Dawson City on the Canadian side.
Let’s move on to the major discoveries made by men of Scottish descent, leading to the settlement of the Yukon Valley.
The McQuesten family is a branch of Clan Donald. Jack’s family knew of their link to Clan Donald as proven by the fact that Chuck McQuesten, great-grandnephew of Jack, served for many years as the North Pacific Commissioner of Clan Donald, USA. His region encompassed much of Jack’s old stomping grounds.
Coincidentally, the first western preacher recorded in the Yukon River Valley was Reverend Robert McDonald, who served as chaplain for the Hudson’s Bay Company. A major gold-mining creek that eventually empties into the Yukon River was named Preacher’s Creek after Rev. McDonald, who first discovered gold in its waters “by the spoonful.”
It was Jack McQuesten and Robert McDonald who first recorded the Native name for the Klondike River, which was, in fact, the Thron-deg. A French trader wrote the name down on an early map of the area, in a manner that seemed, instead, to spell The Klondike, and this is the name that stuck, despite it not being the original name of this famous river.
Rev. McDonald officiated at the wedding of Jack McQuesten and his wife, Kate. Jack and Kate were not the real given names of this couple that represented one of the very first marriages between a white western trader and a Native women in this area. They remained married for life and had many children.
Jack came about his nickname when, as an inexperienced passenger, he climbed to the top of a mast to release the twisted sails of a ship caught in a severe Pacific Ocean storm. As he descended the mast he was dubbed Captain Jack, a name that stuck with him for life. Kate’s Native name was Satejdenalno (sa-teg-de-nal-no). Jack renamed her Kate.
Robert McDonald and Jack McQuesten were not the only famous people from Clan Donald to make their mark on the Yukon. Pete McDonald brought the very first horses into the Yukon River Valley in the company of his partner John Campbell. Both Pete McDonald and John Campbell left the Yukon as millionaires.
How these and other men got into the Yukon Valley reveals even more Scottish influence. Many trappers and miners came into the valley by what has been referred to as the “backdoor,” coming up the Mackenzie River through western Canada then taking smaller streams and portages to reach the Yukon River.
The Mackenzie River was named after a very famous Scot, Alexander Mackenzie, who discovered the river while on a mission to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. Through his explorations, Mackenzie opened up northwestern Canada, providing eventual access to the Yukon River Valley, and on into Alaska. There still exists a rock on which this explorer, who had just finally reached the Pacific Ocean, wrote the words, “Alex Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, 22nd July 1793.”
Alex was born in 1764 at Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, in the Hebrides of Scotland, and grew up in America, where his father brought him after his mother passed away. The waterway named for this man (the Mackenzie River) provided the best Canadian access into the Northwest, as well as into the Yukon River Valley.
The men who made the difficult trip through western Canada and into Alaska, to discover and supply fur-trading and gold-hunting lands, were known as voyageurs. One leader of the voyageurs was Colin Robertson, born in Perth, Scotland, in 1783. He immigrated to New York City, where he found work with the North West Company, one of the two principal trading companies in North America. By 1814, he was in the employ of the other top trading company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, leading an expedition to reestablish this company in western Canada. His expenses were guaranteed by Thomas Douglas, 5th Lord Selkirk, of Scotland. Both Fort Douglas and Fort Selkirk were named for Thomas Douglas.
Robertson rebuilt Fort Douglas, which had been burned down by the rival North West Company. In 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company were united, and Colin Robertson became a “chief factor” in the new company, representing the backdoor pathway to the Yukon River Valley.
Jack McQuesten entered the Yukon Valley through this backdoor opened by Scottish involvement on both sides of the Atlantic. Jack had spent several years prospecting in the northwest United States and in southwest Canada, along with his brothers, cousins and father. When the other family members returned to the lower forty-eight, Jack partnered with the Irishman Mike Shannon, until he took a job as a voyageur hauling freight northward. He eventually traveled more than twice the distance across the Northwest as the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. Jack had spent so long in the wilderness, in fact, that he missed the entire Civil War, and did not hear about it until he met another Irishman, Al Mayo, who had just left service in that war to make his fortune in Canada.
Soon, Jack left his post as a voyageur to partner with Al Mayo, James McKniff, Arthur Harper and Fred Hart. McKniff was Scottish, and Harper and Hart were from Scottish families that had moved to County Antrim, Northern Ireland. This five-man team made their way into the Yukon River Valley via the Mackenzie River. They were encouraged to go there by another chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a Mr. McDougall, and also by a man that Jack called Sibistone, but was, in fact, Sir George Simpson, born in Dingwall, Scotland.
Simpson’s story shows the heavy involvement of Scots in opening up the North. He was the great grandson of George Mackenzie, 2nd Laird of Grunaird, who was himself the grandson of George Mackenzie, 2nd Earl of Seaforth. Simpson's father was a first cousin of Alexander Mackenzie’s father-in-law. Simpson was hired by Andrew Colville, who was born in East Lothian, Scotland, and whose sister married Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, the financier of the quest north.
Mackenzie, of course, discovered the main passageway into the Yukon River Valley, Simpson encouraged Jack McQuesten to explore the area, and Douglas financially guaranteed the explorations of Colin Robertson and other Scotsmen in this adventure. In addition, Alexander Mackenzie and Thomas Douglas, being blocked in their attempt to settle displaced Highland crofters on land in Canada by the Hudson’s Bay Company, simply purchased enough shares in the company to have a controlling interest over its use of land.
It can easily be seen that the settlement of the Yukon Valley was not an accident, but rather a calculated, step-by-step effort, carried out principally by men of Scottish descent.
McQuesten’s first stop, upon entering the valley, was at Fort Yukon, established by Alexander Murray, also of the Hudson's Bay Company. Murray was one of the earliest Scotsmen to enter the Yukon. He hailed from Lanarkshire, Scotland.
Captain Jack records that his partner Arthur Harper was the first to discover gold along the Yukon River that would pay a daily wage. He also states that Thomas Boswell and John Fraser were the first to do any mining on the Stewart River.
The Stewart River, which empties into the Yukon, was discovered by the Scotsman Robert Campbell of the Hudson's Bay Company. He named the waterway after a close friend and assistant in the company, another Scot by the name of James Stewart. Campbell also established Fort Selkirk above the juncture of theYukon River and the Pelly River.
Campbell was hired to carry on the exploration of John McLeod, who established the town of Dunvegan, in Alberta, Canada, named after his family’s castle on the Isle of Skye. The influence of the name is felt today in the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway, in the Dunvegan Provincial Park, located near where Jack McQuesten said he first heard of the Yukon, and in the name of the Dunvegan Formation, a geological area located in northwestern Alberta, northern British Columbia, and as far north as the Northwest Territories.
James Stewart played an important role in maintaining Fort Selkirk. The men were finally forced to abandon the post they had fought so hard to sustain, when Chilkat Indians, long-time rivals of the Hudson's Bay Company traders at Fort Selkirk, attacked it and destroyed it. Stewart went on to serve at Fort McPherson, near the mouth of the Mackenzie River, while Campbell retreated to Fort Simpson, also on the Mackenzie River.
The Fraser River is another important river in the trek north. It was named for Simon Fraser, who led an expedition on behalf of the North West Company almost to the mouth of the river. Both Alex Mackenzie and George Simpson later visited the river to determine its viability in further explorations of the Northwest. As the years rolled by, the families of Stewart and Fraser intermarried and a descendant of these two families, Katie Fraser, an archivist at the Dawson City Museum, assisted me in my research. Laura Mann, another Scottish descendant, served as executive director of the Dawson City Museum upon my visit there. The Mann family married into the McQuesten family. Jack’s former home in California is currently owned by his descendant Kevin Mann. The apple has, at times, not fallen far from the tree where Yukon history is concerned.
Of course, the river most central to this report is the Yukon River. In 1845, while James Stewart literally held the fort at Selkirk, Robert Campbell explored the Pelly River downstream until he came upon a larger river flowing from the south. As he had done with the naming of Stewart River, he named this river the Lewes River, after the Scotsman John Lewes, his fellow traveler and friend. Campbell didn’t know it yet but he had found the Yukon. Since Campbell didn’t understand his great find, the river’s discovery was claimed by another Scot by the name of James Bell, considered the first explorer to find the Yukon.
In 1846, Bell, another Hudson’s Bay Company trader, asked the local Natives what they called the wide, silty river he had come upon. They answered, “Yukukakat”, meaning “big river” or “great river.” James Bell renamed the river the Youcon.
For the next several years, maps of this area showed the Youcon heading north into the Arctic Ocean. Another river seemed to flow from this vast country and empty into the Bering Sea near the old Russian town of St. Michael, located on the western coast of Alaska. The Russians called this the Kwikpak River. In 1866, the Kwikpak and Youcon were found to be one and the same, and were renamed the Yukon River as we know it today.
There are many more examples of Scottish discoveries in the Yukon and Alaska territories. For instance, Professor John Muir was the first man to extensively record the glaciers at Alaska’s Glacier Bay. The Muir Glacier is named for him, and it is written that “Mr. Wallace, first officer of the steamer Idaho,” led the first landing party ashore at that glacier. Muir and Wallace are very recognizable Scottish names.
One by one, Scots were making their mark on the Yukon River Valley. An unidentified “red-haired Scotsman” was the first known white man to attempt a crossing of the infamous Chilkoot Pass, with its 1,000 foot snow covered summit that led to the Yukon headwaters. He was captured by the same Chilkat Indians who had destroyed Fort Selkirk but was later released.
It is thought that this man was either the Scotsman George Holt or the Scotsman Edmund Bean, whose family came out of Clan Chattan. Later, the pass was opened by a Scotsman named E.P. McClellan, who faced down the leader of the Chilkats with a Gatling gun to make way for the influx of miners into the Yukon River Valley. South of the Chilkoot Pass stood the Dyea Pass, which Holt and Bean also opened.
Now, there were three paths into the Yukon River Valley – through the backdoor by way of the Mackenzie River, up the mouth of the Yukon River by steamboats most often skippered by Captain Jack McQuesten, or across the Chilkoot or Dyea Passes, opened by Holt, Bean and McClelland. Scots were directly responsible for all three paths into the Yukon River Valley.
The ancient art of whisky making carried on in the Yukon Valley. In Dawson City, Jack McQuesten and another partner, Tom “Mickey” O’Brien, were identified as the only two named members of a “whiskey gang” being investigated by the Canadian Mounties for tax purposes. O’Brien went on to establish the first legal distillery in Dawson. Jack simply moved over the border into Alaska, where he continued to manufacture his product. He is the namesake, if not the original producer of the whiskey known as Yukon Jack®.
The head of the Yukon division of the North-West Mounted Police looking into the whiskey gang was the Scot, Samuel Steele, whose mother was Anne Macdonald, the youngest daughter of Neil Maclain MacDonald of Ardnamurchan, a native of Islay.
Jack McQuesten was also famous for becoming the first president of the Yukon Order Of Pioneers, and as the inventor of the sourdough thermometer, which out performed typical thermometers in reading the extremely low temperatures of the Yukon Valley. He was the first to farm along the Yukon on a large scale, growing literally tons of turnips on islands that would stay warmer longer, using sled dogs and even a trained moose to pull his plow. Jack established the forts Nelson and Reliance, and the towns of Forty Mile and Circle City.
McQuesten grubstaked most of the early miners in the Yukon Valley. One of those men was George Carmack. It is believed that Carmack’s original family surname was McCormick, but, because he fashioned himself as an Indian chief, after marrying an Indian princess, he took a name that sounded more Native. Thus, he became known simply as Carmack.
Carmack discovered gold on the Klondike River, whose juncture with the Yukon River was located only six miles from Jack’s old post of Fort Reliance. The area nearby became Dawson City. According to the Victoria Daily Times, “George Carmack, discoverer of the Klondike, says that it was indirectly through McQuesten that he happened to be at the mouth of the Klondike, when he made his famous discovery.” In their writings, both McQuesten and Carmack tell the same story about Jack grubstaking Carmack and suggesting he head to the Klondike to look for gold.
In August of 1896 Carmack happened upon another Scotsman named Robert Henderson, who had found a small amount of gold along Klondike tributaries. Henderson, whose Scottish family had immigrated first to Nova Scotia, suggested that Carmack should check out nearby Rabbit Creek. Carmack was accompanied by his Native friends, Jim and Charley. The three miners made their way to Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike. There, along the headwaters of the Klondike, Carmack, apparently by accident, found a thumb-sized nugget of gold, which set off the Klondike rush. After collecting a fair amount of gold, he made his way down to Jack’s town of Forty Mile along with Charley, to file his claim, while Jim stayed behind to protect the diggings.
Carmack began bragging about the gold while drinking in Bill McPhee’s famous Caribou Saloon. He was met with skepticism both because of his reputation for stretching the truth and because it was thought that the area had been explored thoroughly. However, not many miners had ventured up the Klondike due to it being a fishing ground of Native tribes. The gold had been there for all those years, only a few miles from Jack’s trading post. It proved to be the biggest stampede of the Yukon, the undoing of Jack’s towns of Forty Mile and Circle City, and the end of his 25-year career in that valley.
None of the miners had seen the likes of Carmack’s gold before. William Ogilvie, still in Forty Mile surveying the U.S./Canadian border, remarked, “it could not have fallen from the sky.”
Before long, many Forty Mile and Circle City miners began to believe the news and packed their gear for the Klondike. Two more Scotsmen staking claims along the Klondike within two days of Carmack’s strike were Gregory Stewart and D. Robertson. The stampede had begun that quickly. A local claims recorder was desperately needed to document the fast-growing number of Klondike gold diggings, and so the Scots-blooded David McKay was elected to that position.
Many other men of Scottish descent trekked the Yukon River Valley in search of gold.
Jack McQuesten represented the Alaskan Commercial Company, begun by the Scots-blooded Hayword Hutchison. At one point the company entertained the idea of replacing Jack. A petition was signed by many Yukon miners to keep McQuesten as their trading partner. Scottish names on that petition include William Stewart, Frank Densmore, Fred Hart and William McPhee.
Jack was the first president of the Yukon Order Of Pioneers whose initial members included Scotsmen by the names of John Campbell, Howard Hamilton, George McCue, Isaac Powers, Ellis Lewis, R. Lowrie, Fred Hutchinson, Pete McDonald, S.S. Mitchell, Matt Hall, Arthur Harper and N. McArthur.
During my visit to Dawson City I also met with John Gould, the now-deceased former historian for the Yukon Order of Pioneers, whose Scottish family name was Guild. His father and grandfather before him were miners along the Klondike, stretching far back to the very beginnings of gold mining in this area. I also met an extremely successful modern-day gold miner, the Scots-blooded Jim Archibald, who told me that Dawson wouldn’t be half the town it is, if not for Jack McQuesten. He said he feels just as privileged, and indebted to Jack, as all those early miners that McQuesten grubstaked. Archibald had single-handedly taken millions of dollars out of the Klondike region, or so they say . . .
Though he had already returned to the lower forty-eight in 1897, Captain Jack came back to the Yukon Valley to establish an Alaskan Commercial Company store at the newly founded Dawson City. He had originally left with his family because he foresaw the terrible deaths that would come with the Klondike strike through starvation, scurvy and claim jumping. It was on his return to the North, in 1898, that he met Jack London. He also met Wyatt Earp, who had established a saloon in Nome, Alaska, that competed with the McQuesten Saloon, there.
Jack brought two million dollars in gold home with him, as he left behind the life he had lived for twenty-five years along the great river.
Back in California, he fed stories of the Yukon River Valley to Jack London in between his travels across America, where he was greeted with much notoriety. He died in 1909, just as he was planning to attend the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, Washington, where many Yukon and Klondike gold-miners awaited his arrival.
Coincidentally, Tampa, Florida resident E.C. Roberts was also in the Yukon River Valley during the year 1898, and the City of Tampa sent a select committee to the 1909 Exposition, while also naming one of their main roadways “Yukon Street.”
Newspapers across America announced Jack McQuesten’s death, branding him as “Father of Alaska” and “Father of the Yukon.” He has lived on as a character in a number of books, beyond those written by Jack London, and has had dozens of stories told about him throughout the years.
His departure from the Yukon Valley also saw the influx of thousands of men of many different nationalities. The era of the Scotsman dominating all aspects of Yukon life was coming to a close, and yet so much history and so many Scottish names were left behind.
Scots were first in virtually every category that can be thought of in the exploration of the Yukon River Valley, from finding gold to skippering steamships, from naming landmarks to recording weather records, from climbing mountains to discovering rivers, from establishing forts and towns to recording that exploration in books, short stories, poems and documentaries.
Descendants of the early Scots of the Yukon and Alaska still live there, and mine for gold there, even today. Descendants of Scots still record Yukon River history today.
No other race can claim such an extensive involvement in this area. A combination of adventurous, brave, persistent Scottish explorers and financial interests driven by Scottish investors led to unmatched influence in the settlement of the Yukon River Valley by men, and women, of Scottish descent.
But the story is not finished. I propose that not only should we recognize the efforts of Scotsmen on both sides of the Atlantic in settling this area, but also that further research needs to be undertaken to better understand the role of Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, and his associates, along with the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland, in financing and pushing forward the settlement of the Yukon River Valley.