Copyright 2016, Deb Vanasse

Chapter One

Gold I Bring


The Roanoke is loaded with gold. Bags, cans, boxes, and crates cram its lower deck, jammed with a whopping ten tons of the precious metal panned and sluiced by lucky devils in the northern wilderness. Only a year ago, few had heard of the patch of low mountains and dense northern spruce now known as the Klondike. But these days, like an incantation of magic, the very word Klondike invokes abundance, the vindication of the American dream and the triumph of the individual in its most measurable manifestation: wealth.[i]

Nine days after setting out from the dreary and once sleepy port of St. Michael near the wide, muddy mouth of the Yukon River, the Roanoke chugs toward the dock of the North American Transport Company in Seattle, a city that enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the Klondike and its magic, the city having built the magic and the magic having built the city.

Four hundred fifty-eight passengers crowd the ship’s decks, eager for land. Sunshine seeps past clouds to light the throng gathered to welcome them and their gold: women in cinched-waist dresses and high, narrow hats; men in suits and suspenders, bowlers and derbies and straw tops. Everyone wants to see who has gotten rich in the Klondike and who has returned empty-handed. In the Gilded Age of Horatio Alger and unbridled capitalism, Americans are exhorted to industry, thrift, and temperance. No one can quite reconcile the idea of gold so easy and plentiful that you need none of these virtues to claim it. The idea is as unsettling as it is enticing, and on this day in 1898, there is no small amount of envy as the Roanoke steams for shore, especially when it comes to the scruffy common folk on her decks, the nouveaux made riches by gold.

A particular challenge to American precepts on money, virtue, and class is the lone Indian woman on board the Roanoke, first called Shaaw Tláa, now called Kate Carmack. On her wrists and fingers, she wears gold, thin bands that belie her new and extraordinary wealth. With a firm, dark-eyed gaze, she meets life head-on, grounded in the knowledge of who she is and from where she has come. Her features are soft, graceful; her resolve, unwavering. Possessed of a ready smile, she is resilient, resourceful, and strong—headstrong, even, with a temper. Determined and accomplished, she has already adapted in remarkable ways to circumstances beyond any she could ever have imagined, but the challenges ahead will prove even more formidable.

Kate Carmack’s distinction—her claim to fame, as it were, though to her such a concept is foreign—is that she is thought to be the richest Indian woman in the world; since the extinction of the sixteenth-century colony for which the Roanoke is named, she is better situated with what passes for wealth than nearly any indigenous person of the United States or Canada has ever been. As of yet, she knows nothing of those who’ve gone before her and failed, Indians such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and Quanah Parker, who have only recently been consigned to a scrubbed-out existence on lands no one else wants.

The crowd gathered on this one Seattle dock exceeds twice again the entire population of Kate’s Tagish Indian band, of whom she knows each by name. Like all Indians of Alaska and the Yukon, the Tagish clans travel in yearly rounds, hunting caribou and Dall sheep, gathering berries, harvesting salmon, and trapping beaver and muskrat. Thanks to the gatekeeping of their Tlingit neighbors, they have been among the last aboriginal people on the continent to confront head-on the object-driven culture of the West. They occupy the final frontier, some might say, although the US Census Bureau in 1890 declared the American frontier more or less closed, and at any rate, when your ideas about land have more to do with proper use than with tightly defined boundaries, the whole idea of a frontier becomes pointless.[ii] Adapting is among the actions that have traditionally sustained Kate’s people, but there’s a tipping point between adaptation and assimilation that they’ve yet to fully test.

Her first language centers on verbs, her integrity tied to how well she protects, relates, negotiates, and adapts. In the form of luck, destiny comes to her; she does not seek it out. In Kate’s essence, her yaahei, which is Shaaw Tláa and not Kate, it is the journey that matters, not the end. The route is a circle, traversed with way-finding that demands close attention and behaviors that honor defined relationships.

In contrast, nineteenth-century Americans are a people of objects, their language driven by nouns. In their way of thinking, destiny requires pursuit; it is no coincidence that in their language, the words destiny and destination share the same root. They travel in lines, from point to point, toward tangible goals. They explore, they assert, they acquire. Among their most thrilling and coveted prizes is gold, of which Kate Carmack has quite a lot.


Kate’s voyage had begun nineteen days earlier, when she left Dawson City, a boomtown at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, in what is popularly known to Americans as Alaska but is in fact the newly formed Yukon Territory of Canada. Despite her fortune in gold, she has until now occupied with her husband and daughter a small, tidy cabin built of hand-hewn logs on one of the family’s Bonanza Creek claims, claims that by one estimate will yield $2.5 million in gold.[iii] Within her modest home, she has sewn fur mittens and baked bread to sell to neighboring miners, though she draws the line at taking in laundry.

Two weeks before she began her journey, a huge white tent went up across the river from Dawson, belonging to a woman who could hardly have been more different than Kate. In this four-hundred-pound tent, New York heiress Mary E. Hitchcock can host seventy-five dinner guests, serving them tinned oysters, asparagus, and lobsters, and ice cream made from the freezer she has brought to the wilderness. She can entertain her new friends with her gramophone and her movie projector and her portable bowling alley, not to mention her flock of pigeons, her parrot, her canaries, and a Great Dane.[iv]

Penned between practicing on her zither and mandolin, Mary Hitchcock kept a detailed journal of the route Kate has traveled (though in reverse), by steamer and sternwheeler[v] through the Pacific to the Bering Sea and up the Yukon River to Dawson. Steaming from the mainland toward the mouth of the Yukon with traveling companion Edith Van Buren, grand-niece of President Martin Van Buren, Mary Hitchcock was struck by the profound silence as their ship navigated a field of ice floes. A stretch of wet, windy days at the dreary Alaskan port of St. Michael tried her patience as they waited for the water in the Yukon to rise to accommodate the sternwheeler. It vexed her to learn that she would not, as promised, be among the first passengers to put off in Dawson that year.

Once they finally got on the river, Mary Hitchcock disembarked whenever the boat stopped, which was often, sternwheelers having large appetites for wood. Fighting off gnats and mosquitoes and horseflies, she gathered wild roses, mulberries, currants, and raspberries, as well as groundsel, which delighted her canaries. Where she could, she photographed Indians who turned out along the river, though she refused to descend into the traditional community houses to photograph their dancing, for fear of the vermin, and she became indignant when a group of Indian women covered their heads with shawls and demanded a sitting fee. Though she misperceived the tundra as prairie with great potential for agricultural development, she admired the mountains and rapids and gorges as her boat approached Dawson.[vi]

This is the country that Kate has left behind, though unlike Mary Hitchcock, she is unable to record her impressions of it, because she cannot read or write. But in the age of Yellow Journalism, American reporters are already poised to spread the legends that will spring up about her. Random photos of Indian women will circulate, the owners claiming to have captured Kate’s image. In order to find her way, she will purportedly leave hatchet marks in the fancy woodwork of the Seattle Hotel.[vii] With her husband, she will toss gold coins from the hotel’s top floor, causing mayhem among pedestrians who scramble for easy money.[viii]

And when George abandons her at a California ranch 2,500 miles from her home, Kate will discover the extent to which she has been made to embody a longstanding metaphor that simultaneously casts Indian women in the role of exotic princess and dangerous savage.[ix] As such, she will be expected to defy her own people in a self-imposed banishment that aligns her with the dominant culture but that ends, more often than not, in premature death.[x]


The Roanoke is among sixty new boats and barges that serve the gold fields, plowing across the North Pacific and charging up and down the Yukon at such an alarming rate that it’s a wonder they don’t collide. Sternwheelers from two rival carriers now race, quite literally, to and from the Klondike; the one that delivered Kate down the Yukon to the Roanoke set a new record as it zipped in six days from Dawson City to St. Michael. Aboard the Roanoke, the vessel’s owner is beaming, though his mood darkens when he’s reminded of two gold heists that have plagued this voyage, the victim of one of these thefts being Kate’s brother Keish, known as Skookum Jim Mason; at some point during their journey, $4,000 of his gold was replaced with lead shot.

Even with this loss, the family partnership that consists of Kate and Jim plus their nephews Káa Goox (also called Charlie) and Kooŧseen (called Patsy) and Kate’s husband George Carmack still have a quarter million dollars in gold stashed in the lower reaches of the Roanoke, and this is only a portion of the fortune they’re wresting from the frozen earth.[xi] The son of a California farmer, Kate’s husband claims credit for having discovered the gold that set off the Klondike madness. So do her brother and nephew; there’s even talk that Kate played a role in plucking the first nuggets from the creek.


As the Roanoke was about to set sail for Seattle, Kate and her family posed for a photo on deck. Though he should be at the peak of his game, George appears in this photo more bedraggled than the rest, his suit coat rumpled and his tie loose at the collar. He’s not yet forty, but he suffers from rheumatism, which Kate treats with traditional medicines, coltsfoot and devil’s club. A drifter who tried his hand at shepherding, which he hated, and the military, from which he went AWOL at age twenty-two, George Carmack appeared in the Yukon at a fortuitous time. Though he now claims gold as his destiny, in truth he wandered the North for years with no real destination. After a dozen years as husband to Kate, he has finally written to his sister to tell her he’s married. His wife, he says in his letter, is Irish.[xii]

“Lying George,” as fellow prospectors call him, is known for telling a stretcher now and again. Interviewed in his Roanoke stateroom, he complained he’d never seen the true story of the Klondike discovery in print.[xiii] Before he’s through, he’ll fabricate multiple versions of this “true story.” He brags to the reporter that he plans to take Kate and Charlie and Jim to the big 1899 expedition in Paris. But in fact, when he writes his life story, he’ll leave Kate out completely. It will be as if she never existed.

In the photo taken from the Roanoke before its departure, Kate appears beautiful by any standard, posing assuredly behind a crate of gold, dressed in a dark frock with lace collar and sleeves, a shawl draped over her shoulders. While not the height of fashion, her flat-topped hat is graced with a length of fancy ribbon. Though in one hand she clutches a white handkerchief—has she been crying?—her lips turn in a slight smile. The only woman on deck, she stands out among dozens of stern-faced men, including her nephew Charlie, who slouches at her side, hands stuffed in the pockets of his three-piece suit. In front of Kate sits her five-year-old daughter, Graphie Grace, too young to recall a life without gold. Wearing a heavy dress and a lace-collared cape, Graphie scowls, perhaps having already spied the high-topped button boots she’ll demand her father purchase right off another child’s feet, to replace the Indian moccasins made by her mother.[xiv]

In this photo, no one touches Kate’s husband, but a fellow miner rests his hand on the shoulder of her brother Keish. Known also as Skookum, or “Strong” Jim, he strikes a handsome, confident pose in his suit, his derby hat tipped stylishly to the side, one hand in his pocket, the other on his hip, displaying a gold ring. Jim is acclaimed for his prowess and strength—in a single load, he once packed 165 pounds of bacon over the Chilkoot Trail, dubbed the meanest thirty-three miles in history.[xv] Another time he went hand to claw with a bear. Two years before striking it rich in the Klondike, an encounter with the fleeting Wealth Woman of Tagish legend bestowed Jim with luck, which he now shares with Kate’s husband, whom he befriended even before they became brothers-in-law, a relationship that to the Tagish is deeply infused with obligations.[xvi] Even though one of George’s “stretchers” was that Indians could not file Discovery claims, Jim has stuck by him as the family digs gold from the gravels of Bonanza Creek.[xvii]

Standing so close to Jim that their arms overlap is Kooŧseen, whom George has dubbed with the unfortunate name of “Patsy”—all of Kate’s family has been renamed like this, at random, by George or other white people who’ve found their given names too difficult. Among the Tagish, uncles take special responsibility for nephews, rearing them almost as fathers would; for years, Patsy and Charlie have traveled with Jim. Like his uncle, Patsy sports a smart three-piece suit, but he’s young and slight, and his hands clasped at his waist betray his unease, as if he alone knows what’s ahead.


In truth, Seattle is a hardly the best place to make your first acquaintance with urban America in the waning years of the nineteenth century. Inspired by the gold rush, swindlers and speculators are everywhere. In this booming city, you can buy everything imaginable, and then some, to ease your way in the Arctic: patented Blizzard Resister Suits, Klondike underwear, Klondike hosiery, Klondike gloves. You can purchase frost extraction devices and insect-proof masks—pound for pound, the Klondike is rumored to be almost as heavy with mosquitoes as it is with gold.[xviii] Would-be millionaires can also equip themselves with automated gold pans and steam-powered sleds, crystallized eggs (some turn out to be nothing but cornmeal), scurvy cures, collapsible boats, Klondike bicycles, and slot machines that operate on gold nuggets instead of coins—all of it, save perhaps the scurvy cure, utterly worthless upon arrival in the North. Yet already $60 million has been spent in the race for gold.[xix]

The Klondike feeds the longings of an adolescent nation in the throes of nineteenth-century capitalism. Industrialism has funneled wealth to the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan in quantities unimaginable to the average American, so that there are only two classes, according to Populist Jerry Simpson: the robbers and the robbed.[xx] Following the Panic of 1893, factories closed, unemployment skyrocketed, and foreclosures were rampant. Depositors stormed banks, demanding their money in gold. At first the US Treasury drew on reserves to satisfy them, but the nation’s burgeoning deficit and European distrust of the American dollar created such a downward spiral in confidence that by early 1895, the US government was about to run out of gold, a crisis that would have caused the nation to default on its debt.

Only by brokering a deal in which the US Treasury sold bonds in exchange for gold from a syndicate led by banker J.P. Morgan was President Grover Cleveland able to avert an international run on American banks that might have turned the 1893 Panic into an all-out depression. Naturally, Morgan made a hefty profit on the transaction, though the exact amount was never disclosed.[xxi] Still the recession deepened. Cleveland’s reputation was ruined. Populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan ran on the silver platform, eschewing the gold standard as the tool used by greedy bankers to manipulate the money supply. “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” Bryan proclaimed.

Six weeks after this pronouncement, George Carmack or one of his Tagish relatives—depending on whose version you believe—discovered the nuggets that precipitated a rush that flooded worldwide markets with gold, renewing confidence and setting off a boom in transportation and industry to accommodate the would-be millionaires headed north that dampened the furor over gold versus silver. Thanks to an enthusiastic advertising campaign launched by Erastus Brainerd, a former journalist who rivals P.T. Barnum for showmanship, nearly all the traffic in the Seattle harbor now points toward the Klondike.

Nearly all the traffic, that is, except the Roanoke, about to deliver Kate to the throng. Can wealth be the destiny of an obscure Indian woman, transported from a place that, for better or worse, is gaining fame as the resurrected (and last) frontier? Everything in the nineteenth-century American soul screams against it. But for Kate Carmack, née Shaaw Tláa, destiny is hardly the point. You act as you must, trusting in the combined sum of your actions to keep you whole. You hope against hope that out of the mad rush for Klondike gold will come a legacy of triumph—not of wealth, but of spirit.

An exceptional and complex woman, Kate will prove herself neither angel nor demon. Her perspective—and indeed the perspective of all Native people—will be overlooked time and again in the plethora of books that will be written about the Klondike, popular accounts of the gold rush that emphasize the values and accomplishments of outsiders. But when pieced together decades after her death, her life’s story will demonstrate the many ways in which a singular quest for wealth played out for those who were there first, the indigenous people of Alaska and the Yukon.

Read more 


[i] “Ten Tons of Gold from the Frozen North,” Tacoma Daily News (August 31, 1898): 4. Another source, “Returning Adventurers,” New York Times (August 31, 1898) makes “a conservative estimate” of $1.5 million in gold carried on the Roanoke.

[ii] In The Reckless Decade (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), H. W. Brands discusses the frontier as the area (both geographical and psychological) where the predictable and unpredictable meet; he also quotes from the 1890 US Census Report: “Up to and including 1890 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line,” 23.

[iii] Virgil Moore, “George W. Carmack,” The Klondike News (April 1, 1898).

[iv] Terrence Cole, Introduction to Two Women in the Klondike by Mary E. Hitchcock (University of Alaska Press, 2005), ix-x.

[v] The sternwheeler was the riverboat version of the steamship, with a steam-driven paddle at the stern.

[vi] Mary E. Hitchcock, Two Women in the Klondike (University of Alaska Press, 2005), 33.

[vii] Karan Smith, “Gold in the Veins,” The Yukon News (August 26, 1998).

[viii] “Threw Money at the Crowd: Returned Klondiker and His Alaska Wife Amuse the People of Seattle,” The Reading Eagle (November 30, 1898), 13. As with many of the events in Kate’s life, alternate versions of this story have circulated. In this book, the author relies wherever possible on primary and/or multiple sources.

[ix] Rayna Green, “The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture,” Massachusetts Review 27, no. 4 (1975).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] “Ten Tons of Gold from the Frozen North.”

[xii] George Carmack, letter to Rose Watson, June 20, 1897.

[xiii] “How the Klondike Was Discovered,” Omaha World Herald (September 11, 1898), reprinted from The San Francisco Examiner.

[xiv] James Albert Johnson, George Carmack (Vancouver: Whitecap Boos, 2001), 115-116.

[xv] William Ogilvie, Early Days on the Yukon (New York: Arno Press, reprinted 1974), 133.

[xvi] Thomas F. Thornton, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Ethnographic Overview and Assessment, Final Report (August 2004).

[xvii] “Million and a Half,” The San Juan Islander (September 8, 1898), 1.

[xviii] Lisa Mighetto and Marcia Montgomery, Hard Drive to the Klondike (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 64-66.

[xix] Pierre Berton, The Klondike Fever (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1958), 127-128.

[xx] H. W. Brands, The Reckless Decade (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 197.

[xxi] Brands, 79.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *