June 5

This Day in History

Old West

Jun 5, 1922:

Discoverer of Klondike Gold dies

George W. Carmack, the first person to discover gold along the Klondike River, dies in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Carmack was born into a life of prospecting and mining. His father was a forty-niner who settled his family in Contra Costa County, California. When he was in his early 20s, Carmack followed his father's example, setting off on long prospecting journeys that took him from Juneau, Alaska, to the Yukon Territory of northwest Canada. There, he married a woman from the Tagish, a small tribe of Native Americans from the southern Yukon.

Unlike many prospectors, Carmack was not consumed by the lust to find gold. For several years, he was happy to wander about the Yukon with his wife's people. When he did settle down in a cabin on the upper Yukon River, he enjoyed performing on an organ, reading periodicals like Scientific American, and occasionally writing sentimental poetry.

In the summer of 1896, Carmack was fishing for salmon near the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike River. Accompanied by two Tagish friends, Carmack decided to explore Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike. As he did habitually, Carmack stopped occasionally to pan for signs of gold along the creek. At first, he found little of the telltale yellowish color in his pan. Then, on August 17, he stumbled across a deposit of gold so rich that he needed no pan to see it: Thumb-sized pieces of gold lay scattered about the creek bed.

Carmack's two Tagish companions later said they had actually found the gold while Carmack was asleep under a birch tree. Regardless of who deserved the credit, the discovery sparked one of the last great western gold rushes. Thousands of would-be miners raced for the Klondike the following year. Partly because there was no other big news at the time, American newspapers exaggerated the reports of the gold fields in the Klondike. Steamship and outfitting companies did their part to promote the rush as well. Historians estimate that as many as 100,000 people set out for the Yukon gold fields, though perhaps only half that number actually reached the diggings. Unlike Carmack, few of the gold seekers were experienced in prospecting or mining, and many were turned back by sickness, starvation, and the bitter northern cold.

Carmack was luckier. After making several valuable claims, he abandoned his wandering life with the Tagish and set to work mining gold. According to some reports, when he returned to the United States in 1898 he had found gold worth more than a million dollars. Now a wealthy and influential man, Carmack moved to Vancouver, B.C., where he married the daughter of a successful mining operator. No mention was made of his earlier Tagish wife--Carmack may have simply abandoned her. He died in Vancouver in 1922 at the age of 61.

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