Sometime prospector George Carmack stumbles across gold while salmon fishing along the Klondike River in the Yukon.
George Carmack’s discovery of gold in that region sparked the last great western gold rush, but it was pure chance that he found it. In contrast to the discoverers of many of the other major American gold fields, Carmack was not a particularly serious prospector. He had traveled to Alaska in 1881 drawn by the reports of major gold strikes in the Juneau area, but failing to make a significant strike, he headed north into the isolated Yukon Territory. There he spent his days wandering the wilderness with the friendly Tagish Indians and fishing for salmon.
On this day in 1896, Carmack and two Tagish friends were salmon fishing on Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River. As he habitually did, Carmack occasionally stopped to swirl a bit of the river sand in his prospector’s pan. He had seen a little gold, but nothing of particular note. At day’s end, the men made camp along the creek, and Carmack said he spotted a thumb-sized nugget of gold jutting out from the creek bank.
The two Tagish Indians later said that Carmack had been napping that evening and one of them found the nugget while washing a dishpan. Regardless, further investigation revealed gold deposits “lying thick between the flaky slabs of rock like cheese in a sandwich.”
Subsequent expeditions in the spring and summer of the following year turned up other sizeable gold deposits. In part, because the summer of 1897 was a slow one for news, the major mass-circulation newspapers played up the story of the gold strikes, sparking a nationwide sensation. In the years to come, as many as 50,000 eager gold seekers arrived in the Klondike-Yukon region. Few found any wealth, though their hardships and adventures inspired the highly romanticized Yukon tales of Jack London and the poems of Robert Service.
Carmack did get rich, reportedly taking a million dollars worth of gold out of his Klondike claims and retiring to Vancouver, B.C. He died in 1922 at the age of 61, a wealthy and honored benefactor of the city.