Royal Canadian Mounted Police
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Klondike Gold Rush

While the Force in Alberta and Saskatchewan was adjusting to the growing tide of settlers, a new frontier was opening up to the north along the banks of the Yukon River and its tributaries. Little was known of the Yukon prior to 1886. A sudden flurry of activity there focused attention on the Fortymile River. A gold strike on this small Yukon tributary, just inside the Canadian border, set off a chain reaction attracting a sudden modest influx of gold seekers. Local traders, conscious of the new market, now turned their attentions to these fresh customers.

Gold rushThe increase in population created a need for a more stable regulative authority: major commercial interests looked for some form of order; the Anglican clergy sought to protect the Indian population from indiscriminate liquor traders; and even the miners worried about possible future disorder. The Canadian government's solution to these problems was "something for everyone". There would be no immediate show of force which would risk a violent clash with the miners and traders over government regulations, but the government wished to ensure that the region would remain Canadian.

On May 20, 1894, Commissioner L.W. Herchmer directed Inspector Charles Constantine to set out for the Yukon's headwaters. S/Sgt. Charles Brown accompanied the Inspector, who was now well versed in the several government departments he would represent. One of his primary objectives consisted in letting the people of the Yukon know that a Dominion Agent was establishing roots.

Almost two and a half months later, traveling by foot, boat, and on horseback, Constantine and Brown arrived at Fort Cudahy near the town of Fortymile. It was August 7th, 1894 - and who could predict that gold would soon be is covered? For the moment, Constantine and Brown had few pressures with only 1,000 miners, traders and trappers in the Territory. Yukon temperatures, Constantine was told, range from -77° F in the nine month winter to 120° F in the summer. The environment itself would provide the greatest initial challenge. The majority of people in the Yukon were natives.

The majority of the white population was almost equally divided between Americans and Canadians. A few English and other nationalities completed the population picture. Fortymile had approximately 260 miners, but the gold pickings were thin in comparison to what was to come. Constantine evaluated the 1893 gold take from the Yukon at approximately $300,000.

The Inspector anticipated difficulty in establishing authority because the miners believed Yukon conditions justified mining claims five times the size allowed by Canadian law. He also felt they would hold out for their rights as established by local practice. Constantine, conscious of possible trouble over mining or other regulations, recommended an allotment of 50 men including two officers, one surgeon, three sergeants and three corporals. The men should each have at least two years experience, "large and powerful build" and a reputation for sobriety.

Despite his report to the Canadian government, Constantine was sent back to the Yukon with a contingent of only 19. On July 24, 1895, he arrived outside Fortymile with Inspector D'Arcy Strickland, Assistant Surgeon A.E. Wills and the remaining men. Two days later, a Canadian Order-in-Council created the separate "Yukon District" as an administrative sub-unit within the Northwest Territories. Constantine and the men began constructing the first Mounted Police post in the Yukon, Fort Constantine. Fortunately, they were firmly established just in time for the spectacular Klondike Gold Rush.

n mid-August 1896, George Washington Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, with their "Bonanza" gold discovery on Rabbit Creek, charted a new course for life in the Yukon.

Rabbit Creek, renamed Bonanza Creek, was a Klondike tributary which flowed into the Yukon River 50 miles upstream and east of Fortymile. After striking coarse gold valued at 30 times the normal 10-cent-strike-per-pan, the men registered their claims with Inspector Constantine on August 21. As Constantine anticipated, news of the strike outside the Yukon provoked a frenzied stampede in search of easy gold. Over the next two years tens of thousands of gold seekers converged on the Klondike via various routes.

The nineteen officers and men of the NWMP could not handle the anticipated "rush". They had to be quickly reinforced. The Force in the Yukon swelled from 19 members in late 1896 to 285 by November 1898. Fort Herchmer, located at Dawson, became the new headquarters in summer 1897. On June 13, 1898, after the Yukon Territory was created, the now 31 detachments were reorganized into "H" and "B" Divisions. Superintendent Samuel Benfield Steele arrived at the head of the Lynn Canal, the main entrance to the gold fields, in February, 1898. Inspectors D'Arcy Strickland and Robert Belcher took charge of the detachments established at the summits of White and Chilkoot passes. Their chief official function was collecting customs duty for supplies brought into the Yukon by gold seekers.

Between 1898-1900, the Canadian government sent a 200-man force, drawn from Canada's permanent militia, known as the Yukon Field Force, to assist the NWMP in guarding prisoners, banks and gold shipments. The North-West Mounted Police and the Union Jack became symbols of personal security and justice at the summits of the passes. Steele wrote, "The whole demeanour of the people changed the moment they crossed the summit. The pistol was packed in the valise and not used. The desperado, if there, had changed his ways, no one feared him." Certain crimes did increase. In the Yukon, punishment was designed more to fit the "need" for supply fuel than the "deed", and thieves frequently were sentenced to the huge Mounted Police wood pile behind Fort Herchmer.

The NWMP achieved a glowing record of assistance and protection to the tens of thousands who entered the Yukon in search of gold. The Yukon refused to surrender her riches easily and the entrepreneurs continually battled the realities of their harsh environment. Only a few found gold; injury and death rewarded many who dared venture. Not many found their Eldorado and most left the inhospitable climate as quickly as they had come.