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Sidebar: Women of the Klondike


Martha Purdy Black put a few noses out of joint when she separated from her husband on the way to the Klondike and continued on without him while pregnant with his child. She went on to marry lawyer George Black and became known as The First Lady of the Yukon and the second ever female member to sit in Canadian parliament.(1)

The women of the Klondike were not typical women of their times. Klondike women were determined and resilient, ready to defy the strictures of society. They went in search of wealth and in search of adventure. And to shake off some of their Victorian restrictions. They were more numerous and diverse than history would expect. The majority were Americans, like Martha Black. But some came from as far away as Europe, Australia, and Japan.(2) Women from all walks of life joined the rush‹poor but aspiring immigrants, professional women, socialites, wives, single women, widows and children.(3) And they were just as varied in what they did once they got there.


"Woman Keeps House, Picks Up $10,000 in Nuggets in Spare Time," announced one article about Ethel Bush Berry. She and her husband, Clarence J. Berry, had gone north from San Francisco over the impossible Chilkoot Pass in 1896. They came home a year later with $84,000. Explaining how they did it, C.J. said, "I question seriously whether I would have done so well if it had not been for the excellent advice and aid of my wife. I want to give her all the credit that is due to her, and I can assure you that it is a great deal."(4)

Ethel and her sister, Tot, were in charge of the domestic camp duties. It was hard work, cooking for so many with the same kind of food every day and so few utensils. They had to set everything up twice for each meal since they didn't have enough dishes. In response to her husband's praise, Ethel in return had some advice for women:

What advice would I give to a woman about going to Alaska? Why, to stay away, of course! It's no place for a woman. I mean for a woman alone: one who goes to make a living or a fortune. Yes, there are women going into the mines alone. There were when we came out; widows and lone women to do whatever they could for the miners, with the hope of getting big pay. It's much better for a man, though, if he has a wife along.(5)


Not all of the miners had their wives to take care of them. Many women did set out, single or alone, with the idea in mind of "ministering to the wants of helpless masculinity." They had plans to provide domestic services for profit. Frances Dorley was a Seattle dressmaker and milliner who talked her parents into letting her join the stampede in 1898. She found a party of men bound for the gold fields and convinced them to take her along if she did all the cooking en route. Dorley later settled in Dawson and bought a cabin. She turned it into a roadhouse, strategically located at the junction of two creeks busiest with miners, Bonanza and Eldorado, and made a fortune off her home-cooked grub of baked beans, bread, pies and doughnuts.(6)

Another of the Yukon's early female entrepreneurs was a stocky blonde woman by the name of Mrs. Willis who set out from Tacoma, Washington, while her husband stayed home. Before the rush, Mrs. Willis operated a laundry and bakery in Circle City, which was the main mining centre in 1896. But when word of the Bonanza Creek strike reached Circle, she packed up her washboard, baking tins, and sewing machine and joined the exodus to Dawson, hauling her own 750-pound load by sled.(7)


Women were also drawn to the Klondike by the prospect of making their fortunes by entertaining the men. The stereotypical woman of the Klondike was a dance-hall girl, singer or prostitute. Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, a veteran of dance halls and theatres in New York City, Washington State and British Columbia, came to Dawson in 1900 with a travelling theatre company. She adopted the nickname "Klondike Kate" and became famous for her mesmerizing flame dance. In Klondike tradition, the cheering men deluged the stage around her feet with gold coins, nuggets and bags of gold dust. After their dances, stage performers like Klondike Kate had the job of spending the rest of the night mixing with the patrons and encouraging them to spend their money at the bar. Variety and percentage girls were lower down in the ranks, their source of income being solely the commission they received in keeping company with the often lonely and miserable miners. The role of these women was to talk to and amuse their escorts, provide a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on, and above all, to keep the drinks flowing.(8)

Because of the small female population in the Klondike, all women attracted attention, but actresses and dance hall girls endured the greatest public scrutiny. Beatrice Lorne, a young Australian widow with a child to support, immigrated to the Klondike to try her luck in 1899. She found work with her exquisite soprano voice and was billed as "the Klondike Nightingale" known for her nostalgic rather than erotic performances. Nevertheless, after several years in Dawson when she married veterinarian George Smith and left the stage, she was castigated by some for being invited into the more respectable social circles.(9)


Women also came to the Klondike on self-less missions, wanting to help those who lost their health or their souls while hunting for gold. Missionaries and Salvationists came on "God's command," inspired by the prospect of thousands of sinners awaiting conversion. Nuns and nurses were also present among the women of the Klondike. As the population of the region grew with the Gold Rush, hospitals and churches were built.(10)

Father William Judge, a seven-year veteran of the gold-mining communities in Alaska, oversaw the establishment of Dawson's Catholic church and the Klondike's first hospital. He arrived in Dawson in 1897 and was soon overwhelmed by the demand for care coupled with the burden of scarce resources, and realized that he needed some help. He called initially upon three Sisters, Mary Hohn Damascene, Mary of the Cross and Mary Joseph Calasanctius from St. Ann in Holy Cross.(11)

The nuns arrived after a long journey by steamship in 1898. They could be seen waiting eagerly by the ship's railings, shrouded in stiff, black habits with heavy gold crosses hanging around their necks and glinting in the sun. The nuns had no formal training in nursing but they were not newcomers to the north. They received no renumeration for their work. Nevertheless the Sisters willingly took on the task of fundraising, making the rough trek out to gold fields to solicit donations from the miners in order to keep St. Mary's hospital up and running.(12)

Also in 1898 there was a call to women to join the Victorian Order of Nurses' Klondike contingent. Candidates had to be unmarried, at least twenty-eight years old, and be a graduate of a recognized nursing school. They were warned they would have to dress very plainly and not curl or crimp their hair. Four nurses were selected, three Canadians and one recent immigrant from England. They reached Dawson one month after the Sisters of St. Ann and found their skills desperately needed to care for the many victims of the typhoid epidemic that was raging through the Klondike.(13)


Other women yet went to the Klondike to be observers or participants. Flora Shaw, colonial editor and correspondent for the London Times‹and described by the Globe as perhaps "the most distinguished lady journalist in the world"‹crossed the White Pass trail in 1898 and wrote three long scholarly features packed with facts and figures about Yukon geology, topography, climate, mining methodology and economics. Helen Dare's assignment for the San Francisco Examiner, one of the first newspapers to dispatch correspondents to the Klondike, was to provide a feminine perspective of the Gold Rush.(14)

Most women who went to the Klondike were given an opportunity, sooner or later, to pick nuggets out of a sluice box or wash out a few pans full of gravel. Regardless of what brought them there, or what occupations engaged them to make a living, many also staked claims. Martha Black was one of the more successful. She arrived late, on August 5, 1898, but nevertheless did quite well, a credit to her determination. Martha worked a claim she staked at Excelsior Creek on her way into Dawson. Fortunately, the claim proved rich. And after a short trip to her parents' home in Kansas, Martha returned to Dawson in 1900, succeeded in the sawmill business and made a life for herself in the Yukon.(15)

1, 15
My Ninety Years, by Martha Louise Black
(Alaska Northwest Publishing Company, Anchorage, Alaska, 1976).

Women of the Klondike, by Frances Backhouse
(Whitecap Books, Toronto, 1995).

Klondike Women, True Tales of the 1897-1898 Gold Rush, by Melanie J. Mayer
(Swallow Press, Ohio University Press, 1989).

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