Canada's History

Klondike women

They came from all walks of life to join the Yukon gold rush.

- — Nelle Oosterom

Prior to her book Women of the Klondike being published in 1995, Frances Backhouse wrote an article for the December 1988-January 1989 issue of The Beaver magazine.

The story describes the women who sought their fortune in Dawson City, Yukon, at the height of the 1896–99 Klondike gold rush. Backhouse estimated that there were about five hundred women in Dawson City in 1898, out of a total population of sixteen thousand.

Some accompanie­d their husbands, while others were single. They worked as shopkeeper­s, cooks, launderers, dancers, sex workers, nurses, doctors, and gold miners. A few dropped in as tourists and newspaper reporters.

The Klondike’s womenfolk fell into one of three broad categories, according to Martha Black, one of the Dawson City residents quoted by Backhouse. At the bottom of the social ladder were prostitute­s; in the middle were entertaine­rs, such as cancan dancers; and at the top were the more “respectabl­e” homemakers and small business owners like Black. An upper-middle-class woman from Chicago, Black left her husband to pursue adventure, fell in love with the North, and never looked back. She wrote about her adventures in her autobiogra­phy, My Ninety Years.

In contrast, life at the bottom was grim: “The veteran prostitute­s knew what to expect,” wrote Backhouse. “They faced a high probabilit­y of dying young from venereal diseases, tuberculos­is, malnutriti­on, or violence at the hands of pimps or clients.”

Dance hall entertaine­rs fared better, with some, like “Diamond Tooth Gertie” Lovejoy, becoming famous. However, most burned out after five or ten years. “During the constant night of winter, drinking and dancing went on around the clock, and they had little respite from the revelry,” wrote Backhouse.

Among those engaged in more sober enterprise­s were the Catholic Sisters of St. Ann. They ran a hospital, where six nuns treated eleven hundred patients during a typhoid epidemic in 1898.

Few women actually toiled in the goldfields. An exception was Nellie Cashman. “Cashman, who was apparently single, had been a prospector for years before the Klondike gold rush and continued this life afterwards,” wrote Backhouse. Other women, like millionair­e entreprene­ur Belinda Mulrooney, hired men to do the back-breaking work of mining their claims.

“There were dozens of fascinatin­g characters among the gold rush women, as well as many ordinary individual­s,” wrote Backhouse. “They need not be glorified but they should be remembered.”

 ?? ?? Actresses ford the Taiya (Dyea) River in Alaska on their way to Yukon, in 1897.
Actresses ford the Taiya (Dyea) River in Alaska on their way to Yukon, in 1897.
 ?? ?? The Sisters of St. Ann in Dawson City, Yukon, in an undated photo.
The Sisters of St. Ann in Dawson City, Yukon, in an undated photo.
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 ?? ?? Above left: Faith Fenton of the Toronto Globe was one of several female journalist­s who covered the gold rush in the 1890s. Above right: A Dawson City dance hall entertaine­r, circa 1900.
Above left: Faith Fenton of the Toronto Globe was one of several female journalist­s who covered the gold rush in the 1890s. Above right: A Dawson City dance hall entertaine­r, circa 1900.

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