Angus Graham: The Golden Grindstone

Cover of The Golden Grindstone, by Angus Graham

“It was a most extraordinary thing, Graham, to see how the different men reacted to the gold. It took them all different ways, just like too much liquor. One would be cold and calculating, and as wicked as Hell; another would be delirious with pleasure; some showed themselves up as the lowest type of killer; and many became open-handedly generous.”

This one is subtitled “The Adventures of George M. Mitchell”.

Mitchell was an insurance-broker in Toronto, in his early thirties, when the Klondike gold-rush began in 1897. He and two friends immediately drew up a plan to reach the Klondike gold-fields by the “All-Canadian Route” from Edmonton. While most prospectors tried to reach the Klondike River by crossing through Alaska into Canada, the Edmontonians, recently connected to the outside world by the Calgary and Edmonton Railway, were keen to promote their town as a “Gateway to the Yukon”.

Cover of The Klondike Gold Rush Through Edmonton, by J.G. MacGregor

There were, in fact, a plethora of “All-Canadian” routes, exhaustively detailed by J.G. MacGregor in his book The Klondike Rush Through Edmonton (1970). They can be divided into Overland Routes and Water Routes. The Overland Routes involved a long, gruelling trek which wrought a huge death toll among pack-animals along the way. The Water Routes involved building a boat and drifting northwards down the Mackenzie River, before choosing a tributary and striking south-westwards and upstream, towards the watershed between the Mackenzie and the Yukon. Once across the watershed, it was just a matter of finding a suitable Yukon tributary, building another boat, navigating downsteam, and eventually connecting with one of the Yukon paddle-wheel steamers for transport to Dawson City and the Klondike field, as lovingly described in Robert Turner’s The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers (2019).

Cover of Klondike Gold Rush Steamers by Robert Turner

Mitchell favoured one of the Water Routes, and after consultation with the surveyor William Ogilvie, established that he could cross between the Mackenzie and Yukon drainage basins across a pass that separated the headwaters of the Peel River (draining into the Mackenzie) from those of the Stewart River (draining into the Yukon).

Mitchell never made it to the Yukon, for reasons we’ll come to in due course, but in his sixties he dictated his gold-rush memoir to Angus Graham, about whom I regrettably know nothing. He was clearly something of a raconteur, and Graham wisely copies down many of his stories verbatim, though Graham was no slouch at telling a story himself. Here he is, in his introductory chapter, setting the tone for what will follow:

But the picture which the reader of this book should chiefly try to form is of Mr. Mitchell in his den. It was his hospitable habit to receive his friends of an evening in a tiny sanctum withdrawn at the back of the hall—its walls hung with guns and rifles, pictures of dogs, Indians’ knives and embroidered leatherwork, and the piece of a mammoth’s tusk that he had found in the Valley of the Noises. Here, if his hearers were interested, he would sometimes warm up to reminiscence, and it was in such evening conversations that he gave me the stories out of which this book is made.

The journey on which Mitchell and his companions embarked, at the end of December 1897, would involve more than two thousand miles of travel from Edmonton to Dawson City. After reaching Edmonton by rail, they passed the first months of 1898 in assembling three years’ worth of stores—ten tons, in all. Before the March thaw, they had this transported to the Athabasca River along the 90-mile sleigh-road connecting Edmonton and Athabasca Landing.* There, they commissioned the building of a thirty-three-foot scow for onward river transport.

By May, the Athabasca River was free of ice, and they set off downstream, along with a flotilla of other prospectors. First they followed the Athabasca into Lake Athabasca, and then the Slave River to Great Slave Lake, notorious for its storms. From the Great Slave into the Mackenzie proper, and then all the way downriver to the Mackenzie Delta, where they entered the mouth of the Peel River and headed upstream a short distance to the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost of Fort McPherson.

None of the journey so far was into anything like unknown territory—the Hudson’s Bay Company had been trading here for many years (the joke along the Mackenzie was that “HBC” actually stood for “Here Before Christ”). They had established fortified trading posts all along the river route, as well as infrastructure here and there to assist boats in negotiating the various rapids. At Grand Rapids on the Athabasca, for instance, there was a narrow-gauge tramway at which prospectors unloaded their boats above the rapids, and then transported their goods to a point beneath the rapids. Meanwhile, the empty boat was allowed to descend the rapids, controlled from shore by ropes attached at bow and stern, and then reloaded.

Graham offers a description of one of the HBC’s strongholds—Fort Simpson:

The wall was built of stout spruce logs fifteen feet high and a foot in diameter, with their tops sharpened to points; all round the inside ran a firing platform, with loopholes for musketry defence, while at the corners there were bastions, mounting guns, with magazines on ground level beneath.

Inside, the HBC “officers” enjoyed a well-stocked wine cellar, an extensive library, and a billiard-room.

Fort McPherson was something of an entrepôt for Arctic Canada, visited by both the Gwichʼin First Nations people from the surrounding territory and the Inuvialuit Inuit from the Mackenzie Delta. In the summer of 1898 it also received a visitation of about two hundred prospectors in fifty assorted boats, all keen to resupply, hire local guides, and then get moving farther up towards the Peel River headwaters before the first snows in the high passes prevented further progress. Mitchell found a Gwich’in guide, Bonnet Plume, who undertook to lead him and his party to the watershed pass above the Stewart River; he also turned up an invaluable map of the Peel River prepared by Comte Edouard de Sainville in 1893.

Hauling boats upriver through the canyons and rapids of the Peel (a process called “tracking”) was exhausting work. Boats suited to the broad reaches of the Mackenzie were too long, and were cut in half at the riverside, with a new bow and stern for the half-boats being fashioned from local timber. By mid-September, just after the party of prospectors, by now much strung out, had turned south to follow the Wind River, the first snow-storm intimated that they were not going to reach the Yukon watershed until the following year. They stopped and built a temporary cabin village in which to overwinter, which they grandly named “Wind City”. Here, the group occupied their time with hunting, prospecting widely around the camp, getting into fights, and tending those among them who developed scurvy. Mitchell and Bonnet Plume also trekked the hundred and forty miles up Wind River to establish that there was indeed a viable pass connecting to the headwaters of the Stewart.

George R. Mitchell's route, 1898
Click to enlarge
Prepared from Natural Earth data

But that, as my map above shows, was as far as Mitchell got. By his own account, while out on a midwinter hunting trip with a party of Gwich’in, he sustained a broken kneecap when a tree he was felling toppled in the wrong direction. He was then nursed through the winter at the Gwich’in camp, and was taken back to Fort McPherson (now a Gwich’in “blood brother”) the following spring. The latter third of the book is taken up with Mitchell’s experiences, good and bad, but mainly good, of First Nations medicine and hospitality.

Graham tells all this in fine style, occasionally intruding with explanatory or additional notes, but mainly letting Mitchell tell his own story his own way. Indeed, some of the verbatim text includes Mitchell’s instructions on exactly what he wants to have included in the book. The story is full of detail about river navigation, prospecting tricks, encounters with bears and wolves, life in the Canadian Arctic, and the skills, beliefs and customs of the Gwich’in people. And we’re reminded fairly frequently that this was still a wild frontier, in some respects:

“Wasn’t there a good deal of shooting, Mr. Mitchell, one way or another?” I ventured to enquire.
“Well, yes, there was some shooting. We all had guns. I always carried three guns myself: one long-barrelled thing, mainly for show, strapped to my leg like you see in the Wild West movies; a forty-five in my belt, in case a heavy bullet was wanted; an automatic in my armpit—that was what I depended on for real quick business. But it never came to anything very much […] There was no fellow really killed at Athabasca Landing.”

Mitchell’s tone here is typical. There’s always a fair amount of swagger, and Mitchell would have us believe that he was constantly resolving disputes with his fists or a blow from an axe-handle, being deputized by the North-West Mounted Police, and generally being smarter and better prepared than the rather poor specimens around him. (He had a particularly poor view of men from Chicago, for some reason.) He does however stress his particular admiration and respect for the Gwich’in, but undermine this somewhat by referring to them as “my Indians”. And then there’s this:

“As regards punishing women,” said Mitchell, “it was customary to beat women when they needed it, and they often did need it.”

As time goes by, one begins to feel that Mitchell might be to some extent an unreliable narrator. There are some improbable medical interventions, including the complex surgery supposedly performed on his broken kneecap by a Gwich’in woman, and a piece of gun-play that seems little short of miraculous. Then there’s his claim that it was “pitch black all through December and January” at Wind City, so that men could only hunt by the light of the aurora. Wind City, however, even by Mitchell’s own estimate, was a good way south of the Arctic Circle, and would have enjoyed three hours of daylight on even the shortest day of the year. (Though perhaps not a glimpse of the low sun itself, because of high ground to the south.)

Cover of From Duck Lake to Dawson City, by Eben McAdam

And the whole story of Mitchell’s time with the Gwich’in sits uneasily with the diaries of prospectors Ebenezer McAdam and R.H.S. Cresswell, published in From Duck Lake To Dawson City (1977). Mitchell’s chronology is hazy, but he gives the impression of spending most of the winter with the Gwich’in. But McAdam puts Mitchell in Wind City, nursing an injured knee, from January to March—if this was a separate injury, Mitchell doesn’t mention it. Mitchell then describes how the Gwich’in take him down to Fort McPherson during the months of June and July. Cresswell reports meeting this party in June—but in the company of five other prospectors who had become unable or unwilling to proceed to Dawson City. None of these men is mentioned in Mitchell’s narrative, despite the fact that one of them was Ed Harris—a man whose life Mitchell had previously reported saving, by amputating his gangrenous heel with a hacksaw, “after I got Harris’ permission in writing—signed and witnessed”.

So this one is a rollickingly good read, but one is left feeling uneasy—how much of the fascinating detail can we actually believe? Probably a great deal of it, but which bits exactly?

You can borrow the book from the Internet Archive. Second-hand copies of the original UK, US, Canadian and Australian (1947) publications seem to be readily available, though prices are a bit variable. There’s also a paperback edition from Lyons Press (2006).

* MacGregor tells us the going rate for this was $0.75-$1.00 per hundred pounds of cargo. For a Canadian 2000-pound short ton, that makes something like 200 Canadian dollars for Mitchell’s load—equivalent to over $5000 today.
Mitchell refers to the Gwich’in by the French name Loucheux, and to the Inuit as Eskimos, both now deprecated exonyms.
From Duck Lake To Dawson City is an annotated edition of McAdam’s Klondike diary. The editor, R.G. Moyles, quotes from Cresswell’s unpublished diary in the notes.

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