It’s the very end of the nineteen-hundreds, and the turbulent and innovative century is drawing to a close.
If you had a passing interest in the science of our planet, you may have read the first global climate study ‘On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground’, released in the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, by the Swedish scientist Savnate August Arrhenius.
That same year, 1896, in a vague region of the Yukon territory in the northwest of the ten-million square-kilometre landmass known as Canada, the ground had never been so hot.
Skookum Jim Mason, a man described as being ‘straight as a gun barrel, powerfully built with strong sloping shoulders, tapering downwards to the waist, like a keystone,’ is carrying a fishing rod, a woven net, and a spool of twine. He’s up early this morning, wearing his faded jeans and carrying an old Strauss tent, and strolling peacefully and hopefully along the Klondike River.
He’s not alone though, because alongside him is the Kate responsible for starting the Klondike Gold Rush.
A few years later, an aspiring performer, who’s career had so far been unimpressive at best, arrived in the Yukon dressed as a boy, and headed for the City of Dawson, where she joined the Savoy Theatrical Company, with high hopes and a checkered past.
This Kate, Kate Rockwell, was originally from Kansas, lived in both New York and North Dakota, had grown up in Washington, and eventually died in Oregon, as well as blazing the entertainment trail in the remote Yukon.
The other Kate, Kate Carmack, the one who’s find brought the actress to this desolate region, was born near Bennett Lake, about five days walk from Discovery Claim, where on August 16 she and her brother, Skookum Jim, and her husband George, and their enigmatic nephew Dawson Charlie, rested on the banks of the Klondike River, before paddling into the shallows and changing the course of history.
There's no record of Rockwell ever going fishing. Her life began in a large square mansion, before the economic instability of the time, and her family's dwindling stature, started to shape the edges of the life she would live, and color the adventures she would have.
Like many artists and performers, she was independent and rebellious, ready to try anything, especially if it were illegal and hard to come by, and enjoyed a disdain for education which the bankrupt Mark Twain may have smiled at, as he wrote in his quiet pavilion, six-thousand-four-hundred-and-ninety-five kilometres away at the other end of North America, had he felt like smiling.
At some point during these turbulent years, Rockwell decided performing on stage was her calling, and headed to Whitehorse, the capital and only city of the Yukon, to work as a dancer. The juxtaposition of her relatively wealthy upbringing and the somewhat lower positions she now took, or her willingness to flirt and reveal more than just her dance moves, may have contributed to her sudden and dramatic success, but whichever it was she became so popular that she received her own moniker, Klondike Kate.
And she danced to the backdrop of piano keys and clanging bottles, bawdy miners and the women that hung on their every dollar, and was the talk of the town.
In contrast, Kate Carmack was born to a very different family altogether.
Her father was Kaachgaawáa, the head of the Tinglit Crow Clan, semi-nomadic, matrilineal, and indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, and her mother, Gus’dutéen, was of the Tagish Wolf Clan.
After her husband and daughter died of influenza, brought to their remote home by ubiquitous Western murderer-explorers, Carmack moved to the Forty Mile region, where she became the common law wife of George and took his surname, and added it to her Western name Kate.
And the group set out that morning, along the River, just to fish, and hunt, and not disturb the subtle balance of the environment they inhabited.
Klondike Kate, on the other hand, didn’t have any qualms about disturbing any balances, especially when she met Alexander Pantages, a lowly bartender in their adopted home of Dawson City.
Together, they rampaged through life with an unbridled intensity and a passion for the illicit, one day in love, the next in league with swindlers and cheats, while Rockwell’s flirtatious dancing garnered more fame. Eternally jealous of each other, they lived the ups and downs of an unmatched couple, and their relationship ended when he married another woman without telling her, and she, less than pleased, exercised her right to divorce him and seek solace in her craft.
Carmack, whose birth name was Shaaw Tláa, had no rights at all as a claimant to anything on the land - or indeed the land itself - that her ancestors had lived on and with for millennia, which is why they decided that George Carmack should be named the discoverer.
But she too was unimpressed when he, and his newfound wealth left her and her daughter, and married Marguerite Laimee in secret, in 1900, and departed for distant Washington, leaving Kate unable to prove a claim to alimony. She returned to her village, Carcross, to pursue her own craft, making winter clothes for miners.
Two years later, sensing the gold rush was over, Klondike Kate headed south, to Oregon, where she worked three-hundred acres of land for the requisite five years, in her gown, dance slippers, and tap shoes, and earned the ability to claim the rights to her land, and simultaneously fell in love and married a cowboy, Floyd Warner.
Back home in Carcross, Skookum Jim Mason built a cabin for his sister, where she lived in peace for nearly twenty years.
Rockwell was restless though, because the excitement of life in Dawson in the midst of the greatest gold rush on Earth was no match for farming a parcel of land in rural Oregon. Neither was Warner, so she ditched him and married a miner named John Matson, which didn’t last either.
Adrift in a post-Klondike world, Kate moved to Bend, where she briefly regained the celebrity status she’d once had, though now she raised funds for local charities, and her moniker evolved from Klondike to Aunt. She even made a still-viewable guest appearance on You Bet Your Life in 1954, hosted by Julius Henry Marx, whose own moniker was Groucho, and married yet another husband, William L. Van Duren.
Rather than raising cash, Carmack’s final years were spent raising chickens, and tending the land around her cabin.
In the end, the Kate who made life a little more interesting for homesick miners, died in 1957, in Sweet Home, Oregon, maybe the last true character of the Klondike Gold Rush. And the Kate who started the whole adventure had already died, with thousands of others in the influenza epidemic in 1920, fairly unremembered.
Shaaw Tláa found the gold, and Kathleen Eloise Rockwell Warner Matson Van Duren rode the rainbow in her name.
Photo by AG Z