Hunter: The Yukon Gold Rush Letters of Robert Hunter Fitzhugh Jr., 1897-1900
Edited by Ann Carlisle Carmichael. NewSouth Books, 138 pages, 2021. $19.95
Robert Hunter Fitzhugh Jr. was a civil engineer in Chicago who caught gold fever in 1897, one of thousands of Americans who abruptly abandoned their lives and scrambled north when word of the Klondike gold strike reached the United States.
Like most who ventured into the Yukon and Alaska in those years, Fitzhugh wouldn’t find much gold. Worse yet, the journey would cost him his life in 1900, when he was buried in an avalanche while hunting. But in between his departure and his untimely demise at the age of 30, he prolifically composed letters to family members back home. These letters have now been gathered together in a new book that offers insight into daily life for those who risked all hoping a few years of hard work in the goldfields would lead to a life of leisure and wealth. And because they were personal letters, they also offer us a sense of the sort of person who would do this, both in good and unfortunate ways.
“Hunter: The Yukon Gold Rush Letters of Robert Hunter Fitzhugh Jr., 1897-1900” is a newly published book gathering those letters into the story of Fitzhugh’s adventures. Edited by Ann Carlisle Carmichael, these are mostly letters Fitzhugh wrote to his mother, and they document his trip north, providing the sort of individual sense of an epic historical event that cannot be had from more formal works.
Fitzhugh was an upbeat young man, a personal characteristic that would help him endure three years of disappointments as his claims failed to pay. He traveled across the country and sailed the Inside Passage to Wrangell. From there he continued up the Stikine River into British Columbia rather than taking the Chilkoot Trail. This was not a common pathway into the Yukon, so right here his story differs from the majority of accounts from the time.
Fitzhugh wrote vividly, capturing the minutiae of life on the trail and in the gold camps. He had a remarkably keen sense of humor that allowed him to make light of his travails in often creative and entertaining fashion. His story of ascending the Stikine and crossing into Canada doesn’t downplay the dangers (he fell through the ice more than once) or the climate (“I forgot to say that it was raining all this time,” he writes at one point, “and the rain still rained,” he bemoans of his fate after collapsing in exhaustion for the night in a tent, “I am enjoying everything — but the rain,” he concludes elsewhere).
Fitzhugh bypassed the Klondike and headed into Alaska, landing in the Rampart Mining District, where he became a highly regarded part of the newly established community. When many of his fellow gold seekers lurched off to Nome after word arrived of gold on the beach, he chose to stay put.
So what we get in these letters is a trip into a more isolated part of Alaska during a time when attention was broadly focused elsewhere in the region. “This is the country of glorious health, spirit breaking weariness and boundless hospitality” he wrote of what he found and the people he met. “Talk about Christians but I’ve seen more real downright Good Samaritanism here than I ever knew existed.”
There is little drama in these letters. For Fitzhugh, the gold rush wasn’t the stuff of Jack London. It was the mundane day-to-day drudgery of digging holes, and the hard work of just staying alive, which demanded an unending regimen of hunting, fishing, building cabins, baking bread. Owing to the personal nature of his writings, we see the naivety of his initial giddy days in the North give way to the realities of just how hard the work was that he had set himself up for.
Fitzhugh found little in return for his efforts, and as he nears the unforeseen accident that would end his life, disappointment begins to seep into his letters home. Yet he maintained an optimism and humor that carried him along, relaying stories of himself and his acquaintances and what they did as they moved from one prospect to the next, vainly hoping that each new digging would finally be their lucky strike.
In these and other regards, the book is a valuable historical document. It also, inadvertently, speaks to America’s present dilemma.
Fitzhugh frequently dropped language that is racially offensive in his letters. Epithets that are taboo in today’s world were common in that era. And more so than in most of the writings from the time, they can be found here. He was a child of the South, but the language and attitudes were hardly unknown in the North at the time either. Teasing it apart, however, allows us to see a piece of how we have arrived in our current moment.
Fitzhugh never displayed overt racial hostility in his writings. Rather, it’s the casual, and thus more deeply engrained white supremacism that he likely never have recognized and certainly would not have paused to question. He never appears to have meant harm, he simply failed to recognize the harm his viewpoints led to on a societal level. As a white man he sat atop America’s social pyramid, and to his mind, this was the way the world was.
In other words, he displayed systemic racism. And in seeing how it casually informed his worldview, we can see an earlier and more open manifestation of what continues to bedevil America today. To recognize how an otherwise highly likable man expressed views that helped maintain grotesque inequities he never understood is to — hopefully — grasp how these views are what created our present, what created us, what we still need to address.
Thus “Hunter” proves more than just a gold rush account. It’s a snapshot of America in 1900, warts and all. This might not have been intended by Carmichael, but it results from the text. It’s an example of how historical documents like this can shed light on events far beyond those they report.