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Writer hopes to set record straight about Kate Carmack, Native wife of the 'discoverer' of the Klondike

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 3, 2014

A thumbnail-sized nugget started the Klondike Gold Rush and changed the history of the North. It was the first glimmer of a trove worth millions of dollars, the lure that drew tens of thousands of stampeders into the country.

But who found it?

Anchorage writer Deb Vanasse hopes to set the record straight in her work-in-progress, "Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold."

Vanasse describes the book as "narrative nonfiction" and a biography of Shaaw Tlaa, a Tagish woman from southern Yukon who was there when it happened -- a figure who has more or less been written out of the history books.

Shaaw Tlaa was the wife of prospector, adventurer and (so it's said) stretcher of truths George Carmack. He called her Kate. George Carmack was a friend and partner of her brother, Keish, whose English name was James Mason but who is best known as "Skookum Jim." The three, traveling with two of Keish's nephews, were checking out reports of gold in the vicinity of the Klondike River when the nugget was found.

Carmack filed the so-called "Discovery Claim," the first claim in the Klondike. In later years he would insist that he was the one who initially spotted the nugget and picked it up. Shortly before his death, in 1922 in Vancouver, British Columbia, the city's Yukon Order of Pioneers -- a club of sourdoughs with significant clout -- passed a resolution giving him sole credit for the find.

Others on the scene gave a different story.

Vanasse said she began the book after trying to find out more about Kate Carmack and running into conflicting versions of the discovery. "It was clear that someone wasn't telling the truth," she said.

Vanasse dug through the standard histories of the Klondike Gold Rush. She hiked the Chilkoot Trail and visited Dawson and other old boom towns in the Yukon. She chased the travels of George and Kate Carmack all the way to Seattle and then San Benito County, Calif., where she read every newspaper printed in the county during the course of the two years when Kate lived there. She fished through archives and found documents tucked away for decades. She thinks she can faithfully reconstruct the saga of Shaaw Tlaa.

'What a lady'

Like her brother, Shaaw Tlaa packed supplies over the Chilkoot Trail in the years before the stampede. Keish met and made friends with Carmack, a former U.S. Marine who had come into the country in search of the yellow metal and learned to speak both Tlingit and Tagish. Carmack married one of Keish's sisters, who died. So did Shaaw Tlaa's husband and daughter. Keeping the clan together, the widow and widower then married and, by 1893, had a daughter.

The Carmack party found the gold on Aug. 17, 1896. George Carmack asserted the right to file two claims on account of being the discoverer, a privilege not permitted to Indians, he explained to his in-laws.

That was not true, Vanasse said. Keish and one nephew, Kaa Goox, took out single claims of their own and became wealthy. Another nephew, Patsy Henderson, was too young to get a claim. Shaaw Tlaa could have staked a claim of her own, but for reasons open to speculation, did not.

In 1899, the Carmacks left the Klondike, stopping in Seattle where Kate Carmack got drunk, created a disturbance and was arrested and fined $3.60. It was a solitary indiscretion that would come back to haunt her.

The couple then traveled to San Benito County, where George Carmack had family. There, after a short time, he deserted Kate to marry another woman Vanasse described as "a prostitute."

No official documents showed that Kate and George had ever been married, thwarting her efforts to receive any financial support from him.

Kate Carmack was not just abandoned in California, Vanasse said. She became the target of George Carmack's suspicions. He hired someone to spy on her. He railed at relatives and friends who tried to help her and raised the specter of her arrest in Seattle to denigrate her character.

In checking newspapers and official records from the period, Vanasse has been unable to turn up any mention of questionable activities on Kate's part while in California. "I found that all of the people who supported her were the most upstanding citizens of the community -- judges, newspaper editors," she said. "The most common sentiment about her that I found was 'what a lady.'"

Kate remained on good terms with the Carmack family, corresponding with George's brother-in-law for several years after she managed to return to the Yukon with the help of her brother, who traveled to Seattle to bring her home.

But it was not a happy return.

Subsisting in a cabin on a small government pension, Shaaw Tlaa died in Carcross, Yukon, in 1920. She was 63. Of the fortune dug out of the Klondike, Vanasse estimates that she may have received a lifetime total of $500.

"What she wanted most of all was to meet with George and have him tell her that he was leaving her," Vanasse said. "She could never get him to do that."

Done wrong

The declaration of George Carmack as the Klondike discoverer by the Vancouver chapter of the Yukon Order was particularly eyebrow-raising, she said. The Canadian pioneers were pointedly crediting an American with the find over the claims of Keish and Kaa Goox who, while Indian, were Canadians after all.

And yet no reputable party ever challenged the original report of the find, published in newspapers and consistently repeated by Keish, that he, not Carmack, saw the gold first.

An intriguing rumor continues to circulate that it was Shaaw Tlaa, washing dishes in the creek, who actually spotted the gleaming metal. That version is likely to remain forever legend.

What Vanasse has been able to uncover, however, is an unpublished report in a California archive that records George Carmack giving the credit to Keish when he described the discovery for school children.

"It's a memoir of sorts written by Paul McKenna," she said. "His parents were neighbors (of) George Carmack's sister and her husband. I like his information because he had no horse in the race, so to speak, and what he reports hearing about Skookum Jim (Keish) making the discovery he attributes solely to George Carmack himself."

The nicknames of the principal characters are also a clue. In the old days people were often given a handle based on their attributes or residences. Kaa Goox, for example, was "Dawson Charlie" or "Tagish Charlie." Shaaw Tlaa was "Klondike Kate" long before a saloon proprietress in Dawson appropriated the title. The "Skookum" in Skookum Jim Keish's name is usually translated as "strong" (he was), but also means "reliable" (he was).

On the other hand, George Carmack was known -- and not just to Natives -- as "Lying George." He denied that he even had a Native family, Vanasse said. In her book she notes that he kept the marriage from his own family for 12 years and, when he finally disclosed it, told them that his bride was Irish.

"Wealth Woman" is now in draft form, Vanasse said. She plans to send out a revision to historians and others for feedback in the coming weeks. She wants the book to present a picture of what life was like in the Gold Rush for people who were already in the country when it began -- and help correct a century of dismissive treatment that has dogged Shaaw Tlaa's legacy.

"It's like a country song. 'Somebody done somebody wrong,'" Vanasse said. "Except in this case, she's been misrepresented in death as well as during her life."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.