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Pioneers of Canada - Yukon

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Pioneers of Canada - Yukon

History

Aboriginal Settlement

While it is one of the youngest parts of Canada in terms of European settlement, the Yukon (along with Alaska) is the oldest continuously inhabited part of North America. The earliest human inhabitants arrived via a land bridge across the Bering Strait from Asia. The date this occurred, however, is subject to considerable debate amongst archaeologists. Archaeological sites in the Old Crow basin in the north of the territory place the arrival of humans at least as early as 10,000 BCE and possibly much earlier. The majority of Aboriginal peoples of Yukon belong to the Na-Dene linguistic group. They included the Nahanni in the east (with Kaska, Goat and Mountain groups), and several groups in the south and west (Teslin, Tutchone and Tagish). Close interaction through trade and intermarriage between the Tutchone and coastal Tlingit in the southwest resulted in strong Tlingit influences on, and even dominance of, Tutchone language and culture. In the central and northern Yukon, the Gwich’in occupied the basin of the Yukon River downstream from the mouth of the Pelly River, including the Porcupine River area to the north, and also the Peel River basin in the northeast. The geographic and linguistic boundaries between different groups are fluid and generally blend into one another. As a result, these divisions into different groups are somewhat arbitrary. As hunter-gatherers, Yukon’s Aboriginal peoples were reliant on fish, particularly salmon, and big game such as caribou, turning to smaller game as well as roots and berries in times of need. In the far north, the Inuit are culturally and linguistically distinct from the rest of Yukon’s Aboriginal peoples. Living on Yukon’s treeless Arctic slope, they have traditionally been reliant on fish and sea mammals.

Exploration

Aboriginal peoples in the Yukon felt the influence of Europeans even prior to actual contact. News of the arrival of Russian explorers in the Pacific Northwest in the 1740s and British explorers in the 1770s quickly spread through pre-existing trade networks. The presence of Europeans altered these traditional networks as different groups moved to acquire a better position in the growing trade with Europeans. Along with European-made goods, diseases such as smallpox spread inland in advance of European explorers, devastating the Yukon’s Aboriginal populations. The first lasting contact was made in the 1840s by fur traders of the Hudson Bay Company, using maps and information from early explorers such as Sir John Franklin, who reached Yukon's arctic shore in 1825. Robert Campbell pushed westwards from the Mackenzie River system by way of the upper Liard onto the Pelly River and John Bell moved into the Yukon interior via the Porcupine River. Traders in the interior and whalers on the north coast were followed by missionaries and the North-West Mounted Police in communities such as Fort Selkirk and at Herschel Island.

European Settlement

By the late 19th century, gold prospectors in growing numbers pushed northwards from the Cassiar and Omineca mountains of northern British Columbia. Crossing onto the Yukon watershed they worked their way along the various rivers. Others moved inland from the Bering Sea, following up the Yukon River from its mouth by stern-wheeler. Several centres of gold mining developed, often for only a brief period. Forty Mile, almost astride the Alaskan boundary, was one. George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley's discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek — a tributary of the Klondike River — on 17 August 1896, initiated what became the pinnacle of a series of gold rushes in western North America, stretching back to the California Gold Rush of 1849. Although there had been a greater amount of gold in California, in the Yukon, the gold was concentrated in a much smaller area. This meant that individual claims had the potential to be incredibly valuable. Three prospectors, for example, managed to recover gold worth more than a year’s wages after panning for a matter of minutes. As a result, thousands of newcomers poured into this hitherto remote corner of Canada, transforming the Yukon permanently. Most of the gold-seekers arrived by way of Skagway and the upper Yukon River. Others tried the "Overland Route" from Edmonton, via the Peace or Mackenzie rivers, but few reached their destination. Still others sought an all-American route via Valdez, AK, hoping to avoid Canadian government regulations. Dawson came into existence to serve the influx, at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, with actual mining taking place up the nearby creeks. One man who had bought land in Dawson in 1896 for $10 per acre was soon able to sell lots for $1,000 each. In one month, Dawson grew to be the largest Canadian city west of Winnipeg, developing a complete range of services, including water, sewerage, electricity and telephones. In June 1898, the Yukon was made a separate territory and Dawson named its capital. Whitehorse was established as the point where trans-shipping from rail to river took place, but Dawson was the dominant centre. To maintain order, prevent the lawlessness that characterized frontier towns in the United States, and also to assert Canadian sovereignty, the Canadian government increased the North-West Mounted Police presence in the Yukon from 19in 1896 to 285 by the end of 1898, and eventually to more than 300. For his role in commanding the NWMP and maintaining law and order, Sir Sam Steele has attained near mythic status in the Canadian consciousness. Between 1897 and 1899, $29 million (figure unadjusted) in gold that was recovered from the area. By 1906, however, the most easily worked placer mines were finished, leaving claims to be mined by large companies using expensive dredges. The population of Dawson began to decline almost immediately as those seeking easy riches were soon discouraged and lured by reports of gold discoveries elsewhere.

Development

Yukon's economy shifted from gold to other minerals beginning in 1913 when its first hard rock mine started silver and lead production at Keno Hill in the central Yukon. The remote location and rugged landscape of the Yukon as well as volatile world market for minerals hindered development and prevented stability in the mining industry. The Yukon contributed several hundred men to the Canadian effort during the First World War despite having a population of roughly 7,000 in 1914. The exodus of so many men had a detrimental effect on the economy of the territory, causing labour shortages and forcing some mines to restrict operations. High fur prices made trapping an important seasonal activity in the interwar years for Aboriginal peoples and prospectors, in the absence of any other industry. The fur trade also helped create a nascent tourist industry drawing in wealthy big-game hunters. During the Second World War, the Yukon and Alaska appeared to the Canadian and American governments to be vulnerable to Japanese invasion. This spurred the construction of the Alaska Highway, the Canol pipeline and a better road infrastructure as a means of shoring up defenses in the region. These controversial projects expedited new mineral exploration activity as well as bringing people, services, industries and tourists to the Yukon. With the highway came a permanent non-Aboriginal population that outnumbered Yukon's indigenous peoples for the first time. Yukon's capital was transferred from Dawson to Whitehorse in 1953, two years after the initial announcement. In 1957, a major hydroelectric plant was built in Whitehorse. The largest economic development in the postwar years was the opening of a major open-pit lead-zinc mine and town at Faro in 1969. Low metal prices and the recession in the mid-1980s resulted in mine closures throughout the Yukon, and increased government efforts to strengthen other economic sectors such as tourism and renewable resource development.