History Slam 180: Gold Fever & Disaster in the Klondike

By Sean Graham

In 1897, as news that gold had been found in the Klondike spread, over 100,000 of people rushed into the region in search of fortune. Unfortunately for many of them, the press typically didn’t highlight the harsh winter conditions in the Klondike, meaning thousands arrived completely unprepared. As the population grew, the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate as violence, particularly against local Indigenous Peoples, led to lasting human and environmental damage.

Despite this, there is a romance in the popular imagination of the gold rush. There is an image of a poor prospector venturing north with nothing more than a gold pan and a dream and finding untold riches in the midst of a cartoonish environment filled with non-threatening frontier caricatures. The reality, of course, bore no resemblance to this.

That is made very clear in Brian Castner’s new book Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike. Using a mix of archival and secondary sources, Castner brings the people to life. A veteran of the Iraq War who has published multiple outstanding volumes on his experiences, Castner’s ability to craft a captivating narrative is clear from the first page. Stampede reads like a novel, but is entirely based on real people and real experiences that challenge the existing mythology surrounding a remarkable moment where colonial, national, and local histories intersect.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Brian about the book. We talk about how his personal background influences his writing, his research process, and how his work differs from traditional histories. We also chat about the people included in the book, the colonial ramifications in the Klondike, and the lessons the gold rush that we can use today.

Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca


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One thought on “History Slam 180: Gold Fever & Disaster in the Klondike

  1. M.J. Kirchhoff

    The problem with Castner’s book Stampede is that it is just one exaggeration after another. He claims that everything he wrote has been fact-checked, but in effect what he has done is mine the internet for the most outrageous claims he can find, and then present them as “truth.”

    Here are three examples: In this interview Castner claims that “tens of thousands” may have died during the gold rush, but it is really impossible to know. Actually, historians do have a good idea of how many died. The greatest single disaster during the rush was the Chilkoot Trail Avalanche of April 3, 1898, where approximately 65 people perished. That was perhaps matched by the greatest navigational disaster of the rush, when the Clara Nevada went down in early 1898 with about the same number of people aboard.

    From North West Mounted Police reports we know that a 100 or so stampeders died from drowning between 1897 and 1899 while navigating the rapids of the Yukon River, or from falling through ice. Reliable reports also indicate that a typhoid epidemic took 3 to 4 lives a day in Dawson City during the summer of 1898, and a spinal meningitis epidemic claimed 20 to 40 lives in the early spring of 1898 at Skaguay and Dyea. Add them all up and you are hard pressed to reach 500; double that number to generously include unreported travel deaths, and you are still at only at a thousand, yet Castner claims ten times that number. Talk about hyperbole!

    Example #2 involves the treatment of Natives during the gold rush. In this interview Castner claims that “many” Natives were lynched, but the actual number was only two – the Nantuck Brothers. A good argument could be made about how Indigenous people were displaced during the rush, or ill treated, and that argument should be made, but to imply there were lynchings all over the territory goes way beyond the pale of what really occurred.

    Finally, there is Castner’s exploration of violence against women. Like the issue of Native-White relations during the rush, this is an important topic, and I’m glad Castner brought it up, but he just can’t seem to help himself from making things up. He reports a gang rape at Circle City where the men lined up to “wait their turn,” but an inspection of his source reveals no such details other than that a “roughhouse” took place, which is defined as a wild carousel or horseplay. This incident could have easily been just a dance for all we know. Sexual assault is a serious allegation, and to state that one occurred with such flimsy evidence is akin to journalistic malpractice.

    This is all unfortunate, because Brian Castner is a talented writer, and he had a big name publishing house behind him. If an established Klondike historian or two had been asked to edit this book, 90% of the problems could have been resolved, but that never happened, so what we have here ultimately is best described as historical fiction.

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