Dawson was inhabited for at least 12,000 years by the Hän-speaking people of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. Dawson was the center of their homeland, a salmon fishing camp at the confluence of the Klondike River and Yukon River. One evidential artifact is an awl, shaped from a mammoth tusk, carbon-dated at 12,000 BC. This site was also an important summer gathering spot and a base for moose-hunting on the Klondike valley.
The Klondike river flows clear and mixes with the glacial silt of the broad Yukon river. It’s a natural place for salmon to turn left and spawn. The Tr’ondëk constructed racks to dry and smoke the salmon for the long winter. There are little cranberries everywhere that are red, ripe and tart. They would be a good garnish for moosemeat.
Jack London came to the area in 1896, prior to the gold rush and found an uninhabited cabin 120 miles south on Henderson Creek. Robert Service’s cabin is still here, maintained almost as a shrine since he abandoned it in 1912. London’s cabin was discovered in 1967 and floated here to be reconstructed.
The Tr’ondëk were completely overwhelmed by a sudden influx of 40,000 gold seekers in 1897. Hand mining was soon overtaken by dredges which worked over the area several times leaving huge piles of tailings. A dozen Mounties maintained order in Dawson and there were no murders or robberies in Dawson during the first frantic years of the gold rush.
The attentions of the Mounties did not extend to Ladies of the Night, who were permitted to operate from small cabins in Dawson. The string of cabins all had signs advertising the sale of cigars and the name of the proprietress. The last bawdy house, operated by a lady known as Ruby, was finally closed by the authorities in 1961.
The leader of the Tr’ondëk asked the government for help in relocating his people. They were moved down the Yukon about three miles to a new settlement called Moosehide.
The Tr’ondëk have a visitor center. The center features a small display of photos and letters from “survivors” who lament pervasive alcoholism and the policies of the government schools. I watch a twenty minute movie about an annual event in Moosehide where the Tr’ondëk gather to try to recover and maintain their traditions of native dances and songs. The participants have native dress, but their features and hair colors are northern European. There are redheads, blondes and auburn haired people. Only a few show any sign of any native appearance.
In 1957 the population of Dawson had dropped to about 800 and we watch a period movie, "City of Gold", where the children play among the many abandoned buildings and relics. The 2007 population has grown to 2,000 and Dawson receives about 60,000 visitors a year.
The small crossroads community of Tok is 200 miles behind in Alaska. The next place big enough for a grocery store is Whitehorse, 330 miles ahead. Roads to both Tok and Whitehorse were constructed in the 1950s. Parts of both roads are now paved.
We mine the museums, watch the can-can show at Diamond-tooth Gertie's place, drink some whiskey and head on down the road.