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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 26

Grubstake to Grocery Store: Supplying the Klondike, 1897-1907

by Margaret Archibald

Introduction: The Entrepreneur

This particular version of the Klondike story is devoted to the entrepreneur, the person who saw a gold strike not simply in terms of dust or nuggets, but rather envisaged the activity that gold would engender, imagined the placer boom town in its lively totality and foresaw the mining community in terms of its most blatant needs and its probable life-style.

The naive assumption that the Klondike gravel beds had nuggets enough to go around, that all comers were guaranteed to leave as millionaires, must have dominated many an overladen steamer working its way up the Inside Passage in the summer of 1897 and 1898. In the surviving sources which chronicle those voyages north, the question "Why?" is never asked, nor are individuals' expectations documented. Yet to every passenger the words "gold," "paystreak" and "lode" must have conjured up a personal vision of success, wealth, utopia or high adventure.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to separate the entrepreneur from this mass of goldseekers and to set him apart as a distinct specimen of the gold-rush. But such people evinced a frame of mind, a way of approaching the whole adventure, a response to the challenge which one can see as a quality common to many of the men and women who answered Klondike's call. What makes their story all the more worth telling is that the stage on which they played out their parts was so bleak, so inhospitable and unyielding, that what they built stands out sharply by comparison. Its virtues and flaws, its beginning and its end are all clearly visible. In less than a decade a legendary city was built and all but abandoned. The story's briefness means that the blurred edges and the subtleties of transition which exist in the history of other cities are, in Dawson's case, brought sharply into focus.

For this same reason, the social and economic underpinnings of the boom and bust legend are more obvious. Dawson must be one of the most thoroughly chronicled and photographed cities of its size in Canada. Much of this popularity, indeed, has served to perpetuate a Klondike mythology. There is to every war, disaster or mass human event something of a collective memory, a fund of stories and reminiscences which serve its veterans well, even those who might not have participated prominently in the event itself. Nevertheless, from the many-faceted depths of the Klondike story emerges a cast of unexpected heroes and villains. Who would have thought that disease took as great a toll of human life as the formidable Chilkoot? Or that the nugget-scooping gold miner would eventually become one of hundreds of thousands of discontented wage-earners? Similarly unexpected is the identity of Dawson's rich men, the ones who did find the paystreak. That paystreak was far more likely to have shown itself in an office or over a counter or at the wharves than on a placer creek bed.

This version of the story focuses not only on the entrepreneur in Dawson during the rush, but on his predecessors — the traders along the Yukon River during the days of earlier and smaller rushes, and the west coast outfitters — as well. The mercantile experience of each becomes a fundamental element of the structure of the post-gold-rush trade. From the first came the concept of a grubstake and an understanding of the rigorous demands of the Yukon valley on trader and prospector alike. From the second came the vigorous spirit of enterprise and profit, as well as the essential contact between the boom town and the outside world for continued supplies and services.

The business methods and manipulation, the concepts of growth and success and the hierarchical bonds within the Dawson merchant community must also be examined. From these it becomes apparent how the entrepreneurial frame of mind helped to shape the contours of the city and to what extent the merchant community reflected Dawson's inevitable decline.

In order to give colour and relief to what would otherwise be a somewhat analytical approach to the Dawson mercantile community, it is necessary to examine its individual members more closely. After 1898 the community became exceedingly specialized. The grocery and provisions merchant was the nearest heir among those specialists to the river trader, and his range of stock was the closest approximation to the traditional outfit. Of the speciality trades, the grocer's trade in the basics of survival was (not surprisingly) covered most carefully by local newspapers. Similarly, material from diaries, personal reminiscences and interviews seems to indicate that the day-to-day commodities from the grocer or general merchant's stock still retain a place in the collective sourdough memory. In attempting to shift its focus from the structure of the merchant community to more practical matters of stocks, sales and appetites, this report hopefully reflects the concerns of both merchants and consumers.

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