By Deb Vanasse
Before the Klondike stampede, before the purchase of Alaska, before the “discovery” of what came to be called the New World, the Chilkoot Trail was well-traveled by Tlingit traders. But following the 1896 discovery of gold at Bonanza Creek, the importance of these first travelers was nearly erased from popular lore.
Enter Kate Carmack, first called Shaaw Tláa, a remarkable Tagish-Tlingit woman who played a significant role in the Klondike stampede and its aftermath. Married to George Carmack, an outsider who took credit for the Klondike discovery, Kate was also sister to Skookum Jim Mason, who actually deserves the honors.
Raised in the Southern Lakes region of the Yukon near the present-day communities of Tagish and Carcross, Kate married the Tlingit son of one of her father’s trading partners and moved with him across the Coast Mountains to a village near Haines, where a mission had recently been established. Following the deaths of her husband and child in one of the many epidemics that plagued Alaska’s coastal villages during the nineteenth century, she returned home.
In the fall of 1885, her family took in George Carmack. Having abandoned a half-hearted quest for gold, George had run out of food in his attempt to reach the Chilkoot Trail before winter set in. From his association with John Healy, who had recently established a trading post at Dyea, George knew Kate’s brother Jim—and he also knew from Healy the potential benefits of taking a Native wife.
George soon married a niece of Kate and Jim. But within weeks, his young wife died. The subsequent marriage between him and Kate, like her first, offered potential benefits as a trading alliance for Kate’s Tagish family.
The couple spent the following year in Dyea, where they packed supplies for prospectors and a large survey crew. Kate’s brother-in-law, Lunáat, oversaw the packing enterprise on behalf of the Chilkoot Tlingit, who by tradition considered management of the trail their duty.
Following Lunáat’s death in the 1888 “Packer War,” a skirmish that occurred near Healy’s Trading Post in Dyea, Kate and her husband left the region. For years, Kate helped sustain George as they wandered the Yukon River from the Fortymile District to Fort Selkirk to a trading post that would eventually become the site of Carmacks, the town that bears their name.
When they finally returned to Dyea in 1899, Kate’s husband was known the world over as the man who had discovered the gold , though it was Kate’s brother Jim who
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