The Klondike Gold Rush of 1896–1899 drew about 100,000 people from around the world to the Klondike Region of Yukon. Women played a vital role in the gold rush, even though they are estimated to have made up no more than 10 per cent of Yukon’s population at the height of the stampede. While still responsible for both paid and unpaid domestic labour, women took on a variety of other roles in the Klondike, including prospecting, entrepreneurship, entertainment, sex work and nursing.
The women who joined the Klondike Gold Rush came from all walks of life from all around the world. Some went to strike it rich while others sought adventure. The gold rush created opportunities for women to make their name, like Kathleen Rockwell, a vaudeville performer who found fame as “Klondike Kate.” It led to firsts for women, such as Katherine Ryan becoming the first woman hired as a special constable by the North-West Mounted Police. And although it took over a century to get her due recognition, Tagish woman Shaaw Tláa is now celebrated for her role as part of the group that first discovered gold in 1896.
While many women left the area after the boom was over, some remained in the Yukon permanently. Lucille Hunter, a Black woman from Michigan, travelled to the Yukon when she was 19 and lived there until her death at age 93. Martha Black, who hiked the treacherous Chilkoot Trail while pregnant with her third child, went on to become the first woman from Yukon, and the second in Canada, to be elected to the House of Commons. Others came to experience the gold rush simply as tourists. Wealthy Americans Mary Hitchcock and Edith Van Buren visited the area in 1898, bringing with them luxury items such as an ice cream freezer and a portable bowling alley. For the Indigenous women whose peoples had inhabited the area since time immemorial, the gold rush brought a drastic change in lifestyle.
Women made up around 2 to 6 per cent of prospectors in the Klondike. Like men, they paid $10 for a miner’s certificate that allowed them to prospect for gold and other minerals in the Yukon for one year. While gold fever was high, only around 13 per cent of those who made it to the Klondike found any gold. Many women panned for gold or worked claims on the side of their other work. One was Nellie Cashman, an Irish American who had chased gold in America, Mexico and South Africa before heading to the Klondike. Once there, Cashman worked claims along with managing a restaurant and grocery store. One of her claims eventually earned her over $100,000. For women who didn’t want to be involved in the manual labour of prospecting, there were opportunities as owners, speculators, managers and investors of claims.
The Klondike Gold Rush provided numerous business opportunities for women. Belinda Mulrooney, an enterprising Irish American, spent $5,000 on hot water bottles, silk and cotton before arriving in the Klondike. She sold her entire stock at a mark up within days, earning $30,000, which she used to open a restaurant in Dawson. Mulrooney continued to amass a fortune during her time in the gold rush. Her other business ventures included gold claims, a mining company, two hotels and a bottled water company.
Mulrooney wasn’t the only businesswoman operating in the hospitality industry. Hotels, restaurants and roadhouses were common business pursuits for women. Laundries, which involved difficult and time-consuming work, were also lucrative ventures that could earn women thousands of dollars a year.
Stampeders flocked to the dance halls and theatres on Dawson City’s Front Street to carouse and spend their golden gains. Women could find fortune and fame as performers, with some earning hundreds of dollars a night. Despite an unremarkable singing voice, Cad Wilson was captivating and was rumoured to be the highest paid performer in Dawson. Members of the audience showered her with gold nuggets while on stage.
Vaudeville shows consisted of a variety of performances, such as music, dance, plays, comedy and gymnastics. While women could wear revealing costumes on the stage, they changed into regular attire before entering the dance floor. Stripping was strictly off limits. The dance hall girls of the Klondike may be celebrated in public memory, but in truth they suffered from long hours, low wages and the scorn of society. In 1901, the Klondike’s dance hall women banded together to form a professional association which successfully lobbied for a salary increase and guaranteed breaks for meals.
Entertainment venues provided work for women beyond being performers. Percentage girls acted as companions to patrons, receiving 25 cents for each dance they sold and a 25 per cent commission on drinks purchased by the men accompanying them.
During the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, police records suggest that around 85 women were working in Dawson City’s sex industry. Sex workers originally operated freely around the city, with some advertising their services on signs and banners hanging from their lodgings. Later police reforms confined them first to certain areas of the city, and later to outside the city limits. Some women tried to curtail this police crackdown by presenting their places of work as cigar stores or laundries. While sex work was seen as a necessary part of town life, Dawson City’s sex workers faced enormous risks to their health and safety, poor living conditions and disdain from the rest of Yukon society.
The quickly expanding settler population of the Klondike necessitated the establishment of healthcare to address the injuries, illnesses and epidemics accompanying the gold rush. Three of the first nurses of the Klondike Gold Rush were Roman Catholic nuns who arrived in 1898 to tend to patients at Dawson City’s new St. Mary’s Hospital, although they had no formal training. A month later they were joined by four professionally trained nurses from the recently established Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). VON nurses received an annual salary of $300 and had expenses for their travel, room and board, and uniforms covered. Other women who worked as nurses were qualified doctors who were not yet eligible to practice medicine in Canada.