Women of the Klondike

Women of the KlondikeOn July 14, 1897, the steamship Excelsior docked in San Francisco and a band of scruffy individuals, just returned from the far north, walked down the gangplank dragging suitcases and sacks that collectively held half a million dollars’ worth of gold. Their arrival sparked one of the most colourful episodes in northern history—the Klondike gold rush. Over the next few years, some 100,000 people from around the world set out to make their fortunes in the Klondike fields. Among them were a surprising number of adventurous women of every description: entrepreneurs, nurses, teachers, prospectors, nuns, prostitutes, journalists and wives. This is their story, mined from diaries, letters, memoirs and newspapers, and illustrated with archival photos.
Published by Whitecap Books, 1995 (15th Anniversary Edition – 2010).

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From Chapter 2: Women on the Gold Rush Trail

The Klondike gold rush was as much an accident of history as of geology. Other stampedes, such as those in California, South Africa, and Australia, yielded more gold, but none ever matched the frenzy of the Klondike. In 1897, the United States and much of the rest of the world were in an economic slump. Countless unemployed men and women were desperate for a chance to break the chains of poverty, while those who had jobs were looking for something to lighten the grim mood of restraint and worry. At a time when it seemed there were few new frontiers to explore, the romance of the northern wilderness held great appeal, and with travel by train and steamship becoming increasingly efficient and affordable, the gold fields were not an impossible distance away.

Conditions were ripe for an epidemic of Klondike fever, an affliction that was highly contagious and struck indiscriminately. Rich and poor, young and old, factory workers and educated professional—there was no predicting who might succumb. Even women, normally constrained by nineteenth-century standards of propriety, could join the quest. Their own families might look at them askance, but many people admired and envied them because they dared to do what others only fantasized about.

Lillian Oliver was one of the thousands who were lured north by the promise of gold and the better life it would bring. For her the Klondike seemed to offer the perfect opportunity to make enough money to allow her chronically ill husband to quit his job and regain his health. Lillian’s gold fever was precipitated by the visit of a friend who was planning to go to Dawson.

That night I got no sleep—thinking, thinking—until I formed a plan to accompany these people … I fancied I saw how I could save a precious life. I dreamed of rich finds; and bags of gold haunted me all day and at night troubled my rest. I saw in my mind’s eye the vision of a proud wife bearing home to a long-suffering man the wherewithal to take him away from dreary toil and give his tired brain a rest. In fancy we were taking a trip around the world; I was watching for the colour to come back to cheeks that had long been a stranger to it; I saw fire come to the eye grown dim; elasticity to steps grown weak; and happiness to both of us.

At first Lillian’s husband was reluctant to let her go, but her determination won him over. Then, when the rest of the party dropped out a fortnight before the departure date, she had to fight another battle to carry on alone. She refused to give up what she called “the dream of my life” and so the moment of parting came.

My husband is the last to bid and kiss me good-bye. Holding me in his arms, he calls the blessings of heaven down on his wife, asking God to send her safely back again, and making me promise that. successful or not, I would return in two years, for that was the limit. One more kiss, one more “God bless you,” … and the train slowly pulled out of the dêpot.

I never fully realized until then the herculean task I had undertaken. In the feverish time of preparation, I had no time for thought, and I made a mental resolve that, with God’s blessing, I would come back a successful woman. … I was going into this terrible country without sufficient means, and I knew it; but a brave heart can accomplish much.

Unfortunately, Lillian ended up with another sick man on her hands when the guide she hired in Seattle came down with a severe case of pneumonia almost as soon as they reached Dawson. For seven weeks he lay in tent coughing up blood, while she nursed him with little hope for his recovery. Finally, acquaintances offered to send the invalid home and to pay Lillian’s fare if she would accompany him. At this point, visions of prosperity took second place to the debt she felt she owed this man who had brought her safely through the hazards of the trail. Furthermore, her seemingly endless store of confidence had finally run out and she feared remaining in the north without her trusted friend.

Lillian left the north penniless, but still burning with gold fever. As her boat steamed out of Dawson, two months after her arrival, she wrote: “How glad and grateful I am to leave this place, where I have gone through so much trouble. I want to, and will, come back to this country though—for there is gold dust for all, and I will yet get some of it.” There is, however, no record of her making a second trip to the Klondike.


While Lillian Oliver was motivated by the promise of riches, others sought adventure. Frances Dorley had always considered herself a bit of a daredevil, but as a strictly reared young woman, she had found no opportunities for expressing her true nature. The twenty-six-year-old dressmaker and milliner was living quietly with her parents in Seattle when gold rush hysteria inundated her home town. From the moment the news hit the streets she began pestering her parents to let her go and see for herself what all the fuss was about. They finally gave in and allowed her to make a three-week trip to Skagway.

If they thought their headstrong daughter would then come home and settle down, the Dorleys were in for a surprise. Frances returned wide-eyed with all she had seen and declared she was going back, this time all the way to Dawson. her announcement was not well received. “My parents were bitterly and justifiably opposed to my plans,” she later recollected, “but after three weeks of insistent pleading I finally won my mother’s tearful consent and my father’s reluctant blessing.” In April 1898, she sailed once more for Alaska.


Women of the Klondike is also available from Audible as an audiobook. Listen to an excerpt:


Finalist for the 1996 VanCity Book Prize (for best BC book pertaining to women’s issues). Runner-up for the 1996 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-fiction.

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Rocky Mountain News: “Women of the Klondike is a superb treatment of a long-neglected side of the [gold] rush, the stories of the women … who accompanied their husbands, or ventured north alone, to seek a fortune or take part in the adventure.”

The StarPhoenix: “Frances Backhouse has done an admirable job of breathing new life into the familiar story of the Klondike gold rush. Many historians seem to have forgotten—or have neglected to mention—the significant role played by women. Backhouse reminds us with stories that are rich in energy, humour and poignancy.”

The Coast Independent: “Women of the Klondike is an extremely well-researched book and the stories make fascinating reading.”

Elliott Bay Booknotes: “Frances Backhouse … brings the Klondike alive with stories of the women who ventured North. … Women of the Klondike is filled with colorful tales of women’s ingenuity and of their hardships, too.”

Focus on Women: “Carefully researched and pieced together, the book is a patchwork quilt of women’s experiences in the Klondike—women of all backgrounds, temperaments, and vocations, from adventure travellers to laundresses and dance-hall girls. …it should be in every library.”

The Mackenzie Valley Viewer: “Frances Backhouse has managed to give us a clear insight into a disappeared world, when women were considered much weaker than men, and shows us the talk, admiration and distrust that daring, courageous women got.”

The New Brunswick Reader: “Women were far more numerous [in the Klondike], and certainly more various, than accounts by males have tended to suggest. Women of the Klondike by Frances Backhouse does a thorough job of righting this historiographic imbalance.”

Canadian Geographic: “Women of the Klondike is a valuable contribution to the growing literature which shows, without a doubt, that a woman could be just as adventurous—and crazy—as any man.”