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Chapter One of Wealth Woman
by Deb Vanasse
Roanoke is loaded with gold. Bags, cans, boxes, and
crates cram its lower deck, jammed with a whopping ten tons of gold panned and
sluiced by lucky devils in the northern wilderness. Only a year ago, no one had
heard of the patch of low mountains and dense northern spruce now known as the Klondike. But these days, like an incantation of
magic, the very word Klondike invokes prosperity, the vindication of the
American dream and the triumph of the individual in its most measurable
Nine days after departing the dreary and once sleepy port of St. Michael near the muddy mouth of the Yukon River, the Roanoke chugs toward the dock of the North American Transport Company in Seattle, a city that enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the Klondike and its magic, the city having built the magic and the magic having built the city. Four hundred fifty-eight passengers crowd her decks, eager for land. Since passing the
, gateway from the Finger Islands Bering Sea to the Pacific Ocean, they’ve endured rough, open waters. On an
approach to Seattle that’s blessedly calm, you can now and
again catch a whiff of the sickness that leveled the travelers, wealthy and
common alike, when a howling August storm heaved and tossed the steamship. Two
decades hence, such a storm will undo the vessel, but for now, the worst has
been emptied stomachs.
Sunshine seeps past clouds to light the throng gathered on the docks to welcome the boat and its gold, women in cinched-waist dresses and high, narrow hats; men in suits and suspenders, bowlers and derbys and straw tops. Everyone wants to see who’s gotten rich in the
Klondike and who has returned empty-handed. In the
Gilded Age of Horatio Alger and unbridled capitalism, Americans are extolled to
industry, thrift, and temperance. No one can quite reconcile the idea of gold
so easy and plentiful that you need none of these virtues to claim it. The idea
is as unsettling as it is enticing, and on this day in 1898, there is no small
amount of envy as the Roanoke steams for shore, especially when it comes to the scruffy
common folk on her decks, the nouveaux
made riches by gold.
A particular challenge to American precepts on money, virtue, and class is the lone native woman on board the
Roanoke, first called Shaaw Tlaa, now called Kate
Carmack. Her distinction - her claim to fame, as it were, though to her such a
concept is utterly foreign – is that she is the richest Indian woman in the
world. Since the sixteenth century colony for which the Roanoke is named, hers is the first big collision
between Indians and wealth. She knows nothing of the indigenous people who’ve
gone before her and failed, leaders like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and
Quanah Parker who’ve only recently been consigned to a scrubbed-out existence
on lands no one else wants.
Forget the city of eighty thousand – the crowd gathered on just this one dock exceeds twice again the entire population of Kate’s Tagish Indian band, of whom she knows each by name. Like all indigenous people of
Alaska and the Yukon, the Tagish travel in yearly rounds,
following caribou, gathering berries, and harvesting salmon to cache for long,
subarctic winters. They are Athabaskans, connected by language to larger and
better-known tribes as distant as the Apache and the Navajo. Small in number –
300 at best – the Tagish speak their own language, but they also speak Tlingit,
the language of their more powerful coastal neighbors.
To preserve their own substantial wealth, the Tlingit have kept the Tagish isolated behind a range of coastal mountains, making Kate’s people one of the last Native American bands to confront the ways of the West. Though Frederick Turner has famously called an end to it, the Tagish are seen as vestiges of yet another frontier – never mind that when your ideas about land don’t include boundaries, the whole idea of a frontier is pointless. Kate’s home is a borderless wilderness of poplar and aspen and willow, of mosses and lichens and berries, of wild onions and bear root and mushrooms. Home is where Animal Mother gave birth to the moose and the grizzly bear and the beaver, then hung a swing from four mountains and watched as each danced and sung its own song. She gave them their teeth and their horns and their antlers, and told them what to eat and how they must act.
Adapting is among the actions that have for centuries sustained the Tagish, but there’s a tipping point between adaptation and assimilation that they have yet to test. They are a people of action, their language driven by verbs, their integrity determined by how well they protect, relate, negotiate, behave, and adapt. In the form of luck, destiny visits them; they do not seek it out. In Kate’s essence, her yaahei, which is Shaaw Tlaa and not Kate, it is the journey that matters, not the end. The route is always a circle, the wayfinding easy when you pay close attention, behaving in prescribed ways that honor defined relationships.
In contrast, nineteenth century Americans are a people of objects, their language driven by nouns. Their habit is intrusion, for in their way of thinking, destiny requires pursuit; it is no coincidence that in their language, the words destiny and destination are so closely related. They travel in lines, point to point, toward tangible goals. They explore, they assert, they acquire, they profit. Among their most thrilling and coveted prizes is gold, of which Kate has quite a lot.
Her voyage began nineteen days ago, when she boarded the sternwheeler
Cudahy to depart , a boom town at the junction of the Dawson City Klondike and . Before the big strike, this confluence was
summer salmon fishing grounds the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, now displaced. Despite their
fortune in gold, Kate has until now occupied with her husband and daughter a
small, tidy cabin built of hand-hewn logs at No. 1 Bonanza, a claim that by one
estimate will yield 2.5 million dollars in gold. There she has sewn fur mittens
and baked bread to sell to neighboring miners, though she draws the line at
taking in laundry. Yukon Rivers
Two weeks before Kate began her journey, a huge white tent went up across the river from
Dawson, belonging to a woman who couldn’t be more
different than Kate. In this four-hundred-pound tent, New York heiress Mary E.
Hitchcock can host seventy-five dinner guests, serving them tinned oysters and
asparagus and lobsters and ice cream made from the freezer she has brought to
the wilderness. She can entertain her new friends with her gramophone and her
movie projector and her portable bowling alley, not to mention her flock of
pigeons, her parrot, her canaries, and a Great Dane.
Penned between practicing on her zither and mandolin, Mary Hitchcock kept a detailed journal of the same voyage Kate is about to complete, though in reverse, traveling by steamer and sternwheeler through the Pacific to the
Bering Sea and up the Yukon River to Dawson. Steaming from the mainland toward the
mouth of the Yukon with traveling companion Edith Van Buren,
grand-niece of President Martin Van Buren, Mary Hitchcock was struck by the
profound silence as their ship navigated a field of ice floes. A stretch of
wet, windy days at the dreary Alaskan tried her patience as they waited for the
water in the port of St. Michael Yukon to rise to a level that could accommodate
their sternwheeler. It vexed her to learn that she would not, as promised, be
among the first passengers to put off in Dawson that year.
Once they finally got on the river, Mary disembarked whenever the boat stopped, which was often, sternwheelers having large appetites for wood. Fighting off gnats and mosquitoes and horseflies, she gathered wild roses, mulberries, currants, and raspberries, as well as groundsel, which delighted the canaries. Where she could, she photographed Indians who turned out along the river, though she refused to descend into a traditional community house to photograph their dancing, for fear of the vermin, and she writes with some indignation of a group of Indian women who covered their heads with shawls, demanding a sitting fee. Though she misperceived the tundra as prairie with great potential for agricultural development, she admired the mountains and rapids and gorges on the approach to
This is the country that Kate has left behind, though unlike Mary Hitchcock, she is unable to record her impressions of it, because she cannot read or write. But in the age of Yellow Journalism, American reporters are already poised to speak on her behalf. In order to find her way around, she will purportedly leave hatchet marks in the fancy woodwork of the Seattle Hotel. Random photos of Indian women will circulate, claiming to feature her image. With her husband, she will toss gold coins from the top floor of the hotel, causing mayhem among pedestrians who scramble for easy money.
Onboard with Kate is Portus B. Weare, owner of the
Roanoke. A Chicago investor, Weare had the good sense to listen
his old frontier crony John J. Healy, known all too well to Kate for his part
in the death of her sister’s husband. Among his various exploits, Healy
partnered with Weare to run boats – first one, then two of them - along the Yukon River five whole years before the Klondike opened up. This year alone, sixty new boats
and barges are engaged in various stages of service to the gold fields, plowing
across the North Pacific and up and down the Yukon at such an alarming rate that it’s a wonder
they don’t collide. But Healy and Weare’s North American Transport Company was
there early, giving the Alaska Commercial Company a run for its money.
Sternwheelers from the two rivals now race, quite literally, to and from the
Klondike. Named after one of Weare’s cronies who
made a fortune in Chicago meatpacking, the sternwheeler John Cudahy
delivered Kate to the Roanoke, setting a new record as it zipped in six days from to St. Michael. Weare is still beaming,
though his mood darkens when he’s reminded of two gold heists that have plagued
this voyage, one a theft from Kate’s brother Keish, known as Jim, and the
culprits still at large. The papers will be all over that, and it won’t be good
for business. Dawson City
Discounting this loss, Jim, Kate, their nephew Kaa Goox, also called Charlie, and Kate’s husband George still have a quarter million dollars of gold stashed in the hull of the Roanoke, and this only a portion of the fortune they’ve wrestled from the frozen earth. Son of a
California farmer, George Carmack claims credit for
discovering the gold that set off the Klondike
madness. So do the Indians.
Roanoke was about to depart for Seattle, the four of them posed for a photo. Though
he should be at the peak of his game, Carmack looks roughest of the bunch, his
suit coat rumpled and his tie loose at the collar. He’s not yet forty, but he
suffers from rheumatism, which Kate doctors with traditional medicines,
coltsfoot and devil’s club. A drifter who tried his hand at shepherding, which
he hated, and the military, from which he went AWOL at the age of 22, Carmack
showed up in the Yukon at a fortuitous time, when a marriage alliance with a
white man seemed a wise move for the Tagish. Though George Carmack now claims
the gold as his destiny, in truth he wandered the north for a dozen years with
no real destination in mind. After all that time, Kate’s husband has finally
written to his sister to tell her he’s married. His wife, he tells her, is
Interviewed in a
Roanoke stateroom, Lying George, as his fellow
prospectors dubbed him, complained he’d never seen the “true story” of the Klondike discovery in print. He found the mother
lode on his thirty-sixth birthday, he claimed, along the banks of a creek that has
since been renamed Bonanza, gold nuggets lying around for the taking. Before
he’s through, Carmack will invoke many versions of this “true story.” Next
year, he’ll take Kate and Charlie and Jim to the big expedition in Paris, he brags. But when he writes the final
story of his life, he’ll omit Kate completely. It will be as if she never
In the photo, Kate appears beautiful by any standard, posing assuredly behind a crate of gold, dressed in a dark frock with lace collar and sleeves, a shawl draped over her shoulders. While not the height of fashion, her flat-topped hat is graced with a length of fancy ribbon. On her wrist she wears a metal bracelet, and on her fingers, several rings. With a slight smile, she stands out among dozens of stern-faced men. At her husband’s feet sits their five-year-old daughter, who can’t recall a life without gold. Wearing a heavy dress and a lace-collared cape, Graphie Grace scowls, perhaps having already spied the high-topped button boots she’ll demand her father purchase right off another child’s feet to replace the Indian moccasins made by her mother.
In this photo, no one touches Carmack, but a fellow miner rests his hand on the shoulder of Kate’s brother Keish. Known also as Skookum, or “Strong” Jim, he strikes a handsome, confident pose in his three-piece suit, his derby hat tipped stylishly to the side, one hand in his pocket, the other on his hip, displaying a gold ring. Son of a clan leader, Jim is acclaimed for his prowess and strength. In a single load, he once packed
165 pounds of bacon over the Chilkoot Trail, dubbed
the meanest thirty-three miles in history. Another time he went hand to claw
with a grizzly. Jim befriended Carmack even before they became brothers-in-law,
a relationship that to the Tagish is deeply infused with obligations. Even
though one of Carmack’s lies involved Indians not being allowed to file
Discovery claims, Jim has stuck by George, digging gold out of Bonanza Creek. Although somewhere between and St. Michael, a thief substituted lead
shot for $7000 of his gold, Jim appears nonplussed. Two years before striking
it rich in the Dawson City Klondike, an encounter with the fleeting Wealth
Woman of Tagish legend bestowed Jim with luck, or so he hopes.
Standing so close to Jim that their arms overlap is Kaa Goox, known as Dawson Charlie. Among the Tagish, uncles take special responsibility for their nephews, rearing them almost as fathers would. Like his uncle, Charlie sports a smart three-piece suit, but he’s young and slight and his hands clasped at his waist betray his unease, as if he alone knows what’s ahead.
Seattle is a hardly the best place to make your
first acquaintance with urban America in the waning years of the nineteenth
century. Swindlers and speculators are everywhere. You can buy everything
imaginable – and then some - for use in the arctic: compasses, mercury,
patented Blizzard Resister Suits, Klondike
underwear, Klondike hosiery, Klondike gloves. You can purchase frost extraction
devices and insect-proof masks – pound for pound, the Klondike is rumored to be almost as heavy with
mosquitoes as it is with gold. Would-be millionaires can equip themselves with
automated gold pans and steam-powered sleds, crystallized eggs (some turn out
to be nothing but cornmeal), scurvy cures, collapsible boats, Klondike
bicycles, and slot machines that operate on gold nuggets instead of coins – all
of it, save perhaps the scurvy cure, utterly worthless upon arrival in the
North. Yet already sixty million dollars has been spent in the race for gold.
Klondike feeds the longings of an adolescent nation
in the throes of nineteenth-century capitalism. Industrialism has funneled
wealth to the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan in quantities
unimaginable to the average American. There are only two classes, declares
Populist Jerry Simpson: the robbers and the robbed. Populist Presidential
candidate William Jennings Bryan has eschewed gold as the tool of greedy
bankers, used to manipulate the nation’s supply money. “You shall not crucify
mankind upon a cross of gold!” he proclaimed.
Only six weeks before
Bryan’s rallying cry, Carmack or one of the
Tagish – it depends on whose version you believe – discovered the nuggets that led
to a flood of gold that effectively ended a worldwide recession and set off a
boom in transportation and industry to accommodate would-be millionaires in
their rush north. Thanks to an enthusiastic advertising campaign launched by
Erastus Brainerd, a former journalist who on the printed page rivals P.T.
Barnum for showmanship, nearly all the traffic in the Seattle harbor now points toward the Klondike.
Nearly all the traffic, that is, except for the
Roanoke, about to deliver Kate to the throng. Can
wealth be her destiny? Everything in the nineteenth century American soul
screams against it. But for Kate Carmack born Shaaw Tlaa, destiny is hardly the
point. You trust in the combined sum of your actions to keep you whole, and you
hope against hope that out of the mad rush for Klondike gold will come one legacy of triumph, not
of wealth but of spirit.