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Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail: Exploring the Route of the Klondike Cattle Drives

By Charlene Porsild

Review By Charlene Porsild

October 28, 2013

BC Studies no. 178 Summer 2013  | p. 142-143

Although the Chilkoot Trail is the most famous trail to the Klondike, there were a wide variety of other routes that gold seekers used to reach the interior of the Yukon between 1896 and 1900. The historic Tlingit trading route that became known as the Dalton Trail was one of them. It was not the shortest. It was not the easiest. But it was an alternative to the steep, mountainous terrain and heavy traffic found on the main routes. Most of all, it was a route conducive to moving livestock.

In this volume, Yukon historian Michael Gates weave his own contemporary back-country experiences with historical documentation about the now-largely forgotten route known as the Dalton Trail. Whacking through muskeg bogs and clouds of moquitoes, Gates takes us through the bush and along some of the most remote and unpronounceable rivers in the north — the Takhini, Kaskawulsh, the Dezadeash, the Tatshenshini, the Klehini and more — and through some of the most spectacular wilderness to be found anywhere.

Gates tells us the story of Jack Dalton, a temperamental American guide and outfitter, whose first forays into the north were to the Yukon interior from the Pacific coast with Frederick Schwatka in 1886. Dalton, though an adventurer, was first and foremost a businessman and he was forever dreaming up the next big get-rich-quick scheme. Thinking the Yukon was surely the “next big thing,” he hired on with Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1890 to accompany a group wanting to penetrate the interior of the Yukon from the Alaskan coast. From there, he dreamed up numerous business schemes to get rich by assisting others to make their way to the northern interior, all of them ill-fated.

While Dalton’s trail to the Klondike never became the highway (or the railway) its namesake hoped it would be, the trail was significant for several years and had its own Mounted Police post and customs house. Jack Dalton also deserves a place in northern history for a several other reasons. First, he and his partner Edward Glave were the original non-Native adventurers to find and map the Tatshenshini River from the interior to its outlet at Dry Bay on the Alaska coast in 1890.  Second, his route allowed numerous other entrepreneurs to bring over 12,000 head of livestock (cattle, oxen, reindeer, goats, horses, and sheep) into the Klondike district through the summer of 1898 thus averting a food shortage in Dawson the following winter. Finally, he is a splendid example of a man with questionable ethics who challenged the Tlingit monopoly over a coastal pass only to replace it with a monopoly of his own.

Gates has been exhaustive in his research on the history of this much-overlooked trail, offering information from many new sources and documents. Northern borderlands history has its own challenges, but the author managed to examine sources in Juneau, Seattle, Whitehorse, Calgary, and Regina during his quest. His painstaking research, combined and interwoven with personal experiences and insights make this an unusual but valuable contribution to the growing list of high-quality studies on Klondike history.

Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail: Exploring the Route of the Klondike Cattle Drives
By Michael Gates
Maderia Park: Harbour Publishing, 2012. 304 pp, $24.95 paper

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.