Klondike Cattle Drive
Review By Fran Gundry
November 4, 2013
BC Studies no. 150 Summer 2006 | p. 128-9
Klondike Cattle Drive, Norman Lee’s account of his attempt to “make a few dollars” by driving his cattle north in 1898 to sell beef to the Klondike miners, was first published in 1960. This reprint includes the fore word by Eileen Laurie and the introduction by Gordon R. Elliott from the first edition, a short update to the original introduction by Elliott, and a note describing the first printing and providing information on Norman Lee’s descendants. Like the first edition, this is an attractive book, illustrated with line drawings by Lee and with three photographs that were not in the original. A small sketch map indicates the general direction of the drive. It is too bad that a poem written by Lee on the back of an invoice, which was in the first edition and which sums up the result of the drive, is not included in this reprint: “At Teslin Lake, I struck a fake / which cleared me out, and made me doubt / If I should ever more again / Be even with my fellow men.”
Born in England in 1862 and educated at a public school, Lee came to British Columbia in 1882 and went to the Chilcotin in 1886 to ranch at Redstone. In 1894, he moved to Hanceville, where he had a store, traded furs, and raised cattle. In 1898, like at least three other men from the Chilcotin whom he mentions, Lee decided to take advantage of “the chance of a lifetime” and “take the beef north this summer.”
In his journal, which he wrote later, partly from a diary and partly from memory, Lee describes a journey that grew progressively more grim. He set out “gaily enough” in May with two hundred head of cattle, a pack train of nine horses, and seven men, driving north from Hanceville to meet the Telegraph Trail west of Quesnel. The trail as far as Hazelton was not too bad; after that, it was abominable. They got to Telegraph Creek in September to find “everything dead,” and Lee “saw that the only remaining thing to do was to build scows at Teslin, and take the beef down to Dawson.” The scows containing the butchered beef were washed ashore in a storm on Teslin Lake, and Lee, after selling his share of the salvaged cargo, which amounted to three quarters of beef, snowshoed down the Stikine River, caught a steamer to Nanaimo, and arrived back in the Chilcotin in the early spring of l899. The journals show Lee as a man of considerable stamina, enterprise, competence, and humour; he recouped his losses and ran his business in the Chilcotin until his death in 1939.
The journal is fairly brief; twothirds of it describes the drive to Teslin and the remainder Lee’s trip home. He writes about the routine of the trail; the ill-prepared “pilgrims” lured to the route by grossly misleading advertising; the discarded equipment; the dead, or sick and abandoned, horses and donkeys; the terrific prices; the bargaining necessary as he ran out of money. He met the usual – in this sort of journal – amazing assortment of people. Many were “very decent fellows,” but his descriptions of those he identifies as Americans are generally scornful – he had noted in a letter home in 1882 that in New York all the people “are as good as their masters.” In the case of the Aboriginal people, he is both bullying and scornful. While he relies on them and admires their skill, he has no patience with their attempts to profit from the Klondike rush and applauds one of his men who “gave an Indian a businesslike kick on the usual place” for trying to charge for a broken fence.
While Lee touches on standard themes, he writes engagingly and succinctly, with a good eye for detail. Klondike Cattle Drive is a good story, a testament to Lee’s dogged determination, and an interesting portrayal of that unfortunate segment of the gold seekers who took the “Poor Man’s route” to the Klondike.