Kate Carmack 1867-1920
A Life Transformed
Shaaw Tlaa was a young woman when a small but steady stream of gold prospectors began to cross over the Chilkoot Pass and float down the lakes and rivers past the village of her Native Tagish people. The powerful Tlingit people who lived on the coast controlled trade over the Chilkoot Pass and arranged contracts of marriage to formalize trading partnerships with the Tagish. Shaaw Tlaa, who was known as Kate, and her brother Keish (Skookum Jim) were among the eight children of one of these arranged marriages.
Kate was married to a Tlingit man and bore a daughter; both husband and child died. According to Tagish custom, Kate’s mother then insisted she marry her deceased sister’s husband, George Carmack, a prospector from California who had been living with his Tagish in-laws, packing goods on the Chilkoot trail with Kate’s brother Skookum Jim and nephew Dawson Charlie. George and Kate were married according to Native custom and contract.
After a summer when both packed for William Ogilvie’s 1887 exploration expedition, George and Kate set out to prospect along the Yukon River. For the next five years they prospected, trapped, and traded in the Fortymile and Stewart River areas. With Kate’s skill and knowledge of the wilderness, they were able to live off the land. To support George’s prospecting trips, Kate sewed mukluks and mittens to sell to other miners. Kate’s niece, Kitty Smith, remarked, “he’s got a wife, he’s all right! She does everything, that Indian woman, you know, hunts, just like nothing, sets snares for rabbits. That’s what they eat.”
In January 1893 Kate gave birth to a daughter, Graphie Gracie, at a trading post they managed at the mouth of the Big Salmon River. In the spring of 1896, George, Kate, and Graphie Gracie set out downriver. At the same time, Kate’s family, not knowing if Kate was alive or dead, sent Skookum Jim and Kate’s cousin, Dawson Charlie, in search of her. They found Kate and George at the mouth of the Klondike River, a native fishing site. There they encountered white prospector Robert Henderson who invited George to do a little prospecting with him on a promising creek. The group followed Henderson to his claim, but left when Henderson told them he didn’t want “any Indians” to stake there.
No one will ever know who actually discovered the gold that began the Klondike stampede. All participants claimed credit for it at one time or another. What is known is that George, knowing that a Native would not be allowed to register a claim, staked a discovery claim for himself on August 17, 1896, and gave one claim each to Jim and Charlie but Kate, a woman, got nothing.
….. For a hundred years, Kate has not been given credit for her role in the Klondike discovery. But as the oral history of the gold rush from the Native people’s point of view becomes part of written record, Kate’s contributions to the historic discovery are finally being recognized.