The Reindeer Caper of 1898
by Michael Gates©
The northern lights have seen queer sights, said Yukon Bard Robert Service, and surely one of the queerest had to be the reindeer caper of 1898.
When word of the discovery of the Klondike leaked out of the Yukon in 1897, it caused a tremendous stampede to Dawson City. In the fall of 1897, it was thought that the stampeders would put too much strain on the food supply in the Klondike, and that there would be famine and starvation.
The North West Mounted Police, under the direction of Sam Steele, implemented the one-ton rule, requiring the stampeders to bring enough supplies to feed themselves for a year in the north. This undoubtedly saved the hides of many inexperienced gold seeker.
The newspapers were full of articles about the impending starvation in the Klondike the autumn of 1897. Government officials warned citizens of the risks, yet thousands still embarked on the journey of a lifetime. Meanwhile, the mounted police posted in Dawson City were encouraging miners low on provisions to pack and leave before freeze-up. They arranged for two hundred men to travel down river on the steamer Bella, and others were making their way upriver and out over the Dalton Trail.
The pending famine in Dawson became a topic of debate in the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C. Possibly unaware of the precise geography of the Klondike, and swayed by the vigorous lobbying of Sheldon Jackson, the well-known Presbyterian missionary from Alaska, the U.S. government voted $200,000 to finance a relief expedition of a herd of caribou to the Klondike. Whether they would carry the much needed food, or would serve as the food to save the starving miners is not clear.
Jackson, with pockets full of money, immediately set off for Norway, where he secured 538 reindeer, Lapp herdsmen plus 250 tons of reindeer moss to sustain the animals on the long journey ahead. These were shipped across the Atlantic and transported to Seattle by rail, where they were transferred to a three-masted bark, the Seminole for the trip to Alaska.
By the time the expedition arrived on the west coast, the need for a relief expedition was gone; the government had concluded that the miners of Dawson City would not need help after all. Meanwhile, the relief expedition was suffering from the same problem that they were intended to solve: starvation. Reindeer require a specialized diet of moss and cannot live on the grasses commonly fed to cattle and other livestock. Four died in Seattle while waiting for transport to Alaska, and another eight expired on the voyage north. The situation did not get any better when the herd arrived at Haines Mission (now Haines) Alaska on March 29, 1898. They were dropping like flies. The herd was moved toward the mountains where there was some food available, but the deep snow in the mountain passes blocked their way to an abundant supply. By the time they were able to move over the mountains on the Dalton Trail in the middle of May, only 164 remained.
All that summer, the reindeer expedition wandered about the southwest Yukon. Their human food supply was limited so 8 of the 15 men were sent back to Haines and then on to Seattle. This ensured food supply for the remaining herders until the end of September.
By June 23, another 18 animals had perished. The animals frequently wandered of into the nearby mountains and had to be brought back to the trail. After crossing the summit, they turned west and followed the Alsek River (now the Tatshenshini) for several days before doubling back. They took to the peaks on the east side of the Dalton Trail and by the time they got to the Mendenhall River, they had to send a party 40 miles back to Dalton Post to get more supplies, Meanwhile, the main party moved on, through swamps, over mountain peaks, and dense brush, crossing raging streams, and suffering from the constant hordes of mosquitos.. By the end of September, they had made it as far as the Southern Tutchone village of Hutchi. From Dalton’s trading post located there, they were able to obtain additional supplies to last them until the middle of December.
They turned west at Hutchi, crossed the Aishihik River and moved northwest past Aishihik and the Nisling River all the way to the White River. By the middle of October, they were fighting the early winter snows. They were not prepared for the cold and they were again running out of supplies. The reindeer were getting thin and weak, and they were attacked by wolves.
Finally they reached the White River and followed it down to the Yukon. There, they were able to re-provision at Stewart Island. Christmas came and went. Eventually, on the 27th of January, 1899, they passed through Dawson Finally, a month later, they arrived in Circle Alaska, their ultimate destination.
At the end, one of the Lapps approached their leader and said: “Do you think there is any hell worse than this one>”
“No,” he responded,” I think this is all the hell we want.”
And what happened to the reindeer? At Circle City, they were looked after by officers of the U.S. Army stationed there, who decided to use them for transport to the Tanana River. They had to take the entire herd. En route, they encountered a herd of caribou, and all but a few of the animals joined their wild cousins. There were now so few left that it was not worthwhile keeping the rest, so the remainder were slaughtered and given away to the miners in that vicinity. It is likely that the genes from the animals who joined the wild are intermingled with those of the caribou herd today.
So in the end, the relief expedition arrived at a destination of sorts almost a year and a half late and a few reindeer short. Ironically, it was the relief expedition that was more in need of relief than the miners of the Klondike.
(Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.)