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From Tent to Drawing Room:
George and Martha Louise Black

by Murray Lundberg


      George and Martha Black were the first "real Yukoners" to hold high public office in the Territory, and remain unique in our political history. Martha Purdy and George Black both crossed into the Yukon in search of Klondike gold, but what they found was a land of adventure that allowed their spirits to flourish, and in that land they forged a partnership that helped guide the Yukon into the modern era.

      Martha was born in 1866 in Chicago; her mother, Susan Munger, was only sixteen when Martha was born - she had five children in four years, and of those five, only Martha survived (Susan would later have two more children, however, and both George Jr. and Belle survived). Martha's father, George Munger, was twelve years older than his wife, and operated a laundry which was destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871. Following the fire, George Munger was able to re-establish his laundry - business boomed, and his family was soon living in style. George, on the other hand, was born in very comfortable circumstances, in 1872, to a wealthy New Brunswick family. The early lives of both Martha and George fitted their family's social positions - Martha finished her formal education with five years at a school run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross, while George went to law school in Fredericton.

      When news of the Klondike gold discoveries reached the Outside, Martha and her husband Will Purdy, and George with a large group of men, made plans to head North. At the last minute, however, Will Purdy got a better offer to go to Hawaii. Martha was determined to break away from the straight-laced life she had led, and continued on without him - she was never to see her husband again. With virtually unlimited financial backing, Martha's party, which included her brother, George Jr., was able to walk across the Chilkoot unimpeded by tons of gear - they merely paid a packer $900 to have it all delivered to Bennett, where they waited in a comfortable log cabin, and took day hikes to enjoy the scenery. Her descriptions of the journey across the Chikoot, however, are vivid:

Only 10 feet more! Oh, God, what a relief! Then my foot slips! I lose my balance. I fall only a few feet into a crevice in the rocks. The sharp edge of one cuts through my boot and I feel the flesh of my leg throbbing with pain. I can bear it no longer, and I sit down and do what every woman does in time of stress. I weep.
While most of the other stampeders at Lindeman and Bennett struggled to cut trees and whipsaw lumber to build boats with, Martha's group paid $275 to King's Mill to have theirs built.

      George's trip across the White Pass was more 'traditional,' making many trips to haul their goods across, using 8 horses. They built a steam-powered boat at Bennett, but the party split up before reaching Dawson, with George and a few others detouring into the Livingstone Creek district. George staked a discovery claim there, and worked it and other claims for almost 3 years. The claims apparently didn't pay very well, because in 1901 he had to work as a deckhand on a sternwheeler to reach Dawson City. Once in Dawson, he returned to practicing law, and quickly made a name for himself, particularly for his flair in dealing with criminal cases.

      Martha left Dawson for a year, but returned in 1900, when she joined a mining syndicate. The following year, her father arrived with the machinery to set up a sawmill, and a stamp mill for assaying the ore from quartz mines which were being developed. Martha was put in charge of the mills, and when she needed a lawyer, George Black came highly recommended. Within 2 weeks George had proposed marriage, but Martha held off for over 2 years. They were finally married in Martha's large home at the sawmill on August 1, 1904. Modern sensibilities will cringe at Martha's feelings about a woman's place in a marriage:

I am a firm believer in the principle that married couples, from the beginning, should be in complete harmony in religion, in country, and in politics. So immediately after my marriage, without compunction, I became an Anglican, an Imperialist, and a Conservative.

      In 1905, George was elected to the Yukon Council. Re-elected twice, he served in that position until February 1, 1912, when he was appointed Commissioner of the Yukon. In both positions, he fought graft in the public service, greatly extended the road system, and brought in legislation to protect workers, in particular the Miners' and Woodsmen's Lien Ordinances.

      Martha and George were both extremely popular, and they always remained close to the "common man" - miners were always welcome in their home, and that remained their policy at Government House, despite counsel to the contrary which they often received. Martha was determined "that this beautiful 'house of the people' should be open to all who wished to come, irrespective of social position." Although they went to great lengths to help when they could, neither of them could abide men who would not work. In December 1911, George went from Dawson City to Whitehorse and back by automobile to check out stories of the poor condition of the road, which was blamed for everything from high freight rates to late mail deliveries. When he returned to Dawson on New Year's Eve, he announced that the road was in excellent condition, and the stories were nothing but lame excuses.

Portrait of George Black, K.C., Commissioner of the Yukon Territory       In 1916, George resigned as Commissioner in order to join the war effort. He enlisted 275 men and formed the Yukon Infantry Company (later the 17th Canadian Machine Gun Company). Following lengthy negotiations with the Department of Defence, Martha was permitted to travel to Europe on the troop ship, the only woman among 3,500 men. At the Battle of Amien, George was severely wounded, but they were able to return to the Yukon at the war's end.

      In 1921, George was elected as the Member of Parliament for the Yukon. He retained the seat until 1935, when he was forced to resign due to ill health. Martha then ran in his place, and at the age of 69, she became only the second woman ever to be elected to Canada's Parliament (the first had been Agnes McPhail) - the honour was made even more significant by the fact that she had won as a Conservative member in a Liberal landslide. However, Martha was a woman of her times - Flo Whyard quotes entries from Martha's diary that make it clear that Martha considered George to be a better MP than her, and that it was her duty to hold the seat until George was physically able to take over again. In 1940 George did regain the seat, remaining until 1949, when he returned to practicing law in Dawson City.

      On October 31, 1957, Martha died in Whitehorse. George remarried and moved to Vancouver, where he died on September 23, 1965, at the age of 94.

      Both during their lives and after, George and Martha were showered with honours. In 1917, Martha was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society as a result of a series of nearly 400 lectures on the Yukon that she presented in Great Britain. Mount Black, the highest peak in the Big Salmon Range, is close to George's discovery claim. George was made a life member of the King's Privy Council of Canada. Black Street in Whitehorse honours the couple's accomplishments. And on September 26, 1997, the Canadian Post Office issued a stamp to honour Martha Louise Black.




References & Further Reading:

  • Black, Martha, My Seventy Years (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1938).

  • My Seventy Years was edited and updated by Flo Whyard as My Ninety Years (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest, 1976)
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