By Helen Bogart
The story of the Klondike has been told many times. Familiar to everyone versed in gold rush lore are the names of Skookum Jim, Tagish Charlie and George Carmack. In a creek known as "Rabbit" and later "Bonanza," these three men found the nugget which touched off the fabulous Rush of '98.
Mentioned briefly in some accounts, not at all in others, Carmack's Indian wife Kate seems to have been neglected by most gold rush chroniclers. For almost forty years her grave was unmarked and even the date of her death was not known exactly.
Yet Kate may have been the real discoverer of the fateful chunk of gold on August 17, 1896.
About 1887, American born George Washington Carmack came to the Yukon. After wandering around aimlessly, he setled down to live with an Indian family at Caribou Crossing, now called Carcross. He married Kate, the daughter of a Tagish chief. Carmack was apparently content to remain with his Indian friends and his Indian wife until wealth came along.
During the summer of 1896, Carmack and his friends were poking around in the Klondike area. In later years, George Carmack always claimed he found the first nugget, but Skookum Jim and Tagish (or Dawson) Charlie had other stories. One was that Carmack had fallen asleep and Jim, after shooting a moose, was cleaning a dishpan in the creek and found gold.
Still another version has it Carmack and Charlie were both asleep while Skookum decided to pass the time panning for gold and so discovered the Klondike nugget. A member of the Tagish tribe, Patsy Henderson, who came along the join the group later, told the story that Skookum Jim leaned over the creek for a drink of water and spotted the gold.
In spite of all the variations in the tale, some gold rush writers have an idea Kate Carmack would be the likely one to find the nugget. Because housekeeping chores would fall to her lot, it would be quite probable she would be "cleaning a dishpan" or getting water for the rest of the band to drink.
Anyway, gold was found. Unfortunately for Kate, wealth turned her husband's head and he abandoned her in 1900. She lived the test of her days quietly in Carcross, to die March 29, 1920 of influenza. According to church records, she was 63 years old.
With medical missionary A. Grasett Smith officiating, Kate was buried March 31, 1920 at the east end of pine-covered Carcross cemetery. The weather-beaten wooden fence around her grave is right next to Skookum Jim's and near Tagish Charlie's. Their graves are both marked.
It was not until May this year anyone tried to find Kate's grave. Sparking the search was Carcross balladeer Tom Brooks, a long-time Yukon resident. Asked to point out the spot exactly was another Carcross resident, Jimmy Scottie. Born Jimmy James at Wolf Lake, B.C., he is a fine-looking old man with a clear memory. He came to Caribou Crossing in 1905. Not sure just how old he is, he says he was "so high" (measuring the height of about a 12-year-old) at the time of the gold rush. He remembers well the terrible flu epidemic which struck the north shortly after it swept the rest of the continent. In those days, Jimmy recalls, "Many people died, sometime two, three, four every day."
Maybe because of the many fatalities in the epidemic, Kate's death was overlooked, but it seems the only reason nobody found her grave before was simply that nobody asked Jimmy. Why the exact date of her death was not found was simply that nobody searched Anglican church records or the Yukon Vital Statistics records.
However, after years of neglect, Kate Carmack this year will finally be awarded recognition. Her grave will be marked probably first with a wooden cross and later with a permanent stone marker, as part of Carcross tourist promotion activities. Money to set up a headstone will be allocated out of funds left over from the 1958 Jubilee budget according to a member of the Yukon tourist bureau.
To commemorate finding Kate's grave May 18 this year, Tom Brooks wote "To Kate Carmack."
By the lonely Carcross River
Where lies the Klondike queen
A grave was marked forever
That by mankind lay unseen.
The grave will have a background
And ne'er will markers rot.
And stone will mark the mound
That men have long forgot.