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Book Review: Children of the Gold Rush

by Murray Lundberg

      With the huge number of books that are available on the Klondike Gold Rush, it's always a pleasure to see a new viewpoint being used. There are now several books dealing with the part played in the development of the North by women, but this is the first time that children have been the focus.

      I've heard this book referred to as a children's book (and in fact Amazon has it listed as reading level Ages 4-8), but I consider it to be suitable fare for anyone with an interest in Northern history.

      The first aspect of the book that impressed me was the production - from cover to cover it is beautifully laid out, and graphics and photographs are used extensively throughout its 82 pages. While some are common images (the Chilkoot and gold camps), the majority are ones that I have seldom or never seen.

      The introduction to the book serves its purpose well - describing the conditions that families had to endure both en route to the North, and while living there. Cold, the hard work and the usual lack of schools were significant elements in most children's lives in the Yukon and Alaska, and often forged the types of personality traits important in later successes. Contrary to modern theories that growing up too quickly can be bad for a child's development, Murphy and Haigh argue that "Learning to work hard at a very young age may have been their best lesson of all."

September 1898

...six-year-old Ethel Anderson stood on the deck of the SS Utopia as it made its way north though the rocking waves of the Inside Passage. Beside her, her baby brother Clay cried. Her seasick mother was unable to care for him. In addition, the food was awful and they were the only children aboard. Ethel had been thrilled to leave the hard times of Bellingham behind, but nothing was working out as she had hoped...
Children of the Gold Rush

      The stories in the book range from sad and introspective to comical. Some of the children whose stories are related by Murphy and Haigh are:

  • Crystal Brilliant Snow - Crystal and her brother Monte arrived in Juneau in 1888, and were on hand at Cicle City when news of the Klondike gold discovery came in 1897. The Snow family were entertainers, not miners, and Crystal's story provides a glimpse at a little-known part of Northern history.
  • Axinia and Helen Cherosky - the descendents of a Russian trader and his Athabascan wife, Axinia and Helen saw the gold rush madness from the perspective of people whose world was turned upside-down by the rush of people from Outside.
  • Graphie Gracie Carmack - the daughter of 2 of the discoverers of Klondike gold should have been able to live a life of luxury and ease forever, but didn't.
  • Ethel Anderson - from the creek outide their cabin on Elorado Creek, Ethel and her brothers were able to pan as much as $14 a day in gold while playing 'miner.' This was "twice what their father had made every week back home in Bellingham."
  • Robert Farnsworth - in 1899, 10-year-old Robert joined his father at the Army post at Tanana. He was soon mushing his own dog team, and joined winter caribou hunts with the local Indians. Upon seeing the first child he had seen in a year, "Robert threw his arms around the oldest boy, who instantly gave him a black eye."
  • Antoinette and Annette Mayo - born along the Yukon River in 1894, the twins witnessed the gold rush from the relative shelter of one of Alaska's most famous trading posts.
  • Klondy Nelson - 2 weeks after naming his new daughter after the Klondike, Klondy's father left South Dakota for the goldfields. Five years later, her mother took her to Nome to join him, but his dreams of riches never materialized, and Klondy's memories of the North were bitter.
  • Cleora Casady - after arriving in Fairbanks with high hopes in 1906, her father's failure brought on drunkeness and violence. They soon divorced, and her mother supported her daughter by working at odd jobs in Alaska mining camps.
  • Donald McDonald - "Ten-year-old Donald McDonald watched the miners shovel the pay-dirt into the wooden sluice boxes. When the miners stopped the water flowing through the boxes, Donald's father motioned him over. Dipping both hands in the freezing liquid, Donald felt around in the gravel and sand at the bottom. Suddenly, up came his fingers, clutching shiny nuggets. 'Gold!' he screamed. 'Look, Mama, I'm rich!'"

      There are some things about the book that I don't like. Various shades of red and pink, for example, are used too much - instead of being used to emphasize certain points, it becomes part of the theme of the book. Also (perhaps because I'm very familiar with Murphy and Haigh's other books), this book feels like an accumulation of notes that the authors gathered during the writing of Gold Rush Women, rather than a project which was undertaken on its own merit. I would love to have seen these interviews go into much more detail - when you remove the graphics, the text fits on about 20-21 pages. And finally, there are far too many maps - actually, there is one map, pieces of which are used far too often (8 times).

      Despite those negatives, Children of the Gold Rush will make a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone who wants a more rounded perspective on the development of the Northern frontier.

Children of the Gold Rush Cover of 'Children of the Gold Rush'
by Claire Rudolph Murphy and Jane G. Haigh
ISBN 1-57098-257-0
Published March 1999
9" x 8", 96 pages

Published by:
      Roberts Rinehart Publishers
      6309 Monarch Park Place,
      Niwot, Colorado 80503