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The History of Tagish, Yukon Territory

by Ken Spotswood

A Guide to Modern Tagish, Yukon

      This Yukon community of 100 people is situated on the Six-Mile River which links Marsh and Tagish lakes. Its name means 'fish trap' in the ancient Tagish language. It's also the name of the native people who lived there. The long narrows where Tagish Lake drains into Marsh Lake has always been a popular fishing area for lake trout.

      The early miners called it 'Tako' or 'Tahko' Lake and it was part of the main route to the Yukon River and ultimately the goldfields of the Klondike.

      The early prospectors and miners who came into the country learned to navigate Tagish Lake with respect--particularly Windy Arm and Taku Arm. These two areas were prone to sudden and violent storms and were the scenes of many shipwrecks and drownings.

      The original location during the gold rush years was an Indian village about three miles south and on the east side of the lake. The North-West Mounted Police built one of their most important posts here early in 1897, which they called Fort Sifton, after the then minister of the interior. With the sudden influx of gold seekers it soon became a tent city. It also became the southern police headquarters during the gold rush and it was extremely busy. Every person passing through was required to register with the police at the Tagish post--more than 28,000 according to author Pierre Berton.

      Several thousand boats were given registration numbers. Police and customs officers inspected all outfits and collected duties. Their actions here are credited with instilling some order in the stampede to the gold fields of the Klondike. A post office was also built here in 1897. It operated until 1901.

      Tagish Indians figure prominently in the history of the gold rush. American prospector George Carmack learned their language and took up their lifestyle. He befriended Skookum Jim Mason and later married Jim's sister Shaaw Tlaa, whom he called Kate. Tagish Charlie, who later became known as Dawson Charlie, was Skookum Jim's nephew. Patsy Henderson was Charlie's brother. All five were involved in the historic discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek in August of 1896.

      After the gold rush, police and government officials packed up their belongings and left the area to its original inhabitants. Over time the native people gradually changed their land-use patterns and gravitated to permanent settlements like Carcross and Tagish.

      The road from Carcross to Jake's Corner on the Alaska Highway was built in late 1942 as part of the Canol pipeline from Skagway to Watson Lake. The present settlement of Tagish grew up around the bridge that was built then.

© 1998-2008 by Ken Spotswood