Thousands of people went north to seek gold in the late 1800s, flooding into Skagway and Dyea. The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway, the most visited national park in Alaska, tells many of their stories. This year, the park is putting some extra effort into sharing the lives of one particular group of people: the women of the Klondike Gold Rush.
The streets of Skagway are busy with visitors, in from a couple cruise ships docked in town. KayLynn Howard is leading a tour for the Klondike Park.
“Normally, we talk about these male stampeders,” says Howard. “And that’s okay too, because the men greatly outnumbered the women during the time of the gold rush. But there were in fact women who came up here to participate in all walks on this gold rush.”
That’s what this tour is focused on: women.
“This was a time when women, they were really breaking the mold,” says Howard. “And they were taking their destiny’s into their own hands. Their own families might look at them as scants. Because they dared to do what others only dreamed about.”
Howard says women came north for a lot of different reasons. They were business owners, cooks, prostitutes.
“And some of them, they were gold seekers themselves,” says Howard.
She says Tlingit men and women became packers, to help carry goods on the trails further north.
“I can guarantee, that without the Tlingit people being so willing to be helpful and be hired on as packers, that thousands of less people would have been successful in their Klondike venture,” says Howard.
The tour also tells the story of the many women who came to work as prostitutes.
“Women did come up here by choice to do this, yes. But not all women,” says Howard. “Some women were forced into it, coerced into it, and sold into it. This is a reality that we talk about because not only did it happen at the time of the Gold Rush, but it’s something that goes on around us worldwide today.”
Ben Hayes is chief of interpretation at the park. He says making connections between history and present day is an important part of the tour. For instance, a lack of freedom that was standard for women at the time of the Gold Rush.
“Is that something that’s still relevant today? Absolutely,” says Hayes. “We talked about in the tour, prostitution. That is certainly going on today. And it was huge in the Gold Rush. There were 100-250 women in the sex industry in Skagway during the Gold Rush. Their stories are just as important as the stampeders that came here searching for fortune.”
Hayes points to the disparity in numbers of men and women coming north in the Gold Rush.
“This is a story largely of men,” says Hayes. “There were tens of thousands of men who came here during the Gold Rush. That is a dominant component of the narrative of what happened here. Women can be measured in the hundreds that came here in the Gold Rush. So there is a disparity just in terms of the number of people.”
He says the park is making an effort to tell new stories of that time.
“Our objective is to find more meaningful ways for visitors to connect with the resources here,” says Hayes. “And by finding new, more diverse stories beyond the focus on the stampeders themselves helps provide those opportunities to people.”
Hayes says telling women’s stories is not new.
“We’ve been telling women’s stories for many years,” says Hayes. “But this year we are challenging our team to research and share more stories and even promise a women of Skagway walking tour every day at 10 a.m. Sharing women’s stories is not new. But offering that as an option to try to share a more diverse array of stories and experiences for our visitors.”
The tour shares the stories of many women. They include Molly Walsh, who now has a Skagway park named after her. And Martha Louise Munger Black, who left her husband when he got cold feet about the journey north, and later gave birth to a son alone in a cabin in Dawson City.
These women made their own way in a time dominated by male stampeders.